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The Sin of Ham and the Curse of Canaan

Here’s a heart-warming story from the Bible:

Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank some of the wine and became drunk, and he lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said,

“Cursed be Canaan;
lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.”

He also said,

“Blessed by the LORD my God be Shem;
and let Canaan be his slave.
May God make space for Japheth,
and let him live in the tents of Shem;
and let Canaan be his slave.” (Gen 9:20-27)

If Ham was the one who committed the offense, why did Noah curse one of his sons? Some have suggested the text of Genesis 9 be emended to say “cursed be the father of Canaan,” although there is no textual support for this reading. The sin was Ham’s, but the punishment fell on Canaan.We must ask two questions in attempting to interpret this text. First, what did Ham do that was so offensive? Second, why did Noah’s curse fall on Canaan rather than Ham? In what follows, I’m indebted to a helpful article by John Sietze Bergsma and Scott Walker Hahn, “Noah’s Nakedness and the Curse on Canaan (Genesis 9:20-27)‚” (JBL 124/1 [Spring 2005] 25-40). It provides an excellent summary of the major interpretations and offers a unique possibility that I think has a strong chance of being correct.

The Sin of Ham

A face value reading of the text suggests that Ham’s sin was voyeurism. He saw his drunken father naked. This explanation has the benefit of not reading anything into the text that is not already there. Nevertheless, it seems to lack any real explanatory power with respect to the severity of Ham’s (vicarious) punishment. There did not seem to be any ancient taboos against simply viewing one’s father in a state of undress. Therefore, ancient and modern scholars have long speculated that there is more to the story than meets the eye, and that perhaps certain details were omitted out of a sense of delicacy about the episode.

In the Talmud, we find two possible interpretations:

Rav and Samuel differ, one maintains that he (Ham) castrated him, while the other says that he sexually abused him. He who says that he castrated him (reasons) because he curse him (Ham) by his fourth Son (Canaan), he (Ham) must have injured him (Noah) with respect to a fourth Son. Now, on the view that he emasculated him, it is right that he cursed him by his fourth son; but on the view that he abused him, why did he curse his fourth son: he should have cursed him (Ham)? Both indignities were perpetuated. (Sanh. 70a)

In other words, the Talmudist outlines two possible theories, of which he thinks Rav’s (castration) is more persuasive in that it better answers the question of why Canaan was cursed.

Scholars today more often favor Samuel’s theory of paternal incest. Certain details in the text do in fact place it in an erotic context:

  • The expression “to uncover nakedness” or “to see nakedness” has a sexual connotation elsewhere in the Bible (Lev 18:6; 20:17). It appears especially in contexts of sexual promiscuity or violence (see Ezek 16:36‚ 37; 22:10; 23:10, 18, 29)
  • The reference to wine. The only other reference to drunkenness in Genesis also occurs in the context of parent-child incest (Gen 19:30-38). Song of Songs “is replete with images of wine as a symbol of sexuality and—strikingly—a vineyard (pares) as a place of lovemaking” (Bergsma and Hahn, 30)
  • Noah’s “uncovering himself.” This term is also used extensively in Leviticus (chs. 17-18) and Ezekiel to designate illicit (usually incestuous) sexual intercourse. We find the same terminology also in Deuteronomy 23:1; 27:20, which specifically condemns parent-child incest.

Acknowledging the erotic overtones of this story links it with other passages in Genesis and the rest of the Pentateuch. For example, it highlights the chiastic linked between Genesis 9:20-27 and Genesis 6:1-4: another story of forbidden intercourse. (But I would say it’s a simple inclusio). There are also thematic links with Genesis 19:30-38, the story of Lot becoming the father of the Moabites and Ammonites through drunken incestuous relations with his two daughters.

Furthermore, in Leviticus 18, the various commandments against illicit sexual relations begins with a warning (vv. 1-5) against imitating the practices of Canaan or Egypt—Ham’s two most prominent sons. Bersma and Hahn observe,

Seen in this light, it then becomes significant that the very first sexual transgression Leviticus 18 lists in association with the Hamitic nations Canaan and Egypt is parental incest, literally, ‘uncovering your father’s nakedness.’ (32)

The Curse of Canaan

For these reasons, many scholars have concluded that Ham’s sin consisted of raping his father, Noah. However, all of the evidence seems to fit even better if Ham’s sin involved sexual relations with his mother.

  • “The nakedness of your father” is defined as “the nakedness of your mother” in Leviticus 18:7-8. Leviticus 18:14, 16; 20:11, 30, 21 all describe a woman’s nakedness as that of her husband.
  • The terminology of “uncovering nakedness” is not used when the Pentateuch condemns homosexual intercourse (Lev 18:22; 20:13).
  • Thus, when Ham “saw his father’s nakedness,” it means he had sex with Noah’s wife, that is, with his mother (or perhaps stepmother).

Specifically, if Ham’s crime is understood as maternal incest, it becomes possible to explain Canaan’s origin as the fruit of that union. This insight suddenly illuminates two aspects of the text left unanswered by those who propose that Ham sodomized his father, namely, why it was Canaan who was cursed, and why Ham is repeatedly identified as “the father of Canaan.” Canaan is cursed because his origin was a vile, taboo act on the part of his father; and Ham is identified as “the father of Canaan” (vv. 18, 20) because the narrator wishes to signal the reader that this narrative explains how Ham became “the father of Canaan.” (Bergsma and Hahn, 35)

Mother-son incest was especially repulsive in the ancient world because it could be seen as an attempt to usurp the father’s authority. On the other hand, intercourse between father and daughter, while certainly shocking, was considered less serious. Although both were forbidden (Lev 18:7-8, 17), intercourse between son and (step-)mother openly threatened the patriarchal authority structure of the family or clan. It was an act of rebellion against the father, since possessing a man’s wife was understood to be an effort to dishonor the man (by demonstrating one’s ability to cross his family boundaries with impunity) and usurp his position.

While there is no biblical or ancient Near Eastern precedent for paternal rape as a means of usurping the father’s position, sleeping with one’s father’s (or father-in-law’s) consort or wife is attested as a power-play against the father. For example:

Reuben, you are my firstborn,
my might and the first fruits of my vigor,
excelling in rank and excelling in power.
Unstable as water, you shall no longer excel
because you went up onto your father’s bed;
then you defiled it; you went up onto my couch!
(Gen 49:3; see Gen 35:22)

I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more (2 Sam 12:8)

Then Absalom said to Ahithophel, “Give us your counsel; what shall we do?” Ahithophel said to Absalom, “Go in to your father’s concubines, the ones he has left to look after the house; and all Israel will hear that you have made yourself odious to your father, and the hands of all who are with you will be strengthened.” So they pitched a tent for Absalom upon the roof; and Absalom went in to his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel. (2 Sam 16:20-22)

So Bathsheba went to King Solomon, to speak to him on behalf of Adonijah…. Then she said, “I have one small request to make of you; do not refuse me…. Let Abishag the Sunammite be given to your brother Adonijah as his wife.” King Solomon answered his mother, “And why do you ask Abishag the Shunammite for Adonijah? Ask him for the kingdom as well! … Now therefore as the LORD lives, who has established me and placed me on the throne of my father David, and who has made me a house as he promised, today Adonijah shall be put to death”(2 Kgs 2:13-25)

Furthermore, one might appeal to the same theme as it appears in ancient mythology. Most notably, there is the Phoenician (Canaanite) story of Baal-Hadad, who castrates El—his father in at least some versions of the myth—and claims El’s wives Asherah and Anat as his own in order to acquire his royal authority. Here, we see the usurper both castrating his father and sleeping with his wives.

Even earlier, the Sumerian Enlil is said to have separated his parents, An and Ki, absconding with his mother, and eventually replacing An as chief god of the Sumerian pantheon.

These are “all notable examples of a son attempting to unseat his father through relations with the paternal consort(s). Ezekiel rebukes his contemporaries for committing this sin (Ezek 22:10)” (Bergsma and Hahn, 37). Furthermore, the public nature each of these challenges to the father’s honor sheds light on Ham’s behavior in Genesis 9: “And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside” (v. 22). Ham didn’t literally emasculate his father, but in a figurative sense that was precisely what he did.

In this cultural context, Ham’s behavior was not primarily motivated by lust. Rather, it was a power-play designed to acquire his father’s authority and circumvent the rights of his (older?) brothers.

technorati tags: canaan, curse, ham, noah



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