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No. 96: The Sin of Ham and the Curse of Canaan, Part 1
An Exposition of Genesis 9:20-27

Copyright © 1997 Biblical Horizons
June, 1997

The history of the sin of Ham and the curse of Canaan comes in the middle of the Generations of Noah, a section of Genesis that begins at Genesis 6:9 and extends to the closing notice, Genesis 11:9. To understand the story better, it is necessary to get in mind the literary structure of the Generations of Noah, as it develops out of the earlier sections of Genesis. To that end, I should like to quote what I have written earlier on that structure:

[Let us make] a comparison of Genesis 1:1 with 2:4b and 5:1b:
"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth."
"In the day God made earth and heaven…."
"In the day God created Adam…."

In Hebrew, the structure is:

1:1: b+reshith (in beginning)
heavens & earth
2:4b b+ha+yom (in the day)
earth & heavens
5:1b b+yom (in day)
man & woman (5:2)

This structure is followed in the next verses. In 1:2, a break in Hebrew (no vav, "and") introduces the thought that the earth is formless and void, but that the Spirit and the Word ("let there be") will work together to make it a proper habitation. In 2:5, the same break in Hebrew (no vav) introduces the thought that the earth is barren of vegetation, but that water (symbol of Spirit) and man (image of the Word) will work together to make it a proper habitation. In 5:1b, the same Hebrew break introduces man and woman as co-laborers who should work to bring the world to fruition….

I might note here that the first section ends with God enthroned in sabbath rest. The second section moves to a negative sabbath, as man is driven from the source of Spiritual water and the earth brings forth "thorns," evil men, leading to a climax in the seventh generation from Adam: Lamech. The third section also moves to a negative sabbath, as man and woman become corrupt and fail to bring the earth to fruition, and God announces sabbath judgment, the end of the world (6:1-8). Hope for redemption, however, is announced at the very end of sections two and three (4:25f., 6:8).

(James B. Jordan, "Studies in Genesis One: The Structure of Genesis," in The
Geneva Review
22 [September, 1985].)

* * *

After the creation account, the sections of Genesis are marked by an introductory phrase: These are the generations, or offspring, of something or someone. In this way, the theme of "genesis," or beginnings, initiations, openings, births, is continued through the book. In Trees & Thorns 1 (1991), I wrote:

The Book of Genesis can be seen as having an introduction and seven sections:

Introduction. The Creation of the Heavens and the Earth: Genesis 1:1 –2:3.

1. The Generations of the Heavens and the Earth: Genesis 2:4–4:26 – corresponding to Day 1, the creation of the heavens and earth out of formlessness (creation of man) and the separation of light and darkness (judgment on man; division of Cain and Abel).

2. The Generations of Adam: Genesis 5:1–6:8 – corresponding to Day 2, the establishment of a firmament to separate waters above from waters below. In my speculative opinion, the godly line of Seth was the human form of the firmament, and the corruption of that line is answered by the removal of the firmament and the re-coalescence of the waters in the Flood.

3. The Generations of Noah: Genesis 6:9–11:9 – corresponding to Day 3. There are two large sections here:

4. The Generations of Shem: Genesis 11:10-26 – corresponding to Day 4, the establishment of light-bearers of rule in the heavens. Not only are the godly called lights, but the patriarch’s lives were marked out in years that are the same as significant astronomical numbers.

5. The Generations of Terah: Genesis 11:27–25:11 – corresponding to Day 5, when the great swarming creatures were made, and when God gave His first command to any creature. These themes, multiplication and law, are highlighted in the story of Abraham, which Genesis 11:27–25:11 delineate.

6. The Generations of Ishmael and Isaac: Genesis 25:12–35:29 – corresponding to Day 6. It is the story of Jacob that is the major item here. Day 6 also has two sections:

7. The Generations of Esau and Jacob: Genesis 36:1–50:26 – corresponding to Day 7. The sabbath-rest theme is clear in the story of Joseph, "the generations of Jacob" (37:1–50:26). The "generations of Esau" (ch. 36) point to the fall of man, which happened on the sabbath. Thus, a false sabbath rest is given to Esau, as he multiplies and takes control, while a true sabbath rest is given to the godly.

* * *

Let us now expand this structure. In the first section of Genesis, the Creation of the Heavens and the Earth (1:1–2:3), we can see this large pattern:

Turning to the Generations of the Heaven and Earth (2:4–4:26), we find this same general pattern:

This leads to an extension, with a second recapitulation of the structure:

We now come to the third section, the Generations of Adam (Genesis 5:1–6:8):

With this background, let us survey the Generations of Noah. First, we find a statement about man, Noah and his family (Genesis 6:9-10). Second, we find a problem: the wickedness of humanity (Genesis 6:11-12). Third, we find God’s resolution of this problem: the Flood. After the Flood, we find, fourth, God’s judgment on humanity, His blessing of Noah and the new humanity. Finally, fifth, we find a promise of sabbath peace in the Rainbow Covenant.

Like the Generations of the Heaven and the Earth, however, the Generations of Noah (the new humanity) continues on with two stories that show a new double fall. The first fall is that of Ham (analogous to that of Adam), and the second fall is that of the later descendants (analogous to that of Cain). We may outline it as follows:

This section, of course, is the subject of this paper; but to get the parallels more firmly in mind, let us outline the "fall of Cain" section that follows:

Notice the "fall and decline" pattern in the Generations of Noah is the same as in the Generations of the Heaven and the Earth. First, an Adamic figure falls into sin, and seeks to destroy the sanctuary. Second, a Cainitic figure seeks to build a counterfeit city. In the Generations of Noah, however, both attempts are frustrated, the former by the actions of Godly men and the latter by God Himself. We shall have to see the reasons for this.

The reason it is important for us to look at the literary and symbolic parallels among these early Histories is that it leads us to see clearly that it is not Noah but Ham who commits the great sin in the passage with which we are concerned. It has been a temptation for exegetes to focus on the drunkenness of Noah as the great sin, but it is Ham who, Satanlike, invades a private domain, and it is Ham who is judged, through Canaan. It is the purpose of this essay to demonstrate that thesis in detail, and to draw conclusions from it; but the thesis will not be fully credible until we have exegeted the passage in depth.

Structure of the Passage

The passage has a chiastic aspect, with Noah’s awakening at the center. Here is the general chiastic flow.

A. Noah, master of the ground
B. Noah plants vineyard
C. Noah in his tent
D. Canaan and the three brothers
E. Noah awakens and comes to judge
(Noah’s parousia, or appearance)
D’ Canaan and the three brothers
C’ Blessing of tents
B’ Noah lives 350 years
A’ Noah dies (returns to ground)

The actual literary structure, also chiastic, is as follows:

A. Noah’s God-like Labor:

8:20And Noah, a master of the ground, was the first,
  And he planted a vineyard.
   21And he drank from the wine,
  And became drunk,
And lay uncovered inside his tent.

B. Actions of the Brothers:

22And Ham, father of Canaan, saw
  The nakedness of his father,
    And he told his two brothers outside.
      23And Shem and Japheth took the garment,
        And they laid [it] upon a shoulder of each of
        And they walked backward,
      And they covered the nakedness of their father,
    And their faces were backward,
  And the nakedness of their father
They did not see.

C. Parousia of Noah:

24And Noah awoke from his wine,
And he knew what his youngest son had done to him.

B’ Judgments on the Brothers:

25And he said, "Cursed is Canaan.
  A slave of slaves he will be to his brothers.
    26And he said, "Blessed is Yahweh, God of Shem.
      And may Canaan be his slave.
    27And may God enlarge Japheth,
  And may he live in the tents of Shem,
And may Canaan be his slave."

A’ Noah’s Life and Death:

28And Noah lived after the flood three hundred years and fifty
  29And all the days of Noah were nine hundred years and fifty years.
And he died.

(to be continued)