First Things First – How the World Came to Be 17. The Curse on Canaan and the Problem of Racism

November 27, 2016

Genesis 9: 18 - 29
If you come to this text with no prior history and no preconceptions, you may wonder about the connection between this strange story of drunkenness, nakedness, family trouble and the curse on Canaan and the problem of race relations in the 21st century. But there is more to this story than meets the eye. For a long time certain groups used this text to justify slavery and segregation. Lurking underneath this misinterpretation was the belief that people should be treated differently on the basis of skin colour and racial origin. As a result, the curse on Canaan was misused in support of an ugly doctrine of racial superiority.
This teaching, which was once very popular in South African churches, has thankfully almost totally disappeared. Yet racism and prejudice remain with us today. If we go back to the NT, we discover that the early church struggled with these same issues as Jewish and Gentile believers tried to find a way to live together.
A Very Strange Story
We can break it down into 2 parts:

Noah’s Nakedness – v. 18 - 23,

Noah’s Curse – v. 24 - 29.
Soon after the flood Noah planted a vineyard. When the grapes were ripe, he picked them and made wine. Then he got drunk from the wine and ended up naked in his tent. At some point his youngest son, Ham, saw him passed out in the tent, naked. There is a suggestion of indecency in what he did. Ham then told his 2 older brothers, Shem and Japheth, what he had seen. Evidently he thought it was funny. But the brothers didn’t see it that way at all. They were shocked at the news and knew they needed to cover their father’s nakedness. So they took a garment, perhaps it was Noah’s own blanket, and held it at their shoulders, walking backward while they covered their father, lest they should see his nakedness. When Noah woke up, he found out what Ham had done. At that point the story takes an unexpected turn. Noah pronounces a curse upon Canaan, Ham’s youngest son. In a sense, it is a just punishment. Just as his youngest son had dishonoured him, now Ham’s youngest son will pay the price. Noah prophesies that he will become a “slave of slaves” to his 3 brothers and also to Shem and Japheth.
Here’s a shorter version of that story: Noah got drunk, got naked, and passed out in his tent. Ham saw it, told his brothers; they refused to look, and covered their father. Noah wakes up and pronounces a curse not on Ham but on Ham’s son Canaan, prophesying slavery for him (and ultimately for his descendants).
Here’s an even shorter version: Noah got drunk. Ham showed disrespect to his father. Noah woke up and pronounced a curse on his grandson, Canaan.
Even faster: Father gets drunk. Son takes advantage. Grandson is cursed.


A Few Facts to Notice
1. Noah was a man of faith who did great things for God, yet in a moment of weakness he got drunk. His sin starts the ball rolling in the wrong direction. Sometimes clever can do very stupid things. And they often hurt others in the process. Usually it’s the people closest to them who get hurt the most.
2. This is the first mention of wine in the Bible - and it leads to nakedness, exposure, humiliation and family trouble. There is a warning here for anyone who drinks wine. Later the OT prophets will make explicit the connection between drunkenness, nakedness and immorality.
3. There is a warning here about the dangers of nakedness. To most of us the fact that Ham saw his father naked doesn’t seem like such a big deal. But that says more about us than it does about the Bible. Modesty and decency and not exposing yourself to others—these are moral values that accompany holiness.
We feel no shame and no shock at the report of Noah inside his tent. We are a part of a society that senses no shame and no shock at moral and sexual indecency. Virtually every kind of sexual intimacy is portrayed upon the movie and television screen. Even abnormal and perverted conduct has become routine to us. We are not troubled by Noah’s nakedness because we are so much farther down the path of decadence that we hardly flinch at what happened in this passage. 
4. Ham’s greatest sin was in taking advantage of his father’s weakness. A good son would have protected his father, not spread the news to his brothers. By telling his brothers, he dishonoured his father and brought shame to his name. No son should ever do that for any reason.
5. Shem and Japheth showed a different spirit by refusing even to look on their father’s nakedness. No doubt they were embarrassed and wanted only to protect their father.


Why Did Noah Curse Canaan?
1. Was he acting in anger and was his anger justified? The text does not specifically say that Noah was angry so we can’t answer the first part with certainty. I know I would be angry if one of my boys did to me what Ham did to Noah. If Noah was angry, he was justified. Dishonouring your parents is a serious sin, not to be taken lightly.
2. Did Noah have the power to literally curse his grandson? Yes, but only if God backed him up. That is, Noah could say anything he liked—a blessing, a promise, a curse, a threat—but none of it would matter unless God backed it up. In this case, Noah was reflecting God’s judgment, not just his own.
3. Why did Noah curse his grandson Canaan and not his son Ham? The text doesn’t fully answer that question. It’s possible that Canaan was somehow involved in Ham’s sinful disrespect. The key to understanding the curse is to remember that Canaan became the father of a vast group of people called the Canaanites. In later generations they occupied the land of Israel (called Canaan) and developed an idolatrous religion based on gross sexual perversion.
It’s important for us to see the connection. Ham was the father of Canaan and Canaan was the father of the Canaanites. The Canaanites were sexually perverted idol-worshipers who were the sworn enemies of the people of Israel. When the Israelites got ready to enter the Promised Land, God told them to utterly wipe out the Canaanites—destroy their cities, kill their animals, and kill all the people—men and women, adults and children. Their religion was so toxic, so deadly it must be wiped out or the Israelites themselves would be infected.
So here’s the line: Ham, Canaan, Canaanites, idolatry, immorality, enemies of God’s people. This is historically how things developed over the centuries. When viewed from this perspective, Noah’s words make perfect sense. Noah saw in Ham’s act of disrespect a cavalier attitude toward sexual morality that was shared by his son Canaan. That seed would produce a vast harvest of evil in the Canaanites. Let them be slaves! This is God’s judgment on their sin.
There is such a thing as Spiritual DNA. Just as your physical traits are passed down to your children, even so your personal strengths and weaknesses as passed down as well. Perhaps we could help our children if we were more honest about our sins so that our children could be forewarned.
I would put it this way: Under the leading of the Holy Spirit, Noah looked into the future and saw that Ham’s evil deed was symptomatic of a deeper rebellion against God, against the family, against decency, and against morality. He knew that tendency would only get worse and so he pronounced a prophetic curse on Canaan and the Canaanites.
4. Did this curse literally come true? Yes. The Canaanites were eventually wiped out. Though it took almost 1500 years after the Jews entered the Promised Land, the Canaanites eventually disappeared from the face of the earth.
That brings us back to the fundamental issue of race and racism. What does this curse have to do with the other descendants of Ham? Answer: Nothing at all. The curse was only upon Canaan, not upon the other 3 sons of Ham. Furthermore, this curse has nothing to do with skin colour. It has nothing to do with whether or not your ancestors came from Africa. It has nothing to do with what “race” of people you come from. It has nothing to do with whether or not you are black or white or any other colour or shade. By the way, the Canaanites weren’t black. They were closer to being white than black.
Misguided people used this text to justify an evil system. What does it have to do with supporting racial segregation? Nothing at all, except that misguided people used this text to justify an evil system. To make myself clear, let me say it this way: This passage is fascinating and historically interesting but it has nothing to do with race relations in the 21st century. Noah pronounced the curse on the Canaanites, and that curse was historically fulfilled before Christ was born. How do I know that? Look around. We’ve got all kinds of people living in South Africa, some of them pretty unusual, but I don’t see any Canaanites. They’ve been gone for over 2000 years.
Playing by the Rules
Does this passage have any contemporary applications? Absolutely! Here are a few of them. Honour your parents. Uphold the family. Don’t gossip about the weakness of others. Remember that love covers a multitude of sins. Beware of the dangers of alcohol. Cover yourself up. Remember that modesty is a godly virtue. Especially this: Take God and his Word seriously. Play by the rules and you’ll be blessed and your family will be blessed. If you break the rules, especially the rules about the family and sexual purity, you and your family will pay a heavy price, sometimes for many years to come. As the Lord himself said, “Those who honour me, I will honour” (1Samuel 2: 30). And those who dishonour God will be judged by him.
In light of how this passage has been so badly misused, let us resolve to be the family of God together:
Love one another. Accept one another. Bear with one another. Forgive one another. Encourage one another. Bear one another’s burdens. Honour one another. Live in peace with one another. Pray for one another.
“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4: 3)
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3: 28)


UNITED WE STAND
This must be true of the church of Jesus Christ. United we stand—from many backgrounds, many nations, many families, many different ethnic groups. We come from many countries around the world. We speak different languages, we wear different clothes, we like different food and we speak with different accents. We have different talents, different gifts and often we have different dreams.
But the things that unite us are far greater than the things that divide us. We are all made in God’s image. All of us are sinners, no difference there. And all of us are saved by the same grace, all are redeemed by the blood of Christ, and all are indwelt by the same Holy Spirit. We worship the same God, read the same Bible, and we are all children of God through faith in Jesus Christ. If we stand, we stand by grace. If we live, we live by grace. When we all die, we will die by grace. We are all heirs of the same divine promises and partakers of the same divine nature. We have the same high priest in heaven who intercedes for us at the throne of grace. We are all given the same marching orders—Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. We have the same promise that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
Though we look different and act different, and sometimes we struggle to get along, and we don’t always see eye to eye, we’re all in this together. Someday when our earthly journey has come to an end, by God’s grace we will all end up in the same place—together, forever, around the throne of God, in that vast multitude with the saints of all the ages, from every tribe and tongue and from every nation on earth, the Church Triumphant, singing, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain.” And so shall we ever be with the Lord.
This is our hope, this is our destiny. Not just for some of us but for all who believe in Jesus. That’s why I say the things that unite us are far greater than the things that divide us. Though we have our preferences, and though we live in a world that likes to divide people by skin colour and language and age and money and nationality, still we gladly proclaim that by God’s Grace, in Jesus Christ,
We will not be divided; we will stand together, side by side, shoulder to shoulder, united in Christ, now and forever, Amen.
 

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