Genesis 9: Noah’s Nakedness, the “Sin of Ham”, and the Curse on Canaan


The story of “Noah’s Nakedness” and the “Sin of Ham” occurs in Genesis 9:18-27. At this point in Noah’s life, he had planted a vineyard and became a drunk from making wine from it[1]. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his Noah (his father) naked in the tent and told his two brothers Shem and Japheth who took a garment into the tent Noah was asleep in from intoxication[2]. The two had walked in backward and laid the garment on Noah with their faces “turned the other way so that they would not see their father naked.”[3]. When Noah awoke, he cursed Canaan for what Ham had done and ordered that he be a slave to Shem and Japheth[4].

In the Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary, Gary Burge and Andrew Hill raise a bit of insight on this topic. They acknowledge that there are theories that try to relate this story to the idea of incest as being Ham’s sin, but they assert that it is more likely that Ham saw Noah’s genitalia[5]. They provide an interesting take on the curse on Canaan. They state: “Noah curses not Ham but his grandson Canaan. This may illustrate the ‘eye for an eye’ principle of justice. The youngest son of Noah sons, and as a result, a curse is placed on Ham’s youngest son.”[6]

Also interesting to note about this passage is the only example of an imposed curse by a human in the five books written by Moses as well as the first recorded words in Scripture from Noah’s mouth[7].

The curse of Ham has been used to justify slavery in the past. This is because Hamites have traditionally been regarded as residing in Africa. In his book The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, David Goldenberg writes: “This biblical story has been the single greatest justification for Black slavery for more than a thousand years. It is a strange justification indeed, for there is no reference in it to Blacks at all.”[8]

In Paradise to Prison, John Davis states: “Popular (although totally misguided) exposition of the passage has applied the curse to the descendants of Ham and ultimately to black peoples, and concluded that the latter are inferior and doomed to servitude. This unsubstantiated interpretation, however, is utterly foreign to the text. The curse upon Canaan was basically fulfilled when Israel, led by Joshua, conquered the inhabitants of Canaan and made them subject”[9].

So essentially, the curse on Canaan was that Canaan would fall to Joshua and their people would become subject to Israel. The question remains, what did Ham actually do to merit a curse? The “eye for an eye” principle mentioned above is very probable and I do believe that had a hand in Noah’s curse. However, I also believe that Ham may have mocked Noah when he told his brothers that Noah was naked. This is a very real possibility as Ham could have made light of the situation. His brothers reacting by covering Noah up demonstrates that they did not find the situation comical.

To me, this would be an early indication of the laws to come through Moses and the Ten Commandments. The specific commandment in this instance is when God command Moses to tell the Israelites: “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.”[10] I feel this approach is viable as all of the events are linked by God in His divine plan. This plan is still in essence today.

When we see an elder drunk, naked, and passed out and mock them instead of covering them up are we to be cursed? Of course not. Should we mock and ridicule someone with such a habit? Of course not.

Honoring mother and father was always a condition God had. He chooses to explicitly state it in Exodus, but respect for parents is always implied.

[1] vv.20-21

[2] v. 23

[3] v. 23, NIV

[4] vv. 24-27

[5] Burge, Gary M. & Hill, Andrew E. The Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2012. p. 20.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Goldenberg, David M. The Curse of Ham : Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003. p. 1.

[9] Davis, John J.  Paradise to Prison.  Salem, WI: Sheffield Publishing Co., 1998. pp. 128-129.

[10] Exodus 20:12, NIV.


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My name is Charlie Tinsley and I blog about The Bible. I post theology and have leaned towards an emphasis on domestic violence and forgiveness. I serve as Ambassador for the state of Virginia in the National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse. I hold a Masters of Divinity from Eastern Mennonite Seminary and Bachelors Degree in Science in Religion Summa Cum Laude with a Biblical Studies Minor from Liberty University. I have studied in the two “major fields” of theological thought. I am married and have been for several years and I currently reside in Virginia.

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