The command of God to destroy the Canaanites has troubled Christians and non-believers alike:
Deuteronomy 20:16-18 King James Version (KJV)
While the killing of the Canaanites will probably always cause us to be uneasy on the subject, Genesis chapter 9 gives us a great deal of insight into the problem.
You should understand that this command was far more difficult for the Israelites of old than for us today. Had God not hardened the hearts of the Canaanites so that they refused to seek a treaty with Israel (cf. Joshua 11:20), Israel very likely would not have aggressively sought to obey the Lord’s command to kill them.
We may fail to appreciate the situation which Israel faced as they prepared to possess the land from the Canaanites; they had little or no contact with these pagan peoples. The Israelites would have found it very difficult to grasp the reasons for being utterly merciless with their enemies, the Canaanites. Genesis chapter 9 puts this matter into perspective. It explains the origin of the nations with whom Israel must relate in some fashion throughout its history. In particular, this account explains the moral depravity of the Canaanites which necessitates their extermination.
Genesis 9 is crucial for another reason, also. It is a passage which has long been employed to justify slavery and, in particular, the sinful subjugation of the Black peoples throughout the centuries. The curse of Ham, we are told, is simply being fulfilled as the Blacks live out their lives in servitude to the other races, particularly the Whites. As we shall see, this interpretation cannot be maintained by any careful consideration of our text.
The Cursing of Canaan
The verses we are considering should be understood in the context of the section in which they are found. Genesis 9:18 begins a new division which continues to chapter 11, verse 10. Moses wrote of the repopulation of the earth through the sons of Noah. Genesis 9:20-27 explains the three-fold division of the race for its spiritual dimensions. While the Canaanites are under God’s curse, Shem will be the line through whom the Messiah will come and Japheth will find blessing in union with the line (and the seed, ultimately the Messiah) of Shem.
Chronologically, chapter 10 should follow the confusion at Babel (11:1-9). Those verses in chapter 11 explain the reason for the dispersion of the nations. Chapter 10 describes the results of that dispersion. But chapter 10 is given first to allow the emphasis to fall upon the narrowing of the godly line down to Abram.
After the flood, Noah began to farm the land by planting a vineyard. The result of his toil was the fruit of the vine, wine. While the first mention of wine is not without its negative connotations, we should not conclude that, due to its abuse here, the Bible consistently or without exception condemns its use (cf. Deuteronomy 14:24-26; I Timothy 5:23).
Many have been troubled at the deplorable condition of Noah, the man who before the fall was described as a “righteous man, blameless in his time” (6:9). Some have suggested that fermentation may not have occurred until after the flood, and that Noah was simply suffering the innocent results of his inventive efforts.
While we should not seek to excuse Noah, we must recognize that Moses did not emphasize the guilt of Noah, but rather the sin of Ham. Some have suggested various types of evil took place within Noah’s tent. While the language employed might leave room for certain sexual sins (cf. Leviticus18). I do not personally find any reason for assuming any misconduct on the part of Noah beyond the indiscretion of drunkenness and its result in nakedness. Perhaps the best description of Noah’s conduct and condition is that of the word “unbecoming.”
I am impressed with the way in which Moses reported this incident, with a minimum of details and description. To have written any more would have been to perpetuate the sin of Ham. Hollywood would have taken us inside the tent in wide-screen technicolor. Moses leaves us outside with Shem and Japheth.
It would seem that Ham and his two brothers were alerted to Noah’s condition so that all three of them were standing outside the tent: Genesis 9:22 King James Version (KJV)
While Shem and Japheth refused to go inside, Ham had no reservations about entering the tent. Whatever the failing of Noah, he was inside his own tent, in privacy (9:21). That is the way Shem and Japheth wanted it. Ham entered in, violating the principle of privacy, yet not to assist his father but to be amused at his expense.
Ham did nothing to preserve the dignity of his father. He did not see to it that Noah was properly covered. Instead he went outside to his two brothers and graphically described the folly which had overtaken their father. It seems to me that Ham also may have encouraged Shem and Japheth to go into the tent to see this for themselves.100
The lengths to which Shem and Japheth went in order not to see their father seem almost extreme in our sexually permissive society. But then, our televisions have desensitized us to nakedness or rudeness. There is nothing which is not advertised, even products which once were considered very private.
Taking “the” garment, the one which Noah should have been wearing, upon their shoulders, they went backward into the tent. Without looking upon their father, they covered him and left the tent.
In the morning, when Noah awoke from his drunkenness, he knew what had happened. We do not know how he learned of this. Perhaps he was alert enough to remember the events of the previous night. One thing I am certain about—Shem and Japheth did not tell Noah, or anyone else. I suspect that the story was well known around the camp the next morning, and probably due to Ham. If Ham did not hesitate to tell his brothers, why hesitate to tell all?
Regardless of Noah’s source of information, his response was one with broad implications. Canaan, the youngest son of Ham, was cursed. He was to be the lowest servant101 to his brothers. While some understand the “brothers” of verse 25 to refer to his fellow man, I believe it refers specifically to Canaan’s earthly brothers, the other sons of Ham. In this way, Canaan’s curse is intensified in these three verses. In verse 25, Canaan will be subservient to his brothers; in verses 26 and 27, to his father’s brothers, Shem and Japheth.
Viewed in this way, it is impossible to see any application of this passage to the subjugation of the Black people of the earth. Ham was not cursed in this passage, but Canaan. Canaan was not the father of the Black peoples, but of the Canaanites who lived in Palestine and who threatened the Israelites.
In verse 26, it is not Shem who is blessed, but his God: “He also said, ‘Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem; and let Canaan be his servant” (Genesis 9:26).
By this, the godly line is to be preserved through Shem. From his seed the Messiah was said to come. The blessing comes not from Shem, but through Shem. The blessing flows out of the relationship which he has with Yahweh, the covenant God of Israel. And the servitude of Canaan is one of the evidences of this blessing.
Deuteronomy 28:7-9 King James Version (KJV)
The name “Japheth” is thought to mean ‘to enlarge’ or ‘to make wide.’102 By a word play, Noah blessed Japheth by using his own name.103 The blessing of Japheth is to be found in relationship to Shem and not independently. This promise is stated more specifically in chapter 12, verse 3: “Genesis 12:3 King James Version (KJV)
God promised to bless Abram, and the other nations in him. All who blessed Abram would experience God’s blessing, while all who cursed him would be cursed. Again, Canaan will be subjected at those times when Japheth is found in union with Shem.
There is a clear correspondence between the activities of Ham, Shem, and Japheth and the curses and blessings which follow them. Shem and Japheth honored God when they acted together to preserve the honor of their father. Ham dishonored both his father and his God by relishing the humiliation of Noah. So Ham was cursed and Shem and Japheth were blessed in cooperative unity.
The problem which must arise from the cursing of Canaan is this: Why did God curse Canaan for the sin of Ham? Beyond this, why did God curse the Canaanites, a nation, for the sin of one man?
The explanation which best seems to answer these questions is that the words of Noah convey not only a cursing, and a blessing, but a prophecy. While it is true that the sins of the fathers are visited on the sons, this is only “to the third and fourth generations” (Exodus 20:5). If this principle were to be applied, all the sons of Ham should have been cursed.
By prophetic revelation, Noah foresaw that the moral flaws evidenced by Ham would be most fully manifested in Canaan and in his offspring. Knowing this, the curse of God falls upon the Canaanites because of the sinfulness Noah foresaw.104 The emphasis thus falls upon the fact that the Canaanites would be cursed because of their sin, not due to Ham’s. I think this explains why Canaan is cursed and not Ham, or the rest of his sons.
The words of Noah, then, contain a prophecy. Canaan will most reflect the moral flaws of his father, Ham. And the Canaanites will manifest these same tendencies in their society. Because of the sinfulness of the Canaanites foreseen by Noah, the curse of God is expressed. The character of these three individuals and their destiny will be corporately reflected in the nations which emerge from them.
The Table of the Nations
Much work has been done on this chapter, but we shall restrict our efforts to the highlights. As we have previously mentioned, the confusion of Babel chronologically precedes this chapter.
The order in which Moses dealt with the three sons of Noah reflects the purpose and the emphasis of Moses. Japheth is dealt with first because he is least important to the theme being developed. Ham is next discussed because of the important part the Canaanites played in the history of Israel. Shem is mentioned last because he is the principle person of the chapter. He is the one through whom the “seed of the woman” will come. The godly line will be preserved through Shem.
The table of the nations evidences a selectivity which is also subservient to the purpose of the account. Only those nations are described who will play a key role in the national development of Israel in the land of Canaan.
In general, the identity of the descendants of the three sons of Noah is known. From Japheth come the Indo-Europeans, the best known of which would be the Greeks. Even secular Hellenistic history looks to Iapetos as their forefather.105 Leupold tells us:
… the Japhethites are seen to be spread abroad over a well-defined area extending from Spain to Media and pretty much in one straight line from east to west.106
Most of us would be of the line of Japheth.
Ham was the forefather of those who made up great cities and empires, including Babylon, Assyria, Ninevah, and Egypt. Put was probably the father of the Black peoples. From Canaan come those nations which made up those known generally as the Canaanites:
And Canaan became the father of Sidon, his first-born, and Heth and the Jebusite and the Amorite and the Girgashite and the Hivite and the Arkite and the Sinite and the Arvadite and the Zemarite and the Hamathite; and afterward the families of the Canaanite were spread abroad (Genesis 10:15-18; cf. Deuteronomy 20:17).
Their territory was that in close proximity to Israel:
And the territory of the Canaanite extended from Sidon as you go toward Gerar, as far as Gaza; as you go toward Sodom and Gomorrah and Admah and Zeboiim, as far as Lasha (Genesis 10:19).
Shem is the forefather of the Shemites. We must be careful not to confuse the designation with those peoples who speak Semitic languages. The Semitic languages include peoples of both Shem and Ham.107 Ross states the descendants of Shem as “… families stretching from Asia Minor to the northern mountains of the Tigris region, to Sumerian U, to the Persian Gulf, and ultimately to North India.”108
The most prominent of Shem’s descendants is Eber, the father of Peleg (10:25), the forefather of Abram (cf. 11:14-26).
The purpose of chapter 10 is best summarized by Cassuto. It was:
(a) to show that Divine Providence is reflected in the distribution of the nations over the face of the earth not less than in other acts of the world’s creation and administration; (b) to determine relationship between the people of Israel and the other peoples; (c) to teach the unity of post-diluvian humanity, which, like antediluvian mankind, was wholly descended from one pair of human beings.109
Genesis chapters 9 and 10 were vital to the nation Israel as it anticipated the occupation of the promised land of Canaan. The cursing of Canaan explained the source of the moral depravity of the Canaanites of their day. More than any other people, their sexual depravity is evidenced by archaeological findings. Albright has written,
Comparison of the cult objects and mythological texts of the Canaanites with those of the Egyptians and Mesopotamians forces one conclusion, that Canaanite religion was much more completely centered on sex and its manifestations. In no country has so relatively great a number of figurines of the naked goddess of fertility, some distinctly obscene, been found. Nowhere does the cult of serpents appear so strongly. The two goddesses Astarte (Ashtaroth) and Anath are called ‘the great goddesses which conceive but do not bear.’110
In addition to explaining the reason for the extermination of the Canaanites, Genesis chapter 10 helps to identify the Canaanites:
Now the Canaanites are treated, because Moses knew that Israel’s associations with these people were destined to be many (cf. 15:16), and Israel must also definitely know who were Canaanites and who not, because of Israel’s duty to drive them out of the land of Canaan (Deut. 20:17 and parallels).111
Sadly, we must realize that Israel failed to fully apply the teaching of this passage. They did not completely destroy the Canaanites and they sometimes intermarried, to their own detriment.
There is a great lesson in this portion of Scripture for us:
Now these things happened as examples for us, that we should not crave evil things, as they also craved. And do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written, ‘THE PEOPLE SAT DOWN TO EAT AND DRINK, AND STOOD UP TO PLAY.’ Nor let us act immorally, as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in one day. Nor let us try the Lord as some of them did, and were destroyed by the serpents. Nor grumble, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall (I Corinthians 10:6-12).
I have agonized over this passage because somehow it did not seem to intersect my life with great force. Suddenly it occurred to me that this is precisely the point of the story of the nakedness of Noah for men today.
We have found it very difficult to be greatly impressed by the fact that Noah lay drunk and naked in his tent. After all, some would tell us, did his sin hurt anyone? Was his nakedness not in the privacy of his tent? We are more struck by the ‘extreme’ measures taken by Shem and Japheth than we are of Noah’s nakedness, are we not?
Because of this, scholars have tried to find a more shocking sin that was committed inside that tent. Some have suggested that Ham witnessed the sexual intimacy of his mother and father. Others have taught that Ham committed a homosexual act with his semi-conscious father. But none of this is demanded by the text.
Our great problem today is that we have almost no sense of identification with the attitudes or actions of Noah’s two godly sons, Shem and Japheth. We feel no shame and no shock at the report of Noah inside his tent. And the reason is the real shock of the passage: We are a part of a society that senses no shame and no shock at moral and sexual indecency. Virtually every kind of sexual intimacy is portrayed upon the movie and television screen.
Even abnormal and perverted conduct has become routine to us. Without any sense of indecency the most intimate and private items are advertised before us and our children.
Do you see the point? We are not troubled by Noah’s nakedness because we are so much farther down the path of decadence that we hardly flinch at what happened in this passage. Now, my friend, if the condemnation of God fell upon Ham’s actions and upon those who walked in his ways, what does that say to you and to me? God forgive us for being beyond the point of shockability and shame. God save us from the sins of the Canaanites. God teach us to value moral purity and to be ruthless with sin. May we refuse to let it live among us, just as Israel was taught in this text.
There is another level of application. Most of us tend to think of godliness in terms of the sins we commit or shun. This account informs us that one test of Christian character is our response to the sins of others. Ham was seemingly amused by Noah’s sin, rather than appalled by it. Isn’t that what happens in our living rooms on our television sets? We do not find horror in sin, but humor.
How are we to respond to sinners today? Are we to kill them like Israel did the Canaanites? The New Testament gives us some clear instruction on this matter:
And do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them; for it is disgraceful even to speak of the things which are done by them in secret (Ephesians 5:11-12).
Brethren, even if a man is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, looking to yourselves, lest you too be tempted (Galatians 6:1).
Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins (I Peter 4:8).
… save others, snatching them out of the fire; and on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment polluted by the flesh (Jude 23).
Unlike Ham, we are to practice the principle of privacy which Paul reiterated in Ephesians 5:12. Some sins should not be scrutinized. We should not explore them, and neither should we share what we know with others. This principle, I believe, was followed by Moses as he briefly and without detail or descriptive embellishments, recorded the sin of Noah and its consequences. Much is made of the consequences, while little is said of the circumstances. Let us learn from this.
Notice that in this passage in Ephesians we are taught to expose the unfruitful deeds of darkness (4:11). This is not to be done by exploiting sin or by dwelling on darkness, but by living as lights, shining in a darkened world.
… until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be hidden, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; ( Ephesians 4:13-14).
Sin is exposed by righteousness, not by reporting the deeds of wickedness.
In Galatians 6:1 we are taught to restore the one who has fallen into sin. Here Paul emphasized the attitude of the mature who would undertake this obligation. The person must be handled with a gentle spirit, one which is all too well aware of his own weaknesses in this same area.
Peter taught us that sin is best dealt with when it is known to the fewest number of people. Love does not cover sins in the way that we saw at Watergate. That was a cover up. It sought to keep illegal actions from public scrutiny. The covering of which Peter wrote is that which endeavors to keep the sin at its smallest scale, so that those guilty may find forgiveness and reconciliation, while others will not be tempted or hindered by a knowledge of that sin.
Finally, Jude reminds us of the hatred we must have for the sin and the desire of holiness to remain pure to the glory of God. We are not to hate the sinner, but the sin. We are not to stand aloof from the one who has fallen, but to snatch him away as from fire.
In conclusion, I find in these three men, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, a picture of men throughout the history of God’s dealings with men. In Genesis chapter 12 we find the line through whom the Savior will come being narrowed to the offspring of Abraham. Men will be blessed or cursed by their response to him (Genesis 12:1-3).
At Calvary we find the epitome of man’s sin evidenced. Shem was present in the Jewish religious leaders who wanted the Messiah dead and out of the way. Japheth was present in the Romans who participated jointly with the Jews to crucify the Lord of glory. And Ham was also present in Simon of Cyrene, who bore the cross of Jesus in servitude (cf. Luke 23:26).
We have a choice to make, for we may either experience the blessings of Japheth or the curse of Canaan. The righteous seed has finally culminated in the coming of Messiah, of the seed of the woman (Genesis 3:15), of the seed of Shem (Genesis 9:26) and of Abram (12:2-3). In Christ, by submission to Him and faith in Him as God’s provision of forgiveness and righteousness for sinners, we may experience the blessing of Japheth. By despising Christ and rejecting Him—by persisting in our sins, we come under the curse of Canaan for all eternity.
May God enable you to find salvation and blessing in Christ Jesus.