The record in Genesis about Ham, his son Canaan, and Noah has been a problem for Bible scholars for generations. Ham did something to Noah that resulted in Ham’s son, Canaan, being cursed, but what did he do? Genesis 9:22 says that Ham “saw the nakedness of his father,” but what does that mean? When we study the record and pay attention to the facts and the idioms, we discover that when Noah was drunk and incapacitated, Ham had sex with Noah’s wife, and she got pregnant from that encounter and gave birth to Canaan, to whom Noah later gave a prophetic curse.
One thing that jumps out of the Noah-Ham record is that although all of Noah’s sons had children, Genesis 9 specifically points out two times that Ham is the father of Canaan (Gen. 9:18 and 9:22), and the Bible states it four times (Gen. 9:18, 22; 10:6; 1 Chron. 1:8). But why would that fact need to be so clearly stated when it is not stated that often for any of the other children of Shem, Ham, or Japheth? After all, Shem had five sons (Gen. 10:22); Ham had four sons (Gen. 10:6); and Japheth’s had seven sons (Gen. 10:2). So why say four times that Ham was the father of Canaan, and why would Noah single out Canaan and curse him? After all, Ham was the one who sinned. As we study the record, we see that the Bible says four times that Ham was the father of Canaan because ordinarily if Noah’s wife gave birth, the logical assumption would be that Noah was the father. But in this case, Ham was the father, so the Bible clearly states that fact.
Also, if we study the vocabulary and idioms in the Bible, we see what it means when Genesis 9:22 says that Ham “saw the nakedness of his father.” It is important when studying subjects that use idioms that we read a more literal version of the Bible such as the King James Version, New American Standard Bible, or English Standard Version. For example, in this case, the NIV translates Leviticus 18:6 as: “No one is to approach any close relative to have sexual relations.” While that communicates the sense of the verse, unless the translators translate the idiom consistently (which they do not in this case), the Bible student reading an English version cannot see the connection between Leviticus and Genesis.
Ham “saw the nakedness of his father,” and the text in Genesis starts to become clear when we understand that “nakedness” is often used idiomatically. According to The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, by Francis Brown, S.R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, the Hebrew word ervah, (#06172 עֶרְוָה) means “nakedness” but it is used as “a euphemism for cohabitation,” and Leviticus 18:6 is cited as an example: “None of you shall approach to any that is near of kin to him, to uncover their nakedness: I am the Lord” (ESV). In other words, the Mosaic Law commanded that people were not to “uncover the nakedness”—have sexual intercourse—with a close relative.
A study of the idioms in the Bible shows that the phrase “to uncover the nakedness” of someone can mean to have sexual intercourse with that person, and more importantly for this study, often to “uncover the nakedness” or “see the nakedness” of a man was to have intercourse with the man’s wife—having sex with a man’s wife was “uncovering” (or “seeing”) the nakedness of the man himself. This becomes very clear when we read literal translations of Leviticus 18:6-18 and Leviticus 20:17-21. What is especially important for this study, however, is to realize that the Bible says that having sex with your father’s wife is uncovering your father’s nakedness.
The above verses make it clear that to see the nakedness of one’s father was to have sex with his wife. Genesis 9:22 says that Ham “saw the nakedness of his father,” not “uncovered the nakedness of his father,” but as Leviticus 20:17 shows, the two idioms have the same meaning. Leviticus 20:17 (ESV): If a man takes his sister, a daughter of his father or a daughter of his mother, and sees her nakedness, and she sees his nakedness, it is a disgrace, and they shall be cut off in the sight of the children of their people. He has uncovered his sister's nakedness, and he shall bear his iniquity.
Once we understand the idioms, “uncover the nakedness” and “see the nakedness,” and combine that with the text repeating that Ham was the father of Canaan, we can understand what happened in Genesis 9. Noah was drunk and apparently incapacitated, and Ham took advantage of that situation and had sexual intercourse with his mother, Noah’s wife, thus “seeing his father’s nakedness.” The result of that sexual encounter was that Noah’s wife got pregnant and gave birth to Ham’s son, Canaan. Knowing that Ham had intercourse with Noah’s wife who got pregnant and bore Canaan clears up perhaps the most difficult enigma in this record. According to Genesis 9:22, Ham sinned, yet in Genesis 9:25 Noah cursed Canaan, Ham’s son! At face value, this is not in harmony with the rest of the Word, because the Bible makes it clear that if a father sins a son is not to be punished, and if a son sins a father is not to be punished (Deut. 24:16; 2 Kings 14:6; 2 Chron. 25:4; Ezek. 18:20).
Ordinarily, Canaan would not suffer for the sin of his father, Ham. If, however, Canaan was born as a result of the intercourse between Ham and Noah’s wife, the enigma of his “curse” disappears. The curse of Noah is a prophecy of Canaan’s future, not a personal vengeance, in the same way that the “blessing” on Shem and Japheth is a prophecy of their future and not personal favoritism. Thus, Noah gave prophecies over his sons, just as Isaac prophesied over Jacob and Esau (Gen. 27:27-40), and Jacob gave prophecies over his sons (Gen. 49:1-28). However, likely because of Ham’s actions against Noah, Noah did not give a prophecy to Ham, but rather gave a prophecy to his wife’s last child, Canaan, and these prophesies occur in Genesis 9:24-27. Note that Noah’s prophecies to Canaan, Shem, and Japheth are all together, just as the prophecies of Jacob over his twelve sons are together.
Genesis 9:24-27 (ESV): 24When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, 25he said, “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.” 26He also said, “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Shem; and let Canaan be his servant. 27May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem, and let Canaan be his servant.”
As we see from the prophetic curse, Canaan, the result of incest, did not fare any better than Moab or Ammon who were also born as a result of incest. And, true to the prophecy, the Canaanites did not do well as a people-group. Occasionally the prophecy of a father was not a wonderful blessing, and that was the case with Canaan just as it was later when Isaac prophesied over his son Esau (Gen. 27:39-40).
Obviously, Noah eventually found out what Ham had done. Although the Bible does not say how Noah found out, there are many ways he could have, none of them being hard to believe. He could have awakened from his drunken sleep long enough to know that Ham was with his wife, or it is possible that he woke up and heard Ham boasting to his two brothers outside the tent (Gen. 9:22). Also, Noah may have been able to tell what Ham did simply because he knew his wife well enough, after all, if he married her when he was 20, he would have lived with her some 580 years. It is even possible that she simply told Noah.
Upon hearing Ham’s boast, Shem and Japheth were very respectful of their mother, and not only did they not take advantage of her sexually, they even went backward into the tent and covered her up so that they would not “see her nakedness” literally or idiomatically.
It is important to make one last point in this study. It is still believed by some Christians (based on a teaching that has existed for generations) that the “curse” on Canaan caused the black races and that black people are inferior to other races and are cursed. That is not true. Ham had four sons, “And the sons of Ham: Cush, and Mizraim, and Phut, and Canaan” (Genesis 10:6). Canaan was the only son of Ham that Noah ever personally mentioned in Genesis. If the “curse” on Canaan was that he would be black and inferior, then only the Canaanites would have been black and not Ham’s three other children. But the Canaanites were not black, they were “olive-skinned,” as are other Mediterranean people, and they did not move to Africa, but lived in what is now Israel. Ham’s other three children, Cush, who founded Ethiopia, Mizraim who founded Egypt, and Phut who founded Libya, moved into Africa soon after the Flood. It was in Africa that the black races developed, a product of genetics, in the same way as the American Indians eventually became more reddish, the Orientals more yellow or the Europeans more fair-skinned. But even in Africa, the descendants of Mizraim (Egypt) were not black but were olive-skinned, as they are to this day. There is absolutely no truth in believing that black people are black because they are cursed. If anything, the Canaanites were the ones who were cursed, and they were not black and do not exist anymore as a discernable people-group.