Why Was Canaan Cursed?  by Bob Enyart

(Bob Enyart has submitted this article for consideration for publication by various creation periodicals.)


Why did Noah curse his grandson Canaan?  Genesis Nine records that Ham saw Noah’s nakedness, and as a result, Noah cursed his grandson Canaan.  Then Canaan went on to become the patriarch of Israel’s longstanding enemies, the Canaanites.  The story seems capricious on the surface, in contrast to so much reasonable history in Genesis.  A common  biblical figure of speech appears in Canaan’s story, and when Christians reread the story understanding this figure, the message of this account becomes compelling.  Ancient Hebrew commonly speaks of a man’s nakedness to refer to sexual intercourse with the man’s wife.  As Moses wrote in Leviticus, “The man who lies with his father’s wife has uncovered his father’s nakedness.”  Canaan lived a cursed life because he was conceived by a perverse union.  Thus the brief story twice reminds its ancient readers that Ham (not Noah) is the father of Canaan.  So Noah cursed Canaan not as an evil spell or hex, but as a warning to others against following in Ham’s wicked ways.  And readers of Genesis find a clear and reasonable origin for the conflict that lasted for centuries between the Jews and the Canaanites.


Why did Noah curse his grandson Canaan?  This boy’s father, Ham, saw Noah’s nakedness, and as a result, Noah cursed Canaan, who became the patriarch of Israel’s enemies, the Canaanites.  The story seems capricious on the surface, in contrast to so much reasonable history in Genesis.  Let’s take another look at what happened.

The various tribes of Canaanites are listed in Gen. 10:15‑18, including the Sidonians, Jebusites, Amorites, Girgashites, and Hivites.  The Canaanites settled in familiar areas including Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities of Gaza (Gen. 10:19).  The hostility with their namesakes (and mixed descendants) continued right up until Christ for example when He resisted ministering to “a woman of Canaan” (Mat. 15:22).  But why did Canaan and therefore his descendants become cursed?  Reading the account in Genesis 9, many suppose that after Noah became drunk, Ham saw his father naked, and as a result, Noah cursed Ham’s son Canaan.  I submit that is not at all what happened.  For that story, at least on its surface, would be an especially arbitrary and capricious origin for Canaan, Israel’s great nemesis.  Here is what actually happened:

The story is not so much about Noah, or Ham, but about Canaan.  As shown below, seeing the nakedness of a man is a common Hebrew expression for having sex with his wife (Lev. 20:11).  Canaan lived a cursed life because he was conceived by a perverse union.  Noah’s kids, Japheth, Shem, and Ham lived for about a century in the wicked pre-flood world.  The statement that “Ham was the father of Canaan” (Gen. 9:18) begins this passage, which then quickly repeats “Ham, the father of Canaan” (Gen. 9:22), as though the author wants his readers not to miss the relationship.  The story ends with three mentions of Canaan including “Cursed be Canaan” (Gen. 9:25).  The first chapters of the Bible quickly cover 1,600 years of sinful human history.  Yet, there is no mention of intoxication until after the flood, until Noah planted a vineyard and became drunk.  While Noah was inebriated, one of his sons, Ham, committed incest with Noah’s wife.  Taking advantage of his father’s drunkenness, Ham, who had lived before the flood in a sexually perverse society, had intercourse with his own mother, impregnating her and thereby fathering Canaan.  So because Noah’s own wife bore Canaan, the story twice clarified for its ancient audience that “Ham was the father of Canaan,” not Noah, as the earliest Canaanites may have misrepresented their heritage!

Of Israel’s nearby enemies, not all were Canaanites.  For example, the Moabites and Ammonites were the product of other parent/child relations.  Again involving drunkenness, Abraham’s nephew Lot impregnated his daughters who gave birth to the Moabites and Ammonites (Gen. 19:36‑38).  Any child conceived in this way, regardless of mutational considerations, enters life set up to fail.  Canaan had his grandmother for a mother, his grandfather for an uncle, his mother for a great aunt, his father for a cousin, and, worst of all, his brother for a father (half-brother, that is).  Early humans reproduced with siblings and first cousins without harm because genetic deterioration had not become a significant factor.  But mutation severity likely grew quickly after the Flood, moving God in the Mosaic Law to prohibit relations between close relatives (Lev. 18, 20).  But even prior to the Flood, a parent/child relation would have produced a twisted family.

As all authors and peoples do, Moses and the Jews used figures of speech.  Some of the Bible’s figures of speech are euphemisms that promote modesty.  For example, instead of saying that Adam had sexual intercourse with Eve, the Bible more politely says that “Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived” (Gen. 4:1).  And Moses writes, “the man who lies with” rather than using the modern and more crude phrase, “has sex with.”  The reader who misses these common figures of speech will misunderstand the plain meaning of various passages.  Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible.  And God through Moses used the same decency when describing other physical relations.  For example, when prohibiting incest in the Mosaic Law, rather than saying, a man shall not have intercourse with his mother, Moses wrote that he shall not “uncover his father’s nakedness.”

‘The man who lies with his father’s wife has uncovered his father’s nakedness…’  Lev. 20:11

When Moses also wrote that Ham saw his father’s nakedness, that was a respectful (and appreciated) way of saying that he copulated with her.  See how frequently Moses and the Scriptures use this Hebrew figure of speech:

‘If a man lies with his uncle's wife, he has uncovered his uncle's nakedness.    ‘If a man takes his brother's wife…  He has uncovered his brother's nakedness.’  Lev. 20:20‑21

Committing incest with any female “near of kin” can be described as “uncovering his nakedness” (Lev. 18:6), referring to the appropriate male relative, including the nakedness of your father (with your mother, Lev. 18:7), or your sister, granddaughter, stepsister, aunt, daughter-in-law and sister-in-law (Lev. 18:9‑15).  Of course, this can also be described in more literal terms as uncovering the woman’s nakedness, but it can also be referred to, idiomatically, as referring to the husband’s, father’s, brothers, uncle’s, or son’s nakedness.  Her nakedness can equal his nakedness because as Paul writes, your body is “not your own” (1 Cor. 6:19), and from this perspective, your mother’s body belongs to your father.  Thus: ‘The nakedness of your father’s wife you shall not uncover; it is your father’s nakedness’ (Lev 18:8).  Again, “It is your father’s nakedness!”

Ezekiel used this figure of speech in this Hebrew parallelism: “In you [O Israel] men uncover their fathers’ nakedness; in you they violate women…” (Ezek. 22:10).  And Habakkuk condemns not the sin of homosexuality but of getting your neighbor drunk in order to seduce his wife, when he warns: “Woe to him who gives drink to his neighbor, pressing him to your bottle, even to make him drunk, that you may look on his nakedness!” (Hab. 2:15; See also Lev. 18:10, 14, 17‑18; 1 Sam. 20:30; and Ezek. 22:10‑11.)  Habakkuk warns against looking upon a neighbor’s nakedness, which is just the slightest alternate form of uncovering his nakedness.

So, understanding this common Hebrew figure of speech enables the reader to comprehend Moses’ 3,500-year-old account of why Noah cursed Canaan:

…Ham was the father of Canaan…  And 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 [his own drunkenness left his wife vulnerable and exposed to Ham’s wickedness].  And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father [that is, he had sex with Noah’s wife, Ham’s own mother], and told his two brothers outside [as wicked people often brag of their sin, and as misery loves company, and perhaps even inviting them to do likewise].  But Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and went backward and covered the nakedness of their father [refusing to further abuse her].  Their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness [i.e., their mother’s nude body].  So Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done to him [because he found out from his wife and his sons].  Then he said [after he learned of the pregnancy]: “Cursed be Canaan [whose father was Ham]…"  Gen. 9:18, 20‑25

Why do Christian readers often miss this real story of Canaan?  The undermining of Genesis as literal and rational history leads believers, even many authorities, to neglect serious study of Genesis and much of the Old Testament.  Christians read that Ham saw his father’s nakedness and therefore Noah cursed baby Canaan.  That may seem capricious and arbitrary to many, but millions of Christians are conditioned to take the Bible with a grain of salt.  After all, if the masses assume that they cannot trust the Bible’s six literal days of Creation, nor its story of Noah’s Ark and a global flood, then why worry about a silly detail like Noah blaming his grandchild for his own drunken behavior.

Canaan’s true story shows the tragic reality of a child being set up to fail by the wickedness of his father.  Thus Noah cursed Canaan as a statement of that reality, not as a hex or evil spell, but as a warning to others against following in Ham’s wicked ways.  So incest set the background for centuries of conflict between Noah’s Hamitic descendents, especially those through Canaan, against the descendants of Shem, the Semites, especially the Jews, to whom God promised the land of the Canaanites.

While the story of Canaan’s curse follows the Creation and Flood accounts, rightly understood it helps us to see that all throughout, Genesis is a rational book of history.

From Bob Enyart’s unpublished manuscript, The Plot.


Bob Enyart pastors Denver Bible Church.  Bob first had a technical career working: at McDonnell Douglas Helicopter Company on the Army’s Apache helicopter; as a systems analyst for “Baby Bell” U S West; as a program manager for Microsoft; and as a senior analyst for PC Week.  Bob became a believer in 1973 entered fulltime Christian work in 1989, and in 1991 began hosting a daily radio show on AM 670 KLTT.  In 1999, the elders and pastor of Denver’s Derby Bible Church ordained Bob into the ministry.  In 2000, Derby planted Denver Bible Church with Bob as pastor.

Get Bob's Materials:

Read The Plot
Bob's Reading List

KGOV Gallery
Show Archives
BEL Affiliates
Favorite Links
Site Search
Contact Us

You can order Bob's materials online or call 1-800-8Enyart.