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A strange passage in the beginning of Genesis contains the account of Noah who, after surviving the flood, planted a vineyard and made wine. After he drank the wine and became drunk one of his sons (Ham) sees him naked, tells his two brothers about it and they cover Noah up. After Noah wakes up he figures out what has gone on while he is asleep and curses Ham and his descendants.

Here is the passage: Genesis 9:20-27 (KJV)

20 And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard: 21 And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent. 22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without. 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. 24 And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him. 25 And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren. 26 And he said, Blessed be the LORD God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. 27 God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.

What is meaning/significance of this passage? I have heard that it was used to justify slavery in the 17th and 18th century. I suspect that the Israelites used it to justify their invasion of Canaan in ancient times.

Is there not a better, more spiritual or redemptive interpretation on this passage?

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5 Answers

First of all, Noah did not curse Ham, but his son, Canaan. Ham is the father of the African People, but Canaan was the father of the Canaanites who lived in Palestine.

Why did God curse Canaan?

Most probable explanation is that Noah forsaw the sinfulness which will spread thorugh him to Canaanites. Canaanites are the ones who did not seek peace treaty with Israel, and Canaanites were the ones of sinners.

Noah did not curse Canaan, but instead in my opinion he made a prophecy about things that will come through Ham's sinful nature.

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Can you provide some references please? –  John Aug 26 '11 at 2:14
    
How do you get from "Cursed be Canaan" to "in my opinion he didn't curse him"? –  Caleb Aug 26 '11 at 9:17
    
@ Caleb Clearly that's a curse, but am inclined to think that Noah's anger was because Ham did not cover him up. Perhaps it was a taboo as Jrista tries to put it. But that aside, 'Saw' and 'looked', 'heard' and 'listened' the first actions of each pair is involuntary whiles the latter is of purpose. Ham did no wrong seeing but did wrong not covering his father's nakedness. –  Nok Apr 5 '12 at 21:45
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The Bible does not utterly explain this. Some suggest theories that Ham did something evil during Noah's sleep and that was the reason for the curse, but it's all speculation. I'd rather think that the Bible would tell us if there was a good reason.

The way I see it, Noah was drunk and naked, i.e. in quite an inappropriate state -- of his own fault. When he awoke with a hangover, he was quite cranky and didn't want to take responsibility for his own actions, so he blamed Ham and cursed his grandson. This just goes to show that we people aren't always very righteous. (I personally can somehow relate to what Noah probably felt like.)

The fact that this passage has been used to promote abuse of other people, goes to show again the sinful, unrighteous ways of man.

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I certainly think the clarify of the passage is a bit lacking.

As I understand verse 22, Ham "saw" the nakedness of his father...perhaps not just as in accidentally, but more of a deeper "examination" of his fathers nakedness? There is no mention of what Ham's thinking was...perverse or spiteful...disrespectful...but I think the difference between Ham's attitude and his brothers attitude in relation to their father's state is clearer given the rest of verse 22, and verse 23: Ham told his brothers...jokingly, mockingly, making fun of his father?...and his brothers in turn respectfully covered their father without looking at him at all.

There is probably some facet of culture not included in biblical text here, but it does seem clear the difference between Ham's "seeing" and his brothers "backing in, faces turned away, and covering their father" that gave Noah reason to curse Ham's offspring, and bless Japheth and Shem. While it may not usually end up with a curse, I believe the same kind of behavior from a mans son's today would result in some kind of punishment for a son that showed a lack of respect to a father, regardless of whether that father's own choices resulted in a disappointing state. Children respecting their fathers is a fundamental teaching of the bible.

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Noah was in his own private tent after a hard earned celebration of rescuing all land bound life in the world, with wine he had grown, pressed, and fermented by his own hard efforts, and then his thoughtless son just storms into his private tent as his father slept off the celebrations of the evening, got an eyeful and proceeded to make a big deal about it to his far more respectful brothers, thus causing them to worry unnecessarily, and thus outraging his father who had thought better of his son that to disrespect him like that; that's what the passage says.

Where people get tripped up is

  1. Our modern culture's insensitivity of inappropriate and disrespectful behavior from our offspring, calling outright rebellion and lack of regard for elder-ship "maturity" and "exploration", when what our youth really need is guidance and discipline; and
  2. Judging Noah for drinking when drinking isn't a sin; being a drunkard is however, and just because you get drunk every once in a while, like right after you save the biological world doesn't mean you're a drunkard
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Welcome to C.SE! If you haven't already, read the about page. I'm not sure that I agree with you on everything, but the first point about our modern culture that you made was very interesting. For more on writing an answer, go here. –  Byzantine Oct 19 '13 at 14:09
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I personally feel there were several plausible reasons why Noah got drunk, aside from the reasons I think it's more important to attempt to examine the spiritual reasons for the story being told in the first place. I tend to believe that with drinking and substance usage being so prevalent in society that God knew it would be a pretty big issue for people someday.

I could be wrong but what I got out of it is that God wants us to know that, while we are instructed not to be drunkards and to be of a sound mind and sober. Maybe God knew that there would be problems that would cause some people to fall once in awhile. He doesn't want us to fall into sin and get drunk or high but he does want us to know it happens due to things like stress chronic pain emotional pain and many other triggers. if these things catch us off guard the message is even the people of God occasionally fall in this area so if it ever happens to one of us repent and move on.

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