Exposition of Genesis 1–11: Genesis 9:24–25

Genesis 9:24–25
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.”
(NET Bible)

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.”[1] 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.”[2]

The word curse means: “hem in with obstacles, render powerless to resist.”[3] 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.”[4]

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Word Incorporated, 1987) 201.

[2] Wenham, Genesis 1-17, 201.

[3] TWOT, ‘arar, to curse, q.v.

[4] ESV Study Bible, notes for Genesis 9:25.

Exposition of Genesis 1–11: Genesis 3:17–19

Genesis 3:17–19
17 But to Adam he said, “Because you obeyed your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ cursed is the ground thanks to you; in painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.  18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you, but you will eat the grain of the field.  19 By the sweat of your brow you will eat food until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you will return.”
 (NET Bible)

The Going Gets Tough

The difference between listening and hearing can be vast. Only listening leads to action.

But listening raises new questions. To whom will I listen? Why do I listen to some but ignore what I hear from others? Why am I responsible for what I hear? Whose voice will lead me where I need to go?

Remember that each message from God about sin’s consequences involves a life function and a relationship, as we have seen before. For the man the life function is work, and the relationship is his bond to the land.

As in Genesis 3:14, God’s statement purposely begins with the word “because” to emphasize the connection of consequences with sins. At bottom the issue is very simple: God said not to eat from one particular tree, but the man ate from it anyway. How did this take place?

When the man only had God in his personal, relational universe, life was simple. As soon as the woman enters the scene, the communication possibilities become far more complex. God had said do not eat, but the woman offers fruit from the forbidden tree. To whom will the man listen? The answer was not long in coming — he listens to the woman.

A very common Hebrew verb — it occurs almost 1200 times in the Old Testament—means (1) “hear,” and (2) “listen to.” The latter meaning essentially amounts to “obey.” The man had heard the voice of God commanding him, but the voice he obeys is the woman’s. Humanity’s very first act of obedience responded to the wrong voice. In obeying Eve, he disobeys God.

As a direct result of listening to the wrong voice, the arable ground is cursed. The ground which had been man’s origin (Gen. 2:7) and had been given to the man to care for (Gen. 2:15) now yields “painful toil” (Gen. 3:17) instead of bounty and fulfillment. Gordon Wenham rightly says: “Work itself is not a punishment for sin. Man was placed in the garden to cultivate it (2:15). Rather it was the hardship and frustration that attended work that constitutes the curse.”[1]

The NET Bible teaches us something about the pattern of divine judgment: “The curse focuses on eating in a ‘measure for measure’ justice. Because the man and the woman sinned by eating the forbidden fruit, God will forbid the ground to cooperate, and so it will be through painful toil that they will eat.”[2]

Genesis 3:18 gives a fuller description of how things change for Adam and his wife. In Genesis 2:9, God caused fruit-bearing trees to sprout for man’s enjoyment and sustenance; in Genesis 3:18 the land causes thorns and thistles to sprout instead. Of course, humanity will still eat: “you will eat the grain of the field” (Gen. 3:18). What is this “grain”? The standard lexicon says it is “herbage, weed,”[3] the non-perennial plants (including vegetables and cereal grains) that spring up after a rain. God had previously given this organic material to both humanity and the animals for food (Gen. 1:29–30).

Adam’s toil will end with his return to the ground (Gen. 3:19); a humbling end for one exalted to paradise by the creative hand of God. Wenham says: “It may be that the narrator avoids life-and-death language in this verse, because for him only life in the garden counts as life in the fullest sense. Outside the garden, man is distant from God and brought near to death.”[4]

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Word Incorporated, 1987) 82.

[2] NET Bible Notes for Genesis 3:17.

[3] L. Koehler, W. Baumgartner and J. J. Stamm, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (HALOT), translated and edited under the supervision of M. E. J. Richardson. 5 vols. (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1994-2000) ‘eseb, herbage, q.v.

[4] Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 83.