The Curse of Ham/Canaan: A Mythological Mystery

Mosaic of the Drunkenness of Noah, Basilica di San Marco, Venice, 1215-35 (cropped)

One of many puzzling passages that anyone reading the Bible from the beginning is soon confronted with is a story in which the flood hero Noah gets drunk and falls asleep naked—and which concludes with Noah placing a curse on his grandson Canaan. Since this passage was brought up by a commenter recently, I thought I’d look into it more closely.

Part of the reason, no doubt, for the impression of strangeness it leaves on readers is that it is (understandably) almost never preached on in church and may surprise those who remember the tale of Noah in children’s storybook terms, full of cuddly animals and pretty rainbows. When Aronofsky’s film Noah came out in 2014, Jon Stewart’s Daily Show aired a segment poking fun at religious viewers who were irked by the inclusion of a scene in which the titular character got drunk—and who were apparently oblivious to the existence of that very story in Genesis 9. In fact, during pre-release screenings of Noah to Christian audiences, viewers who didn’t realize the story was biblical reacted so negatively to the drunkenness scene that Paramount Pictures considered cutting it.

There was, however, a time when churchgoers might have been more familiar with Noah’s wine-imbibing ways, since the so-called “curse of Ham” that resulted was often invoked to show that enslavement and marginalization of Africans had been God’s divine will from the dawn of humanity. But more on that later. Let’s see what the text itself has to say.

Noah's Drunkeness by James Tissot, c. 1896-1902

Noah’s Drunkeness by James Tissot, c. 1896-1902

The Barebones Story

Here is Genesis 9:18–28 as translated by the late scholar of Hebrew and the Old Testament, Edwin M. Good.

And Nōach’s sons who came out of the ship were Shem, and Cham, and Yephet, and Cham was the father of Kena‘an. These three were Nōach’s sons, and from these the world was dispersed.

And Nōach became a man of the ground, and he planted a vineyard. And he drank some of the wine and was drunk and was uncovered in his tent. And Cham, the father of Kena‘an, saw his father’s nakedness, and he told his two brothers outside. And Shem and Yephet took the sheet, put it on their two shoulders, and walked backwards, and covered their father’s nakedness. Their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. Nōach woke up from his wine and he knew what his youngest son had done to him. And he said:

Cursed be Kena‘an, slave of slaves let him be to his brothers.

And he said:

Blessed be Yahweh, Shem’s god, and let Kena‘an be his slave. May Elohîm ‘enlarge’ Yephet, and may he live in Shem’s tents, and let Kena‘an be his slave.

Nōach lived after the flood 350 years. And all of Nōach’s days were 950 years, and he died.

The Drunkenness of Noah by Giovanni Bellini, c. 1515

The Drunkenness of Noah by Giovanni Bellini, c. 1515

Problems with the Story

Several elements of this narrative require some explaining.

  1. The reference to Ham (Cham) as Noah’s “youngest son” is odd, since normally in the Bible, sons are listed in chronological order, and every time Noah’s three sons are enumerated, Ham is the second one.
  2. Somehow, Noah knows upon waking up that Ham has done something to him. If Ham has simply glimpsed his father naked and told his brothers, Noah should be none the wiser.
  3. In revenge, Noah pronounces a curse not on Ham, the guilty party, but on Ham’s son Canaan (Kena‘an), who is innocent.
  4. The curse of enslavement and subjugation to his brothers is grossly out of proportion for the offense of accidental voyeurism.
  5. The main elements of the story—Noah’s inebriation and vengefulness—seem out of character for the heroic patriarch of the preceding flood tale. Is this Noah even the same person?

For bonus points, one may note that the flood ended when Noah was 601, so he should have been 951 when he died. But it’s mainly just the curse story I’m interested in here.

Was Ham’s Offense More than Just Voyeurism?

The fact that Ham’s crime was noticeable to Noah and the punishment severe suggests that Ham’s offense was originally more serious than glimpsing his father’s nudity. There is no attested taboo against accidentally seeing one’s parent naked, either in the Bible or in other ancient Near Eastern literature (Bergsma and Hahn, p. 27).

Because the punishment does not fit the crime, early rabbis believed that the crime had been of a more serious sexual nature. One rabbinical source in the Babylonian Talmud claims that Ham raped his father. Another claims that he castrated his father.

Modern scholarship is divided. Because “nakedness” is sometimes a euphemism for sexual intercourse in the Bible (particularly in Leviticus 18 and 20), many believe that the passage originally described some sort of incest between Noah and Ham.

A few scholars, notably Bergsma and Hahn, take the view that Ham actually had incestuous relations with his mother. The idea that Noah’s nakedness could be a euphemism for sex involving Mrs. Noah is somewhat strengthened by how the prohibition against mother-son or stepmother-son incest is worded in Leviticus 18:7 and 8:

You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father, which is the nakedness of your mother…You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife; it is the nakedness of your father.

Using this scenario, Bergsma and Hahn also attempt to explain why Noah cursed Canaan instead of Ham: to punish the fruit of the illicit union between Ham and Noah’s wife.

Though rather clever, this interpretation seems strained to me. The reason for this wording in the legal context of Leviticus 18 is to stress that copulation with one’s (step-)mother is an encroachment upon the exclusive possession of the father (Milgrom, pp. 1536–1539), and it makes little sense without mentioning the wife’s involvement—precisely what is lacking in Genesis 9. It is also hard to see how Noah’s own drunkenness would lead to sex between his son and his wife, or how he would immediately know about the deed upon waking. Nor does the text ever hint that Canaan is the son of Noah’s wife; and even if he were, that still wouldn’t really solve the problem of cursing an innocent person.

However, the basic idea that Ham is trying to usurp or supplant his father may have merit if we consider the third option: castration. The attraction here is that we have interesting parallels in other ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean literature. The Canaanite god Baal-Hadad, for example, was said to have usurped his father El by castrating him. There is also the Greek parallel of Kronos, who castrated and deposed his father Uranos according to Hesiod’s Theogony. The latter example has numerous parallels with the Noah story:

  1. Uranos, like Noah, is a patriarch responsible for populating the world.
  2. Uranos’s youngest son performs a shameless act against him, like Noah’s youngest son does to him.
  3. Uranos has another son named Iapetos, the Greek equivalent to Noah’s son Japheth (Yapet). Japheth and his offspring represent the Greeks and other Indoeuropean nations in Genesis (Westermann, p. 73).
  4. Much like Noah and his family, Uranos and Iapetos are associated with the Greek flood myth in which Deucalion, grandson of Iapetos, built an ark to survive a great deluge sent by Zeus.
  5. Noah’s sons are directly equated with the euhemerized (historicized) Greek heroes Kronos, Titan and Iapetus by the third Sibylline Oracle, a Jewish work dated roughly to the 2nd century BCE.

(For more on these connections, see “Japheth”, DDD; Wajdenbaum, pp. 107ff; and Basset, p. 236; Bremmer, p. 56.)

Whatever the traditional originally stated as Ham’s crime, however, it appears that a later editor or redactor failed to understand the meaning of the story, and added incongruent details like Ham’s brothers using a cloak to cover their father’s nakedness.

Illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicles

Illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicles

Why Was Canaan and Not Ham Cursed? Some Possibilities

Several different approaches to resolving this discrepancy have been offered by scholars.

1. Canaan, and not Ham, was originally Noah’s son.

Many believe there was an earlier version of this text in which Canaan himself was the son of Noah. This is suggested by the abrupt manner in which the text shifts from Ham to Canaan, and by the wording of Noah’s curse in verse 25:

Cursed be Kena‘an, slave of slaves let him be to his brothers.

Verses 26–27, which begin abruptly with a second “he said,” seem to be a later insertion that expands Noah’s pronouncement to include all three sons. The venerable scholar Westermann (now deceased) wrote:

The addition of verses 26 and 27 is due to the existence of the three sons. The style of verse 26 shows that it is very late: “Blessed be…” (baruk) followed by a divine name is a doxology like those concluding the divisions of the Psalter. When Yahweh is called “the God of Shem,” “Shem” can only mean “Israel”; but nowhere else is “Shem” so used. (Westermann, p. 70)

Similarly, the two awkwardly placed statements that Ham was the father of Canaan in verses 18 and 22 may be additions meant to harmonize the passage.

John Van Seters has an interesting take on this passage. He believes that in the oldest form of the story, Noah had only two sons: Canaan and Eber, the eponymous ancestors of the Canaanites and the Hebrews. When the Yahwist rewrote the story, he “fitted it into his more universal perspective by making it the story of Noah and his three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, instead of Canaan and Eber,” but leaving the curse against Canaan unchanged (Van Seters, p. 179). Indeed, Genesis 10 hints at Shem-Eber equivalence in confusingly-worded verse 21: “to Shem also was born, father of all the sons of Eber, the elder brother of Japheth.” Verse 25 about Eber’s sons is also corrupt, with grammatically mismatched verb and objects (Good, p. 121, ns. b, c). Some rewriting of the genealogies for Shem and Eber has probably taken place; what the text originally said can no longer be ascertained.

I agree that the curse of enslavement also makes more sense if, as Van Seters posits, the story originally had local scope (the subjugation of Canaanite tribes to Israel) rather than global scope.

2. The curse originally applied to Ham, and Canaan was inserted later.

Russell Gmirkin has suggested a specific historical context that would explain the story’s original meaning. He dates this text to the time of the First Syrian War (274–271 BCE), during which the Seleucids (Shem), a Syrian kingdom dominated by the Greeks (Japheth), were vying with Ptolemaic Egypt (Ham) for control of the Levant. Under this theory, the point of the text was to explain God’s preference for the Seleucids to defeat the Ptolemies in Palestine and Egypt because of Ptolemy I Soter’s cruel treatment of the Jews. When the invasion of Egypt failed, the curse was modified to express a more modest hope of Seleucid dominance in southern Syria (Canaan). (Gmirkin, pp. 166-169)

David M. Carr, in his wonderfully insightful monograph Reading the Fractures of Genesis, also believes that the focus on Canaan as the target of the curse was a late change made to Genesis. His reasoning rests on the fact that several late “semi-Deuteronomistic” additions with a special focus on Canaan can be found throughout Genesis—particularly the addition of the Canaanite nations in 10:16–18a, which are quite obviously an interpolation. (Carr, pp. 162-165)

3. The passage combines two originally independent stories.

This approach is compatible in many ways with the previous two. A good example may be the position of Westermann, who held that the story fused a genealogical tradition about Noah and his three sons Shem, Japheth, and Ham, with a tale of Noah’s drunkenness that involved Canaan.

Separate Noah Traditions?

It’s not hard to see that between the story of Noah the flood hero and the strange tale of Noah’s drunken stupor with sexual overtones, we may be dealing with unrelated traditions that have been brought together by the writers of Genesis. For example, when Noah is first introduced in the Sethian genealogy in Genesis 5, he is described not as the one who would save humanity from a flood, but one who would bring relief from the ground cursed by Yahweh—foreshadowing his role as the inventor of wine. This Noah, famous not for the Ark but for viticulture, may have originally been part of the earlier Cainite genealogy in Genesis 4 (which was reused to create Seth’s genealogy in the next chapter) as suggested by Van Seters (p. 146). There is no pre-Genesis text that shows any knowledge of a flood myth besides the chaoskampf creation stories—other than possibly Ezekiel 14. Furthermore, the use of the pre-flood genealogies to establish the origins of various professions—Jabal, the first tent-dwelling shepherd; Jubal, the first musician; Tubal-cain, the first metalworker; and Noah, the first vintner—assumes a context in which no worldwide flood occurs to wipe out this knowledge. I have many more ideas about this, but they’ll have to wait for another article I’m working on.

Before I conclude, let’s change tracks a bit and look at the effect this passage has had on Christian theology and practice.

Noah curses Ham by Gustave Doré, 1865

Noah curses Ham by Gustave Doré, 1865

The Use of the “Curse of Ham” to Justify Slavery and Oppression in Modern Times

The erroneous phrase “curse of Ham” is not mentioned in any post-biblical Jewish work. Some early Christian writers (e.g. Augustine and Chrystostom) associate the curse with Ham rather than Canaan, but do not link it with slavery. Nor is Ham merely the father of the black Africans, since his sons as listed in Genesis include the semitic Egypt and Canaan in addition to Cush (Ethiopia) and Put (Libya).

The misconception that the “curse of Ham” is an ancient theological doctrine is apparently due to a 15th-century forger, John Annius of Viterbo. His Commentaries on the Works of Various Authors Discussing Antiquity included fake writings by the Babylonian priest Berossus that played up the licentiousness of Ham and suggested he had been exiled to Africa. (Noll, p. 253) (Incidentally, John Annius was also responsible for the misguided idea, now popular among lay Christians, that the genealogy of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke was actually Mary’s.)

As England joined the colonial land rush and launched its own slave trade, Protestant theology began using the story of Noah’s drunkenness as a justification for slavery. Hugh Latimer and John Hooper, both Anglican reformers, began preaching on the curse of Ham rather than Canaan. The notes in Coverdale’s Bible and the Geneva Bible stated that Ham and his posterity had been cursed to slavery. The commentary in the 1778 Self-Interpreting Bible stated, “For about four thousand years past the bulk of Africans have been abandoned of Heaven to the most gross ignorance, rigid slavery, stupid idolatry, and savage barbarity.” (Noll, p. 254)

The abolition of slavery failed to extinguish these beliefs. Segregation continued to be preached by Protestant pastors in the US, who claimed African Americans still bore the “curse of Ham” and were destined to serve white Americans (Sutton, p. 133). In South Africa, the curse of Ham was used by the Dutch Reformed Church to defend apartheid (Snyder, p. 191).

It is easy, in the 21st century, to deride and mock such flawed interpretations of the Bible. Nevertheless, whenever one is dealing with an “inerrant” holy book that must be obeyed without question, true power rests with religious leaders who decree how the text is to be interpreted and applied. Although critical biblical studies is restricted mainly to the academy, its findings are relevant to anyone who finds himself or herself marginalized by religious dogma. It tells us that the Bible is a human book—written by humans, preserved by humans, and interpreted by humans.

Conclusions

The story of Noah’s drunkenness and the curse of Canaan is one of the most perplexing passages in the Primeval History. While scholars differ greatly in their analyses of it, there are some general conclusions I have drawn.

  1. Some kind of illicit sexual event most likely underlies what now reads as a case of accidental voyeurism. It may originate as a euhemerized, Jewish version of the Greek myth of Uranus’s castration by his son Kronos.
  2. Later editors, misunderstanding or disapproving of the mythological references involved, have rewritten it with narrative details that no longer mesh well with the original intent and raise logical problems.
  3. The overall story of Noah now found in Genesis is probably a composite of originally disparate traditions.
  4. It is unclear whether the names of his sons have been changed, and whether the culprit and recipient of the curse were originally the same individual (whether Ham or Canaan).

Bibliography

  • Edwin M. Good, Genesis 1–11: Tales of the Earliest World.
  • John Sietze Bergsma and Scott Walker Hahn, “Noah’s Nakedness and the Curse on Canaan (Genesis 9:20–27)”, JBL 124/1 (2005).
  • Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 17–22: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (The Anchor Bible), 2000.
  • Claus Westermann, Genesis, 1987.
  • “Japheth”, Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible.
  • Philippe Wajdenbaum, Argonauts of the Desert, 2011.
  • Frederick W. Basset, “Noah’s Nakedness and the Curse of Canaan”, VT 21/2, 1971.
  • Jan. N. Bremmer, The Fall of the Angels, 2004.
  • Russell E. Gmirkin, Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus: Hellenistic Histories and the Date of the Pentateuch (LHB/OTS 433).
  • John Van Seters, Prologue to History: The Yahwist as Historian in Genesis, 1992.
  • Mark A. Noll, In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492–1783, 2016.
  • Matthew Avery Sutton, American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism, 2014.
  • Graydon F. Snyder, “The Two Thirteens: Romans and Revelation”
    Reading Religions in the Ancient World (SNT 125), 2007.

10 thoughts on “The Curse of Ham/Canaan: A Mythological Mystery

  1. Paul wrote: For bonus points, one may note that the flood ended when Noah was 601, so he should have been 951 when he died. But it’s mainly just the curse story I’m interested in here.

    This discrepancy originated because different sources were combined–the same thing that caused the curse story’s anomalies. The chronological information from Genesis 7:6 and 9:28-29 is consistent. Another source adds 7:11, and 8:13 to create the contradiction.

    6 Noah was six hundred years old when the flood of waters came on the earth.11 In the six-hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. 8:13 In the six hundred and first year, in the first month, on the first day of the month, the waters were dried up from the earth; and Noah removed the covering of the ark, and looked, and saw that the face of the ground was drying. 9:29-29 After the flood Noah lived for three hundred and fifty years. All the days of Noah were nine hundred and fifty years; and he died.

    The whole Ham issue is hard to square with an omniscient deity. First, we know that Ham became the father of the hated, evil Canaanites (Genesis 10:6 et al.), so the obvious question is why God allowed Ham on the ark when he knew that his descendants would be incorrigibly wicked and have to be destroyed (Genesis 15:16). The Egyptians also descended from Ham (Genesis 10:6), and of course the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites, so by allowing Ham to live, God made sure that one Ham-descended nation could enslave Israel for “400” years, after which time Israel could attempt to eradicate another Hamite race! Several years ago, I mentioned the castration option for our current pericope, http://bcharchive.org/2/thearchives/showthread9bd7-2.html, and I think this is most likely what the original story was about. As you point out, in its current form, the story is about actual nakedness, because you can’t undo a sexual sin or castration by walking backwards and covering someone with a blanket.

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    • Yeah, that must be what’s going on with the chronology. It’s remarkably tricky to figure out the logic behind the dates, because you have the so-called J version, P’s rewrite of J, and then editorial harmonizations to fit them together—three different chronological schemes, essentially.

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  2. Always look forward to your posts, Paul. You always present great information and express it clearly. I wish you would post more often!

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  3. Once again, great post. I always found this passage puzzling.

    The question I have is about Gmirkin’s 3rd century Seleucid-Ptolemaic-Hellenistic interpretation. When would Torah have become more-or-less fixed in the form we have it now? I would have thought that since the LXX Torah was a mid-third century translation, and since, as far as I can tell, the LXX has this pericope in this form too, that anyone massaging it would have to act fast in order to get their revised manuscript “submitted,” as it were, to the translators. (I realize that there were at least 8 different translations into Greek alone, but the only one that survives complete is the LXX, which wasn’t the earliest either.) But then, in terms of extant manuscripts, I don’t really know what I’m reading when I read the LXX. Is there a Majority Text for the LXX? Or is it probable that the surviving LXX manuscripts are late copies that were “fixed up” to update late changes to the “orthodox” versions of pericopes such as these, even if these versions weren’t in the manuscripts the LXX translators actually had? Wouldn’t the LXX act as a sort of early canonizing point, the point at which the scribal authority lost control of the texts, or is there a reason why these texts would have been able to continue to evolve even after having been included in early surviving anthologies/translations? How would we get around the “publishing problem” that I would think would tend to retard further evolution? I would have guessed that the layering of these texts would have to happened before the scribes lost control of the texts and they got out into the public domain in the form of translations.

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    • If I understand Gmirkin’s theory correctly, the entire passage would have been composed early during the First Syrian War, and then revised near the end, shortly before the LXX was produced in Alexandria.

      Generally, when you read the “Septuagint”, it is a translation of 4th-century codices Vaticanus or Sinaiticus, or 5th-century Alexandrinus. They are not identical, and Vaticanus (LXX B) is generally regarded as the best, but it is missing Genesis up to chapter 46. Keep in mind that these are all much earlier than our earliest complete Hebrew copies of Genesis. (Only about half of Genesis can be recovered from the 27 manuscripts found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.)

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  4. The Christian reaction to the story of Noah’s drunkenness reminds me of a movie I saw on the story of King Solomon. The intrigue around Solomon’s ascent to the throne seemed like a Hollywood soap opera, I was critical of the filmmakers for distorting the story. I then actually read the story from the Bible and was taken aback to find that they had faithfully proclaimed what was in the Bible.

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    • Yeah, Christians view David and Solomon with rose-coloured glasses as well. I think people would be aghast at a film that was actually based on Samuel and Kings, with David going around slaughtering entire villages just so they won’t report his activities to the Philistine king he’s serving. Pop Christianity is to the Bible as Disney’s animated films are to the original fairytales.

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