When Noah awoke from his drunken stupor he learned what his youngest son had done to him. 25 So he said, “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves he will be to his brothers.”
Sin brings a curse
All actions have consequences. For that reason, the Bible says: “Do not be deceived. God will not be made a fool. For a person will reap what he sows” (Gal. 6:7). But the collateral damage may last for generations and eventually affect a large number of people.
What do we learn from a cautionary tale such as the drunkenness of Noah? Who is affected by the consequences of sin? How long do the consequences last? What can be done to halt the damage done by sin?
Since the Bible does not shrink from telling graphic details when relevant, there is no reason to imagine anything more than an irreverent, dishonoring glance in the words “what his youngest son had done to him” (Gen. 9:24). “However, the phrase ‘his youngest son,’ literally, ‘his little son,’ is a surprising [name] for Ham, since the usual order of names, ‘Shem, Ham, Japheth’ leads to the supposition that Ham was the second in the family.” But we have to believe Noah knows which son is youngest, and there is some evidence that Israelite names were often listed with the shortest first.
Genesis 9:25 So he said, “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves he will be to his brothers.”
Noah’s first recorded words are “Cursed be Canaan!” Compare this to Adam’s first words: “This one at last is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh . . .” (Gen. 2:23). Adam’s delight with Eve contrasts with Noah’s contempt for Ham. This contrast provides an example of a principle: the farther one gets from creation, the lower humankind sinks into the degradation caused by sin. By the time we arrive at the end of Genesis, the story has moved from humankind as rulers of the earth, under God (Genesis 1), to the Israelites on the verge of slavery in Egypt (Genesis 50).
It is puzzling at first to see that Noah curses Canaan, the son of Ham, rather than Ham himself. Gordon Wenham says, “Here Noah’s youngest son, Ham, sinned against him; therefore it was appropriate that Ham’s youngest son, Canaan, should be punished for his father’s wickedness.”
The word curse means: “hem in with obstacles, render powerless to resist.” One way to understand the word is that it is used as the reverse of the verb “to bless.” But Noah does not have the power to carry out this action, so we may understand his words as either a prophecy or a request. In any event, the curse comes to pass during the conquest of Canaan and the Israelite monarchy.
The last sentence of Genesis 9:25 can be challenging. In Mark 10:44–45, Jesus told the disciples: “And whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus clearly envisioned voluntary, sacrificial service based in love. That is not what we see in the phrase “lowest of slaves” (literally “slave of slaves,” a construction like “holy of holies”). Canaan’s slavery is involuntary and comes as a consequence of the degradation caused by sin.
The ESV Study Bible correctly states, “This passage was wrongly appealed to in past centuries to justify the enslavement of African people, resulting in a grievous abuse, injustice, and inhumanity to people created in the image of God.”
Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.