When Noah awoke and learned what had happened to him, what Ham had done to him, it isn’t Ham he cursed, it’s Canaan, the youngest of Ham’s four sons.
Cursed be Canaan;
lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.Genesis 9:25
I missed the significance of that the first time I read through this passage. Some commentators say this is the most remarkable prophecy in all of the Bible, showing three streams of humanity and the direction they would go, thousands of years before it happened.
Why does Noah curse Canaan instead of Ham? It just seems so crazy. This is the first mention of Canaan at all, what did he have to do with this? For all we know, Canaan was just a kid, getting up to hijinks, maybe, but otherwise like every other kid.
Yet Noah must have known that Ham’s unrepentant indulgence in perversion, his delight in it, would influence his children, perhaps (it seems absolutely would) harm and deform their inward beings. The observable, awful truth shows the same dysfunctions and evils tend to cycle through one generation of a family after another until finally someone determines to put an end to it.
Had Ham, after all, living in the corruption and filth of antediluvian culture, suffered trauma or seduction at a tender age? Had he been in some way exploited, or molested, or abused? Or, had something happened later, that debauched him? I think of my own family’s inherited sin cycles, and of those I have seen devastating people I love. Alcoholism. Violence. Addiction. Fits of rage. Gambling. Over-spending. Workaholism. Neglect. It is only a beginning list of the sad degradations of humanity, begun with one small step away from the love and protection of God, one little exploratory bite of a luscious and pleasing, yet deadly fruit, one small doubt nursed deep in the heart, in the beautiful Garden of Eden.
Guided by divine wisdom, Noah prophesied the results of corruption in Canaan. In fact, the very next chapter of Genesis lists all the people groups descended from Canaan,
Canaan became the father of Sidon his firstborn, and Heth, and the Jebusites, the Amorites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, the Arkites, the Sinites, the Arvadites, the Zemarites, and the Hamathites.
Afterward the families of the Canaanites spread abroad. And the territory of the Canaanites extended from Sidon, in the direction of Gerar, as far as Gaza, and in the direction of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, as far as Lasha.Genesis 10:15-19
I’m sure you recognize at least some of those names. All of what Noah prophesied was proved out in the rest of Genesis, and in the books of Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, and also in First Kings.
These were the inhabitants of the land of Canaan when Israel came up out of Egypt. It was because of the absolute degradation of the Canaanites, whose corruption, deviance, and violence became so debased, the very earth they occupied was in danger of spewing them out. “Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, for by all these practices the nations I am casting out before you have defiled themselves,” God would one day warn His beloved people, yet another “new humanity” God had formed in the cradle of Egypt. “Thus the land became defiled; and I punished it for its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants.”
God would give His commandment to the children of Israel to be the purge of His judgment and completely rid the land of Canaanites, all their animals and all their possessions. When Israel failed to do this, as the curse of Canaan here tells us, the remaining Canaanites literally became the servant of servants to the people of Israel, as recorded in Joshua 9:23.
All this answers a very widespread distortion of this passage that has been accepted for many, many years, which states the curse fell upon the descendants of Ham in Africa.
But it is not Ham who was cursed, nor any of his other descendants. It is only the Canaanites, a localized population in the Levant. If you had been an ancient Israelite you might have wondered “why, of all the morally degenerate people in the world, are we supposed to wipe out the Canaanites?” This ancient record explained it.
No other culture was as polluted as Canaan—in fact, even the Nephilim had re-emerged within Canaan’s line, the Biblical symbol of complete corruption. And when their sin came to its fullness, the curse Noah prophesied was completely fulfilled in Joshua’s day. Israel came as God’s judgment to clear out the Promised Land and resettle it.
This is a hard teaching. One of the hardest in the whole Bible. It sounds so…heartless and cruel, so bloodthirsty. Was there really no mercy and no grace from the God we exalt as compassionate and loving?
Yes. Yes, there was.
There were Canaanites who cried out to God for rescue, and the Lord responded with loving kindness. There are even three Canaanite women named in Jesus’ genealogy. God always protects the repentant.
Then Noah continued with his blessing, which reiterated Canaan’s cursing,
Blessed by the Lord my God be Shem;
and let Canaan be his slave.Genesis 9: 26
Notice how Noah deliberately set this blessing apart from what he said about Canaan. God would specially bless Shem, the progenitor of Abraham and eventually of the Lord Jesus Christ. From Shem came the Semitic people, and in particular, the tribes of Israel, responsible under God to meet the spiritual needs of humankind.
Finally, Noah turned to his youngest,
May God make space for Japheth,
and let him live in the tents of Shem;
and let Canaan be his slave.Genesis 9:27
Japheth was promised enlargement, and it’s true that Japheth’s tribe really did eventually fill up much of the earth, according to Genesis Chapter 10. Noah’s second, cryptic, prophesy, “Let him [Japheth] dwell in the tents of Shem,” is revealed in the New Testament, for it predicts the grace of the cross of Christ.
Shem was entrusted with protecting God’s word, God’s law, and the teaching on forgiveness and cleansing from sin. Shem received the temple, the sacrifices, the prophets, and promises of God. Then God opened His covenant of grace to the world, which Japheth had largely settled. As the apostle Paul would write to Jewish and gentile believers together, many thousands of years later,
Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.Ephesians 4:1-6
Sacrifice of Noah | James Tissot [Public domain]