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.


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…”


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).


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.


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.

About Tim Chaffey

I am the founder of Midwest Apologetics and work as the Content Manager with the Attractions Division of Answers in Genesis. I have written (or co-authored) several books, including In Defense of Easter, God and Cancer, The Sons of God and the Nephilim, and The Truth Chronicles Series (see the publications page for more details). Please note: the opinions expressed on this site are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of Answers in Genesis.


Noah, Ham, and the Cursing of Canaan—Part Two — 13 Comments

  1. Another thing I think may support the idea about it being maternal incest is how in verse 25 it talks about Canaan being a “servant of servants to his brothers.” Then in 26 and 27 he is assigned to be a servant to Shem and Japheth. If it wasn’t maternal incest then those would be his uncles not his brothers. Right? Unless I’m missing something or misinterpreting part of the text… (maybe brother doesn’t the connotation it does today, or servant of servants throws in a loop)

    • Hi Sara,

      That’s an interesting thought, and it’s certainly consistent with the maternal incest view. Hebrew does have different words for brother and uncle, so your point might be another one in favor of that view. However, one could say that the curse to be the servant of his brothers had more to do with the peoples that came from those men, so that it wouldn’t necessarily be Canaan who was the servant to Shem and Japheth, but Canaan’s descendants became servants to the descendants of Shem and Japheth.
      Thanks for the interesting comment.

  2. Hi – I’ve just found your blog (searching another question), and find this discussion about Noah fascinating, as I’ve long wondered about the meaning of this passage.
    Your defence of the maternal incest position, and Canaan as offspring makes a lot of sense. But I’m curious about the passages where the brothers covered their father (23 But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it on both their shoulders and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were turned away, so that they did not see their father’s nakedness.). This seems so detailed and not very metaphorical. How does this fit with your theory? Thanks!

    • Hi Angie,
      Thanks for reading and for your question. I believe that the actions by Shem and Japheth make the most sense with understood through the maternal incest view. That is, they walked backward and averted their eyes because they did not want to see their mother lying naked, which is what “their father’s nakedness” means, according to this view and the relevant verses cited in the post.
      I hope this helps.

  3. Thanks Tim,

    Love the summarized explanation. Seems we have very similar opinions on varying topics in Genesis. I agree that the maternal incestuous position seems to fit most comfortably with the integrated message of the Bible. I think most western Christians don’t fully appreciate just how aggressively the forces of darkness worked at corrupting human genetics once God pronounced the coming “Seed” would crush Satan’s head. The OT is replete with story after story of the enemy of God trying to destroy that Divine lineage. The other reason I believe that the maternal incestuous position makes the most sense is because Jews and Rabbis were very concerned with pattern as prophecy more than western Christians seem to be in general. If Noah is a “type” or “pattern” of Messiah, then Ham would serve as a “pattern” of the anti-Christ seeking to usurp His authority by coming for His “bride”. If we remember that God plainly stated in Gen 3 that there would be emnity between her seed and the serpents seed, we clearly see this played out through Israel’s history as you described in the post. It seems these themes continued to play out through Israel’s history, especially when one looks at the “sexual” language God uses to describe idolatry by His people. These concepts seem to be closely associated spiritually speaking and give context to the actual historical accounts in the OT. Thanks again for your dedication to the meat of the word and truth. Blessings to you.

  4. Tim thanks for replying to my questing regarding Canaan being the one who may have been the culprit. I appreciate that you realize that Canaan may not have been the offspring of Ham and his mother. The text reads as though Canaan was there already and the curse fell on him as soon as his grandfather woke up. I’d like to share a link to a website I believe you will enjoy. Thank you for serving the body of Christ as a teacher.

  5. Why could it not be Canaan himself who committed this act? Ham was not cursed. Your thoughts are good and appreciated. Yours in His service.

    • Hi Michael,

      Genesis 9:24 specifically states that Noah “knew what his younger son had done to him.” Canaan was not Noah’s son; he was his grandson. Also, it was “Ham, the father of Canaan” who told his two brothers about what happened (Genesis 9:22). There is no indication in the text itself that Canaan did something to Noah. Instead, the focus is on something that Ham did and then Canaan gets cursed as a result. As I mentioned in the post, I think there is only one explanation so far that gives a good rationale for why Canaan would be cursed for something Ham did.
      Thanks for reading.

  6. Tim, I’d like to know your view on the gods creating the giants on earth, and do you think it may have factored in on God’s wrath. …also heard the discourse on VCY which included keeping the law. I fully believe after ttb with v.magee that “keep” has a variety of earlier definitions.

    • Hi Lee,
      I’ve written extensively on the subject of the sons of God and the Nephilim in Genesis 6. It was the topic of my Th.M. thesis and I’m nearly finished with a very detailed book on the topic. Here’s a link to the first blog post I wrote to summarize my thesis. Just follow the other links in that post to find the rest of the articles.

  7. Tim, Just completed the Remnant Trilogy and really enjoyed it! I read very little “fiction”, so your series was the only fiction I have read in the past 5-6 years!! Please pray and consider doing future stories!!!
    Also, in the process of searching for a method to contact you and encourage/thank you for writing the trilogy, I came across your blog and this post. Well researched and thought out!! I have never heard of any of the four ideas you presented!! I would agree the 4th, while very disturbing, seems most plausible!! We’ll all know someday for our Creator!! Thanks again and God Bless!

    • Hi Mike,
      Thanks so much for the kind words. It’s great to hear that you enjoyed the novels so much. I had a lot of fun coming up with the story and writing the series.
      I’ve gone through stage where I rarely read fiction, but over the past ten years or so, I try to force myself to read at least a couple of novels every year in addition to the many theological books I read.
      I’m also glad to know that the blog posts were helpful for you.
      God bless!

      • Hey Tim,
        As I was reading this story I came to the same conclusion and literally searched “Did Ham rape his mom?” My search brought me to this and it was a confirmation for me. Thank you for sharing.

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