18 The sons of Noah who came out of the ark were Shem, Ham and Japheth. (Ham was the father of Canaan.) 19 These were the three sons of Noah, and from them came the people who were scattered over the whole earth.
The lowest of slaves
will he be to his brothers.”
May Canaan be the slave of Shem.
27 May God extend Japheth’s territory;
may Japheth live in the tents of Shem,
and may Canaan be the slave of Japheth.”
Story-telling – a most subtle way of making a point. Sometimes so subtle that people spend hundreds of years trying to work out what the story was saying, or even if it was saying anything at all.
Shem and Japheth don’t stand around to gossip about it – instead they take the necessary measures and cover their father up, protecting him from indignity, showing him respect and honour. They don’t even look at him – so they cannot see him naked. He’s comatose and sprawled out but they take care not to do what they know he would find offensive. They honour their father’s body, they also honour his wishes.
Sometimes, we know what someone would wish without them telling us. Do we say something about someone to somebody else, knowing that they would be mortified that we had? That, however unimportant it seems to us, they would be terribly hurt if they knew? Do we lay them bare before others, uncaring, sure they’ll never know? How, then, do we honour them?
Noah’s reaction when he finds out is clear. Ham’s actions are appalling.
And so, he utters a curse and a blessing. He curses Canaan. He curses Ham’s son!
I’m aware that this may well be because this story is at least partially acting as a polemic against the inhabitants of Canaan. But in my own mind-meanderings I consider the mirroring of the action – Ham takes away his father’s honour. Noah takes away the honour of Ham’s son.
Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves…
Slavery. That great thud of implication, that first mention of enslavement. A destiny is carved here, a destiny of oppression. Canaan is still a brother – but he will be a slave to his brothers2.
What have we seen in Genesis? Changes of relationships between humanity and God, between man and woman, between siblings, between parent and child, between entire races. The dismantling of that original oneness and unity seems complete.
Humanity is at odds – with God and within itself. On a private scale and a public one. Every relationship is marred by tension, misunderstanding, oppression.
The cursing of Canaan is countered by a blessing for his brothers – those who honoured Noah will in turn be honoured. They are the ones who will rule over Canaan. The curse and the blessing affect each other.
The dividing lines are drawn.
1 There are disagreements over what this actually means. I tend to take this at face value – as Ham ‘sees’ Noah’s nakedness but does not actually do the uncovering, and the situation seems rectified when the others cover him up again.