Noah, Ham, and the Cursing of Canaan—Part Two

In this scene from the Palazzo Ducale in Venice, Shem and Japheth cover Noah. Is this really what the Bible describes? (Image courtesy of User:Amazone7)

In the first post in this series, we looked at three of the popular views related to the confusing passage in Genesis 9 that begins with Noah getting drunk. While he was passed out, Ham did something that caused Noah to curse Ham’s son Canaan. What did he do that warranted such a response?

So far we have discussed the voyeurism view, the castration view, and the paternal rape view. Each of these positions explains certain portions of the text, but they do not seem to provide a reasonable justification for Noah to curse Canaan, particularly since Ham is the one who did something wrong. For full descriptions along with the strengths and weaknesses of these views, please read the first post.

As I mentioned in the first post, some of the issues discussed in these two posts may not be suitable for younger readers and would likely earn a PG-13 rating if it were a movie. I have tried to keep the language as family friendly as possible, but there is no getting around certain details. With that being said, let’s take a look at the fourth position regarding Noah, Ham, and Canaan.

Maternal Incest

This view states that when Noah was passed out after getting drunk, Ham entered his father’s tent and slept with or raped his own mother, Noah’s wife. Whether he raped her or she lay with him willingly does not really change the main point of this position. At first glance, this view seems far-fetched since Noah’s wife is never directly mentioned in this account and we are told that Ham did something to Noah. However, there are several arguments that seem to support this view, including many from Scripture itself.

The first argument comes from the numerous passages that use the language about uncovering someone’s nakedness. This wording is slightly different than what appears in Genesis 9 where we are told that Ham “saw the nakedness of his father.” It does not say that he “uncovered his nakedness.” However, the book of Leviticus uses these two phrases interchangeably at one point.

“If a man takes his sister, his father’s daughter or his mother’s daughter, and sees her nakedness and she sees his nakedness, it is a wicked thing. And they shall be cut off in the sight of their people. He has uncovered his sister’s nakedness. He shall bear his guilt.” (Leviticus 20:17)

In this verse, seeing the nakedness of one’s sister is equated with uncovering her nakedness. Does this mean that they only saw one another naked? No, it means that they had an incestuous relationship because in Leviticus the wording about uncovering someone’s nakedness refers to sexual intercourse.

“The man who lies with his father’s wife has uncovered his father’s nakedness; both of them shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them.” (Leviticus 20:11)

This verse clearly states that the man who has sex with his father’s wife has “uncovered his father’s nakedness.” So not only does it use the “uncovering nakedness” as a euphemism for sex, this verse also tells us that sex with one’s mother or stepmother means that the nakedness of one’s father has been uncovered. And this is not the only verse that explains this point.

“The nakedness of your father or the nakedness of your mother you shall not uncover. She is your mother; you shall not uncover her nakedness. The nakedness of your father’s wife you shall not uncover; it is your father’s nakedness.” (Leviticus 18:7–8)

“Cursed is the one who lies with his father’s wife, because he has uncovered his father’s bed.” (Deuteronomy 27:20)

These verses specifically forbid a man from engaging in sexual activity with his mother or stepmother. And there are other verses that speak of a woman’s nakedness as being the nakedness of her husband, such as Leviticus 18:14, 16 and 20:20–21.

Why would Ham do something so vile? A clue to answering this question might be found in what Ham did immediately after the act. He went out and told his brothers what he had done. But why would Ham boast, or at least make known, what he had done? Let’s see if we might be able to answer this question better after looking at some potentially similar passages in Scripture.

Reuben

Genesis 35:22 states that Jacob’s oldest son, Reuben, lay with Jacob’s concubine, Bilhah. In fact, shortly before his death, Jacob recalled this event while explaining why Reuben was not to be blessed as a firstborn was typically blessed (Genesis 49:3–4). In 1 Chronicles 5:1 we are told plainly that Reuben “was indeed the firstborn, but because he defiled his father’s bed, his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph…”

Absalom

David’s son, Absalom, rebelled against his father and quickly drove him out of Jerusalem. Upon usurping the throne (temporarily), the first bit of advice he was given to was to “Go in to your father’s concubines, whom he has left to keep the house” (2 Samuel 16:21). So, a tent was prepared on the roof of the king’s place, and Absalom slept with ten of David’s concubines “in the sight of all Israel” (2 Samuel 16:22). When David eventually regained power, he put the ten concubines in seclusion and cared for them, but he did not have relations with them again (2 Samuel 20:3).

Adonijah

In David’s last days, a beautiful young woman, Abishag, was brought in to care for the king and to lie with him. The wording of the passage in English seems fairly innocent. “Let a young woman, a virgin, be sought for our lord the king, and let her stand before the king, and let her care for him; and let her lie in your bosom, that our lord the king may be warm” (1 Kings 2:2). Verse 4 states that she did tend to the king, “but the king did not know her.” In other words, he did not have sexual relations with her. Apparently, in his old age, he was no longer able to do this.

But what does this situation have to do with Genesis 9? Immediately after the passage about Abishag and David, the king’s son, Adonijah sought to make himself king. He gathered a following to proclaim him as the heir to David’s throne, but some quick thinking by Bathsheba and the prophet Nathan led David to announce Solomon as his heir, as he had promised. With Solomon established on the throne, Adonijah feared him and pleaded for his life to be spared. Solomon said that if he proved to be worthy, then he would live, but if wickedness was found in him then he would die (1 Kings 1:52).

When David died, Adonijah went to Bathsheba, Solomon’s mother, and after explaining that the kingdom had been in his hands, he had only one request that he wanted her to bring before Solomon. He said, “Please speak to King Solomon, for he will not refuse you, that he may give me Abishag the Shunnamite as wife” (1 Kings 2:17). Upon hearing this request, Solomon’s response comes across as quite harsh to people in our culture. “Now why do you ask Abishag the Shunnamite for Adonijah? Ask for him the kingdom also—for he is my older brother…” (1 Kings 2:22). Then Solomon ordered Benaiah to execute Adonijah.

Alpha Males

Clearly, there was something much deeper going on in these cases than just sexual activity, or in Adonijah’s case, the attempt to marry Abishag, which would naturally include having sexual relations with her. It seems like in each case, the son was attempting to assert authority by replacing his father. By sleeping with his father’s wife or at least attempting to lie with the last woman that lay in his father’s bed, as was the case with Adonijah and Abishag, these men sought to usurp their father’s authority. If the maternal incest view of Ham’s wrongdoing is correct, then Ham was seeking to usurp Noah’s authority by lying with Noah’s wife. This might explain why he immediately went out and told his brothers—He wanted to let them know that he would be in charge, even though he was the youngest.

The whole concept is similar to how some animals behave. The strongest male has the right to mate with the females in the pack or herd, but sometimes a young challenger will seek to defeat him and take over the right to mate. Of course, there are some differences here. From a biblical perspective, people are not animals (we are made in God’s image and were created to have dominion over the animals). And, in these cases, the young buck must defeat the alpha male first before he is allowed to mate, which was essentially the opposite order of what Reuben, Absalom, and Adonijah attempted to do.

What about Canaan?

A weakness of the first three views, with the possible exception of the castration view, is that they offer fairly weak explanations for Noah’s cursing of Canaan. So how does the maternal incest view fare on this issue? It depends. If Noah’s wife became pregnant as a result of the encounter with Ham, then we might have a strong explanation for the cursing of Canaan. That is, Canaan may have been the result of this incestuous event. And if that were the case, then Noah’s curse has to do with Canaan being an illegitimate child, the result of Noah’s own son seeking to usurp his authority by lying with his wife. The curse does not necessarily mean that Canaan was destined to be evil and rejected by God. It likely meant that his descendants would not enjoy the same blessings given to the descendants of Shem and Japheth, and that Canaan’s descendants would serve them.

Does the text give us reason to believe that Canaan was the result of this event? The passage twice states that Ham was the father of Canaan (verses 18 and 22) before it even described Ham’s actions. It seems that the author may have been dropping clues about Canaan’s origins in this passage.

If the maternal incest view is correct, then a similar event occurred in Genesis 19. After Lot fled Sodom with his wife and two daughters, his wife famously turned around and was turned into a pillar of salt. Then Lot and his two daughters lived in a cave up in the mountains. After a while, the older daughter persuaded her younger sister that they should get their father drunk and then lie with him so that they could preserve his line. So that’s what they did. The older daughter slept with him one night, and the younger daughter lay with him the next night, and both became pregnant. The older daughter gave birth to a son and called him Moab, and the younger daughter gave birth to a son named Ben-Ammi. They became the fathers of the Moabites and Ammonites, respectively.

Now think about this. Who were three of Israel’s greatest enemies after the Exodus as they prepared to take back the land promised to Abraham? The Moabites, Ammonites, and Canaanites. And if the maternal incest view of our passage is accurate, then we are told in Genesis that each of these people groups originated from incestuous relationships.

Conclusion

So which of these views is correct? As you might have guessed by now, I believe the maternal incest view makes the most sense of the passage, because I believe it dots the most i’s and crosses the most t’s. It makes sense of the language about the father’s nakedness, explains why Ham immediately told his brothers about his deed, has some parallels in the Bible, and it can provide an adequate explanation for the cursing of Canaan. However, I hold this view tentatively since I recognize we cannot make a watertight case for it. For example, the text does not necessarily tell us that Noah’s wife was the mother of Canaan. If Canaan were not the result of this event, then the maternal incest view loses one of its best arguments. Also, it assumes that some time passes, maybe even several months, between Noah waking from his drunkenness and Noah learning what Ham had done to him, but this does not seem to be the natural reading of the text. So there are plenty of assumptions being made to support each of the positions, but at this point, I think the maternal incest view has the most explanatory power.

While it is indeed disturbing that Ham may have raped or slept with his mother, we should not reject something just because it disturbs us. Believe me when I say that I’m disturbed by the idea too, especially after writing three novels about Noah and his wife (The Remnant Trilogy) and growing to truly appreciate these people. I don’t like to think that something like this may have happened between them. But we need to face reality and realize that all sorts of heinous activities occur regularly. We cannot pretend that rape, incest, abortion, and murder do not happen in our world just because they might disturb us. People are sinful and routinely make horrible decisions that can have disastrous consequences, and the Bible does not shy away from telling us about some of these awful actions.

Hopefully, these posts have helped make sense of a confusing passage. Thanks for reading and let me know your thoughts on this subject.

Noah, Ham, and the Cursing of Canaan—Part One

After learning what Ham had done, why did Noah curse his grandson, Canaan?

Shortly after the flood account in Genesis 7–8 and God’s covenant with Noah and his sons in the first half of Genesis 9, we read about a surprising event in Noah’s life. We are told that this righteous man who built the Ark and saved humanity and representatives of every land animal became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent. Then his youngest son Ham “saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers,” prompting Noah to curse Ham’s son, Canaan, when he discovered what had happened.

This passage has confused countless Bible readers. Why would Noah get drunk? What did Ham do that was so bad? Did he only accidentally see the nakedness of his father? Did he mock Noah before his brothers? Did he do something more sinister?

Over the years, four interpretations of Ham’s actions have enjoyed a degree of prominence. This two-part series will survey those views, highlighting their respective strengths and weaknesses, before landing tentatively on one of the positions.

Before discussing the four views, let’s look at the full passage.

18 Now the sons of Noah who went out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. And Ham was the father of Canaan. 19 These three were the sons of Noah, and from these the whole earth was populated.
20 And Noah began to be a farmer, and he planted a vineyard. 21 Then he drank of the wine and was drunk, and became uncovered in his tent. 22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. 23 But Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and went backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness.
24 So Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done to him. 25 Then he said: “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants he shall be to his brethren.”
26 And he said: “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Shem, and may Canaan be his servant.
27 May God enlarge Japheth, and may he dwell in the tents of Shem; and may Canaan be his servant.”
28 And Noah lived after the flood three hundred and fifty years. 29 So all the days of Noah were nine hundred and fifty years; and he died. (Genesis 9:18–29, NKJV)

In the 2005 edition of the Journal of Biblical Literature, Bergsma and Hahn published a paper explaining each of these positions in more detail, so if you would like to dive deeper, you can download the paper here.

Stop Making Excuses for Noah

Also, we do not need to try to make excuses for Noah’s behavior as some Christians have sought to do. For example, it has been proposed by some that fermentation may not have occurred prior to the Flood (based on the increasingly unpopular canopy model), so Noah did not realize what older wine would do to him. On the other hand, some have proposed that Noah was trying to drown his sorrows because his wife had recently died or because he was grieving over the loss of so many people during the Flood. All of these ideas are pure speculation and unnecessary. Yes, Noah was a godly man, but even godly people make mistakes, and the Bible does not shy away from exposing the sins of its heroes. Moses killed a man and David did far worse in stealing a man’s wife and then scheming to have her husband killed in battle. We know from our own experience that believers are not immune to moral failings, so while it may be interesting to consider what might have led to Noah’s behavior, we do not need to try to cover for him. Like us, he was human and fully capable of messing up.

Now, let’s get back to the issue at hand. What did Ham do that brought about the cursing of his son, Canaan. Let me add a disclaimer before you read any further. Some of the views discussed below might be quite disturbing for sensitive and younger readers.

Position 1: Voyeurism

Perhaps the most popular view among Christians, although not necessarily among Bible scholars, is that Ham simply saw his father lying uncovered in his tent and then told his brothers. This seems to be a rather straightforward reading of verse 22, and it is far less offensive than the other views, so why do some people reject it?

One difficulty for this position is that it assumes that in Noah’s time it was unethical in some way for a son to see his father naked. This is not directly stated in Scripture. Perhaps the notion that Adam and Eve recognized that they were naked and sought to cover themselves would lend support to the idea. Also, since Shem and Japheth walked backward and “covered the nakedness of their father” it could mean that they believed it was wrong to see him naked.

Proponents of this view have sometimes assumed that when Ham told his brothers what he saw, he mocked his father for being drunk and naked. Perhaps Ham had grown resentful of his father’s authority, so seeing his father’s failure brought about a certain amount of satisfaction for Ham. Imagine if he said something like, “Our dad is a drunken fool, embarrassing himself by lying uncovered in his tent.” Certainly, it is wrong to speak of one’s father in such a way, particularly when that man is a righteous man who did all that commanded him when building the Ark. However, this response is an idea added to the text, so supporters of this view can no longer claim to simply be following the straightforward reading of the text. Also, it does not really provide a good explanation for other details in the account.

The remainder of the passage makes it clear that Ham did something that prompted a harsh response from his father. Noah cursed Ham’s son, Canaan, announcing that he would be a servant to Shem and Japheth (likely a reference to his descendants serving the descendants of Shem and Japheth). Is such a severe punishment really necessary for seeing one’s father in his birthday suit?

Furthermore, why curse Canaan at all? What did he do wrong? Ham is the one who did something to his father. While it is true that children often suffer for the sins of their fathers, it seems rather strange for Noah to single out one of Ham’s sons. Henry Morris speculated that since he was a prophet, Noah might have seen Ham’s sinful tendencies being prominent in his children, thus Noah cursed Canaan, Ham’s youngest son (presumably), as an indication that all of Ham’s offspring were cursed. Or maybe Noah saw Ham’s sinful tendencies being especially noticeable in Canaan. Some have said that Noah cursed Canaan because he could not bring himself to curse someone (Ham) whom God had previously blessed. Once again, the text does not speak of these ideas, so they are mere conjectures, although not out of the realm of possibility.

[Just an aside, please notice that Noah did not curse Ham. In the past, some professing Christians have pointed to the so-called “curse of Ham” as a ridiculous and racist explanation that this is where darker skinned people came from.]

Position 2: Castration

This view was popular among some Jewish rabbis and states that while Noah was passed out from his wine, Ham castrated his father. Why he might have done this is left unexplained in the text, but perhaps it was for some sort of power play to be the leader after the flood. This view seems to be quite a stretch. Nevertheless, it does have a couple of plausible arguments to support it.

According to this position, the reason Noah cursed Canaan is that Canaan was Ham’s fourth son, and Ham’s action prevented Noah from having a fourth son. So unlike the previous view, this one provides a plausible explanation for the cursing of Ham’s fourth son. It should be pointed out that although Genesis 10:6 places Canaan fourth in the list of Ham’s son, it does not necessarily mean he was the youngest since these genealogies did not always list people chronologically.

Ancient Greek mythology tells a story with a couple of details bear a striking resemblance to the biblical account. The god Ouranos (Uranus) and goddess Gaia, representing heaven and earth respectively, had six children—the titans. As Ouranos attempted to lie with Gaia, four of their sons, Krios, Koios, Iapetus, and Hyperion held Ouranos, while another son, Kronos, castrated him with a sickle.

Of course, this story sounds rather silly to our modern minds. However, two points should be considered before writing it off as total fantasy. The titans, more specifically Iapetus, gave rise to all of humanity through his sons. So, just as the Bible explains that all people have descended from Noah’s family, the Greek myth also focuses on the progenitors of humanity. Second, look closely at the name of the titan from whom humanity descended: Iapetus. Does the name look familiar to you? It should. It is simply the Greek spelling of the name Japheth, Noah’s oldest son. Interesting, isn’t it?

The major problem with this view is that nothing in the text gives the slightest hint that Ham castrated Noah. Such an idea must be read into the passage.

Position 3: Paternal Rape

Probably the most disturbing of the views, if the previous one can be surpassed, is that Ham decided to rape his father. As troubling as the position is, it is growing in popularity in modern times, perhaps as a result of the increased focus on homosexuality in Western cultures in recent decades.

The primary argument for this view is that Ham must have done something more severe than observe his father’s nakedness. After all, verse 24 speaks of Noah awaking from his wine and learning what his “youngest son had done to him.” Paternal rape would certainly qualify as one of the most severe things something a son could do to his father, and it would understandably bring about a harsh response.

Elsewhere the Bible uses the same wording about the “father’s nakedness” as an idiom for sexual intercourse. Leviticus 20 includes several references to seeing or uncovering someone’s nakedness, and in each case, it is a figure of speech for sexual activity.

Two major problems with this view can be raised. First, like the other views mentioned so far, it does not provide a strong explanation for the cursing of Canaan when Ham was the culprit. Second, as we will see in the next post, while the terminology about seeing or uncovering one’s nakedness usually signifies sexual activity, the wording about the “father’s nakedness” does not refer to having sex with one’s father. Instead, it refers to engaging in sexual activity with the father’s wife, either one’s mother or step-mother. This leads us to the fourth and final view, which will be addressed in the next post.

Summary

By now, you can probably see why this passage is controversial and has confused many readers. The positions examined so far seem to explain part of the text, but they are weak on other points. In the second half of this series we will examine the fourth view, maternal incest, to see if it fares any better than the first three.

Thanks for reading.