One of the key stories in Genesis 9 is Noah’s cursing of his son, Ham. This has always been a perplexing passage for me. It appears that Noah overreacted to Ham’s actions. This is a topic whose explanations have filled books. I only want to make a few observations and leave the deeper study up to you.
- Even a cursory reaction to this passage reveals a lot about us. Looking at this scene through 21st-century eyes, most people would say, “Ham saw his father naked and told his brothers. What’s the big deal?” This was a big deal in this historical context. We have become so desensitized to immorality and indecency that nothing shocks us. We are not easily scandalized by anything. We have come to except as normal that which God categorized as sinful. Simply put, that is not good!
- One of Ham’s mistakes was that he exposed, rather than covered, his father’s shame. By going out and telling his brothers about his father’s drunken, naked state, he opened his father to further humiliation and ridicule. Love does not seek to humiliate, but to protect and restore. In Eden, Adam and Eve’s sin revealed their nakedness and produced in them a shame which forced them into hiding (Genesis 3:7-8). God’s love led Him to draw them out of hiding (and back into relationship with Himself) by covering them with the redemptive garment of His grace (Genesis 3:21). In the same way, God wants us to extend grace to those who are covered in shame and draw them out to live in the light of His forgiveness and love.
- We tend to read this as a story about Ham when, in reality, the story is an explanation about why Canaan became the enemy of God’s people, Israel. When Moses (the writer of Genesis) identifies Noah’s sons in Genesis 9:18, he points out that “Ham was the father of Canaan” (a fact that he repeats in 9:22). Noah’s curse of Ham was not directed at Ham, but at Ham’s son, Canaan: “So he said, ‘Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants he shall be to his brothers” (Genesis 9:25).
Ham’s behavior, which violated a moral code (more about that later), flowed from a sinful heart. Noah’s curse of Canaan was not a pronouncement that brought evil into being in the life of his grandson, but a prediction about the natural result of unchecked sinful behavior. Noah was making a prophetic utterance that if Canaan followed his father’s example of sinful behavior, it would lead to his ruin.
I have often heard people refer to ongoing negative patterns in families (substance abuse, criminal activity, poverty, etc.) as “generational curses.” The inference here is that there is some external force that causes bad things to be visited upon generation after generation. It is my contention that generational “curses” are nothing more than habitual patterns of sin that have been observed, adopted and practiced. These cycles of sin are not outside of the control of the families, but can be broken through loving the Lord and walking in obedience to His Word.
I came across an article written by Bob Enyart, Pastor of Denver Bible Church, explaining Ham’s sin and the subsequent curse of Canaan. I found his explanation plausible. Here is a summary of what he wrote:
Why did Noah curse his grandson Canaan? Genesis 9 records that the boy’s father, Ham, saw Noah’s nakedness, and, as a result, Noah cursed his grandson Canaan. Then Canaan went on to become the patriarch of Israel’s longstanding enemies, the Canaanites. The story seems capricious on the surface, in contrast to so much reasonable history in Genesis. So a closer look is merited. A common biblical figure of speech appears in Canaan’s story, and when Christians re-read the story understanding this figure of speech, the message of this account becomes compelling. Ancient Hebrew commonly speaks of a man’s nakedness to refer to sexual intercourse with the man’s wife. As Moses wrote in Leviticus, “The man who lies with his father’s wife has uncovered his father’s nakedness.” Canaan lived a cursed life because he was conceived by incest. Thus the brief story twice reminds its ancient readers that Ham (not Noah) is the father of Canaan. So Noah cursed Canaan not as an evil spell or hex, but as recognition of cause and effect, reaping what is sown, and his tragic circumstance, and as a warning to others against following in Ham’s wicked way. And readers of Genesis find a clear and reasonable origin for the conflict that lasted for centuries between the Jews and the Canaanites.
You can read Pastor Enyart’s full explanation at Why Was Canaan Cursed?
One final observation. An important principle of Biblical interpretation is to seek to understand the context, both textually and culturally, in which the Scripture was written. In other words, we need to ask the question, “How would the original readers understand this?” If we see the text only through our modern interpretive grid, we are likely to analyze and apply it incorrectly.