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.

You Cannot Be a Christian if You…

Many Christians inadvertently add requirements to the gospel message when they assume Christians must agree with them on certain beliefs.

Fill in the blank. “You can’t be a Christian if you ______.” Judge people? Use drugs? Drink alcohol? Believe in evolution? Believe in billions of years? Believe in a young earth? Oppose gay marriage? Support gay marriage? Vote Democrat? Vote Republican? Support abortion? Oppose abortion? Reject Calvinism? Accept Calvinism? Attend a Catholic Church? Attend a Protestant Church? Use the NIV Bible? Don’t believe in eternal punishment?

The list could go on and on, and I believe I’ve heard or read every single one of these—that so and so cannot be a Christian because he or she believes or says _____. Think carefully before answering the next question. If you filled in the blank with any of the options listed above, would the statement be true? Let me ask it another way. Which one (or more) of the above beliefs is required to be a Christian?

Obviously, some of those positions are contradictory, but before you jump to conclusions about my point, let me hasten to add that many of these issues are very important, so this article is not a watered-down message calling for unity at the expense of truth. And it isn’t about how two contradictory views can both be true—they cannot. Instead, this article is about helping Christians think carefully about what we truly believe and how we communicate those beliefs to those who disagree with us, whether fellow believers or unbelievers.

Wrong Answers

Would any of the above options make the statement true? I don’t think so. To be clear, I am not suggesting that the issues are unimportant or that Christians should not hold some of those views because quite a few of them are incompatible with Scripture. For example, I believe the Bible clearly teaches that the unredeemed will suffer eternal punishment, so I think this is what a Christian should believe. But if someone interprets these passages in a different way, does that mean they cannot be a Christian? If you believe that to be the case, then you have just added to the simplicity of the gospel message by claiming that one must also have a proper understanding of the eternal fate of non-believers.

Let’s try another one. I believe the Bible is extremely clear that God created everything in six normal-length days just thousands of years ago—not millions or billions. I’ve written a whole book about this (Old-Earth Creationism on Trial). But if someone believes that Jesus Christ died for their sins, was buried, and rose again (1 Corinthians 15:3–4), and they also happen to believe that God created over the course of billions of years, would that disqualify them from the faith? Is it impossible for them to trust in Christ if they reject and reinterpret the clear teaching of Scripture regarding the timing of creation? If you think so, then you have added the age of the earth to the gospel message.

For the record, I work at Answers in Genesis, and the ministry and its founder, Ken Ham, are frequently accused of doing this, but we have consistently rejected such a view. We have never taught that one must believe in a young earth to be saved. It’s true that some of our followers have done this—I’ve seen plenty of comments making such a claim in response to old-earth creationists on the ministry’s Facebook page. In some cases, the ministry’s emphasis on and passion for this issue is probably misunderstood as teaching its essentiality. But we do not teach one must believe in a young earth to be a Christian.

The Correct Answer

Let’s look at what Scripture teaches about becoming a Christian. After telling Nicodemus that he “must be born again” (John 3:7), Jesus told him the most famous words in Scripture.

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)

When the Philippian jailor asked Paul and Silas what he must do to be saved, they replied, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved…” (Acts 16:31).

Near the end of his Gospel, the Apostle John stated the following was his purpose in writing the book.

“And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.” (John 20:30–31)

So Jesus, Paul, and John all stated that to be a Christian one must believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. That is, they must put their faith in Him to be saved. God’s gracious gift of salvation has been provided by Christ alone and has always been, and will always be received by faith alone.

Notice that these passages do not add requirements to faith in Jesus Christ. The Bible does not say that to be saved you must vote a certain way, use a certain Bible, be on the correct side of a social issue, and have all your theological ducks in a row.

How Did We Get Here?

So why do so many people make such strong statements about what is required if one is to be a Christian? There are surely many reasons, so let’s explore a few of them.

In many cases, Christians study the Bible and believe what it seems to plainly teach about a given topic (say, eternal punishment), and they assume that all true believers will naturally accept it.  So, if a person rejects this teaching (let’s call him Bob), then he is demonstrating that he does not really believe God’s Word (at least about this matter). And since Christians should believe the Bible, Bob’s rejection of eternal punishment means that he must not be a Christian, right?

While I wholeheartedly agree that Christians should believe every word of the Bible, I also recognize that all Christians make mistakes, and some Christians make the mistake of not believing all of Scripture, and we are all guilty of improperly interpreting parts of it at times. The same thing is true when it comes to matters of practice. There are some things Christians should do and others that they should not do. However, even Christians make terrible mistakes, and it is possible that a genuine believer does not always live consistently with the beliefs they profess.

Another reason some believers conclude that someone cannot be a Christian is that they assume that all Christians have thought through the logical implications of a certain belief. If Bob, the hypothetical character mentioned earlier, does not accept all of those implications then he must not be a genuine believer. For example, when we speak of being saved, it’s natural to ask what Jesus saves us from. The Bible teaches that He saves us from our sin and the consequences of that sin, including eternal separation from God in the lake of fire, which is called the second death (Revelation 20:14). So if Jesus saves us from eternal punishment then how can Bob truly believe the gospel message if he does not understand what he is being saved from?

This seems like a natural question to ask, and I think it’s good to consider it. But think about the alternative. If Bob places his faith in Christ for the forgiveness of his sins, but he has not learned about eternal punishment yet, can we really say that he cannot be a Christian? Does God give a theology exam before granting eternal life? Or what if Bob started out believing in eternal punishment, but over the years, someone came along and confused him about the proper interpretation of those passages, leading Bob to conclude that the punishment of the wicked is only temporary. Would Bob suddenly lose his salvation?

Yet another reason I think some Christians condemn others is because we all struggle with pride, and this is just one way in which that manifests. We hold our own views with complete confidence, and some believers think that all good Christians should agree with them. So when they see someone who disagrees with them they conclude that that person must not really be saved. Can you see how ugly our pride can be and how it can blind us to the truth?

Old-Earth Creationism on Trial provides a respectful critique of the arguments used by Christians who believe in billions of years.

Let’s look at one more before wrapping things up. Some views may directly or indirectly impact the gospel. Earlier, I mentioned that some young-earth creationists have accused old-earth creationists of not being Christians because they reject the Bible’s teaching on these matters (for the record, I’ve heard old-earthers say similar things about young-earthers). Besides the fact that we believe the Bible plainly teaches the young-earth position, we also point out that old-earth creationists (to be consistent) must also reject the worldwide nature of the Genesis Flood (which some do). Even more dangerous, their belief inevitably places death, suffering, disease, and thorns prior to Adam’s sin, and yet the Bible teaches that these things are a result of Adam’s sin.

Here’s why this is so dangerous. If Adam’s sin did not bring death into this world (that is, if sin and death have no connection), then why is the only solution for sin the physical death of the Son of God on the Cross and His subsequent physical, bodily resurrection? If there is no connection between sin and death, then the gospel message itself is undermined. However, it is possible that old-earth creationists are simply being inconsistent in the way they read and understand Scripture here, and we need not automatically accuse them of rejecting the good news, even if their beliefs undermine the foundation for that good news.

A Call for Charity and Clarity

For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. (Hebrews 5:12–13)

The author of Hebrews admonished his readers for failing to progress in their walk with the Lord. By the time he wrote his letter, they should have grown in their faith to the point that they were ready to teach others. Instead, they were still babes and needed milk instead of solid food.

Unfortunately, the same thing is far too common today. Those of us who have been blessed with the opportunity to read and study Scripture regularly should be eating the “solid food” of the Word instead of relying on milk (just the basic teachings). But for many decades, the church, by and large, has been intellectually lazy. We thrive on devotions rather than Bible study (not that devotions don’t have their place). We desire milk instead of meat, and when that happens, those who are nourished only by milk can be easily led into all sorts of erroneous beliefs. This does not mean that they turn back into unbelievers.

In these situations, we need to encourage the milk-drinker to move on to solid food, to mature in their faith, and to carefully and prayerfully study Scripture. Yes, we are told in the Bible to correct those who are in error, so do not shy away if you hear the common “don’t judge me” refrain. Do not be hypercritical and harsh in your correction, but act in a spirit of gentleness as Galatians 6:1 instructs.

Finally, while it is not wrong to call out error when we see it among our fellow believers, we need to remember that true Christians can believe some bad ideas. We should not, but unfortunately we do at times. So if you plan to correct them, do not say, “You cannot be a Christian if you ____,” because you may be guilty of adding certain theological beliefs or Christian practices to the gospel message. Instead, lovingly point them to Scripture to show them what a Christian should do and think if they are going to be consistent with the faith they profess.