Why was Canaan cursed by Noah? Was he punished for his father Ham’s actions? What was the curse, and how was it fulfilled?
Before the Flood, evil permeated the world, so God gave Noah and his family the chance to make a fresh start.
After the Flood, though, it didn’t take too many years for evil to reappear, as we see in the sordid story in Genesis 9:21-25. Noah’s response to this event is often called the curse of Ham, but it is more accurately the curse on Canaan. What led Noah to curse his grandson Canaan? The biblical account is terse and challenging.
First, let’s look at the passage in the New King James Version, then examine some of the questions that arise from the text.
A look at Genesis 9:20-25
“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. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and went backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness.
“So Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done to him. Then he said: ‘Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants he shall be to his brethren.’”
Why did Noah get drunk?
The Bible doesn’t explain why Noah got drunk. Though he was a godly man, he was not perfect, as this incident clearly shows.
Since Noah is called an heir of righteousness in Hebrews 11:7, and since drunkards will not inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:10), Noah must have repented of getting drunk. See our article “What Does the Bible Say About Alcohol?”
What did Ham do?
Ham saw his father’s nakedness and told his brothers. Shem and Japheth then walked backward to cover their father out of respect for him.
There must have been more to the story to provoke Noah to pronounce a curse. Some point to Ham’s approach being disrespectful. But again, there must be more to it, since Ham was not the one Noah cursed.
Whom did Noah curse?
Noah clearly said, “Cursed be Canaan” (Genesis 9:25). Canaan’s name comes up in verses 18 and 22 as well, and he is the only one of the grandsons mentioned in this passage. Why would Canaan be so prominently mentioned if he weren’t the guilty party in this story?
The Bible says Noah awoke and “knew what his younger son had done to him” (Genesis 9:24). Then he cursed Canaan, the youngest of Ham’s sons. Would Noah have cursed his grandson for something his son did?
“As the son, the little one, was not Ham [Ham was actually Noah’s middle son—Genesis 6:10 and 9:18], … but probably it was Canaan. He was the youngest son of Ham, and in Hebrew ‘son’ is occasionally used for grandson (Genesis 29:5; Genesis 31:55), and so he might be described as Noah’s youngest son, being the youngest member of his family” (Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers).
Something like this must be the case. God explains through Ezekiel, “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son” (Ezekiel 18:20). God would not hold Canaan guilty for his father’s sin.
While spiritual guilt is not passed down, of course the penalties of sin all too often affect those around the person who sinned, especially family members. There is no victimless sin. Our sins do cause problems for our descendants. See more about this principle in our article “Are the Penalties for Sins Passed Down to Future Generations?”
What did Canaan do to provoke the curse?
Again, the Bible is not clear. Commentaries such as Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible contain speculation that there was a sexual act involved in addition to a great lack of respect for Noah.
What was the curse of Canaan, and how was it fulfilled?
As we saw in Genesis 9:25, Noah said, “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants he shall be to his brethren.”
In the end, “there shall be no more curse” (Revelation 22:3). The so-called curse of Ham, the curse of Canaan and all other curses will be things of the past.He gave more details in verses 26 and 27, saying Canaan would serve both Shem and Japheth.
“In Genesis 9:25, ebed [servant] is used in the sense of being politically in subjection to a foreign power” (Gleason L. Archer, New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, p. 87).
When was this curse fulfilled? It could have been fulfilled in Canaan’s lifetime. However, some, like Dr. Archer, believe its inclusion in Moses’ writings in the time just before God’s punishment on the Canaanites is significant.
Dr. Archer wrote, “The fulfillment of this curse came about in Joshua’s conquest (ca. 1400 B.C.), and also in the conquest of Phoenicia and other Canaanites by the Persian Empire” and later the Greco-Macedonian Empire (ibid., pp. 86-87). The Israelites were descendants of Shem through Eber, and it seems that among the Medo-Persians and the Greco-Macedonians were descendants of Japheth through Madai and Javan (Genesis 10:21, 2).
Of course, note that the Bible makes clear that the Canaanites and other peoples of the land in Moses’ day were being punished for their own sins, which had been growing worse and worse (compare Genesis 10:15-18; 15:16 ; Leviticus 18:24-28; Deuteronomy 20:17-18; 1 Kings 21:26). Our all-knowing God was able to foresee this downward slide deeper into moral depravity.
God’s plan for all people and the end of curses
The Canaanites are far from alone in being under a curse. Sin has been the cause of the many curses throughout human history. This entire world is under the curses Adam and Eve’s sin brought on humanity (Genesis 3:16-19). Behind it all was the instigator who tempted them to sin, that serpent of old, Satan the devil (Genesis 3:13-15; Revelation 12:9).
Each human being has individually succumbed to temptation. As Paul said, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
And all nations have continued in the same pattern of sin to varying degrees, reaping the consequences. Learn more about this in our article “Why Is Our Modern World Under Ancient Curses?”
After the horrendous curses that humanity is bringing on itself in these end times, Satan will be removed (Revelation 20:1-3). God’s plan calls for all people to be given the chance to repent and come to the knowledge of the truth and be saved (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9; see “Is God Fair?”).
In His Church, to God “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). These physical characteristics will no longer divide us in God’s Church and His Kingdom.
In the end, “there shall be no more curse” (Revelation 22:3). The so-called curse of Ham, the curse of Canaan and all other curses will be things of the past.
Study more about God’s plan for all people in our free booklet God’s Purpose for You: Discovering Why You Were Born.