Reformacja w Polsce, Reformation in Poland

Biblical Horizons Blog

James Jordan at

Biblical Horizons Feed

No. 98: The Sin of Ham and the Curse of Canaan, Part 3
An Exposition of Genesis 9:20-27

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 98
Copyright 1997 Biblical Horizons
August, 1997

The Righteousness of Shem and Japheth

As noted above, the action of Shem and Japheth was purely symbolic. They did not need to cover Noah with a garment, for he was already covered by the tent. Their action was a symbolic affirmation of Noah’s authority, a symbolic rejection of Ham’s temptation.

We read that they took "the garment." This might mean any garment, or it might imply that they took the garment Noah had laid aside (which means it must have lain far enough away from him that the sons did not have to disturb him to get it). Since weaving cloth and making garments were laborious and time-consuming before the modern world, it is not likely that Noah had many changes of clothing, so it is entirely possible that Shem and Japheth recovered Noah with the same garment he had earlier removed. Even if it was a different garment, it is symbolically equivalent.

Not only was Shem’s and Japheth’s action unnecessary, it was also carried out in a highly symbolic fashion. Each son took a corner of the garment and held it on his shoulder, and then the two of them walked backward and covered Noah. In part, this was so that they would not look at Noah’s nakedness, but they might have held the garment at their hips or somewhere else for this purpose. Again, the text would make perfect sense if the detail about the shoulders were left out: They took the garment and walked backward. Thus, the shoulder is important.

The word for shoulder is shechem, a word also used for persons and a town. In Genesis 33:18, Jacob arrived at Shechem. The king of the place was Hamor, and his son was named Shechem (Genesis 34). The town of Shechem was located in the col (saddle-shaped depression) between Mounts Ebal and Gezirim. As mountain peaks are "heads" in the Bible (Genesis 8:5; Revelation 17:9), this area was a shoulder leading up to these heads. Similarly, the son Shechem was a shoulder and support of his father, Hamor, the head of the town.

Shechem is not just the shoulder but the upper back and neck. A more precise term, kateph, refers to the shoulders as such. These two terms are regularly used for the idea of supporting something or holding something up, especially holding up the house of God (His general throne), or the Ark (His specific throne). Note the following in particular:

"The government will be upon His shoulders" (Isaiah 9:6). "I will set the key of the house of David on his shoulder" (Isaiah 22:22). "The holy objects they carried on the shoulder (Numbers 7:9). "Ark of God on their shoulders" (1 Chronicles 15:15).

From all this it should be clear that by carrying Noah’s garment on their shoulders, the two righteous sons were upholding his rule, position, and authority.

Nakedness and Holiness

Two sons as two pillars holding up a screen before the ruler is replicated in the architecture of the Tabernacle and Temple, where pillars hold up screens before Yahweh’s private chambers (Holy Place) and throne room (Holy of Holies). Invasion of Yahweh’s chambers by pulling back the screens without permission is equivalent to spying out the nakedness, the "sabbath rest weakness," of Noah or of any ruler (see 2 Chronicles 26:16-21; Esther 4:11; and James B. Jordan, The Death Penalty in the Mosaic Law, chapter 3: "The Death Penalty for Encroachment.")

The parallel between Noah’s nakedness and the veiled Ark of the Covenant has another aspect. According to Numbers 4:5, when the Tabernacle was taken down the priests were to remove the inner veil and cover the Ark with it. Since they were not to look at the Ark, the veil must have hung on the inside of the posts on which it was hung (Exodus 26:31-34). The priests would take it down from its pillar-shoulders and walk backward, draping the veil over the Ark.

Does this means that a person’s private parts are "holy" in some sense? To my knowledge the Bible never directly speaks this way, but it is a fact that sinful exposures of nakedness are denotated in Leviticus 18 & 20 by a series of terms, most of which are also used in religious contexts (marked with *). These words are not used for such sins as murder and theft:

zimmah, lewdness, 18:17; 20:14
*tame’, defile, 18:20, 24, 27, 28, 30
*to`ebhah, abomination, 18:22, 26, 27, 29, 30; 20:13
tebel, perversion, 18:23; 20:12
chesed, disgrace, 20:17
*niddah, impurity, 20:21

We may also note that circumcision is performed on this central part of the body, signifying the sacrifice of the whole person.

We can draw these considerations together by saying that the private parts are a place of symbolic holiness and life, but that because of Adam’s sin, they become a place of symbolic defilement and death (Leviticus 15). Either way, they are not to be exposed to view except within the closed circle of a proper marriage.

(The notion that every part of the human body is the same, and thus all of it may be exposed equally, is a piece of rationalism not supported by the Bible. If the Greeks played their Olympic games completely naked, this does not justify the practice of having communal showers for men in Christian schools, college, and armies.)

C. The Parousia of Noah

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

Noah’s awakening from his wine parallels Yahweh’s return to the garden in Genesis 3. It indicates that the time of rest is over, and the work of the enthroned king as judge must recommence.

According to this statement, Ham was Noah’s youngest son. According to Genesis 10:21, Japheth was the eldest.

Why is Ham called the youngest son at this point? This would seem to be a point better made in the course of a genealogy. The reason for its mention here is this:

B’ Judgments on the Brothers

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

Noah now pronounces curses and blessings, as God did in Genesis 3. As God began with the serpent and a direct curse, so Noah begins with Ham (through Canaan) and a direct curse. Yahweh followed the curse on the serpent with judgments against the woman and the man, but Noah is in the happier circumstance of being able to pronounce blessings on his two older sons.

If we take the occurrences of Canaan and his curse as our guide, the paragraph appears to have a roughly chiastic form, as noted.

Recalling that the sin of Ham is like the sin of the serpent, we can note that the curse on Canaan is like the curse on the serpent. The latter was cursed to crawl along the ground, under the feet of humanity. He was brought low. Similarly, Canaan will be under the feet of his brothers.

As with a number of negative predictions in the Bible, the curse on Canaan may have a double aspect. On the one hand, "slave of slaves" may mean "lowest of slaves." On the other hand, it might imply "best of slaves." Which it is going to be will depend on how Canaan responds to God’s Word. In fact, the Canaanite Gibeonites became excellent slaves of the Tabernacle and Temple. Moreover, salvation is offered to Canaan in that he will serve the righteous, and be under their influence.

The other sons of Ham are not mentioned. Perhaps they did not show the marks of their father’s rebelliousness. Those who want to take this passage as some kind of prediction of the future course of all of human history must come to grips with the fact that the other three groups of Hamites are not mentioned.

Noah does not directly bless his other sons. Rather he blesses Yahweh, and links Him with Shem explicitly. This bestows the priesthood on Shem, and the later genealogies in Genesis carry this forward, specifying to Eber, and then to Abram, and then to Isaac, and then to Jacob. Why Shem rather than Japheth was given this honor we are not told, but possibly it is because Japheth was the eldest, and throughout Genesis the firstborn son is set aside in favor of a younger son – pointing to the need for a second Adam.

Japheth’s name comes from the word meaning "enlarge," and Noah’s prayer for Japheth is thus a significant pun. It seems to mean that while Shem will carry the sabbatical duties of humanity, Japheth will major in the cultural tasks.

While it is true that Noah’s curse and prayer are not set forth as a prophecy, they do initiate history. As such we do find that the Canaanites were reduced to slavery under the rule of Shemites, Japhethites, and other Hamites. This is part of what Genesis 14 is about. Any attempt to transfer the statements about Canaan to other Hamites, as Arthur Custance has done in his writings, is illegitimate.

Historically, we see Israel interacting with other Shemites and Hamites throughout the Former Days, up to the exile. After the exile, in the Latter Days, Israel interacts with Japhethite nations primarily. This history, however, comes to an end with the end of Israel and the Oikumene in ad 70 (Matthew 23:35; Revelation 1-22), and it is completely illegitimate to try and characterize post-Biblical Shemites and Japhethites as "specialists in religion" and "specialists in culture" respective, as again Custance has done.

A’ Noah’s Life and Death:

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

The first statement indicates that Noah lived in the new creation 350 years. But then we are linked with the old creation by saying that he a total of 950 years. The new creation was not a complete break, but a development of the old. The full new creation has not come.

And Noah died. He was a type of the Messiah to come, but was not the Messiah. His rule in history came to an end.


The principles revealed in this story are permanent and abiding. A few years ago, I witnessed them in action. A woman manager who had built up a business over several years came into a time of crisis in her life. She was depressed a good deal of the time and almost had a nervous breakdown. She had to depend on her assistant. The assistant decided that she was incompetent, and in fact had chafed under her authority for some time. He was convinced that he could do a better job. The assistant went to the owner of the business and told stories about the woman’s depression, arguing that she could not handle things any longer. The woman was demoted and the assistant was promoted. Within a couple of years, the newly promoted manager had wrecked the business through incompetence, and his life has gone downhill from there. I’ve seen this story more than once, and if you’ve lived for very long, you probably have as well.

Noah did nothing wrong. Ham had to search out Noah’s life (tent) and then make an issue out of something that was not really a problem: a couple of glasses of wine and an afternoon nap. But let us suppose that Noah was becoming a real drunkard, as some have imagined. What then? Even so, it was not Ham’s place to magnify this problem into an excuse for mounting a revolution.

Ham was the "youngest" son. Why is this stressed? Partly because it is the temptation of youth to think that they know better. Ham may not have said "Don’t trust anyone over 30," but he was saying "Don’t trust anyone over 600."

Ham had other options. He might have moved away with Noah’s blessing and started up his own culture, just as the assistant in the story above might have started his own operation, or moved into a genuinely open managerial position elsewhere.

Or, Ham might have waited with his brothers until Noah was ready to retire, or died.

But he didn’t.

Those who are impatient for authority will become slaves.