Canaan, Curse of

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CANAAN, CURSE OF , curse invoked by Noah upon Canaan (Gen. 9:25–27). It is presented as punishment for a sinful act on the part of his father *Ham (Gen. 9:22–24), "who saw his father [the drunken Noah] naked," implying in the biblical Hebrew a sexual act or even rape (cf. Lev. 18:7ff.). Canaan was to be cursed by becoming "the lowest of slaves to his brothers" (Gen. 9:25). The tale is in keeping with the Torah's depiction of the Canaanites as sexual degenerates (Lev. 18: 24–30). It is elaborated with a blessing upon *Shem, Ham's older brother, and a reiteration of the curse that Canaan would be a slave to Shem (Gen. 9:26). The passage concludes with a blessing upon *Japheth, the youngest brother of Shem and Ham, asserting that he would "dwell in the tents of Shem," and that Canaan would be a slave to him (Gen. 9:27). Lamo, in verses 26–27, is taken to mean "to him"; other scholars interpret it to mean "to them."

This passage has posed a problem for modern interpreters, many of whom see in it an etiology of the historical conditions which brought about Israel's rise to power, namely, the domination of the descendants of Shem over the people of Canaan. The curse upon Canaan mirrors an alliance of the Israelites and the sons of Japheth against a common enemy, the Canaanites. This would best fit the period of David and Solomon, during which there were often close ties between Israel and the Philistines, who were part of the Sea Peoples who originated in the Aegean area (Gen. 10:2, 4, 5). The invasions by the Sea Peoples against Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean are recorded in inscriptions of Pharaoh Merneptah (c. 1212–1203 b.c.e.) and Ramesses iii (1186–1155 b.c.e.).

Noah's curse upon Canaan, therefore, reflects a true historical situation: the alliance between the children of Israel (Shem) and the Sea-Peoples (Japheth) at the expense of the Canaanites. This special background of Genesis 9:20–27 accords very well with its traditional-historical isolation, long noted by commentators. The passage does not presuppose either the J or the P elements in the Flood story (6:9–9:19), since in the latter Noah's sons are already married and their names, in order of birth, are Shem, Ham, and Japheth, whereas in this story at least the youngest son evidently still lives in his father's tent, and the sons' names are Shem, Japheth, and Canaan – in that order. According to some scholars, "Ham the father of " in 9:22 may be a gloss; it was Canaan who committed the misdeed, and who is meant by Noah's "youngest son" in verse 24, and consequently it is Canaan who is cursed in verses 25–27. "Ham being the father of Canaan" (9:18b), too, would in that case also be a gloss added to connect verses 18–19 with verses 20–27. For another view, see U. Cassuto, From Noah to Abraham, pp. 149ff.


K. Budde, Biblische Urgeschichte (1883); H. Gunkel, Genesis, uebersetzt und erklaert (1902), 70; J. Skinner, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Genesis (1917, icc), 182; G. Von Rad, Genesis. A Commentary (1961), 131; D. Neiman, in: A. Altmann (ed.), Biblical Motifs (1966), 113–34. add. bibliography: S.D. Sperling, The Original Torah (1998), 88–90.

[David Neiman /

S. David Sperling (2nd ed.)]