Racists have used the account of Noah’s drunkenness and his son Ham’s disrespectful behavior to claim that the descendants of Ham are inferior to those of Japheth and Shem, and are destined to be their servants. This view is based on the facts that “Cush” (one of the sons of Ham) is a word that means “black,” and that Noah said that Canaan would be “a servant of servants” to the descendants of Shem and Japheth.
When we look at this passage, however, we can easily see that the idea that people of African descent are living under a curse and destined to be the slaves of other peoples is baseless.
The passage says that Ham observed Noah’s “nakedness” while his father lay drunken and uncovered in his tent ( Genesis 9:21-22 ). The Hebrew expression for saw the nakedness of his father literally means “looked with satisfaction upon the nakedness of his father.” 1 We don’t know exactly what occurred, although it is clear that Ham didn’t behave with an appropriate degree of respect.
Regardless of the exact nature of Ham’s sin, Noah’s declaration, “Cursed be Canaan” doesn’t refer to all of Canaan’s sons. The three older brothers of Canaan — Cush, Mizraim, and Put ( Genesis 10:6 ) — are not mentioned. Further, Noah’s words “cursed be Canaan” may have been more a statement of fact than an actual curse — although Noah did predict that Canaan would be the servant of Shem and Japheth. 2 Perhaps Ham and his youngest son already displayed an inclination for moral depravity that foreshadowed the behavior of Canaan’s descendants.
In other words, it is unlikely that that a Holy God would arbitrarily curse Canaan and his descendants perpetually because of his father’s sin. 3 It is more likely that his character already contained the flaw that would be expressed in the degeneracy of the Canaanites ( Genesis 19:5 ; Leviticus 18,20 ; Deuteronomy 7:1-5; 12:31 ).
In summary, there is no basis for associating the ancient Canaanites with the descendants of the other sons of Ham. Even less should they be associated with present-day Palestinians or any other modern group. (See the ATQ article, Who Are the Palestinians?)
- Interestingly, Leviticus 18:8 and Leviticus 20:11 refer to “uncovering a man’s nakedness” in sexual terms. If a son has sexual relations with a stepmother he has “uncovered his father’s nakedness.” Back To Article
- The expression servant of servants is a Hebrew superlative, which has the idea of “lowest of slaves.” The New Bible Commentary has this explanation:
This curse may have its fulfillment in the later subjection of the Canaanites by Israel ( Genesis 9:26 ), or it may be religious in its significance. The phrase stands for the most abject slavery, and compared with the spiritual blessings of Shem, with which Canaan’s curse is here contrasted, what could be more abject than the idolatrous superstition by which the Canaanite peoples were enslaved? Back To Article
- Exodus 20:5 restricts punishment of those who hate God to only the third and fourth generation, and elsewhere Scripture declares ( Deuteronomy 24:16 , Ezekiel 18:20 ) that God doesn’t hold children accountable for their fathers’ sins. If children commit the same sins as their fathers, they will be punished in the same way. This doesn’t involve some kind of “curse,” but the natural consequences of evil behavior.
The expression “of them that hate me” indicates that children tend to follow the pattern of their parents. The actions of the parents influence the children toward evil, and the fear of these later consequences may have a healthy check on the conduct of the parents. (By way of contrast, evil conduct affects only three or four generations while the consequences of godliness will extend much further — see Exodus 20:6 .) Back To Article