March 29, 2017

The Curse of Canaan

Genesis 9:20-27

Then Noah began farming and planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk, and uncovered himself inside his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it upon both their shoulders and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were turned away, so that they did not see their father’s nakedness. When Noah awoke from his wine, he knew what his youngest son had done to him. So he said,

   “Cursed be Canaan;
   A servant of servants
   He shall be to his brothers.”

He also said,

   “Blessed be the Lord,
   The God of Shem;
   And let Canaan be his servant.
   “May God enlarge Japheth,
   And let him dwell in the tents of Shem;
   And let Canaan be his servant.”

When Noah awoke after his drunken stupor, and somehow found out what his younger son (Ham) had done to him, he became very angry. Like many who have lost their self-esteem and are angry at themselves, Noah became enraged against his son. But he did not curse him; he cursed his grandson accordingly (see v. 25). Because of this curse on Canaan, some are of the conviction that the text is in error. Noah blesses Shem and Japheth, but Ham is ignored and a grandson, Canaan, who can surely have had no responsible part in Ham's misbehavior, suffers the full brunt of his grandfather's anger. Why?

In Exodus 20:5 God declared that He would "visit the iniquities of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generations...." There is nothing arbitrary, barbaric, or even surprising about this. The sins of the fathers are often reflected in the behavior of their children. Children often pay the penalty. What is surprising, however, is that often the truth is distorted. It soon comes to mean that a child is not to be blamed for his sins - his environment and his heredity being held chiefly responsible. We say easily enough, "It is our fathers who are to be blamed, the generation which educated us. We are simply the children of our own age."

This is exactly what the Israelites did in Exodus 20:5. And by the time of Jeremiah the Israelites were fond of excusing their behavior with the same rationale. "The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children's teeth are set on edge" (Jeremiah 31: 29).  In other words, it was not the children's misdeeds which had brought all these misfortunes upon them. It was all their fathers' fault! But the Lord said in effect to Jeremiah, "You must correct this; it is quite wrong. Tell them that 'every one shall die for his own sin; every man that eats sour grapes, his own teeth shall be set on edge'" (Jeremiah 31:30).

It might be thought that this would have settled the matter and straightened things out once for all. But in the course of time, the truth was again distorted in another way and people came to interpret this to mean that any misfortune which overtook a man was due to his own sinfulness. Not unnaturally, this had the effect of destroying all sympathy, for a man who was in trouble or sickness was simply receiving his just deserts. It served him right.

This is what created the peculiar problem for the disciples when they were brought face to face with a man born blind (see John 9:1-3). It seems doubtful if it was sympathy that made them question the Lord about his case, but rather a kind of theological curiosity. Here was a man who had suffered a great misfortune. He had been born blind. But since he was born blind, it seemed impossible to attribute the fault to the man himself. On the other hand, Jeremiah had made it clear that Exodus 20:5 did not mean that it was his parents' fault. So they asked, "Who did sin, this man or his parents?" Their question reflected their attitude towards suffering. The Lord, however, while not denying the truth of the implications in their question, pointed out that in this instance the blind man was a privileged person who providentially was permitted to show forth the glory of God.

There are at least three reasons why people suffer:

  1. Because of the wickedness of their parents,
  2. Because of their own sinfulness, or simply
  3. Because of the glory of God.

Canaan’s Curse Was Judgment for Ham’s Sin

In the post-flood Noahic families, for reasons which are not always clear, it was customary to attach the blame for a man's failings upon his parents. But by the same token, it was also customary to give them the credit for his successes. In Semitic cultures, both ancient and modern, this principle has been publicly recognized.

It is an attitude which is quite remarkably reflected in Scripture. Perhaps the clearest illustration is to be found in the story of Saul and David (I Samuel 17:50-58). In this instance, David had performed a deed of great national importance by killing Goliath. David was no stranger to Saul for he had on many occasions played his harp to quiet the king's distracted spirit. Yet Saul saw David go forth against Goliath (verse 55) and said to Abner, the captain of his hosts, "Abner, whose son is this youth?" And although Abner must certainly have known David, he replied, "As thy soul lives, O King, I cannot tell."

This is a strange remark unless you understand that the credit of David’s actions were to go to his father! The question was about David’s father, whom Abner did not know. This is confirmed in verse 58 when Saul says to David, “Whose son are you, young man?” and David answers, “I am the son of your servant Jesse, the Bethlehmite.” Jesse was to receive the recognition.

Another illustration can be found in I Kings 11:9-12 (Read).

Solomon was to be punished: but he could not be punished personally without bringing discredit on David his father, and this the Lord was not willing to do. The only way in which Solomon could be punished appropriately without injuring David's name was therefore to punish Solomon's son.

In the New Testament we find another instance of this principle. It is quite obvious that while a man can publicly seek to give credit to the father of a worthy son, a woman could not discreetly make reference to the father in complimentary terms for fear of being misunderstood. She therefore refers instead to the son's mother who rightly shares in the worthiness of her children. This fact is reflected clearly in Luke 11:27, where we read of a woman who suddenly perceiving the true greatness of the Lord Jesus Christ, cried out in spontaneous admiration, "Blessed is the womb that bare Thee and the breasts which Thou hast sucked."

When we apply this principle to the story given in Genesis 9:20-27, the significance of the cursing of Canaan rather than Ham at once becomes clear. According to ancient custom, Canaan’s curse was judgment upon his father Ham.

Jewish rabbis had access to a copy of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament, made in the third century B.C. by the Jews in Alexandria and which appears to form the basis of a number of quotations in the New Testament from the Old Testament) in which the name "Canaan" was replaced by the name "Ham.'' It is proposed by some authorities that this was the original reading and that the text was tampered with by Hebrew scribes who wished to add to the degradation of the Canaanites by showing that they were the subjects of a divine curse.

However, it is quite possible to explain the text exactly as it is, as a reflection of the social custom which we have been considering above. To punish Ham, then, Noah must of necessity pronounce a curse upon Canaan, Ham's son.  (Source: Arthur Custance, Noah’s Three Sons).

Appendix 17