The Curse of Canaan


By William Jackson

I think when most of us read Genesis 9:20-26 for the first time our heads spun.  “What? Noah got drunk…he was naked and his son Ham saw him and told his brothers?” Also a point that punctuates this circumstantial awkwardness is that Ham’s son Canaan was cursed by Noah because of this compromising situation.  On the first read through it has a weird tone.  What is the real crime here, has the drama in the moment caused us to overlook the true sin?


Many commentators bring in Noah’s drunkenness. We need to realize drinking wine is not a sin for example when God wanted to bless Israel, He provided a lot of wine1 (Gen 27:28; Deuteronomy 7:13; 11:14; Joel 2:19, 24; 3:18; Amos 9:13-14, Isa 55:1; Jeremiah 31:12; Zechariah 9:17).  So we can rule out making or drinking wine as a crime.  However, it should be noted like with anything else too much and no control will cause problems and could make one sin.  Noah being drunk makes a good teaching point but I don’t think this is the main point of the story.

(c) Hatton Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

On the other hand, there is a lot of commentary about it being a sexual crime.  Some say that Ham castrated Noah, or even some say that Ham sodomized Noah2.  Some scholars have even suggested that Ham may have had sex with his father’s wife3. All of this is implied and none of it is corroborated.  I believe because nakedness and drunkenness were part of the story many people gravitate to these factors because they are controversial points but this becomes a distractor from the real message.

I believe that Ham’s violation was his bringing shame to his father through gossip4. We are commanded not to slander each other (Leviticus 19:16, Proverbs 10:18, 101:5) or put anyone to shame (Genesis 38:23, Leviticus 18:17, 19:29, 20:17, Psalm 31:18).   Ham did both and based of the 613 Mitzvot (Commandments) he was in violation of 3 Mitzvot (28, 29 and 33)5.  Also he violated the fifth Commandment “Honor your father…” (Exodus 20:12, Deuteronomy 5:16).

Why curse Ham’s son and not Ham?  Simple, because God had already blessed Ham (Genesis 9:1) so Noah couldn’t curse him but he could curse his son.  Also Ham was Noah’s youngest, and Canaan was Ham’s youngest. Maybe Noah felt that being disappointed by ones son, as he was with his, was the suitable punishment here.

So over a millennium later the curse would come to fruition in Joshua 16:10.  Here Canaan’s people “…will be a servant of servants to his brothers.”(Genesis 9:25).  The moral of the story is that we are to honor our parents.  In contrast to this story, God blesses the descendants of Rekhav for obeying their forefather’s command to not drink wine.  With the Prophet Jeremiah, God used this family as a counterexample to Israel’s lack of loyalty at the time, (Jeremiah 35:12-16). I think honoring our parents is a lot weightier than many of us believe.


  1. Robert Ortiz Jr., What was the nakedness of Noah? What exactly was Ham’s sin?, March 27, 2015
  2. Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, Online English translation of the Tanakh (Jewish Bible) with Rashi’s commentary,
  3. Frederick W. Bassett, “Noah’s nakedness and the curse of Canaan : a case of incest?” VT 21 [1971] pp. 232–237.
  4. Dr. Taylor Marshall, Is Being Drunk a Mortal Sin?, April 16, 2013
  5. Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, A List of the 613 Mitzvot (Commandments), Judaism 101