The Curse on Canaan And the Problem of Racism
September 8, 2002
It has been a long time since I addressed the topic of racism from the pulpit. The last time I devoted an entire sermon to this issue was in March, 1994. I am returning to that topic today because it is impossible to talk about Genesis 9:18-29 without considering the problem of racism. However, 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. This text, while fascinating and perhaps even a bit strange, seems to offer very little that would apply to issues of prejudice, hatred and racial discrimination.
But as is so often the case in studying the Bible, there is more to this story than meets the eye. Historically, this text is important because for a long time certain groups used it to justify slavery and segregation. Lurking underneath this misinterpretation was the belief that people should be treated differently on the basis of skin color and racial origin. As a result, the curse on Canaan was misused in support of an ugly doctrine of racial superiority.
A Mini-United Nations
This teaching, which was once very popular in American churches, has thankfully almost totally disappeared. Yet racism and prejudice remain with us today. And if we go back to the New Testament, we discover that the early church struggled with these same issues as Jewish and Gentile believers tried to find a way to live together in the same congregations. And it is still a problem in the Christian church. For quite a few years it was said that the most segregated hour in America was Sunday at 11:00 a.m. That too has changed considerably in the last several decades.
And Calvary Memorial Church is not immune to problems in this area. The last few years have seen a growing diversity in the make-up of our congregation. When I came as pastor 13 years ago, we all looked pretty much alike—with a few exceptions. But things have changed and continue to change. Each Sunday as I look out over our congregation, I am amazed at all the people who sit in the pews, not just the numbers but also the diversity of people. It looks like a mini-United Nations to me. We have folks who worship here from Nigeria, Egypt, the Persian Gulf nations, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia, the Philippines, Korea, China, Japan, nearly all the European countries, the Ukraine, Russia, Romania, Greece, Italy, various Middle Eastern nations, various African nations, Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Central America, Brazil, and other South American countries. Not that all these nations and regions are represented every Sunday, but many of them are.
What should we say about the changing face of our own church? First, this is a very good thing. Second, it is likely to continue in the years to come. There is no turning the clock back, even if we wanted to, which we don’t. Having said it, there is also the reality that growing diversity brings its own set of problems. It’s easy for a church to fragment into competing groups that bicker over issues large and small. The challenge is for believers from various backgrounds to affirm their own heritage while not looking down on others who may be different in many ways. This is not always easy to do but that makes the challenge all the more important.
A Very Strange Story
As we come to the text, we can break it down into two parts:
Noah’s Nakedness – verses 18-23,
Noah’s Curse – verses 24-29.
The story itself goes something like this. 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. The Hebrew text suggests that Ham stared at his father or perhaps leered at him. There is a suggestion of indecency in what he did. Ham then told his two older brothers, Shem and Japheth, what he had seen. Evidently he thought it was funny and meant to hold up his father to ridicule. 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 (the Hebrew text says “the garment,” perhaps meaning that 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 (perhaps the two brothers told him about it). 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 dishonored him, now Ham’s youngest son will pay the price. Noah prophesies that he will become a “slave of slaves” to his three 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
This is certainly a very strange story. As we consider what it means, here are 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 smart people can do very dumb 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 cares to take it. Later in the Bible the Old Testament 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.
Robert Deffinbaugh (“The Nakedness of Noah and the Cursing of Canaan”) has some very helpful insight regarding this issue:
Our great problem today is that we have almost no sense of identification with the attitudes or actions of Noah’s two godly sons, Shem and Japheth. We feel no shame and no shock at the report of Noah inside his tent. And the reason is the real shock of the passage: 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. Without any sense of indecency the most intimate and private items are advertised before us and our children. Do you see the point? 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. Now, my friend, if the condemnation of God fell upon Ham’s actions and upon those who walked in his ways, what does that say to you and to me? God forgive us for point of shockability and shame. God save us from the sins of the Canaanites. being beyond the God teach us to value moral purity and to be ruthless with sin. May we refuse to let it live among us, just as Israel was taught in this text.
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. Ham broke the 5th Commandment—Honor your Father and Mother. By telling his brothers, he dishonored 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?
Several crucial questions arise about Noah’s response:
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. Dishonoring 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. Leviticus 18 specifies the sins of the Canaanites in graphic detail.
As we consider Genesis 9, 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 it was like spiritual Anthrax—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.
That leads me to an important point: 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. Years ago I remember hearing Jay Carty say that he had warned his children that he had a temper and that they were likely to have a problem with anger as well. Many parents wouldn’t do that, but 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 1,500 years after the Jews entered the Promised Land, the Canaanites eventually disappeared from the face of the earth.
Not About Skin Color
And 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 three sons of Ham. Furthermore, this curse has nothing to do with skin color. 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 color or shade or hue. By the way, the Canaanites weren’t black. They were closer to being white than black.
So what does this story have to do with supporting American slavery? Nothing at all, except that 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 Oak Park, some of them pretty unusual, but I don’t see any Canaanites. They’ve been gone for over 2,000 years.
Playing by the Rules
Does this passage have any contemporary applications? Absolutely! Here are a few of them. Honor 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. And 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 honor me, I will honor” (I Samuel 2:30). And those who dishonor 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.
Honor 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).
Ever since September 11, 2001, a little three-word phrase has come to symbolize the American spirit:
UNITED WE STAND
If that is true of our nation in a time of crisis, how much ought it to 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 parts of Chicago, many parts of the Midwest, from all across America, and 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. And 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. And though we have our preferences, and though we live in a world that likes to divide people by skin color and language and age and money and nationality, still we gladly proclaim that by God’s Grace, in Jesus Christ,
UNITED WE STAND!
We will not be divided; we will stand together, side by side, shoulder to shoulder, united in Christ, now and forever, Amen.