Thursday, July 15, 2010

Covenants and curses

It would have been nice if the Noah story had ended with the beautiful image of the rainbow and God’s promise to never destroy the earth again.
Unfortunately, towards the end of Genesis 9 we have this awful story of the curse of Canaan which I could very well have done without.
It seems that after getting off the ark, one of the first things Noah did was to get completely drunk, take all his clothes off and then pass out in his tent naked. Noah’s son Ham then had the bad luck to stumble upon his father in this condition. Ham’s mistake at this point, supposedly, was to go and tell his brothers what he saw. Thus forewarned, the brothers then enter the tent backwards with a blanket over their shoulders and cover their father’s nakedness without looking at him.
The next part of the story is so astoundingly appalling by today’s standards as to be nonsensical. When Noah finally awakens from his drunken stupor and learns that his son Ham saw him in that condition he reacts by cursing Ham’s son (and Noah’s grandson) Canaan.

“Cursed be Canaan!
The lowest of slaves
will he be to his brothers.”

So, even though Noah is the one who gets drunk and makes a complete ass of himself; and even though Ham is the one who offends Noah by seeing him in this condition, it is the innocent Canaan and all of his descendents who must suffer Noah’s wrath for all eternity.
Horrible. Just horrible.
So naturally I reject this story outright. I refuse to believe that it happened this way. I think it is a slander on poor Noah meant to explain why some people are enslaved later on in history. I think a lot of the stories in the Old Testament are parables meant to explain certain conditions that existed at the time the Bible was written.
Telling people who are slaves that they are slaves because God wills it was probably a good way to keep them in line. But I reject the idea that God ever intended for men to enslave one another.


  1. Mike, I think you are being far too literalistic in your reading of this passage. Consider the following interpretation from theologian Scott Hahn:

    "What's going on in the story of Ham uncovering "his father's nakedness" (see Genesis 9:22)? In Hebrew, this phrase is a figure of speech used to describe incest (Leviticus 20:17; 18:6-18. Note: In other places besides the story of Noah and Ham, The New American Bible translates this phrase as "to have intercourse with." The Revised Standard Version in all cases keeps the more literal translation "uncover the nakedness of." See RSV-Leviticus 20:17; 18:6-18).

    To uncover the nakedness of your father is to commit incest with your mother. To state it bluntly, in all its brutality - while Noah was drunk, Ham slept with his mother. We don't know what Ham was thinking. It could be that he wanted to seize power from his dad and this heinous act was his way of insulting Noah and showing his total disrespect (see similar episodes in Genesis 29:32; 35:22; 49:3-4; 2 Samuel 16:21-22).

    But notice that Noah doesn't curse Ham. He curses Canaan - the son born of this incestuous encounter. Why Canaan? It's another hint in the text of what Ham's crime was. As we'll see later, Canaan will be the founding father of a nation that will be known for its abominable practice of maternal incest (see Leviticus 18:6-18; Exodus 23:23-24).

    Canaan is the bad fruit born of Noah's sin. But as Adam bore both Cain, the slayer of his brother, and Seth the righteous one, Noah too has a good seed: his firstborn son Shem, who had tried to "cover" his father's nakedness (see Genesis 9:23)."

  2. Hey Mark! Long time, no hear.
    No, I think Mr. Hahn is overanalyzing the story. Why would they use code words here to imply an incestuous relationship when just a few chapters later in the story of Lot and his daughters they take no such precautions?
    Furthermore, you can invent whatever crime you want for Ham and it still would not justify Noah's curse of Canaan.

  3. Well, Hahn is not making up anything about code words. The original Hebrew uses the word for incest in this story. Not sure why the translators did not use the same euphemism in the Lot story.

    As for the curse lying upon Canaan rather than Ham, Biblical scholars have conjectured for millenia:

    "The curse called down on Canaan is undoubtedly connected with the sin of his father, Ham (verse 22). But it is rather hard to indicate the precise nature of this connection. Had Canaan in some way a share in his father's sin, and is it for this reason that what was said in verse 18 is repeated in the story of the sin, viz.: that Ham was the father of Canaan? Or is the latter struck by Noah's prophetic curse for the sins of his posterity, who were to imitate Ham's wickedness? Certain it is, that this curse, as well as the blessing invoked upon Shem and Japheth, was especially fulfilled in their posterity. The descendants of Canaan were partly rooted out, partly subjected by the Israelites and all the Canaanite races, as such, disappeared from the scene of history. Others have tried to solve the problem by critical methods. It was supposed that Genesis 10:20-27 was derived from a source in which Canaan had taken the place of his father, Ham, and so was passed off as Noah's third son. It is as conceivable that in the original prophecy the name of Ham occurred, and that the Israelites, seeing the prophecy fulfilled, especially in the posterity of Canaan might have changed it to that of the son. But none of these critical conjectures has any solid foundation."