The last part of Genesis nine is something of a puzzle. As you may recall, Noah got drunk, and uncovered himself in his tent. Ham reported it to his Shem and Japheth, who responded by covering up their father. They did so in a way that they would not see their father’s shame.
But, when Noah wakes up, he curses Canaan, Ham’s fourth son, rather than cursing Ham himself. This doesn’t seem right; it requires more thought, perhaps, to discern the meaning.
What do we know?
- Noah got drunk and exposed himself in his tent.
- Ham saw Noah in this state, and told his brothers Shem and Japheth.
- Shem and Japheth reacted honorably and covered their father. They did so in a way such that they would not see Noah’s nakedness.
- Upon waking, Noah figured out what had happened to himself.
- Noah curses Canaan. He prophetically makes Canaan a servant to both his own three brothers (Ham’s other sons), and Noah’s other two sons (Shem and Japheth.)
It’s not right that Noah would curse Canaan for his dad’s sin. Noah is a godly man, and so would not do such a thing. So, it seems plausibe that something else happened, and Canaan was responsible, not (so much) Ham. This is conjecture at this point, so let’s see if it fits with anything else in the text or the rest of the Bible.
First, Ham is referred to by name three times in this passage: in Genesis 9:18 twice, and again in Genesis 9:22. In both verses he is referred to as “the father of Canaan”. That’s very odd, especially since we’re talking about a deed that was done. I’ll get back to this.
Next, it’s important to note that the “uncovering” is the Hebrew word galah. This is a word used of uncovering someone in a disgraceful sense. It frequently includes some kind of sexual embarrassment or action.
So, whoever uncovered Noah did something unacceptable, perhaps some kind of sexual violation. This explains the severe nature of the curse that Noah levels on Canaan. But, it also makes it even more implausible that it was Ham who did the deed. Noah curses Canaan and his descendants, not just Canaan. So, if Noah intended to curse Ham’s descendants, he would have cursed Ham, not just Canaan.
Now let’s get back to Ham’s naming as “the father of Canaan” earlier. Note that Noah’s curse comes after discovering what “his youngest son” had done to him. But, the word son in this passage (and most others) can also mean grandson or other direct descendants.
Now we’re getting somewhere. If we take the meaning to be Noah’s youngest grandson, now it makes sense. Canaan was Ham’s youngest son, making it possible that Canaan is also Noah’s youngest grandson.
So, putting it all together, it seems likely that whatever the deed was, it was Canaan who did it. And he told his father Ham, who then relayed it to Canaan’s uncles. They in turn cover Noah, so no further shame can come of it.
Canaan became the father of the Canaanites. The Canaanites were a group of despicable peoples. They practiced all sorts of wickedness. So much so that God eventually tells the children of Israel to wipe them out without mercy.
Now, if a large group of people who all share a common ancestor all go bad, it seems likely that that very ancestor began the slide into sin. This would explain why Ham found out about what Canaan seems to have done: Canaan probably joked about it to Ham!
Ham, not knowing what to do, might easily go to his brothers and ask their advice. They in turn could have figured out the method of covering their father without further exposing his shame.
Could it be? I think so, but remember that most of this is conjecture, not fact. It fits with the passage and with the rest of our authority, the Bible. But, it’s not for certain fact. I’ve seen a few other explanations, including some very unbiblical ones. But, this one seems to fit the facts better than any other explanation. So, I’m sticking with it.