[Originally published as the first part of Why Was Canaan Cursed?]
Why Was Canaan Cursed?
[Scientific Prediction: On Oct. 8, 2009 a scientific prediction regarding the human genome was published below which flows from this Bible study on Canaan.]
Origin of the Canaanites:
The various tribes of Canaanites are listed in Gen. 10:15–18, including the Sidonians, Jebusites, Amorites, Girgashites, Hivites, and Arvadites. The Canaanites settled in familiar areas, including Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities of Gaza (Gen. 10:19). The hostility with their namesakes (and mixed descendants) continued right up until the time of Christ, for example, when He resisted ministering to “a woman of Canaan” (Mat. 15:22).
But why did Canaan and, therefore, his descendants become cursed? Reading the account in Genesis 9, many suppose that after Noah became drunk, Ham saw his father naked, and as a result, Noah cursed Ham’s son Canaan. I submit that is not all of what happened. For that story, at least on its surface, would be an especially arbitrary and capricious origin for Canaan, Israel’s great nemesis.
Here is what actually happened:
The story is about Canaan more than about Noah. As shown below, seeing the nakedness of a man is a common Hebrew expression for having sex with his wife (Lev. 20:11). Canaan lived a cursed life because he was conceived by incest. Noah’s kids, Japheth, Shem, and Ham lived for about a century in the wicked pre-flood world. The statement that “Ham was the father of Canaan” (Gen. 9:18) begins this passage, which then quickly repeats “Ham, the father of Canaan” (Gen. 9:22), to emphasize by reiterating that relationship. The story ends with three mentions of Canaan including “Cursed be Canaan” (Gen. 9:25).
The first chapters of the Bible quickly cover 1,600 years of sinful human history. Yet, there is no mention of intoxication until after the flood, until Noah planted a vineyard and became drunk. While Noah was inebriated, one of his sons, Ham, committed incest with Noah’s wife. Ham took advantage of his father’s drunkenness.
A husband is to be a covering for his wife to protect her, but Noah being drunk (e.g., Hab. 2:15), Ham saw that Noah’s wife was uncovered. Having lived before the flood in a sexually perverse society, Ham committed incest with his own mother, impregnating her and thereby fathering Canaan. The earliest Canaanites should not misrepresent their own heritage, so because Noah’s own wife bore Canaan, the story twice clarified for its ancient audience that “Ham was the father of Canaan,” not Noah.
Incest is a Curse: Of Israel’s nearby enemies, not all were Canaanites. For example, the Moabites and Ammonites were the product of other parent/child relations. Again involving drunkenness, Abraham’s nephew Lot impregnated his daughters, who gave birth to the Moabites and Ammonites (Gen. 19:32-38).
Any child conceived in this way, regardless of mutational considerations, enters life set up to fail. Canaan had his grandmother for a mother, his grandfather for an uncle, his mother for a great aunt, his father for a cousin, and, worst of all, his brother for a father (his half-brother, that is). Thus morally and sociologically, such incest was always a curse.
Genetically, early humans reproduced with siblings and first cousins without harm because deterioration in the genome had not yet become a significant factor. But quickly after the Flood, the severity of mutations likely increased (including as the result of radioactive decay on the continents). This tragic development, a foreseeable result of sin, moved God through the Mosaic Law to prohibit relations between close relatives (Lev. 18, 20). But undoubtedly, whether before or after the Flood, the unthinkable parent/child relation would put mankind’s built-in genetic proofreading and repair mechanisms into overdrive.
Known Euphemisms are Unambiguous:
As all authors and peoples do, Moses and the Jews used figures of speech. Some of the Bible’s figures of speech are euphemisms that promote modesty. For example, instead of saying that Adam had sexual intercourse with Eve, the Bible more politely says that “Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived” (Gen. 4:1). And Moses writes, “the man who lies with” rather than using the modern and more crude phrase, “has sex with.” The reader who misses these common figures of speech will misunderstand the plain meaning of various passages.
Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible. And God, through Moses, used the same decency when describing other physical relations. For example, when prohibiting incest in the Mosaic Law, rather than saying a man shall not have intercourse with his mother, Moses wrote that he shall not “uncover his father’s nakedness.”
The man who lies with his father’s wife has uncovered his father’s nakedness… Lev. 20:11
When Moses also wrote that Ham saw his father’s nakedness, that was a respectful (and appreciated) way of reporting that he copulated with his mother. See how frequently Moses and the Scriptures use this Hebrew figure of speech:
‘If a man lies with his uncle’s wife, he has uncovered his uncle’s nakedness. …If a man takes his brother’s wife… He has uncovered his brother’s nakedness.’ Lev. 20:20-21
Committing incest with any female “near of kin” can be described as “uncovering his nakedness” (Lev. 18:6), referring to the appropriate male relative, including the nakedness of your father (with your mother, Lev. 18:7), or your sister, granddaughter, stepsister, aunt, daughter-in-law and sister-in-law (Lev. 18:9-15).
Of course, this can also be described in more literal terms as uncovering the woman’s nakedness, but it can also be referred to, idiomatically, as referring to the husband’s, father’s, brother’s, uncle’s, or son’s nakedness. Her nakedness can equal his nakedness because, as Paul writes, your body is “not your own” (1 Cor. 6:19), and from this perspective, your mother’s body belongs to your father. Thus:
The nakedness of your father’s wife you shall not uncover; it is your father’s nakedness. Lev. 18:8
Again, “It is your father’s nakedness!”
Ezekiel used this figure of speech in this Hebrew parallelism:
In you [O Israel] men uncover their fathers’ nakedness; in you they violate women… Ezek. 22:10
And Habakkuk condemns not the sin of homosexuality but of getting your neighbor drunk in order to seduce his wife when he warns:
Woe to him who gives drink to his neighbor, pressing him to your bottle, even to make him drunk, that you may look on his nakedness! Hab. 2:15;
Habakkuk warns against looking upon a neighbor’s nakedness, which is just the slightest alternate form of uncovering his nakedness and of what Ham did, of seeing his father’s nakedness. (See also Leviticus 18:10, 14, 17-18; 1 Samuel 20:30 and Ezekiel 22:10-11.)
So, understanding this common Hebrew figure of speech enables the reader to comprehend Moses’ 3,500-year-old account of why Noah cursed Canaan:
- Ham was the father of Canaan [which is the actual topic of this story]
- And Noah began to be a farmer, and he planted a vineyard. Then he drank of the wine and was drunk, and became uncovered in his tent [his own drunkenness meant he could no longer provide protection, that is, a covering, for his wife and so she became vulnerable and exposed to Ham’s wickedness].
- And Ham, the father of Canaan [repeated to emphasize the point of the story and to hinder any misrepresentation about the real identify of Canaan’s father], saw the nakedness of his father [that is, he committed incest with Noah’s wife, his own mother],
- and told his two brothers outside [as wicked people often brag of their sin, and as misery loves company, perhaps even inviting them to do likewise].
- But Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and went backward and covered the nakedness of their father [refusing to take part in what was apparently a rape, and literally giving her a covering, and in hopes of beginning the healing process for her and their family].
- Their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness [i.e., their mother’s nude body, which clear meaning avoids the absurdity of ignoring the common figure of speech and of taking the passage hyperliterally].
- So Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done to him [that Ham had violated Noah’s wife, which he learned from her and his other sons].
- Then he said [after he learned of the pregnancy]: “Cursed be Canaan [whose father was Ham]…” Gen. 9:18, 20-25
Many Prefer to Think of the Bible as Unreasonable:
Why do Christian readers often miss this real story of Canaan? The undermining of Genesis as literal and rational history leads believers, even many authorities, to neglect serious study of Genesis and much of the Old Testament. As millions have been taught that they cannot trust the Bible’s six literal days of Creation, nor its story of Noah’s Ark and a global flood, then why worry about a silly detail like Noah cursing a baby grandchild for his own drunken behavior?
Many readily recognize that interpretation as presenting a capricious and arbitrary account of Noah’s behavior, yet they also seem comfortable with that characterization. Some theological traditions seem comfortable with arbitrary and capricious judgment, and others urge taking the Bible with a grain of salt. Not unlike liberal Christians who misrepresent the Hebrew Scriptures as commanding the death penalty for fornication, if the OId Testament seems unreasonable, then many feel justified ignoring it.
Continued in Part 2