A preacher and dear friend in Africa contacted me, asking me to explain why Noah cursed Canaan (Genesis 9:18-27). Let’s consider the text…
“Noah began to be a farmer, and he planted a vineyard. Then he drank of the wine and was drunk and became uncovered in his tent” (Genesis 9:20-21).
This is the first record of drunkenness in the Bible. Marion Fox suggests, “It is possible that yeast would not ferment in the antediluvian atmosphere… The Pasteur point (the Pasteur effect or Pasteur reaction) at which cells turn from fermentation to respiration might be reached by yeast in the antediluvian atmosphere. If so, yeast would not ferment grape juice and Noah would not have known about alcoholic beverages” (Fox, A Study of The Biblical Flood, p. 68). Is this the explanation? Or, did Noah with full knowledge of what alcoholic wine could do, become drunk. Henry Morris was of this opinion writing, “Scripture does not hesitate to call attention to the failures of even the most saintly of even the most saintly of men. Noah, having stood strong against the attacks of evil men for hundreds of years… now let don his guard, as it were, when it seemed that all would be peace and victory from now on” (Morris, The Genesis Record, p. 233). It seems that some time has passed since the flood (cf. Genesis 7:7; 1 Peter 3:20); though, this does not settle the matter.
The Bible later warns about wine. “Wine is a mocker, strong drink is a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise” (Proverbs 20:1). “Do not look on the wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it swirls around smoothly; at last it bites like a serpent, and stings like a viper” (Proverbs 23:31-32).
“And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a garment laid it on their shoulders, and went backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness” (Genesis 9:22-23).
William W. Grasham comments, “The account does not record what Ham told his brothers or with what attitude he spoke of the incident. Was he inviting them to look at his father’s nakedness…? Was he ridiculing his father…” (Editor Eddie Cloer, Truth For Today Commentary, Genesis, p. 280). Ham seems to have gossiped (at the very least) instead of covering the nakedness, as the other two brothers. Love does not so behave (1 Corinthians 13:1-7).
So Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done to him. Then he said: cursed be Canaan…” (Genesis 9:24-ff).
Who is the younger son (youngest son, ESV)? (1) Some think this refers to Ham. However, Ham is always mentioned in the middle (Genesis 5:32; 7:13; 9:18; 10:1). It seems natural to list the sons according to birth order (e.g. 2 Samuel 3:2-5). Either Japheth (cf. NKJV) or Shem (cf. NASB, ESV) appears to be the oldest (Genesis 10:21). (2) The term “son” can be used in Bible a few different ways: (a) Son (Genesis 4:25); (b) Grandson or more remote descendant (Matthew 1:1); (c) Son-in-law (1 Samuel 24:16; 26:17); (d) Step-son, legal son (Luke 4:22); (e) Son by leverite law (Deuteronomy 25:5-6 cf. Matthew 22:24-26). Therefore, some think that this refers to Canaan. Canaan may have been Noah’s youngest grandson (cf. Genesis 10:6).
What did the younger son do? Speculation abounds. (1) Some think that this refers to Ham’s gossip and disrespectful behavior. (2) Some think that Ham conceived Canaan through incest. The incestuous relations with one’s father’s wife is referred to as uncovering the father’s nakedness (Leviticus 20:11). The theory is that Ham was with his mother while Noah was drunk. However, the text says nothing like this. The nakedness in context is literal. Shem and Japheth cover Noah. (3) Some think Ham did something sexual to Noah. They think that to see Noah’s nakedness means to have sexual intercourse with him (cf. Leviticus 20:17-21). However, again let us point out that this does not seem to fit how the words are used in context (Genesis 9:22 cf. 9:23). (4) Some have suggested that Ham castrated Noah, and that Noah cursed Ham’s youngest offspring since he himself could now have no more offspring. The Bible does not even hint at such. (5) Some think that Canaan also gossiped about Noah, and mocked him, along with Ham. However, the text is silent on such. (6) Some think that Canaan did something to Noah while he was undressed. James Burton Coffman speculated, “When Ham talked about his father’s condition to Shem and Japheth, the conclusion must be allowed that Canaan, Ham’s son, in that gossip learned about Noah’s shameful condition, and then acting independently of his father, he went to Noah and dishonored his grandfather. We are not told exactly what he did, but it was certainly more than ‘looking on’ Noah’s uncovered state, otherwise Noah could not possibly have known it upon recovering from his drunkenness. That action of Canaan was the second offense against Noah. As man able scholars have pointed out that offense was almost certainly some form of sexual sin” (Coffman, Genesis, p.141). This last explanation makes sense to me, and provides a possible answer as to why the curse was upon Canaan. However, the text does not fill in the details. It is best not to teach theories as facts.
However, let us not miss a clear point. Instead of gossiping, we should show respect and help for one another. Matthew Henry commented, “The pious care of Shem and Japheth to cover their poor father’s shame, v. 23. They not only would not see it themselves, but provided that no one else might see it, herein setting us an example of charity with other men’s sin and shame… There is a mantle of love to be thrown over the faults of all… There is a robe of reverence to be thrown over the faults of parents and other superiors” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, Vol. 1, pg. 60).