A Slave of Slaves

slave of slaves (2)

3) Gen 9:24–25: Interpreters of this passage face two major issues. First, did Noah’s curse merely foretell what would happen or did it change the course of human history? Second, why did the calamity fall upon Canaan, rather than on Ham?[1]

Moses wrote, “And Noah awoke from his wine, and he knew what his youngest son did to him. And he said, ‘Canaan be cursed. A slave of slaves he will be to his brothers.’”

In the entire account of Noah’s experiences, Moses attributed only these words to him (Gen 6:8–9:29).[2]

Furthermore, for the first time in Scripture, a human uttered a curse upon someone else.[3]

Family patriarchs making pronouncements concerning their children appear throughout Genesis.[4] These declarations functioned much like reading a will to one’s heirs.[5]

Typically, such statements focused upon productive soil, the descendants of their offspring, and the relationships between them (e.g. Gen 24:60; Gen 27:27–29, 39–40; Gen 49:1).[6]

When the Lord curses someone or something, it remains binding (Gen 3:14, 17–19; Ps 37:22).[7]

However, God is not obligated to afflict a person whom another human curses (2 Sam 16:9–12; Prov 26:2).[8]

Consequently, scholars disagree whether the Lord spoke prophetically through Noah concerning his grandson.[9]

Some experts assert that Ham’s behavior served as the occasion when Noah cursed Canaan, rather than causing it.[10] His voyeurism and mockery may have finally pushed Noah beyond the breaking point.[11]

Similarly, Esau prepared a meal to accompany the moment when Isaac would bless him. Food did not provide the rationale for the decree (Gen 25:24–28; Gen 27:1–4).[12]

Commentators have wrestled with this text for millennia,[13] seeking to determine why Noah singled out Canaan when Ham perpetrated the offense.[14]

Some posit that a scribe erroneously added “Ham, the father of” to the standard Hebrew text of Gen 9:22.[15] However, most bible scholars avoid making such assertions unless there is no other way to interpret the text.[16]

In one perspective, God had already blessed Noah and his sons,[17] and Noah could not overturn that benediction (Gen 9:1).[18]

According to the Midrash Rabbah, a Jewish text which dates to shortly after the exile:

Rabbi Judah said, “Since it is written, ‘And God blessed Noah and his sons,’ while there cannot be a curse where a blessing has been given, consequently, [Noah] said, ‘Cursed be Canaan.’”

Rabbi Nehemiah explained, “It was Canaan who saw it [in the first place] and informed them, therefore the curse is attached to him who did wrong.”[19]

On the other hand, grammatical evidence suggests that Ham was Noah’s youngest son (ben qaton), rather than the second-born (Cf. Gen 5:32).[20]

This also fits with the Hebrew treatment of word pairs, in which the shortest terms appear first.[21] In this scenario, “Shem, Ham, and Japheth” does not reflect their birth order.[22]

Since Noah’s youngest son humiliated him, he cursed Ham’s youngest son.[23]

Once again, Genesis reflects the corporate solidarity of the Ancient Near East.[24] What the patriarch of a family or clan did affected his descendants for good or for ill (Exod 20:5–6; Num 16:25–33; Josh 7:24–26; Jer 35:18–19).[25]

People tend to reproduce children whose behavior resembles their own.[26]

In this view, Canaan conducted himself during this episode in a manner which merited the sentence he received.[27]

Egypt (Mizraim) and Canaan—two of the nations which descended from Ham—exhibited notoriously contemptible behavior (Gen 10:6; Lev 18:3).[28]

In Joshua’s era, the people of Canaan suffered the consequences of acting like Ham (Exod 23:23–24; Deut 9:4–5).[29]

The struggle between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman continued (Gen 3:15; Gen 4:9–11).[30]

“A slave (evedh) of slaves” creates a Hebrew superlative, meaning the lowest of subjects.[31]

We cannot determine whether this means that Canaan’s progeny would be the property of others or merely their servants. The term evedh covers a wide range of subordination to another person or nation. Even Israel’s king depicted himself that way when he wrote to the emperor of Assyria (2 Ki 16:7).[32]

However, we do know that Canaan’s offspring experienced subjugation to the descendants of Shem and Japheth. Approximately forty years after Moses penned Genesis, Shem’s descendants overtook Palestine (Josh 11:16–20; Josh 16:10; Josh 17:12–13).[33]

Slavery as an Ancient Near Eastern institution began ca. 4000 BC, when warriors took captives in battle. It later expanded to include debtors and their children (Lev 25:39–44; Neh 5:5).[34]

In Europe and the United States, people tragically misused this verse to assert that God commanded the subjugation of Africans.[35]

One abolitionist wrote, “I am persuaded that no passage in the sacred volume of revelation has suffered more abuse than ‘Noah’s curse or malediction.’”[36]

Ham’s name comes from a term meaning “hot” or “warm” (ham),[37] yet proponents of slavery claimed that “Ham” meant “black” or “burnt.”[38]

Although none of Canaan’s offspring included Africans with dark skin (Gen 10:15–19),[39] advocates of slavery asserted that the curse applied to all of Ham’s descendants (Gen 10:6–14).[40]

Finally, a curse does not equal a command.[41] Modern Old Testament scholars recognize such views as “exegetically ridiculous.” Nevertheless, some reprinted commentaries reflect a pro-slavery position even today.[42]

One reprinted book by A. W. Pink claims:

The whole of Africa was peopled by the descendants of Ham, and for many centuries the greater part of that continent lay under the dominion of the Romans, Saracens, and Turks.

And, as is well known, the negroes who were for so long the slaves of Europeans and Americans also claim Ham as their progenitor…The fulfillment of this part of the prophecy is well-known to our readers.[43]

By claiming theological justification for a great blot on European and American history, such publications continue to foster racist attitudes in our churches.[44]

Image via Wikimedia Commons


a) Read Gen 9:24–25. Why did Noah curse Canaan, rather than Ham? Were Noah’s words binding upon God? Why or why not? How did the improper exegesis of these verses impact African, European, and American history? What effect does this passage have upon the way we treat others?





Go to Blessed Be the God of Shem

[Related posts include God Curses the Serpent (Gen 3:14); The First Good News (Gen 3:15); Thorns and Thistles (Gen 3:17–18); A Return to the Ground (Gen 3:19); Misappropriated Blood (Gen 4:9‒10); Cursed from the Ground (Gen 4:11‒14); Seeking Relief (Gen 5:28–32); A Renewed Mandate (Gen 9:1); The Sons of Noah (Gen 9:18–19); Noah Planted a Vineyard (Gen 9:20–21); Ham Dishonors His Father (Gen 9:22–23); Blessed Be the God of Shem (Gen 9:26–27); The Descendants of Ham (Gen 10:6–14); The Descendants of Canaan (Gen 10:15–20); The Descendants of Shem (Gen 10:21–31); Seventy Nations (Gen 10:32); Jesus Sends Seventy (Two) (Luke 10:1–2); Life-Long Honor (Eph 6:2–3); Old Testament Textual Criticism; Ancient Literature; and Author and Date of Genesis]

[Click here to go to Chapter 10: Noah Curses Canaan (Gen 9:18–27)]


[1]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 323–4.

[2]Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 149.

[3] Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 201.

[4]Matthews, Chavalas, and Walton, IVPBBCOT, Gen 9:27.

[5]Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 149.

[6]Matthews, Chavalas, and Walton, IVPBBCOT, Gen 9:27.

[7]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 324.

[8]Walton, Genesis, 350.

[9]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 201.

[10]Matthews, Chavalas, and Walton, IVPBBCOT, Gen 9:27.

[11]Walton, Genesis, 350.

[12]Matthews, Chavalas, and Walton, IVPBBCOT, Gen 9:27.

[13]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 201.

[14]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 324.

[15]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 197. Wenham disagrees with that claim.

[16]Ellis R. Brotzman, Old Testament Textual Criticism: A Practical Introduction (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1994), 124.

[17]Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 150.

[18]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 201.

[19]Freedman, trans, Genesis (vol. 1 of Midrash Rabbah Translated into English), 36:7–8, 292, https://archive.org/stream/RabbaGenesis/midrashrabbahgen027557mbp#page/n339.

[20]Gesenius, Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, 431, https://archive.org/stream/geseniushebrewgr00geseuoft#page/430.

[21] Shem (שֵׁם) and Ham both consist of two consonants. Japheth has three.

[22] Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 201.

[23]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 324.

[24]Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 150.

[25]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 325.

[26]Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 150.

[27]Matthews, Chavalas, and Walton, IVPBBCOT, Gen 9:27.

[28]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 201.

[29]Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 150.

[30]Walton, Genesis, 351.

[31]Gesenius, Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, 431, https://archive.org/stream/geseniushebrewgr00geseuoft#page/430.

[32]H. Ringgren, U. Rüterswörden, and H. Simian-Yofre, “עָבַד” (evedh) TDOT 10:376–405, 387, 390.

[33]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 202.

[34]Muhammad A. Dandamayev, “Slavery: Ancient Near East,” ABD 6:58–62, 58–9.

[35]Walton, Genesis, 355.

[36]J. Daniel Hays, From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race (ed. D. A. Carson; New Studies in Biblical Theology; Downers Grove, IL; Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press; Apollos, 2003), 51.

[37]K.-M. Beyse, “חם” (ham), TDOT  4: 473–7, 473.

[38]Hays, From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race, 52.

[39]Walton, Genesis, 355.

[40]Hays, From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race, 52.

[41]Walton, Genesis, 355–6.

[42]Hays, From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race, 53.

[43]Arthur Walkington Pink, Gleanings in Genesis (Seaside, OR: Watchmaker, 2011), 126, Http://www.grace-ebooks.com/library/Arthur%20W.%20Pink/Gleanings%20in%20Genesis%20-%20Arthur%20W.%20Pink.pdf.

[44]Hays, From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race, 54.