“Why did Noah curse Canaan?”

And Noah began to be a husbandman, and planted a vineyard. And he drank of the wine, and was drunken, and he uncovered himself in his tent. And Ham the father of Canaan saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren outside. And Shem and Japheth took the upper garment and both laid it upon their shoulders, and went backwards, and covered the nakedness of their father. And their faces were turned away, that they saw not their father’s nakedness. And Noah awoke from his wine, and learned what his youngest son had done to him. And he said, Cursed be Canaan; Let him be a bondman of bondmen to his brethren.

– Genesis 9:20-25

On reading this passage, you may have asked yourself why one of Ham’s son’s paid the price for Ham’s behavior. That doesn’t seem fair. Ham had three other sons (Genesis 10:6), and they weren’t cursed. Why curse only one of his sons? Or why not just curse Ham? To answer this question, we must look at the passage for some subtle (to us) details.

Genealogies make up a significant part of Genesis and other parts of the Bible. The main focus of the Old Testament genealogies is to trace the Messiah’s lineage through the ages. But there are details in these genealogies that provide clues for the answer to our question. The main clue is the order in which names of descendants are listed. Sons are almost always listed in birth order. Cain was born before Abel (Genesis 4:1-2), therefore we say “Cain and Abel”, not “Abel and Cain”. Judah was the tribe of the kings of Israel, but Judah was never listed first. Reuben was first because he was the first-born, followed by Simeon and Levi. The tribes of Israel are usually listed in birth order. The only significant exceptions to this are Jacob over Esau, and Ephraim over Manasseh, both of which were given the birthright. In that case, the more honored sometimes moves up in the lists.

Noah’s sons are listed in Genesis 5:32, 6:10, 7:13, 9:18, and 10:1 as “Shem, Ham, and Japheth”, which means Shem was the first-born, followed by Ham, then Japheth. 1 But Genesis 9:24 speaks of what “his youngest son” had done. Noah’s youngest son was Japheth, and he did good along with Shem. So this passage is not speaking of Noah’s youngest son.

But when Ham’s sons are listed in Genesis 10:6, Canaan is last. He was Ham’s youngest son. Therefore when we read that Noah learned what “his youngest son” had done to him, it must be read as what Ham’s youngest son had done, not Noah’s youngest son.

What did Canaan do to Noah? The scriptures do not say. Perhaps it was too shameful to mention. But knowing the moral character of the descendants of Canaan (especially seen in the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah), we can assume it was much worse than what Ham did. Ham only looked, then told his brothers what he had seen. Canaan likely heard about Noah from his father, and then did something to abuse his grandfather before he sobered up.

One more point: If Ham really were Noah’s youngest son, why was he moved ahead of Japheth in the lists of Noah’s sons. I can see him being moved to the least honorable position at the end of the list, but not into a more honorable position ahead of Japheth.

Notes:

  1. Some translations of Genesis 10:21 say that Japheth was the oldest, but I believe this to be a mistranslation. The translator notes for the NET Bible say: “Some translations render Japheth as the older brother, understanding the adjective haggadol (“older”) as modifying Japheth. However, in Hebrew when a masculine singular definite attributive adjective follows the sequence masculine singular construct noun plus proper name, the adjective invariably modifies the noun in construct, not the proper name. Such is the case here. See Deut 11:7; Judg 1:13; 2:7; 3:9; 9:5; 2 Kgs 15:35; 2 Chr 27:3; Neh 3:30; Jer 13:9; 36:10; Ezek 10:19; 11:1.” Those who believe Japheth was the oldest say that Shem was listed first because he was in the line of the Messiah. But if that were the case, why wasn’t Judah also listed first in the genealogies of the tribes of Israel?

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