How the Canaan-Ham Curse Conundrum Came to Be
Commentators traditional and modern have long noted that the curse against Canaan and the story of Ham’s gazing at his naked father do not make sense as a unit.
ט:כ וַיָּ֥חֶל נֹ֖חַ אִ֣ישׁ הָֽאֲדָמָ֑ה וַיִּטַּ֖ע כָּֽרֶם: ט:כא וַיֵּ֥שְׁתְּ מִן־הַיַּ֖יִן וַיִּשְׁכָּ֑ר וַיִּתְגַּ֖ל בְּת֥וֹךְ אָהֳלֹֽה:
ט:כב וַיַּ֗רְא חָ֚ם אֲבִ֣י כְנַ֔עַן אֵ֖ת עֶרְוַ֣ת אָבִ֑יו וַיַּגֵּ֥ד לִשְׁנֵֽי־אֶחָ֖יו בַּחֽוּץ:
ט:כג וַיִּקַּח֩ שֵׁ֨ם וָיֶ֜פֶת אֶת־הַשִּׂמְלָ֗ה וַיָּשִׂ֙ימוּ֙ עַל־שְׁכֶ֣ם שְׁנֵיהֶ֔ם וַיֵּֽלְכוּ֙ אֲחֹ֣רַנִּ֔ית וַיְכַסּ֕וּ אֵ֖ת עֶרְוַ֣ת אֲבִיהֶ֑ם וּפְנֵיהֶם֙ אֲחֹ֣רַנִּ֔ית וְעֶרְוַ֥ת אֲבִיהֶ֖ם לֹ֥א רָאֽוּ:
ט:כד וַיִּ֥יקֶץ נֹ֖חַ מִיֵּינ֑וֹ וַיֵּ֕דַע אֵ֛ת אֲשֶׁר־עָ֥שָׂה־ל֖וֹ בְּנ֥וֹ הַקָּטָֽן:
ט:כה וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אָר֣וּר כְּנָ֑עַן עֶ֥בֶד עֲבָדִ֖ים יִֽהְיֶ֥ה לְאֶחָֽיו:
ט:כו וַיֹּ֕אמֶר בָּר֥וּךְ יְ-הֹוָ֖ה אֱלֹ֣הֵי שֵׁ֑ם וִיהִ֥י כְנַ֖עַן עֶ֥בֶד לָֽמוֹ:
ט:כז יַ֤פְתְּ אֱלֹהִים֙ לְיֶ֔פֶת וְיִשְׁכֹּ֖ן בְּאָֽהֳלֵי־שֵׁ֑ם וִיהִ֥י כְנַ֖עַן עֶ֥בֶד לָֽמוֹ:
9:20 Noah, the tiller of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard.
9:21 He drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent.
9:22 Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside.
9:23 But Shem and Japheth took a cloth, placed it against both their backs and, walking backward, they covered their father’s nakedness; their faces were turned the other way, so that they did not see their father’s nakedness.
9:24 When Noah woke up from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him,
9:25 he said, “Cursed be Canaan; the lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.”
9:26 And he said, “Blessed be Yhwh, the God of Shem; let Canaan be a slave to them.
9:27 May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be a slave to them.”
The problem is as stark as it is simple. If Ham violated his father’s privacy and dignity, why should Ham’s son, Canaan, be punished? Moreover, the phrase “slave to his brothers” is odd in this context: Shem and Japhet are not Canaan’s brothers; those would be the other sons of Ham, Egypt, Kush, and Put.
There are a number of traditional approaches to solving this problem.
- Canaan was the culprit: Borrowing from Jubilees (7:13), Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer reads the text as if it says, “and he knew what [Ham’s] youngest son had done.” Ibn Ezra (9:24) agrees in principle, stating that the Torah simply doesn’t tell us what Canaan did but that it must have been him and not Ham.
- A fourth son for a fourth son: Another traditional solution is to postulate that Ham castrated Noah in order to prevent Noah from having a fourth son, and in retaliation, Noah curses Ham’s own fourth son, Canaan (Gen. Rab. 36:7; b. Sanhedrin 70a).
- Ham was already blessed: Yehudah in Bereishit Rabbah, followed by Radak and Rabbeinu Bahya, suggests that Noah had no choice but to curse one of Ham’s sons, since Ham himself had already been blessed by God (Gen 9:1).
- Eternal punishment: Bahya further suggests that cursing Ham would have been insufficient. Since Ham’s children had already been born, it would only have affected him personally, and Noah wished to damn Ham and his descendants for all time.
These are just some of the many suggestions commentators have come up with to solve this thorny problem.
Critical Solution: Canaan is Noah’s Son
Scholars have long noted that the story of Noah is a composite of two separate stories: that of the Priestly document, P, and that of the Yahwist, J. The story of Noah’s drunkenness and the curse of Canaan is believed to derive from the J source, partly due to style and narrative flow, but mainly because of the use of the name Yhwh in verse 26. The (extant) opening of J story does not include the names of Noah’s sons until this story but simply calls them “his sons” (7:7). It is only in the P source that the sons are introduced as Shem, Ham, and Japhet (5:32, 6:10).
I suggest that in the original J text, Noah’s three sons were Shem, Japhet, and Canaan. When the redactor combined the stories, he had a problem. Both his sources had Noah with three sons, but not the same three. He solved this problem with a harmonization, adjusting the J verses 9:18 and 9:22 to fit with P’s tradition.
Adding Ham into the Story
Ham the Father of Canaan Sins (9:22)
Let’s start with the latter verse,
ט:כב וַיַּ֗רְא (חָ֚ם אֲבִ֣י) כְנַ֔עַן אֵ֖ת עֶרְוַ֣ת אָבִ֑יו וַיַּגֵּ֥ד לִשְׁנֵֽי־אֶחָ֖יו בַּחֽוּץ:
9:22 (Ham, the father of) Canaan saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside.
When the Torah’s editor decided in favor of P that Canaan wasn’t really Noah’s son but Ham’s son, he redacted the text accordingly by inserting Ham. This suggestion not only solves the main problem, why Canaan is punished for Ham’s sin, but also some smaller issues.
For example, why doesn’t Noah make it clear in his curse that Canaan is being held responsible for his father’s action, perhaps by calling him “Canaan son of Ham”? In addition, Noah says explicitly that Canaan will be a slave to his brothers – but if he is Ham’s son then Shem and Japhet are not his brothers.
BTW! – Ham is Canaan’s Father (9:18)
The other verses that the editor needed to fix were verses 18-19:
ט:יח וַיִּֽהְי֣וּ בְנֵי־נֹ֗חַ הַיֹּֽצְאִים֙ מִן־הַתֵּבָ֔ה שֵׁ֖ם (וְחָ֣ם) וָיָ֑פֶת וְ(חָ֕ם ה֖וּא אֲבִ֥י) כְנָֽעַן:
ט:יט (שְׁלֹשָׁ֥ה אֵ֖לֶּה בְּנֵי־נֹ֑חַ) וּמֵאֵ֖לֶּה נָֽפְצָ֥ה כָל־הָאָֽרֶץ:
9:18 The sons of Noah who came out of the ark were Shem, (and Ham,) and Japheth—and (Ham is the father of) Canaan.
9:19 (These three were the sons of Noah), and from these the whole world branched out.
When Noah’s three sons come off the boat, their names are revealed for the first time in J. The name of Ham, the awkward locution “Ham is Canaan’s father,” as well as the repetitive “these three were the sons of Noah” were added by the redactor, working creatively with the text and the limitations he had.
- The original J text had the three sons as Shem, Japhet, and Canaan.
- P lists the sons as Shem, Ham, and Japhet, and always in that order.
- According to P, Canaan is the son of Ham.
- Redactors generally added instead erasing.
The redactor added “Ham” into the spot he usually occupied, between Shem and Japhet; he added the phrase, “and Ham is the father of” to neutralize the position of Canaan in the verse; and he added the repetitive phrase “these three are the sons of Noah” to emphasize that there are only three sons here, despite there being four names. And thus, the Canaan-Ham conundrum was born.
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October 15, 2015
January 12, 2020
Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is a fellow at Project TABS and editor of TheTorah.com. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures (Hebrew Bible focus) and an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period focus). In addition to academic training, Zev holds ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).
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