Why Canaan Was Cursed – A Quick Study in Biblical Interpretation

(Warning – Sexual Content, Parental Guidance recommended for children)

The curse of Canaan is that Canaan and his progeny were singled out to be servants of the progeny of the rest of the line of Noah. It is estimated to be right after the Flood which was about 2298 BC so perhaps 2297 BC.

Different teachers explain the curse of Canaan differently. Some say that he just walked in and saw a naked body and went and told people, especially his brothers, and his progeny, Canaan, was cursed into perpetuity for this infraction. It was humiliating for Noah that Ham did this. The ancient historian Josephus interprets the record that way.[1]  But that does not explain why only Canaan and not Ham or any of his other progeny were cursed.  So, others say that Scripture gives us more to go on to show that it very well could be much more than just stumbling in and seeing someone naked.

The fact that Canaan alone was so dramatically singled out with this great curse has bothered scripture students for millennia.[2]  First of all, he appears to be completely innocent and cursed while the sinner, Ham, is not cursed. Some have used that fact to retell the story as a moral tale rather than history. Others, and I am one of them say that there is something unique about Canaan that affected his life in ways that didn’t affect Ham or Ham’s other progeny. This article focuses on looking at the larger context of the terms used, especially “uncovering the nakedness”, to show that there is evidence that points to a deeper story on the matter than appears at first and that evidence points to some sad potential facts.  In fact, that Canaan was cursed is part of the evidence of what happened, and the context of “uncovering the nakedness” points to certain tragic events as more probable.

It also needs to be said that if exactly what happened was that important it would have been spelled out much more precisely. In the end, Canaan was cursed and it’s important to know that to know why certain things happened with the nations in Old Testament times. It’s also a deeply tragic and personal story, and it appears that the intent is not to go into too many details because that is not where the focus should be.

The Curse of Canaan has to do with all the nations that developed within the progeny of the sons of Noah.  Genesis chapter 10 is all about all these nations. And there are historical records.  For example, regarding Shem, whose offspring are called Semites, Josephus says:

Shem, the third son of Noah, had five Sons, who inhabited the land that began at Euphrates, and reached to the Indian Ocean.[3]

So, as you see in Genesis chapter 10, and records like Josephus’, an important element of the Genesis story is how the nations developed from the descendants of Noah after the flood. So, Josephus records this about Canaan, the fourth son of Ham, and the subject of the curse:

Canaan, the fourth son of Ham, inhabited the country now called Judea, and called it from his own name Canaan.[4]

We also know this about the descendants of Canaan:

Canaan became the father of Sidon (his firstborn), Heth, the Jebusites, the Amorites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, the Arkites, the Sinites, the Arvadites, the Zemarites, and the Hamathites. Afterward the families of the Canaanites were spread abroad. The border of the Canaanites was from Sidon—as you go toward Gerar—to Gaza—as you go toward Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim—to Lasha. (Gen 10:15-19 WEB)

We know that when the Israelites were finally allowed to leave the wilderness they were told to go in and conquer the land of Canaan. This is part of the curse.  In fact, even earlier than that, when we look at what was promised to Abraham, i.e., the promised land we see some of the same lands above named in the promised land to Abraham and his progeny.

In that day Yahweh made a covenant with Abram, saying, “I have given this land to your offspring, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates: the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.” (Gen 15:18-21 WEB)

So, at least part of what Canaan’s progeny developed was given away to the chosen people.  That is the fulfillment of the curse.

Here’s the record of the events surrounding the curse:

Noah began to be a farmer, and planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and got drunk. He was uncovered within his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it on both their shoulders, went in backwards, and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were backwards, and they didn’t see their father’s nakedness. Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his youngest son had done to him. He said, “Canaan is cursed. He will be a servant of servants to his brothers.” He said, “Blessed be Yahweh, the God of Shem. Let Canaan be his servant. (Gen 9:20-26 WEB)

We see here a record that at first looks straightforward, but after examining the Scriptures we see there’s more to it. It looks like the record is just saying that Ham simply saw his father’s naked body, told his brothers, and Canaan was cursed for it.  Without any further information that could be the case. After all, Shem and Japheth fixed the problem by walking backward with a garment so they didn’t see anything, and covering “the nakedness of their father.”

However, there is more to it in this case. Nakedness is used 40 times in the KJV Old Testament. The first record is actually Genesis 9 above. Here are some of the other examples.

You shall not go up by steps to my altar, that your nakedness may not be exposed to it.’ (Exo 20:26 WEB)

This record says that you shouldn’t walk up steps when going to the altar so that nobody sees what’s underneath your clothes.  There is no sexual act implied with this use of the word nakedness. However, the possibility of sexual acts is possible in the next examples.

“‘You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife. It is your father’s nakedness. (Lev 18:8 WEB)

There is here a substitution of uncovering one nakedness for another. This verse clearly says that uncovering the nakedness of a man’s wife is the same as uncovering the nakedness of the husband.  In the Genesis 9 example above then it is certainly within the realm of legitimate interpretation to say that Ham may have uncovered his father’s wife’s nakedness. And, as we shall see, he may have done more than look.

So, next, we’re to look at all big section of the law that relates to the word nakedness. In fact, it is an expansion of the verse above. And there is a clear implication of sexual relations.

“‘None of you shall approach any close relatives, to uncover their nakedness: I am Yahweh. “‘You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father, nor the nakedness of your mother: she is your mother. You shall not uncover her nakedness. “‘You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife. It is your father’s nakedness. “‘You shall not uncover the nakedness of your sister, the daughter of your father, or the daughter of your mother, whether born at home, or born abroad. “‘You shall not uncover the nakedness of your son’s daughter, or of your daughter’s daughter, even their nakedness: for theirs is your own nakedness. “‘You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife’s daughter, conceived by your father, since she is your sister. “‘You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s sister: she is your father’s near kinswoman. “‘You shall not uncover the nakedness of your mother’s sister: for she is your mother’s near kinswoman. “‘You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s brother, you shall not approach his wife. She is your aunt. “‘You shall not uncover the nakedness of your daughter-in-law: she is your son’s wife. You shall not uncover her nakedness. “‘You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife. It is your brother’s nakedness. “‘You shall not uncover the nakedness of a woman and her daughter. You shall not take her son’s daughter, or her daughter’s daughter, to uncover her nakedness; they are near kinswomen: it is wickedness. (Lev 18:6-17 WEB)

Sex is clearly implied in these verses. “‘You shall not uncover the nakedness of a woman and her daughter. You shall not take her son’s daughter, or her daughter’s daughter, to uncover her nakedness; they are near kinswomen: it is wickedness. There is a definite relationship between the words “uncover” and the word “take”. “Taking” someone can mean having sex with them. From this, we legitimately draw the conclusion that these verses are saying not to have sex with close relatives, parents, siblings, children, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, and so forth. Here we have established that “uncovering nakedness” is a scriptural expression that can mean “to have sex with”. In modern times euphemisms for having sex with someone are “hooking up” and “shacking up”.  “Uncovering the nakedness” and “hooking up” are potential synonyms.

So, we see from all of this that “uncovering nakedness” is a euphemism that can mean more than one thing. The example about not walking up ladders means that it can mean just to see one’s private parts. But the rules in Leviticus 18 show us that it can also mean having sexual relations.

So, yes, it can mean having sex.  In fact, “Noah was uncovered in his tent” more probably than not meant he was in his tent with his wife having sex.  But he was drunk and could have just fallen asleep, maybe along with his wife or not.  Then in comes Ham and takes advantage. He tells his brothers, Shem and Japheth, who are smart and just walk in backwards and put a garment over Noah and/or his wife. Eventually, Noah wakes up and maybe his wife tells him what went on or he pieces together what happened. The fact that the verse says that Noah knew what was done to him doesn’t require that his body was used. Since his wife’s nakedness is his nakedness then anything done to her is done to him.

In fact, most of the time that uncovering nakedness in scripture is used it’s referring to sexual intercourse. Here’s more examples.

‘Thus says the Lord Yahweh, “Because your filthiness was poured out, and your nakedness uncovered through your prostitution with your lovers; and because of all the idols of your abominations, and for the blood of your children, that you gave to them; (Eze 16:36 WEB)

Therefore, many Bible students believe, and I am inclined to agree with him, that Ham did more than just stumble in and see his naked father’s body. Since the nakedness of the man’s wife is the same as the nakedness of the man it could well have had Noah’s wife involved. Furthermore, most of the examples of “uncovering nakedness” deal with having sex, so the suggestion that Ham violated his father’s wife is not out of bounds. In fact, the severity of the curse gives way to the idea that Ham had sex with his father’s wife.

As I said, a lot of the examples referring to “uncovering nakedness” deal with sex. And even that usage is sometimes figuratively used to represent Israel “whoring after” or worshiping other gods. Look at this example:

“Her sister Oholibah saw this, yet she was more corrupt in her lusting than she, and in her prostitution which was more depraved than the prostitution of her sister. She lusted after the Assyrians, governors and rulers, her neighbors, clothed most gorgeously, horsemen riding on horses, all of them desirable young men. I saw that she was defiled. They both went the same way. “She increased her prostitution; for she saw men portrayed on the wall, the images of the Chaldeans portrayed with red, dressed with belts on their waists, with flowing turbans on their heads, all of them looking like princes, after the likeness of the Babylonians in Chaldea, the land of their birth. As soon as she saw them, she lusted after them and sent messengers to them into Chaldea. The Babylonians came to her into the bed of love, and they defiled her with their prostitution. She was polluted with them, and her soul was alienated from them. So she uncovered her prostitution and uncovered her nakedness. Then my soul was alienated from her, just like my soul was alienated from her sister. (Eze 23:11-18 WEB)

“So she uncovered her prostitution and uncovered her nakedness” is the summation of Oholibah’s activities. The example highlights the sexual attraction with terms like, “clothed most gorgeously”,  “desirable young men”,  and “she lusted after them”. “The Babylonians came to her into the bed of love, and they defiled her with their prostitution. She was polluted with them.” While this is talking about God’s people lusting after other gods it clearly shows the correlation between the term “uncovering nakedness” and having sex.

So, there is more to the story of Canaan’s curse. It is not specifically spelled out why Canaan is cursed instead of Ham or any of Ham’s other children. But, continuing on the idea that Ham actually had sex with Noah’s wife, the result of that union was Canaan.  That is the one explanation why Canaan and not Ham or any of Ham’s other kids were cursed.[5]  The fact that Canaan alone becomes cursed is part of the evidence of what went on.

In a future article, we are going to look at how this story wound up being the twisted basis for prejudice against all black people as well as its use in some Christians blessing the slavery trade.

But for now, it should be clearly established that “uncovering nakedness” is a colloquialism, a euphemism used in the Bible that is more often than not used to describe sexual relations. And as such it’s a good example of looking at a term used in scripture in the greater context of all Scripture to see what it really means.

[1] Flavius Josephus of the Antiquities of the Jews — Book I, available at https://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/ant-1.html

[2] Evans, William McKee. “From the Land of Canaan to the Land of Guinea: The Strange Odyssey of the ‘Sons of Ham.’” The American Historical Review, vol. 85, no. 1, 1980, pp. 15–43. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/1853423. Accessed 3 Aug. 2023.

[3] Flavius Josephus of the Antiquities of the Jews — Book I, chapter 6, available at https://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/ant-1.html

[4] ibid

[5]Canaan (son of Noah), https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canaan_(son_of_Noah)

© copyright 2023 Mark William Smith, All rights reserved. Last revised 8/4/23

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