reality is not optional

was Canaan the child of Ham and Noah’s wife

The Story in Genesis

Gen 9:20 And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard:
Gen 9:21 And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent.
Gen 9:22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without.
Gen 9:23 And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness.
Gen 9:24 And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him.
Gen 9:25 And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.
Gen 9:26 And he said, Blessed be the LORD God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.

This is a very interesting text. It brings to mind many questions. Why would Noah curse a child for the sins of his father; doesn’t the Bible condemn this (Ezekiel 18:20)? Why does Noah not curse Ham? Why is seeing your father naked a sin, after all, can a father not bathe in the same bath as his child? Why is Noah mad at this? What exactly did Ham “do to” Noah?

Before addressing the meaning of the text, it is important to understand how the Bible was written, to whom the Bible was written, and how to know the meaning of stories in the Bible.

Cultural Idioms

Throughout the Bible, Jewish cultural idioms are used. American authors do this all the time. They speak of “hitting the road”, someone “stabbing” someone in the back, or doing something “against the clock”. It would be a tragic injustice for future readers not to understand cultural idioms and, instead, interpret the words literally. Take a few Biblical examples:

Job 1:21 And said, Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.

This is a very curious passage. Taken literally, the events described would horrify any normal person. The text, however, seems to gloss over (“glossing over” is another American idiom) this statement. This statement makes very little sense unless it is realized that “lowest parts of the earth” and “womb” were idiomatically identical in Jewish culture. See King David’s Psalm on the formation of unborn children:

Psa 139:13 For thou hast possessed my reins: thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb.
Psa 139:14 I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well.
Psa 139:15 My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.

It is clear, from the wording of verse 13 and verse 15 that womb and lowest parts of the earth are used interchangeably.

Anachronisms

Because the Bible was written to actual human beings by actual human beings to convey actual ideas, sometimes words and concepts are used anachronistically. If someone is talking about the foundation of the city of Rome, they may say that “Romulus and Remus arrived at Rome around 750 BC”. Although the city was not yet founded, it is normal to give listeners an adequate understanding of events by anachronistically using words and concepts. The Bible does this several times:

Gen 21:14 And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and took bread, and a bottle of water, and gave it unto Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, and the child, and sent her away: and she departed, and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba.

Gen 21:31 Wherefore he called that place Beersheba; because there they sware both of them.
Gen 21:32 Thus they made a covenant at Beersheba: then Abimelech rose up, and Phichol the chief captain of his host, and they returned into the land of the Philistines.

Before Beersheba is even named, Abraham is said to be wandering in the wilderness of Beersheba. Likewise, take an example from the New Testament. In Luke the story develops John the Baptist far into his ministry before it introduces the birth of Christ:

Luk 1:80 And the child [John the Baptist] grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his shewing unto Israel.
[very next verse is Luk 2:1]
Luk 2:1 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.

Luk 2:5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

Someone wishing to critique the Bible might object that this was introduced anachronistically. But because human beings converse, write, and explain concepts anachronistically, these critiques should be ignored. Anachronistic use of words are normal in conversation, especially if they are used to convey meaningful concepts.

Euphemisms

The Bible loves using euphemisms (note that the “Bible loves” is another American idiom). This is especially true when talking about shameful body anatomy and shameful actions of which Paul describes as shameful “even to speak of those things which are done of them in secret.” (Eph 5:12). The Bible is replete with examples of this:

Gen 4:1 And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the LORD.

Did Adam “know” his wife? Did Adam not meet his wife until she had a baby? Or is this a euphemism for sexual relations as used also in Mat 1:25.

Mat 1:18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.

What does “came together” mean? Does it mean that he had never seen or talked to Mary before this event? Or is this a euphemism for sexual relations?

Deu 25:11 When men strive together one with another, and the wife of the one draweth near for to deliver her husband out of the hand of him that smiteth him, and putteth forth her hand, and taketh him by the secrets:

Take him by his “secrets”? This is definitely a euphemism for male anatomy.

Paul uses euphemisms when talking about death:

1Co 15:6 After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep.

Also,

1Co 15:18 Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished.

Peter uses the same euphemism while quoting a hypothetical scoffer:

2Pe 3:4 And saying, Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation.

Pretend a Biblical literalist would come along claiming each word was not to be taken figuratively. Each time a Biblical scholar would claim “falling asleep” meant death, the literalist would claim it meant “to take a nap”. How would one prove to this person that “falling asleep” meant death?

Hopefully, the literalist could be explained the concept that human beings communicate in idioms. Idioms communicate very effectively and efficiently to intended audiences. Where consistent phrases are used that make very little sense by the same author of another culture, the chance is that an idiom is at play. If an author explains an idiom, texts by that author which use the same words have a high probability of being an idiom.

Back to the Story

With these concepts in mind, Genesis 9 takes on a whole new meaning:

Gen 9:20 And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard:
Gen 9:21 And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent.
Gen 9:22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without.
Gen 9:23 And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness.
Gen 9:24 And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him.
Gen 9:25 And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.
Gen 9:26 And he said, Blessed be the LORD God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.

It is curious that Ham is linked with Canaan in verse 21 and then Canaan is cursed in verse 25. Ham, after all, had multiple children (4 boys at least of which Canaan was presumably the youngest). Literalists might claim that Canaan was the most wicked child, but this is nowhere in this text. The literalist is violating his own rules of interpretation to explain Canaan’s curse. The Bible NEVER informs the reader about the individual named Canaan except the place of his decedent’s residence and his lineage.

Canaan’s curse would make sense if it was a curse to a nation. After all, like Esau being Jacob’s servant, nowhere does the Bible explain that the man Canaan was actually a servant to his brothers. God tells us that he sees children as nations (this would be true while nations are first forming):

Gen 25:23 And the LORD said unto her, Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger.

Esau never served Jacob, but, today, Jacob’s decedents, living in a small country, out-gun and out-prosper the entire vast swaths of decedents of Esau. The Israelites are the ones screening day-laborers coming into their territory, not vice versa. Esau, as an individual, was mightier than Jacob, so much so that when Jacob went to meet Esau he lined up his household in reverse order of importance in case Esau would kill them all (Gen 33). The curse was national. God does not curse babies.

If God was cursing an individual it violates all rules of fairness and goodness of God. One does not punish a child for the actions of his father (Ezekiel 18:20) (Deuteronomy 24:16). God rewards individuals who turn to him (Jer 26:3 and Gen 18:23).

So why was the nation of Canaan cursed? Moses, the same author of Genesis, lets future readers in on the Hebrew idiom:

Lev 20:11 And the man that lieth with his father’s wife hath uncovered his father’s nakedness: both of them shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.

This idiom explains several other passages in the Bible as well. Without this explanation the verses may be hard to understand.

1Sa 20:30 Then Saul’s anger was kindled against Jonathan, and he said unto him, Thou son of the perverse rebellious woman, do not I know that thou hast chosen the son of Jesse to thine own confusion, and unto the confusion of thy mother’s nakedness?

Eze 16:36 Thus saith the Lord GOD; Because thy filthiness was poured out, and thy nakedness discovered through thy whoredoms with thy lovers, and with all the idols of thy abominations, and by the blood of thy children, which thou didst give unto them;

Hab 2:15 Woe unto him that giveth his neighbour drink, that puttest thy bottle to him, and makest him drunken also, that thou mayest look on their nakedness!

Discovering nakedness is a euphemism for sexual relations. This makes Gen 9 all the more clear.

Gen 9:20 Noah begins making wine
Gen 9:21 Noah gets drunk
Gen 9:22 Ham (father of Canaan is highlighted) seeing that his father is incapacitated makes advances on his mother. After all, sex is pleasurable, men tend to desire multiple partners, not many women are available after a global flood, and his mother is probably still attractive due to pre-flood aging conditions. He gloats of his conquest to his brothers.
Gen 9:23 The brothers try damage control. They cover up their mother (is she drunk also?). The Bible tends to omit relevant facts about woman in Genesis (what was her name?).
Gen 9:24 Noah comes back into consciousness and figures out that his wife is pregnant (after some time).
Gen 9:25-26 He curses the new nation that will be formed from this union.

The verse 22 highlighting of Ham as Canaan’s father makes sense if the Jewish reader understood the incestuous origin of Canaan. This would also be an anachronistic clarification that would be very helpful to the reader in this circumstance. Otherwise, it makes very little sense. Why Canaan over his brothers?
The lapse in time in verse 24 can be explained as would a normal storyteller would use lapses in time. In Mat 3:13, Jesus appears, out of nowhere and fully grown. The last time Mathew had talked about him, Jesus was just a child. Nowhere is there a development transition. It is normal to skip large segments of time in telling stories.

The literalist story is different:

Gen 9:20 Noah begins making wine
Gen 9:21 Noah gets drunk
Gen 9:22 Ham walks into Noah’s tent and sees him naked. Ham then has perverted thoughts or has some sort of debased enjoyment (Literalists claim this with no textual evidence).
Gen 9:23 The brothers walk into the tent backwards and cover up their naked father.
Gen 9:24 Noah comes back into consciousness and figures out that Ham saw him naked (how? The text does not tell, so the literalist must think this happened by magic).
Gen 9:25-26 He curses a baby/child/young boy for the sin of the father presumably because the son was wicked (though the text never indicates this).

Note the time lapse between verses 24 and 25 in this version as well. Did Noah wake up, realize what had happened and then proclaim a curse all without talking to the brothers or even leaving the tent? Some sort of time lapse is indicated in the sentence. Storytellers use time lapses for convenience.

In short, those who claim that Ham merely saw his father naked have no explanation for Canaan’s curse and end up claiming that God curses children for the sins of their fathers. They also end up believing that multi-generational curses can be levied for mere sight of something that naturally occurs in human beings (nakedness). They also violate their own interpretation rules with candor. The facts point to Canaan being the result of an incestuous relationship between Noah’s wife and Ham.