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.
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.
Problems with the Story
Several elements of this narrative require some explaining.
- 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.
- 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.
- In revenge, Noah pronounces a curse not on Ham, the guilty party, but on Ham’s son Canaan (Kena‘an), who is innocent.
- The curse of enslavement and subjugation to his brothers is grossly out of proportion for the offense of accidental voyeurism.
- 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:
- Uranos, like Noah, is a patriarch responsible for populating the world.
- Uranos’s youngest son performs a shameless act against him, like Noah’s youngest son does to him.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- The overall story of Noah now found in Genesis is probably a composite of originally disparate traditions.
- 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).
- 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.