In one of my previous posts, I talked about the ancient belief that sin could be inherited but I didn’t dig too deep into the multitude of egregious manifestations of this belief throughout history. I didn’t forget about this, I simply figured there would be many opportunities to discuss it, starting with the latter half of Genesis 9.
Recall that in Genesis 6-8, God decided he was going to drown the entire world because the humans were being shitty. But God decided he’d save Noah and his family, so he told them to build a giant boat and put a pair of every single species of animal on that boat. Then God flooded the world and killed everyone.
Afterwards, Noah and his family were tasked with restarting the world. God promised he wouldn’t destroy everything this time (although he provided a neat little loophole in his promise, in case he changed his mind) so the only thing Noah and his family had to do was procreate and everything would be back to normal.
After the flood, Noah did the next logical thing, he planted a vineyard, made some wine and got drunk. After forty days of tending to a literal floating zoo, Noah needed to kick his sandals off and drink away some of that stress. Now, if you’ve ever been to college, you probably know that the craziest people are the people that have never drank before. And as we know, prior to the flood, Noah was God’s favorite student, so we can imagine he was something of a goody two shoes. This means that when Noah got drunk, he got really drunk. We’re told that, when the party was over, Noah was found naked in his tent.
Unfortunately, Noah was found naked in his tent by his son Ham. Genesis 9:22 tells us “Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father naked and told his two brothers outside.” Now, modern readers tend to read this part and think that it’s rather gross. Nobody wants to walk into a tent and find their dad naked (especially if their dad is 600 years old…) but apparently this would have meant something more to the original readers of this text. We know this because, after Ham tells his two brothers (Shem and Japheth), the brothers walk in backwards and cover their father with a blanket. The reason they walk in backwards is to avoid seeing Noah naked like Ham did. Why take such precautions? Apparently, seeing your dad naked wasn’t just gross, apparently it was a mortal sin. When Noah woke up and found out that Ham had seen him naked, Noah cursed Ham’s son Canaan and doomed his entire bloodline to a life of slavery.
If you’re confused, you’re not alone. Why did Noah curse Canaan when it was Ham who he had beef with? Is it really the end of the world that Ham saw Noah naked? The folks at gotquestions.org are also puzzled by this one, they present a couple of possible answers but even they agree that most of them don’t add up and ultimately, they’ve got questions but no answers. Answers in Genesis, on the other hand, always has the answers. And as usual, their answers misread the text in order to justify their preconceived beliefs. They’re response more or less boils down to, “well Canaan must’ve done something wrong, otherwise God wouldn’t have let Noah curse him.” But apparently there are no Answers in Genesis as to what exactly it is Canaan did wrong.
I’m no Bible scholar but maybe the reason it’s so hard to find an answer here is because we’re expecting it to make sense in our time. We assume that their must be a good reason for Noah to curse an entire bloodline of people, so there must be something the Bible isn’t telling us. But maybe the Bible is telling us all the information it wants us to know. Maybe the Genesis writers have given us all the pieces to the puzzle, but we just don’t like the big picture. Is it possible that this Curse on Canaan happened because Noah was embarrassed that his son saw him naked? Then, when he woke up with a serious hangover, he was pissed off (and perhaps a little drunk still). He was so pissed off that he accidentally cursed the wrong person.
Genesis was probably written sometime between 900 and 700 BC. In the centuries preceding Genesis, Canaan apparently had some rough years. Canaan was a colony of Egypt and many Canaanites are included in a list of prisoners of war to Egypt. So, something happened to the Canaanites that might have led one to suggest that the Canaanites were cursed to become slaves. The Bible has its own account of what happens to the Canaanites and it’s rather horrific, but we’ll get to that later. For now, what’s important is that the writers of Genesis would have been trying to explain why Canaan had drawn such a bad lot. In my view, this bizarre tail of Noah’s nudity and peeping Ham was all just a way of explaining the misfortunes of a fallen nation and perhaps even a way of justifying the actions of the Israelites.
But regardless of the justification for these verses, the problem is the way they’ve been used. In the 18th and 19th centuries when African slavery became prominent in America, Genesis 9 was used as a justification for the enslavement of blacks. According to this view, the Africans were descended from Ham and Canaan and since Genesis 9:25 says “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers,” this apparently means that God ordained slavery.
Now of course, you could argue, I’m being unfair. There’s nothing in the Bible that explicitly states that the Africans were descended from Ham and Canaan. The slave apologists were being dishonest, and we shouldn’t blame the Bible for the way it’s been interpreted over the years. But my argument is a bit more nuanced. I’m not saying that we should blame an ancient text for having ancient views. What I’m saying is that, when we read the Bible as an infallible, perfect text, we will inevitably just read in whatever views we want to read into it. This is why the Bible has been used to justify slavery, genocide, greed and all sorts of other egregious things over the years. It’s not because there’s anything wrong with the book, it’s because there’s something wrong with the way we read it.
What Christians often fail to understand is that nothing can be read objectively. As the old saying goes “there is no view from nowhere.” You cannot simply read the Bible; you have to interpret it and the way you interpret it is greatly impacted by the culture you’re living in. This is why the Bible has always been used to affirm the status quo, because the human mind is always looking for affirmation of the current form of reality. The human mind is always looking to be told that everything is perfectly fine the way it is and that nothing needs to change. Reading the Bible as the inerrant word of God allows us to read our own beliefs into the text and then ordain them as if they had come straight out of God’s mouth. In this way, Biblical Inerrancy hinders progress and change in society. We can’t change because the Bible says so, and if we can’t change we can’t grow.