What is the curse of Ham in Genesis 9?
The curse is actually upon Ham’s youngest son, Canaan. After the flood, Noah became a farmer and planted a vineyard, harvested the grapes, made wine, and got drunk from it to the point where he took off his clothes (Gen. 9:20-21). Ham found Noah in his drunken state and told his brothers, who in turn did the right thing by covering up their father in such a way that they would not see his nakedness (vs. 22-23). When Noah sobered up and found out that Ham had not covered him up but simply had seen him naked and then told others about it, he cursed Canaan, Ham’s youngest son. Why Noah cursed Canaan rather than Ham is not specifically stated. Some believe Noah cursed Ham’s youngest son because Ham was Noah’s youngest son. The Talmud proposes that Canaan was somehow involved in what Ham did to his father. No specific reason is given in the Bible, however, so all we can do is speculate.
The curse would be that Canaan – by extension Canaan’s descendants – would be “a servant of servants” to the descendants of Shem and Japheth (vs. 25-27). Shem’s descendants included Abraham and thus the Israelites, who centuries later would go on to conquer the land of Canaan from Canaan’s descendants, the Canaanites. So it could be that Noah’s curse upon Ham’s youngest son, Canaan, was designed to be prophetic in nature. Japheth’s descendants would eventually include the Gentile nations which primarily made up the Roman Empire of Jesus’s day. Since Rome enslaved numerous tribes from Africa and Asia (places from where Canaan’s descendants would come), a case could be made that Noah’s prophetic curse had fulfillment during that period of history as well, if not before. Some also believe that Noah’s statement of Japheth “dwelling in the tents of Shem” has a spiritual application to the joining together of Jews and Gentiles within the church of the New Testament (Eph. 2:13-14).
There’s a well-known, inherently racist and mistaken, viewpoint that God through Noah was pronouncing that Ham and Canaan’s descendants, who would go on to live in Africa and Asia, were destined henceforth to always be the slaves of the descendants of Shem (the Jews) and Japheth (the Europeans, and by extension, the Americans). This view was used in the early days of America to try to justify slavery. Yet it ignores that Ham and Canaan’s descendants also included the Egyptians (Gen. 10:6), who would go on to enslave Shem’s descendants, the Israelites, for 400 years. Indeed, history shows that the descendants of all three sons of Noah would enslave each other repeatedly up to and including today. During Jesus’ day, the descendants of Japheth (the Romans) had conquered and were ruling over Shem’s descendants, the Jews. So there is no justification to view Noah’s curse of Canaan as a divine declaration that Ham’s descendants in Africa are inherently designated to be inferior or even enslaved to the rest of mankind.