The Curse of Canaan

by Troy Lacey
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Was Noah wrong for cursing Canaan? Troy Lacey, AiG–U.S., responds.

Dear AiG,

I noticed this tidbit in a recent “feedback”:

While some have thought Ham’s viewing of Noah was sinful, or that Ham did something perverse, the Bible seems to indicate that it was Ham’s mocking response of telling his brothers that was wrong. Rather than respecting his father, Ham apparently took some delight in Noah’s lack of dignity at that moment, and he shared his disrespect with his brothers.

How did you come to the conclusion that Ham mocked his father in Genesis 9:21–25? All I see is that Ham saw his father was naked and told his brother. Am I missing something here, a Hebrew definition maybe? Or is it possible that Noah was in the wrong to curse Canaan? He certainly wasn’t perfect, he was just passed out drunk the night before!

Yours in His service,

Hi C.S., thank you for contacting Answers in Genesis with your questions. It is highly improbable that Noah was wrong for cursing Canaan, even though he had just awakened from his drunken sleep. Keep in mind that Scripture contains different kinds of curses. The one in view here seems to be a prophetic utterance of malediction upon the descendants of Canaan. This is not an idle or knee-jerk vengeful proclamation, but one of prophetic foresight. Compare this with the curses announced in Deuteronomy 27:12–26 that serve as a warning of what would happen to the Israelites if they disobeyed.

The Bible does not shy away from recording the sins of its key figures, and at times it reveals the motivations behind them. Sometimes men mistakenly do things, and their wrong actions are recorded in Scripture, but when this happens we are often told by the human author of the book (through the Spirit’s guidance) that the person was mistaken or made a bad decision. Thus, in many cases we are not left to wonder (2 Kings 4:39–40 and 2 Chronicles 35:20–27 are good examples).

Sometimes we must compare a person’s actions to other biblical teaching to see that it was wrong.

However, sometimes we must compare a person’s actions to other biblical teaching to see that it was wrong. The case in point is a perfect example. The text simply tells us that Noah became drunk, but nothing in the immediate context mentions that he did something wrong. We need to compare his actions to other biblical passages, such as Ephesians 5:18, to see what the Bible teaches about drunkenness. Regarding Noah’s cursing of Canaan, there is nothing is Scripture to tell us that it was inappropriate.

We also know from Scripture that God is fully capable of predicting the future (Isaiah 46:10). In fact, when a prophecy is from God, we can be certain that it will come to pass, since He can never be wrong (Isaiah 46:11, 55:11). On the other hand, if humans prophesy apart from God’s inspiration, then they will show themselves to be false prophets because their prophecies will fail (Deuteronomy 18:22; Jeremiah 28:9).1 Noah’s words did come to pass in the future, as we read that many of Canaan’s descendants were either killed or put under tribute by Israel (descendants of Shem) during the times of Joshua and the Judges, and later by King Solomon.

A possible clue that Ham might be mocking his father is from the Hebrew word used in Genesis 9:22 (the root is ra’ah) which means “to see” but frequently has the connotation of regarding or perceiving. The same word is also used as a noun for birds of prey that use sight to hunt (Deuteronomy 14:13).2 We should remain tentative on this point since we are not told whether or not Ham looked away immediately, but his actions after he saw his father naked are reproachful.

Another strike against Ham is that he observed his father’s nakedness, but his other two brothers deliberately did not. Genesis 9:23–24 states that Shem and Japheth took extra measures to ensure that they did not see their father’s nakedness, and that they covered him. Apparently they didn’t even want to have accidently seen their father naked, but out of respect walked in backwards. If Ham had just accidently observed Noah naked and promptly covered his father (as a good son would have), then there probably would not have been a curse.

Additionally, there was no reason to tell his brothers. That was purely gossip at best, or contempt at worst. Some commentators (Poole, Hodge and Bunyan) have felt that Ham also told his son Canaan, and perhaps that is why Canaan was cursed, because he also came and looked at Noah naked. This is only conjecture, though, since Scripture does not state it. What is stated is that Canaan was cursed, and this must have been due to either the same sin committed by Canaan or a prophetic utterance of the sins that Canaan and his descendants would become notorious for over the coming centuries (Leviticus 18:3–29, Deuteronomy 20:17–18), or possibly both things.

Think of it this way; if you saw your cousin or a close friend lying passed out, drunk, and naked in your backyard, would you call your siblings over to come take a look? Or out of decency would you at least wrap a blanket around him, and possibly even bring him into the house and put him on the couch? How much more respect should Ham have had for his father?

Why did Noah pronounce a curse upon Canaan rather than Ham? His words came to pass, so we believe he was inspired by God. Other than that, the Bible does not reveal the precise reason why Canaan was cursed instead of Ham. As such, we can only speculate. Here are some of the conjectures I found in my research:

  • Noah refused to curse his son since God had already blessed Ham in Genesis 9:1.
  • Noah could see that Canaan also possessed the carnal and materialistic nature of Ham, and he realized it would only get worse in the coming generations. Perhaps this is why the phrase “Ham the father of Canaan” was used in Genesis 9:22, since Canaan was very much his father’s son.
  • Canaan was not only the father of the Canaanites, but also of the Amorites, Jebusites, Sidonians and the Phoenicians. All of these peoples would at some period in the future wage war against the descendants of Shem and (to a lesser extent) Japheth, and would also become grossly idolatrous. Noah may have been prophetically denouncing this departure from faith in the true and living God.

Again, since the Bible does not give us a specific reason, we can only be tentative in our answer to this question. These speculations were provided to give the reader some possible solutions to the problem. Whatever the proper solution, we can be confident that God had a perfectly just reason (or reasons) for inspiring Noah to utter these words.

The inclusion of embarrassing or sinful moments in the lives of key biblical figures testifies to the truthfulness of the biblical accounts. Rather than mythicizing godly men and women, the Bible presents them to us “warts and all.” Noah became drunk. Moses murdered a man. David committed adultery and conspired to murder Uriah. Paul (Saul) persecuted the early church. Yet God used these men in powerful ways. This is a great lesson to all of us. We have all sinned and regularly make mistakes. The God who mightily used Noah, Moses, David, and Paul is the same God Christians believe in and follow. He can use any one of us in a powerful way, despite our failings, if He chooses to do so.


  1. This doesn’t mean that a false prophet will never get anything right, but it does mean that they will not be 100 percent accurate.
  2. The NKJV renders this term as the “red kite” in Deuteronomy 14:13. However, Genesis 9:22 uses ra’ah in the Qal stem, while other stems of this verb, particularly the Hiphil, convey the idea of taking a longer look.


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