Who is Canaan and Why is He Cursed?

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Noah, we learn of the harsh curse that Noah directed at his grandson, Canaan.

After the flood, Noah and his family leave the ark. Noah brings an offering to G-d, and the rebuilding of the world begins. In Genesis 9:18-29, the Bible states that Noah plants a vineyard, drinks wine and becomes drunk. Wallowing naked in his tent, Ham (who is constantly identified as the father of Canaan), sees Noah’s nakedness and tells his two brothers, Shem and Japheth, who were outside. Shem and Japheth take a garment, lay it upon their shoulders, and while walking backward, cover their father’s nakedness, all the while refusing to look at their uncovered father.

Noah awakens from his intoxicated stupor, and realizes what his “small son” (Ham) had done to him. In Genesis 9:25, Noah angrily exclaims: “Ah’roor Canaan, eh’ved ah’va’deem yee’hyeh l’eh’chav,” Cursed is Cannan; a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers. Noah then blesses his other two sons, saying (Genesis 9:26-27): “Blessed is the L-rd, the G-d of Shem, and let Canaan be a slave to them. May G-d extend Japheth, but he will dwell in the tents of Shem; may Canaan be a slave to them.” (For a fuller analysis, see Noah 5762-2001 and Noah 5767-2006.)

Faced with a number of very challenging questions, the commentators go to great lengths to try to explain Noah’s esoteric words and message. They are particularly perplexed by the mordant curse that Noah directs at Ham and his son Canaan. What did Ham do to deserve eternal condemnation? To justify Noah’s furious response, many commentators interpret the biblical expression (Genesis 9:22): “Va’yahr Cham ah’vee Chanaan ayt ehr’vaht ah’veev,” to mean far more than Ham seeing Noah’s nakedness. They actually regard Ham’s actions as a sexual assault, asserting that Ham either sodomized Noah or castrated him. How else to explain the depths of Noah’s anger, or why scripture would state that when Noah awoke from his wine, he realized what his younger son had done to him? Had Ham merely “looked at his [Noah’s] nakedness” or mocked his drunken stupor, the intoxicated Noah would have been oblivious to what his son had done.

The commentators are also baffled by the fact that Noah does not curse Ham, but rather curses Ham’s son, Canaan, Noah’s own grandson. What benefit is there in cursing one’s grandson? And how can one blame a grandson for his father’s actions? After all, the Torah strongly affirms the principle that every person is responsible for his own actions.

At times, when faced with a host of complex questions in a biblical narrative, the commentators resort to Midrashic sources that enhance the story with facts that are absent from the original text. This is such an instance.

The Midrash Tanchuma 15 and Bereshith Rabba 36:7 record a dispute between Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Nechemiah. Rabbi Judah asserts that since G-d had already blessed Noah and his sons, the Al-mighty could not allow Ham to be cursed, so Noah could only curse Canaan. Rabbi Nechemiah maintains that the curse was deservedly aimed at Canaan, because it was Canaan who originally saw Noah in his intoxicated state and informed the others. According to the Sforno, it was the indignity (emasculation) that Canaan, not Ham, had perpetrated upon Noah, that Ham saw. This, then, is what the Bible means when it says that Ham saw his father’s nakedness.

The Talmud in Sanhedrin 70a also suggests that Noah desperately wanted to have a young son who would attend to him in his old age, but when Ham emasculated him, Noah cursed Ham by cursing Ham’s own child, Canaan.

The doubled expression found in Genesis 9:25, “Eh’ved ah’va’deem yee’hyeh l’eh’chav,” He, Canaan, shall be a slave of slaves to his brothers, is also problematic. The curse is understood by the Netziv to mean that, from birth, Ham’s children will be so deeply steeped in the spirit of slavery that they will never desire freedom. This will be unlike the children of Shem and Japheth, who will constantly aspire for freedom, whenever they are enslaved.

According to some etymologists, the name Canaan itself is derived from the Hebrew term, “Hach’nah’ah,” which means lowering or degrading oneself. The commentators find ample evidence of this degrading behavior. The Midrash Rabba Genesis 37:11 cites Rabbi Chia bar Abba, who suggests that Ham had illicit (bestial) relations in the ark, and that the child born from this relationship was Canaan. The Talmud in Pesachim 113b cites five things that Canaan instructed his children: To love one another, to love theft, to love lewdness (zeema), to hate their rulers and masters, and to never speak the truth. The Talmud in Yomah 87a states that, despite the fact that Canaan had some worthy offspring, Canaan is regarded as an exemplar of those wicked individuals who cause their children to suffer until eternity.

As the narrative of the Bible evolves, we learn of the many immoral and debased practices of Canaan and his descendants. The apple did not fall far from the tree.

May you be blessed.