The curse laid on Ham by Noah in Genesis 9

  • Question 195, from Karahn, USA

    Why was Ham cursed in Genesis chapter 9, verse 25?

    Ham was one of Noah’s three sons who were saved alongside their father from the great flood, according to the account in Genesis chapters 6-9.

    After the flood subsides, Noah is said to have planted a vineyard, harvested the grapes and fermented wine. Drinking the alcohol causes him to fall asleep naked (chapter 9, verse 21), and Genesis chapter 9, verses 22-27, record what happens next:

    “Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father naked and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it across their shoulders; then they walked in backwards and covered their father’s naked body. Their faces were turned the other way so that they would not see their father naked.

    When Noah awoke from his wine and found out what his youngest son had done to him, he said,

    ‘Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.’

    He also said, ‘Praise be to the Lord, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem. May God extend Japheth’s territory; may Japheth live in the tents of Shem, and may Canaan be the slave of Japheth.’”

    Ham is cursed because he has failed to protect his father’s dignity and dishonoured him. Telling his brothers was indiscreet. Now all the sons know that Noah got so drunk he passed out naked. (There have been other suggestions inferred from the text, including suggestions of sexual impropriety, but there is no clear evidence for this.)

    Embarrassing or dishonouring your parents was a major cultural taboo at the time. For example, in the Law of Moses the commandment to ‘honour your father and mother’ comes higher up the list than the other ‘social commandments’, including ‘do murder’ (see Exodus chapter 20). Cursing your parents was an offence punishable by death (Leviticus chapter 20, verse 9).

    Interpreting the curse laid on Ham by Noah depends on what you believe about the formation of the book of Genesis. It is written as a prophecy, but the way it is written suggests that the curse on Ham was used to justify the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites. The curse is specifically laid on Canaan, Ham’s descendent, who was yet to be born. The Canaanites were conquered by the Israelites, the descendants of Shem.

    If the early chapters of Genesis were written much later than the events described, and there is much evidence to back up that view, the curse on Ham may have been a story-telling device to justify and explain the brutal subjugation of the Canaanites later in the history of the Israelites.

    The curse of Ham has also been problematic in recent history, as it was used to justify racism towards black people. Some churches in South Africa in the Apartheid era taught that racial division was justified as black people were descendants of Ham and were therefore curses. The second leader of the Mormon church, Brigham Young, barred black men from the Mormon priesthood for the same reason, although this was lifted in the late 1970s. The reason for this is because some of Ham’s descendants are said to have settled in ‘Cush’, the Biblical name for Ethiopia in East Africa.

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