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God’s command to exterminate the Canaanites (along with everything else that breathes) remains one of the more gruesome stories in the Bible (see Deuteronomy 20:16-20).

This story presents readers with a real—not imagined—moral and theological dilemma, but my point isn’t to get into all that here. [You can read more here and also in The Bible Tells Me Sowhere I take a whole chapter laying out the issues.]

Here I just want to say that this command wasn’t an afterthought. As the Israelites tell the story, the Canaanites were doomed from the start for something that happened nearly at the beginning of human history—Noah and the great Flood.

This flood killed every living creature; only Noah and his family were saved in a big boat, along with enough animals (1) to repopulate the earth later and (2) to sacrifice to appease God.

After the waters subsided and everyone de-arked, Noah planted the first vineyard, made wine, and got drunk. Like a state college freshman, he collapsed naked inside his tent in a drunken coma.

His youngest son, Ham, went into the tent, saw him his father lying there naked, and went out to tell his brothers, Shem and Japheth. Rather than gawking, the two brothers walked backwards into the tent and covered their father with a garment.

It’s hard to know exactly what’s going on here, but, apparently, the two brothers handled the situation correctly whereas Ham didn’t. So, when Noah woke up, he did what any normal father would do with when faced with the same dilemma—he cursed Ham’s descendants forever.

Three guesses who Ham’s descendants are (and the first two don’t count): the Canaanites.

It strikes me that the very first words out of Noah’s mouth after he woke up weren’t, “What a night! What was I thinking!? I’ll never do that again!”

Not even, “Ham! Get in here! How dare you look upon my nakedness?!”

Instead, he said,

“Cursed be Canaan; lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.”

Not, “Cursed be Ham,” or “Cursed be Ham and all his descendants,” but “Cursed be the line of one of Ham’s sons—Canaan.”

Ham has four sons, yet only Canaan and his entire bloodline are doomed—which seems a bit extreme, given the fact that he himself hadn’t done anything.

Plus, two of Noah’s other sons are Cush and Mizraim, the ancestors of the Egyptians who held the Israelites in slavery. So how about cursing their bloodlines?

But no. Only this one son of Ham has his descendants consigned to a perpetual subhuman legacy of enslavement to the descendants of his brothers—namely the descendants of Shem, from which come the Israelites.

It looks like whoever wrote this story has a bone to pick with the Canaanites.

If we read this in another ancient book, we’d call it propaganda—a story to justify, not explain, hatred of the Canaanites. At least that’s what it looks like.

Israel’s later sworn enemies, the Canaanites, are set up as failures from the beginning, and no treatment—not even extermination—is too harsh for these people whose ancestor’s father saw his father drunk and naked.

This isn’t going to end well for the Canaanites.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

50 Comments

  • Paul D. says:

    It’s interesting how the story was repurposed again in the modern era as propaganda for slavery. The Curse of Canaan became the “Curse of Ham” and proof that subjugation of the Hamite (African) races to whites was ordained by God.

    • Paul, there seems to be no end of ways that the Bible can be twisted into ‘convincing’ support for terrible things like slavery, patriarchy, and homophobia.

    • Tim Catchim says:

      Of you look in Genesis 14, the prophecy about Canaans descendants was full-filled in Abraham’s time. But you have to look at the names of the people groups and who they entered into servitude/covenant with.

  • Greg Smith says:

    Have you read Michael Heiser’s take on this issue? He suggests that the uncovering of Noah’s nakedness was not merely the exposure of his flesh. Instead, it is a euphemism for having sex with his wife, Mrs. Noah. The resulting child was Canaan. This was an attempt by Ham to take over rulership, as it were, after the flood. Somewhat akin to Absalom laying with his father’s concubines when he tried to take the kingdom from David.

    In addition, Heiser discusses the another reason for the killing of the Canaanites was their harboring the remaining giant clans which were the offspring of the sons of God.

    • Pete E. says:

      The first is possible but highly speculative. I’m not convinced by the second.

      • Tim Catchim says:

        It’s not any more speculative then your suggestion that the Genesis 9 passage is there rationale for the Deuteronomy passage. In fact, there is good etymological evidence for the idea that it refers to Ham having sex with Noah’s wife, and the offspring was Caanan. But that requires a deeper engagement with the text, and etymological research to see it. It’s a good example of how we can make assumptions on a “plain reading” of the text. Sometimes this amounts to confirmation of our bias.

        • Pete E. says:

          Maybe. The idiom in the Noah story is that he saw, not uncovered, his fathers nakedness, which would mean he had sex with his father. Also the brothers’ reaction seems to suggest that the nakedness be understood literally. Jon Levenson’s notesbin the JPS Bible are helpful here I think.

      • Dr. Donny says:

        Actually, there is good independent evidence supporting Heiser’s first idea in the tale of Sodom. A careful analysis shows it to be an echo narrative by J of his version of the flood narrative, which includes the Ham incident. Many parallel aspects occur in both stories. For instance, both Noah and Lot receive God’s favor; the angels shut the door to save Lot and God shuts the door on the ark. Note that Lot’s daughters both rape him similar to the proposed Ham raping his mother, with the associated negative (incestuous bastards) view of the origin of the enemy Canaanites, Ammonites, and Moabites. Ham’s incident occurs in a tent, while the Lot events occur in a cave. Since the Moabites and Ammonites were matrilineal, the daughters had to rape Lot so the tribal lines could originate accordingly.

        • Pete E. says:

          There is no question in my mind that the Lot and Noah stories image each other. That’s also a pretty common view.

          • Dr. Donny says:

            Without belaboring the point, it would appear that since the Sodom echo narrative clearly shows opposite sex parental rape, that would provide significant support for the same view of Ham raping his mother, especially since the etiological function of both sub-stories is the same. Cheers.

          • Pete E. says:

            But that’s point, isn’t it, the extent to which two episodes that clearly echo each other are required to be read as if all elements are shared, especially when sex between Ham and his mother is at best an interpretive possibility. But more important, this doesn’t address the point of my post, which is why Canaan is singled out. Is he the offspring of Ham and his mother. Maybe, but I wouldn’t bet the house on it. But if he were, that episode would be every bit as propagandistic as the stories of the birth of Ammon and Moab. I’m just not sure what all this solves.

        • Stuart Blessman says:

          This also seems to echo Adam in the garden…

      • Greg Smith says:

        Perhaps, but it would make the cursing of Canaan more understandable.

    • Mark Hustad says:

      I like Heiser’s take on most things Old Testament. It seems to make sense from a narrative standpoint. I especially like that he isn’t dogmatic about not using extra biblical sources to form a better understanding of what was possibly going on.

    • Mark Hustad says:

      I like Heiser’s take on most things Old Testament. It seems to make sense from a narrative standpoint. I especially like that he isn’t dogmatic about not using extra biblical sources to form a better understanding of what was possibly going on.

    • Skeptical Christian says:

      Wouldn’t the flood, if literal and worldwide, have destroyed all the giants?
      He could have just killed his father and attempted to assert rulership, couldn’t he?

    • Josh Hauck says:

      I’ve heard the theory that this is a euphemism before. But it doesn’t explain why the story carefully shows Shem and Japheth behaving as if the nakedness were literal.

    • Paul D. says:

      This is the theory of Bergsma and Hahn (Heiser doesn’t take credit for it, does he?) It relies almost entirely on a tenuous interpretation of “nakedness” in the context of Levitical laws on sleeping with one’s step-mother. But Ham’s mother does not figure at all in the story.

      I think there are other problems with it. I cannot see how Noah’s own drunkenness would lead to sex between his son and his wife, or how Noah would immediately know about the deed upon waking and have to be covered by a blanket.

      The Jewish Sibylline Oracles equated Noah’s sons with Kronos, Titan and Iapetus, and a connection with the castration of Uranos by Kronos in Greek myth seems plausible. (Not exactly conducive to making usable theology out of, however.)

      • No, Heiser doesn’t take credit for it. But even though Mrs. Noah isn’t mentioned, the “nakedness of the father” is spoken as being the naked mother in Leviticus 18.7. Noah gets drunk, Ham tries to seize the opportunity of taking over in the new world (like Absalom going into David’s concubines, 2 Sam 16.22; Adonijah wanting Abishag, 1 Kgs 2.17).

        There is the issue of how Noah knew this when he woke up. But perhaps (and, just perhaps) time is compressed. Eve bore Canin and Abel in two verses (Gen 4.1-2), but nobody takes them as being twins. She bears Seth in v.25 and Seth bears a son in v.26. Time is compressed. It may be that Noah knows what happened after he woke up (Mrs. Noah told him), and time is compressed so that he curses Canaan once they find out she is pregnant. Or he curses the child and then the name Canaan is placed in there once he’s born.

        It can’t be any worse than saying it’s propaganda as a way to excuse the killing.

        • Pete E. says:

          I continue to see problems with this midrashic line of interpretation, Spencer. Leviticus 18:7 speaks of uncovering the nakedness of the man (and some other people), which would be relevant if this were the idiom in Gen 9:22. But Ham, however, does not uncover but SEES his father’s nakedness, which would mean that Ham had sex with Noah (see Lev 20:17). Plus, v. 22 along with 23 seem to be taken literally, and not as a metaphor for sex. I do agree that condemning Canaan for what is at best a disrespectful act is a bit over the top, but I think that is exactly the point.

          • Thanks for your response, Dr. Enns. Lev 20.7 is a good counter argument. I still don’t see the justification (“proof” might be a better way to put it) for saying this is just propaganda against the Canaanites, but perhaps I should read your book. I’ve been wanting to read it for a while.

          • Pete E. says:

            My book might not help that much, but I would say that there is anti-Babylonian propaganda too (Chaps. 1 and 11) as weel as anti-Moabite, Ammonite, and Edomite. Genesis draws out Israel’s monarchic political map and they get their digs in on all concerned parties.

          • How then should I read Genesis (asking seriously, not trying to be sarcastic)? When do I know when something is propaganda or not?

          • Pete E. says:

            I think that’s a very valid question and important one. The bigger question I like to ask myself is what would the problem be if Israel’s theology had a propagandistic purpose? Do we resist that for theological reasons or do we try to embrace and work with it as an expression of faithfulness?

        • Paul D. says:

          Absalom didn’t bone his own mother, though. Claiming the previous king’s concubines for yourself is a very different context. And Ham’s mother isn’t even a character in the story. (And if you’re playing the “this really happened” game, which I don’t think you are, it’s horrifically unjust for Noah to curse Canaan when it wasn’t his fault.)

  • I like that word in regard to the story of the Canaanites–Propaganda. I think ‘propaganda’ applies to much of the content of the historical books of the OT.

    • Gerald B. Cleaver says:

      I agree. This, like much of the O.T., is so clearly nationaist propaganda, so harmfully still preached in American fundamentalist and evangelical churches to be inspired by word of God describing the activity of God. So many in the Christian church need to come to terms with the reality of the human written story-telling, myth content of these verses, rather than continually attempting to “justify” unjustifiable acts claimed to have been done by, ordered by, or sanctioned by God in the O.T.

  • Scott Fairbanks says:

    Leviticus 18:7 links the language of ‘uncovering the nakedness of the father’ and having sex with your father’s mate. Other pre-monarchal enemies of Israel, the Ammonites and Moabites have a similar start with Lot and his daughters in the cave in Gen 19:30. Further Genesis links Reuben to Ham in (35:22) to add to the collection of stories that must be considered together to fully understand what Genesis is communicating with regard to this topic. So the teaching with which we need to wrestle isn’t: the justness of dooming a race of people because the progenitor saw his naked dad, something nearly every child has done! A correct but still shallow reading of this text highlights the long generational consequences of illicit sexual unions. A further informed reading, connects this text with the garden narrative of Genesis 3, where a seed of the man attempts through human manipulation or grabbing to become the seed that carries the family’s birthright. This is a power-grab, like Absalom’s roof top defilement of David’s concubines. Somehow this value followed Canaan genetic line. Like much of the levitical law, one finds narrative corollaries in Genesis (see Dorsey’s literary structures). Follow that textual path and one will find a very different issue than that discussed here.

    • Pete E. says:

      Noah doesn’t oncover his fathers nakedness. He sees it. If taken as an idiom that would mean he had sex with his father.

      • Scott Fairbanks says:

        Adam’s eyes were opened. He didn’t uncover his nakedness, he `saw’ his nakedness. That is why Ham `sees’ instead of uncovers his father’s nakedness. Both scenes are precipitated by the gardener taking fruit, which leads to a ‘knowing’, which leads to the nakedness being covered by another, and is soon followed by a baby whose progeny are cursed to annihilation. There all many things in the Genesis 9 text that could lead to tensions, but none of the tensions should have anything to do with accidentally seeing one’s parent in a state of undress. There is no proscription against it, there are no thematic recurrences or textual echoes of accidentally seeing one’s parent as naked in Genesis or the rest of scripture (every scene in Genesis is either a thematic recurrence or echo). There are at least four incidents of this theme recurring in Genesis and probably five recurrences in all of scripture. Further there is a Levitical law which uses a substantially identical euphemism to describe it. ( Sex is initiated by ‘uncovering’ which results in `seeing’, the exact invocation of a formulaic phrase is not critical to indicating the act.)

        • Pete E. says:

          I appreciate your points, Scott, but most (at least some) of what you’re saying here isn’t in dispute for me in the post. I am not arguing for what the nakedness means, only that Canaan being tied to Ham’s act. It’s propaganda. The allusions to other episodes is well-known (and I teach them in my Torah class).

          • Scott Fairbanks says:

            Divinely mandated ethnic annihilation is for me, the most difficult biblical issue. It creates a tension. I think you’ve done a great job of addressing that tension in the evangelical community.

            But the exegesis of the Noah text offered above is thin. Your provocative claim, that this text is simply war propaganda, rests on a surface reading. This is scripture’s first article in the indictment against an ethnicity condemned to annihilation. It is grave matter.

            If the Noah-in-tent event describes the chance sighting of the patriarch’s privates, then the indictment is unjust: why not Egypt and Cush as well? Conclusion: Scripture can be petty, and is no more authoritative than a greek myth.

            If the event describes the deliberate rape and defilement of one’s mother; the rabid satisfaction of one’s desires satisfied in the most perverse fashion… Then one can imagine a society with this sort of rot at its foundation. If this act was incipient to the general mores of that society, then the sentence of heb:’herem’ comports better with our conscience.

            Tensions remain: what is the force of a patriarch’s blessings/cursings (it is paralleled by God’s three part blessing/cursing in Genesis 3), how do we handle the historicity of the text.. There is much to chew on.. but we should represent the meaning of the text to have a meaningful conversation.

          • Pete E. says:

            I appreciate your zeal, Scott, you are offering AN interpretation of a text, not “representing THE meaning” of it. I’m sure what is gained by referring to other (and long standing) interpretations as “thin.” You wouldn’t call Jon Levenson, for example, a “thin” reader, would you?

          • Scott Fairbanks says:

            I don’t mean to disparage other people’s interpretations. But I think that these text deserve a charitable reading.

            If it seems absurd to me to condemn a race to annihilation because their progenitor’s dad forgot to lock the tent flap, then I assume that the writer probably would too. For me, the Genesis author appears remarkably clever and literarily sophisticated. So if my interpretation suggests that the author capriciously curses Canaan at the expense of the more deserving Egypt and Cush, then I’m going to carefully evaluate my interpretation.

            I’ve never encountered Jon Levenson. But the interpretation above doesn’t appeal to any of the exegetical tools that I rely on. It doesn’t address why it has Genesis 9 sharply diverging from the Genesis 3 text when an alternative interpretation harmonizes with it. It makes no attempt to describe this text’s relationship with the other episode in Genesis that discuss the origins of Israel’s other enemies. It ignores Torah’s own description of the ‘uncover nakedness’ euphemism because it uses a slightly different but nearly synonymous articulation. Ugh, and there are more issues. So I can’t be pacified by an appeal to the authority of Jon Levenson!

            Thanks for the dialogue and the forum.

          • Pete E. says:

            You really don’t know who Jon Levenson is? In any event, I wasn’t appealing to an authority! I was just trying to point out that your interpretation involves some “ingenuity” rather than simple exegesis, isn’t by any means a slam dunk, and is contradicted people of considerable intellectual weight, Levenson simply being one of them, whoa re quite adept at what you call “charitable” readings. Perhaps there are factors that your interpretation isn’t taking into account and you can learn from them?

          • Scott Fairbanks says:

            Yep. there is always stuff to learn. I will look into Levenson. Thanks!

  • Craig Anderson says:

    Though none of this is new to me (having read and loved TBTMS, among other things) I do want to commend you for continuing to do some written (non-AV) blog posts. As a Luddite (Who, I think, must also be among the descendants of Ham?? 🙂 ) I never click on links to your podcasts but much enjoy having stimulating things to READ from time to time. Please keep it up, or even return to the previous frequency. Thanks.

  • Just Passing Through says:

    Even as a good fundamentalist child the cursing of an entire chain of yet-to-be-born people (by God or mere men) always sat uneasily with me. Hearing words like “propaganda” used to describe these sorts of things in the OT have been a relief at one end and an unsettling thing at the other. Posts like this help to pull the bible from the heavenly pedestal we had placed it on. Inevitably we’re left wondering how we can trust this strange and very human book. But I wonder if we were ever supposed to “trust the bible” or if we were supposed to wrestle with it so we can learn to trust God. I don’t know if this is true, but I once heard someone say that one Jewish way of looking at what we call the OT is that it is their sparring partner.

  • Matthew K. says:

    Dr. Enns,

    Thanks for a fascinating post about a fascinating topic. I do think though that you may have potentially missed something fascinating: the story in Genesis says that the Canaanites are cursed to be slaves forevermore. That implies that they are supposed to remain alive in order to serve the others. The stories in Joshua and Deuteronomy on the other hand present a scenario of obliteration where the Israelites are warned not to keep the Canaanites as slaves.

    This appears to be a contradiction with some importance. It implies to me that the story of Noah’s curse might, quite shockingly, actually be an attempt by an Israelite writer to do one of two things:

    1. Explain why the Israelites ended up enslaving Canaanites (and not destroying them)
    2. It might have been an attempt to defend the Canaanites rights to exist, arguing that they had already been promised a continued life and existence, much like Cain.

    If the second option is the case, then this story of Noah is pro-propaganda used to defend the Caananites against worse propaganda (such as Joshua).

    I might write more on this at a later time on my new blog at Patheos, but thought that I’d share this perspective with you here for now. Thanks so much for sharing!

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/biblicallyliterate/

  • Kenneth Conklin says:

    Dr. Enns,
    For an OT scholar, you’re presenting remarkably little evidence (apart from conjecture and opinion) for your take on this aspect of the Noah account. Even more, you’ve presented no exegesis from the Hebrew to support what you’re suggesting. Dr. Heiser, on his blog, presented a hefty amount of Hebrew grammatical exegesis to back up his thinking. Even when others are commenting on this, you’re casually dismissing them. Sadly, your work has now taken a step back against others scholars’ work in light of current biblical research.

    • Pete E. says:

      I’m not exactly sure what you’re trying to say here, Kenneth. The view I am espousing here is hardly out of the ordinary. Others can differ, of course, but brief replies are part of life in the internet and shouldn’t be confused with casual dismissal or a failure to do one’s homework.

    • Joe Deutsch says:

      Dude, you missed the point by a mile. If you’re going to question someone’s scholarship, at least don’t miss the point

    • Al Cruise says:

      .”Sadly, your work has now taken a step back against others scholars’ work in light of current biblical research.” I disagree. I hear more and more scholars’ referencing Dr Enns’s work in a positive light than ever before.

  • Jake Evers says:

    Mark Brett, looking at the Canaan narrative in context (esp. Gen 10-11), takes the account as a critique of those who build cities and empires–i.e., the city-states of Canaan under the influence of Egypt in the Late Bronze Age. The oppression of the rural or semi-nomadic folk by Canaan/Egypt thus leads to the poetic justice of Canaan’s enslavement (see ch. 2 of his “Decolonizing God”)

    And yet, as Brett also notes, there are certain traditions in Genesis that serve as “covert” critiques of the ethnocentric ideology (from the Persian period) that stand behind some of the narratives in the book (see ch. 7 of the same work). Abraham is a significant figure in that regard–his land sharing, covenant making, interceding example may symbolize a peaceful alternative to the approach to relations with the Canaanites evident in Deuteronomy (see also ch. 7 of Habel, “The Land is Mine”).

  • Leen Ritmeyer says:

    Dr. Enns,
    This interpretation is wrong on several accounts. Righteous Noah would not unjustly curse a son for the sin of his father. Ham was not the youngest son of Noah as he is always mentioned in between Japhet and Shem. Ham was Noah’s second or middle son. The idea that Ham went into Noah’s tent merely to “gawp” at him cannot be supported by the text. Despite the fact that all three brothers had several sons, only Ham is mentioned as the “father of Canaan”. Canaan was the youngest son of Ham and most likely the one referred to by Noah as “his youngest son”, i.e. Ham’s youngest son Canaan”. Ham was most likely looking for Canaan and found him in Noah’s tent, doing something unmentionable to his grandfather. As Ham was occupied with dragging Canaan out of Noah’s tent, he asked his brothers to cover their father. Once Noah was awake and sober again, he found himself covered with a garment that didn’t belong to him. He must have asked his sons what happened and when he “knew” or rather “understood” what had happened, he rightly cursed Canaan, the youngest son of Ham.

    • Pete E. says:

      That’s an interesting midrash, but not supported by the text, esp. vv. 22-23.

    • Marcus Johnson says:

      Seriously…you’re going with the interpretation that Canaan was raping his drunk grandfather and was discovered by Ham’s father? Which appears in the director’s cut edition of Genesis 9 (not featured in the original version)? I mean, how desperate are you for Enns to be wrong on this one?

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