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Why did Noah curse Canaan for a sin committed by Canaan’s father Ham?

The question seems to make reference to an event described in Genesis 9. In verses 18-27, we read:

 (18) Now the sons of Noah who went out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. And Ham was the father of Canaan.

(19) These three were the sons of Noah, and from these the whole earth was populated.

(20) And Noah began to be a farmer, and he planted a vineyard.

(21) Then he drank of the wine and was drunk, and became uncovered in his tent.

(22) And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside.

(23) But Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both 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.

(24) So Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done to him.

(25) Then he said: “Cursed be Canaan; A servant of servants He shall be to his brethren.”

(26) And he said: “Blessed be the Lord, The God of Shem, And may Canaan be his servant.

(27) May God enlarge Japheth, And may he dwell in the tents of Shem; And may Canaan be his servant.”

A superficial reading of this passage might indeed lead to the conclusion that Noah cursed Canaan for his father Ham’s conduct. Indeed, many commentaries state this, with somewhat incredibly ridiculous arguments.

One explanation is that God foresaw Canaan’s or the Canaanites’ wicked conduct in the future, and He therefore cursed Canaan already in advance, even though Canaan had not acted wickedly towards Noah. It should be obvious that this explanation could not possibly be true. God is not condemning us for something which we have not even done yet.

Another concept is that the children have to pay for the sins of their fathers; that God will visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation (compare Exodus 20:5; 34:6-7; Deuteronomy 5:8-10; Numbers 14:18).

However, Exodus 20:5 speaks of those “who hate [God].” Soncino points out that the phrase, “of those that hate Me,” applies to the children, i.e. God will punish the children if they [the children] hate Him. Soncino comments, too, that the punishment will be brought upon the children, “when they retain the evil deeds of their fathers.” It is true, of course, that false conduct of parents can have a detrimental influence on their children who may emulate their example and repeat such bad conduct.

Still, Deuteronomy 24:16 states that children are not to be put to death for the sins of their fathers (but only for their own sins). The same is expressed in 2 Kings 14:6 and 2 Chronicles 25:4. Also, Ezekiel 18:4, 17, 19-20 tells us, “(4) Behold, all souls are Mine; The soul of the father As well as the soul of the son are Mine; The soul who sins shall die… (17) [The righteous son] shall not die for the iniquity of his father; He shall surely live… (19) Yet you say, ‘Why should the son not bear the guilt of his father?’ Because the son has done what is lawful and right, and has kept all My statutes and observed them, he shall surely live. (20) The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son.’” (Compare, too, Exodus 32:31-33, as well as Jeremiah 31:29-30).

Passages such as Matthew 23:29-36; Luke 11:44-51; or Acts 7:51-52 do not teach something different. Even though all these passages speak about the sins of the fathers or previous generations, it is also emphasized that the sons or descendants committed the same sins themselves, following their forefathers’ bad example. The sins of the fathers were not imputed to the sons; rather, we read: “… as your fathers did, so do you” (Acts 7:51). At first glance, it might appear that the terrible sins of the fathers might be “imputed” to their descendants who were alive at Jesus’ time, because Jesus said: “… you are witnesses against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets” (Matthew 23:31). But the very next verse negates this, because Jesus goes on to say: “FILL UP, then, the measure of your fathers’ guilt.” And even though He says in Luke 11:50-51 that the blood of the prophets “shall be required of this generation,” He condemns that very generation for their terrible deeds and actions, showing that they were sinful themselves, having followed the unrighteous deeds of their ancestors.

The opposite does not follow from Lamentations 5:7, which reads: “Our fathers sinned and are no more, But we bear their iniquities.” The entire book of Lamentations shows the recognition of personal sin (Lamentations 1:5, 18; 3:39-42). So, people bear the iniquity of their fathers because they have engaged in the same kind of conduct and thinking… not because the sins of their fathers were “imputed” to them.

This means, then, that Canaan could not have been cursed by God for the sin of his father Ham. Before we analyze what really happened causing Noah to curse Canaan, let us consider another, somewhat related concept—that of original or inherited sin. This concept was developed by Augustine, based on a wrong translation of the Greek text in Romans 5. The Broadman Bible Commentary points out, in Vol. 10, on page 195: “Augustine, who knew very little Greek, followed the Latin translation… and, on the basis of this mistranslation, developed his doctrine of original sin, understood as inherited guilt, and the result was a lurid picture of unbaptized infants in limbo. It is significant that even Roman Catholic scholars, plagued most by this disaster, are now saying bluntly the doctrine is not in Scripture.”

Simply put, the concept of the original sin holds that we all “inherited” guilt from Adam and Eve who “originally” sinned. According to that concept, we inherited eternal death–which is the penalty for sin (compare Romans 6:23)–even though we ourselves did nothing to deserve this penalty. In other words, Adam and Eve’s original sin was somehow arbitrarily transmitted to all. The argument would be that Canaan inherited “original sin,” leading to death, and God’s additional curse only emphasized and reiterated that “fact” that Canaan was guilty of sin and subject to punishment anyhow.

This concept is blatantly wrong and unbiblical.

Romans 5 does not teach the concept of inherited sin and inherited punishment. Romans 5:12 reads, in its entirety: “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death [the penalty for sin] spread to all men, BECAUSE ALL SINNED…” In addition, Romans 3:23 tells us that “ALL have sinned [not just Adam] and fall short of the glory of God.”

For more information on the topic of original sin, please read our Q&As, “Would you please explain the concept of ‘original sin’ in light of Romans 5:12,19?” and, “Are Babies Guilty Because of ‘Original Sin’?”

Original sin, then, could not have been the reason why Noah cursed Canaan. Why then DID Noah curse Canaan?

First, it would be strange if Noah only cursed Canaan for a sin committed by Ham, while not cursing Ham, the perpetrator. Obviously, something is wrong with this concept.

The context of the passage shows, of course, that more was involved than the mere “nakedness” of Noah. Apparently, somebody had violated Noah, while he was drunk. But who did? We read that Noah awoke and knew what “his younger son” had done to him. This is not a reference to Noah’s son Ham, but to Ham’s son Canaan. A correct rendering of Genesis 9:24 states: “And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his YOUNGEST son had done unto him.” Compare, for example, the New International Version; the Revised Standard Version; the Revised English Bible; the New American Bible; the New Jerusalem Bible; the Moffat translation; the Amplified Bible; the Tanakh—the Holy Scriptures; the Luther Bible; the Elberfelder Bible; the Menge Bible; the Schlachter Bible; and the Zuercher Bible.

But Ham was not Noah’s youngest son—Japheth was—while Canaan was the youngest son of Ham (Genesis 10:6). So it was Ham’s youngest son, Canaan, who committed the sin towards Noah. The narrative in Genesis 9 concentrates on Ham and Ham’s son Canaan (verses 18, 22), and Noah cursed Canaan when he learned what he, as Ham’s youngest son, had done to him. Verse 24 does not speak of Noah’s youngest son, but Ham’s youngest son, when it says, “ Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his [that is, Ham’s] youngest son had done to him” (RSV).

Soncino gives several “interpretations” on page 47, one of which is that “Ham saw the indignity which his son Canaan inflicted upon” Noah; and that Canaan either “castrated” Noah or that he “indulged a perverted lust upon him.” Further, that Ham saw on his uncovered father the terrible signs of Canaan’s evil deed or perverted lust, and Shem and Japheth covered Noah with a garment.

Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible states:

“Ham had at this time four sons, and Canaan was the youngest of them; and he was grown up to an age sufficient to be concerned in this matter, of treating his grandfather in an ill way, so as to bring his curse upon him.”

Matthew Poole’s Commentary states:

“… it doth not appear that [Ham] was the youngest, for wheresoever these three brethren are mentioned he is always put in the middle place, and because that addition (in verse 18, “And Ham was the father of Canaan”) seems to be unnecessary and impertinent to the present business, which if Canaan be intended, is proper and pertinent, by way of distinction, to show that [Noah] spake of his grandson, or his son’s son.”

Ellicott’s Commentary gives an additional explanation as to why Canaan, and not Ham, was the violator of Noah:

“This can only mean [Ham’s] youngest son. So it is applied to Benjamin in Genesis 42:34; Genesis 43:29, and to David in 1 Samuel 16:11, where the words literally are, there re-maineth yet the little one. Now Ham was not the youngest son, but Japheth; and it is not Ham who is cursed, but Canaan… As the son, the little one, was not Ham, so certainly it was not Japheth, but probably it was Canaan. He was the youngest son of Ham, and in Hebrew ‘son’ is occasionally used for grandson (Genesis 29:5; Genesis 31:55), and so he might be described as Noah’s youngest son, being the youngest member of his family.

“… the meaning seems to be, ‘Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what (Canaan) his youngest son (or grandson) had done unto him; and it was a deed so shameless that he said, ‘Cursed be Canaan.’”

So it was Canaan, not Ham, who perpetrated that sinful act. The reference to “his youngest son” applies to Ham’s youngest son Canaan, not to Ham who was not Noah’s youngest son.

When reading seemingly difficult passages, it is important to study the passage in context and in light of other Scriptures. It is not that uncommon throughout the biblical narrative, that subjects, objects or pronouns might be referring to another person other than what might be suspected at the first reading of a particular passage.

An additional example is Exodus 4:24-26, which refers to Moses, his wife and his son, and which reads:

“And it came to pass on the way [to Egypt], at the encampment, that the LORD met him and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a sharp stone and cut off the foreskin of her son and cast it at Moses’ [literally: his] feet, and said, ‘Surely you are a husband of blood to me!’ So He let him go. Then she said, ‘You are a husband of blood!’–because of the circumcision.”

Who was the person whom God met and sought to kill, and whom God then let go? Some say that God was determined to kill Moses. But this incident occurred after God had prophesied to Moses how Pharaoh would react to his demand to let the people of Israel go (verses 21-23). It would therefore make little sense to assume that God had changed his mind a few hours later to kill Moses. The context of the passage in Exodus 4:24-26 shows that God did not intend to kill Moses [whom He was sending to Egypt to free the Israelites], but one of Moses’ two sons, who had not been circumcised. At the time of Moses, there was in effect a temporary law that God had given to Abraham, to circumcise every male child (Genesis 17:9-13). God specifically stated that “the uncircumcised male child, who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people” (verse 14).

It is apparent that Moses and Zipporah had neglected to circumcise one of their sons, even though both knew better. God, true to His Word, was about to “cut off” or kill the uncircumcised son, due to Moses’ and Zipporah’s disobedience. Zipporah might have influenced Moses not to circumcise their son; so she immediately acted in obedience to God’s command, whereupon God ceased from attempting to kill the son. The point is, we read in Exodus 4:24 that “the LORD met him and sought to kill him,” and it says in verse 26 that “He let him go,” but the reference is not to Moses, but to Moses’ firstborn son, as in the previous verses (verses 22-23) the “firstborn son” was the subject matter.

Compare our Q&A, “Why did God want to slay Moses after He had commanded him to free Israel from Egypt?”

For another example, let’s consider Exodus 34:27-28 (Authorized Version):

“And the LORD said unto Moses, Write thou these words: for after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with thee and with Israel. And he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.”

The question is, Who wrote the words of the covenant on the tablets of stone? A superficial reading might suggest that it was Moses. But a study of other Scriptures reveals that it was God, not Moses.

After Moses had destroyed the first tablets of stone with the Ten Commandments, because of his anger over the sin of the Israelites who had built a golden calf, God had Moses cut two new tablets of stone (Exodus 34:1). But God also said, in the same verse: “… I will write on these tablets the words that were on the first tablets which you broke.” The fact that it was God–not Moses–who wrote the Ten Commandments a second time on the tablets of stone, is confirmed in Deuteronomy 10:4: “And He wrote on the tablets according to the first writing, the Ten Commandments, which the LORD had spoken to you.. and the LORD gave them to me.” Moses did not write the Ten Commandments on the tablets of stone–God did that.

Again, when we read in Exodus 34:28 that “he” wrote the Ten Commandments on the tablets of stone, the reference is to God, not Moses, even though it was just said in the same verse that “he”—Moses—did not eat bread or drink water for forty days and forty nights.

Another example in this context can be seen in David’s decision to number his army. The Bible includes two accounts of this episode. One account has been recorded in 2 Samuel 24. We read in verse 1, in the Authorized Version: “And again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them to say, `Go, number Israel and Judah.’”

In the parallel account in 1 Chronicles 21:1, we are told that “Satan stood up against Israel, and moved [or provoked] David to number Israel.”

Since the Bible does not contradict itself, we must read both passages together, to harmonize the accounts. Therefore, it was actually Satan who directly influenced David to number his army, but God allowed it, as He was angry with Israel. In addition, God would not have provoked or moved David to sin, as God does not tempt anyone (James 1:13). So, the passage in 2 Samuel 24:1, in reading it together with 1 Chronicles 21:1, can also be read and understood in this way: “… the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he [that is, Satan] moved David against them…”

Another misunderstood Scripture is Revelation 20:10, which reads in the Authorized Version:

“And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.”

A superficial reading, especially in many of the modern translations, might indeed lead us to conclude the existence of a never-ending torture of the beast (a military leader) and the false prophet (a religious leader) in hell. However, analyzing the Scripture carefully, a different conclusion is warranted.

Please note that the subject of the sentence is the devil. It is he who will be tormented in the lake of fire. In regard to the beast and the false prophet, note that the word, “are” is in italics, in the AV. This means that there is no verb in the Greek language, so that the translators had to ADD a verb—they ADDED the English word “are,” based on how they understood the meaning of the sentence. However, the addition of the word “are” is clearly WRONG in this context.

We read, in Revelation 19:20, that the beast and the false prophet were cast—about 1,000 years earlier, when the Millennium was about to begin—into the lake of fire, to be burned up and destroyed. Since there needs to be an addition of a word or phrase in Revelation 20:10 (“where the beast and the false prophet…”), the words to be added should be, “were cast,” so that the sentence reads: “And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet WERE CAST [namely, 1,000 years earlier, as reported in Revelation 19:20]…”

Most translations continue this sentence by saying: “…and THEY shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.” From this rendition, commentators argue that not only the devil, but also the beast and the false prophet will be tormented for all eternity; otherwise, the sentence would have to continue to read: “…and HE (that is, the devil) shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.”

Not all agree. As we saw, the Authorized Version OMITS the word, “they,” and renders the continuation of the sentence: “… and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever,” indicating that the subject is the devil, and not the beast and the false prophet.

Some insist, however, that the clause “THEY shall be tormented” is correct. If so, then we must ask the question as to whom this passage refers.

When we understand for WHOM the lake of fire was prepared, the answer would be obvious. We read in Matthew 25:41 that the lake of fire was “prepared for the devil and his angels.”

 Therefore, it will be the devil and his demons who will be tormented in the lake of fire, for as long as that lake exists. Since spirit beings cannot die (compare Luke 20:36), they will be tormented—in a spiritual way—while being confined to the lake of fire, when they come to the realization that they are unable to deceive man anymore, and when they see all their “works” and evil “accomplishments” replaced by the good and prosperous ways of God. (For more information, please read chapter 23 of our booklet, Is That in the Bible? The Mysteries of the Book of Revelation!” )

We see then that, from the context and in reviewing other Scriptures adding to Revelation 20:10, the devil was cast into the lake of fire (where, as a forerunner of the ultimate lake of fire, the beast and the false prophet had been cast 1,000 years earlier), and they—the devil and his demons—will be tormented forever and ever, showing thereby, that also the demons will be cast into the lake of fire, since the lake of fire had been prepared for the devil and his fallen angels.

In conclusion, it is important to read “difficult” Scriptures in context and in conjunction with the rest of the Bible. A correct understanding reveals that Noah did not curse Canaan for an evil deed perpetrated by Noah’s son Ham, but for an evil deed committed by Ham’s youngest son, Canaan. Also, God did not try to kill Moses, but Moses’ son, who was not circumcised. It was not Moses, but God, who wrote the Ten Commandments twice on two tablets of stone. It was not God, but Satan, who moved or tempted David to sin; and it will be the devil and his angels who will be cast into the lake of fire to be tormented there for a long time.

Lead Writer: Norbert Link