Curse of ham (canaan)

The story of Noah’s curse of Canaan, found in Genesis 9:18-29, has generated many questions and a lot of grief.  Frequently people refer to the incident as the curse of Ham, but it was Canaan who was cursed.  I’d like to share my thinking of the story by:

  1. First, sharing the Biblical account; then
  2. Providing a selection from Chapter 10 of Patriarchs and Prophets; and finally
  3. Giving a bullet-point summary.


The sons of Noah who went forth from the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. (Ham was the father of Canaan.) These three were the sons of Noah, and from these the people of the whole earth were dispersed. Noah began to be a man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned backward, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said, “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.” He also said, “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Shem; and let Canaan be his servant. May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem, and let Canaan be his servant.” After the flood Noah lived 350 years. All the days of Noah were 950 years, and he died. 


… Noah, speaking by divine inspiration, foretold the history of the three great races to spring from these fathers of mankind. Tracing the descendants of Ham, through the son rather than the father, he declared, “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.” The unnatural crime of Ham declared that filial reverence had long before been cast from his soul, and it revealed the impiety and vileness of his character. These evil characteristics were perpetuated in Canaan and his posterity, whose continued guilt called upon them the judgments of God.

On the other hand, the reverence manifested by Shem and Japheth for their father, and thus for the divine statutes, promised a brighter future for their descendants. Concerning these sons it was declared: “Blessed be Jehovah, God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.” The line of Shem was to be that of the chosen people, of God’s covenant, of the promised Redeemer. Jehovah was the God of Shem. From him would descend Abraham, and the people of Israel, through whom Christ was to come. “Happy is that people, whose God is the Lord.” Psalm 144:15. And Japheth “shall dwell in the tents of Shem.” In the blessings of the gospel the descendants of Japheth were especially to share.

The posterity of Canaan descended to the most degrading forms of heathenism. Though the prophetic curse had doomed them to slavery, the doom was withheld for centuries. God bore with their impiety and corruption until they passed the limits of divine forbearance. Then they were dispossessed, and became bondmen to the descendants of Shem and Japheth.

The prophecy of Noah was no arbitrary denunciation of wrath or declaration of favor. It did not fix the character and destiny of his sons. But it showed what would be the result of the course of life they had severally chosen and the character they had developed. It was an expression of God’s purpose toward them and their posterity in view of their own character and conduct. As a rule, children inherit the dispositions and tendencies of their parents, and imitate their example; so that the sins of the parents are practiced by the children from generation to generation. Thus the vileness and irreverence of Ham were reproduced in his posterity, bringing a curse upon them for many generations. “One sinner destroyeth much good.” Ecclesiastes 9:18.

On the other hand, how richly rewarded was Shem’s respect for his father; and what an illustrious line of holy men appears in his posterity! “The Lord knoweth the days of the upright,” “and his seed is blessed.” Psalm 37:18, 26. “Know therefore that the Lord thy God He is God, the faithful God, which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love Him and keep His commandments to a thousand generations.” Deuteronomy 7:9


  • We are not told why Noah cursed Canaan instead of Ham.
  • Noah was speaking under the inspiration of God.
  • Ham’s unnatural act (“seeing the nakedness of Noah”) revealed a character flaw in himself. The incident did not create that character flaw.
  • Ham’s character flaw was passed to his son Canaan.
  • Noah’s curse was a prophecy that recognized the freewill actions of Canaan (and his descendants). In other words, the curse was connected to Canaan’s sin (character); not his skin.
    • See Deuteronomy 7:1-5 Where God marks the Canaanites for complete destruction.
  • None of the sons were cemented to their destinies. Noah’s prophecies revealed the self-determined choice of each son.
  • See the Genesis:
    • 16:1-16. God tells Hagar about the future of Ishmael (“he shall be a wild donkey of a man…”).
    • 25:21-23. God reveals the future of Rebekah’s two sons (“… the older shall serve the younger…”).
    • 49:1-27. Jacob, with prophetic vision, tells each son the future of their descendants.
  • In all of these stories, the Spirit of Inspiration revealed the self-determined character of each person. No one was predestined to a particular end.