Noah’s Family Prophecy
So Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done to him.
Genesis 9:24 (NKJV)
When Noah awakened from his drunken stupor, he was probably ashamed of what he had done; but he was also surprised to find himself covered by a garment. Naturally, he wondered what had happened in the tent while he was asleep. The logical thing would be to speak to Japheth, his firstborn; and he and Shem must have told him what Ham had done.
These words are Noah’s only recorded speech found in Scripture. It’s too bad that this brief speech has been misunderstood and labeled a “curse,” because what Noah said is more like a father’s prophecy concerning his children and grandchildren. The word “curse” is used only once, but it’s directed at Ham’s youngest son Canaan and not at Ham himself. This suggests that Noah was describing the future of his sons and one grandson on the basis of what he saw in their character, not unlike what Jacob did before he died (Gen. 49).
So he said,
“Cursed be Canaan!
The lowest of slaves
he will be to his brothers.”
Genesis 9:25 (NET)
If Noah had wanted to pronounce a curse, it would have been directed at Ham, the son who had sinned against his father; but instead, he named Canaan three times. It was a principle in later Jewish law that the children could not be punished for the sins of their fathers (Deut. 24:16; Jer. 31:29-30; Ezek. 18:1-4), and it’s likely that this principle applied in patriarchal times.
Looking down the centuries, Noah predicted three times that the descendants of Canaan would become the lowest of servants. The Canaanites are listed in Genesis 10:15-19 and are the very nations the Israelites conquered and whose land they inhabited (15:18-21; Ex. 3:8, 17; Num. 13:29; Josh. 3:10; 1 Kings 9:20). It’s difficult to describe the moral decay of the Canaanite society, especially their religious practices; but the laws given in Leviticus 18 will give you some idea of how they lived. God warned the Jews not to compromise with the Canaanite way of life and to destroy everything that would tempt them in that direction (Ex. 34:10-17; Deut. 7).
Two misconceptions should be cleared up.
- First, the descendants of Ham were not members of a black race but were Caucasian, so there’s no basis in this so-called “curse of Canaan” for the institution of slavery.
- Second, in spite of their evil ways, some of these Hamitic peoples built large and advanced civilizations, including the Babylonians, Assyrians, and Egyptians.
In one sense, we can say that the descendants of Ham “served” the whole world through the ideas and implements that they discovered and developed. Like the Cainites (Gen. 4:17-24), these nations were gifted at creating things for this world (Luke 16:8).
He also said,
“Worthy of praise is the Lord, the God of Shem!
May Canaan be the slave of Shem!
Genesis 9:26 (NET)
Noah didn’t bless Shem; he blessed “the Lord, the God of Shem”. In so doing, Noah gave glory to God for what He will do with the descendants of Shem. Noah acknowledged before his sons that whatever Shem possessed would be God’s gift, and whatever blessing Shem brought to the world in the future would be because of the grace of God.
Shem, of course, is the ancestor of Abraham (11:10-32) who is the founder of the Hebrew nation; so Noah was talking about the Jewish people. That the Lord would enrich the Jewish people spiritually was promised to Abraham (12:1-3) and later explained by Paul (Rom. 3:1-4; 9:1-13). It’s through Israel that we have the knowledge of the true God, the written Word of God, and the Savior, Jesus Christ, who was born in Bethlehem of the tribe of Judah. In the Hebrew, “Shem” means “name,” and it’s the people of Israel who have preserved the name of the Lord.
Shem was Noah’s second-born son, but wherever the three sons are listed, Shem’s name is first (5:32; 6:10; 9:18). It’s another instance in Genesis of the grace of God elevating the second-born to the place of the firstborn. God chose Abel instead of Cain (Gen. 4:4-5), Isaac instead of Ishmael (17:15-22), and Jacob instead of Esau (25:19-23). Paul discusses this profound theological truth in Romans 9.
May God make plenty of room for Japheth’s family
and give them homes among Shem’s tents.
And let Canaan be his slave also!
Genesis 9:27 (VOICE)
He was the ancestor of what we generally call the “Gentile nations.” We have here play on words, for in the Hebrew the name Japheth is very close to the word that means, “to enlarge.” The Hamites built large civilizations in the east, and the Semites settled in the land of Canaan and surrounding territory, but the descendants of Japheth spread out much farther than their relatives and even reached what we know as Asia Minor and Europe. They were a people who would multiply and move into new territory.
However, while the descendants of Japheth were successful in their conquests, when it came to things spiritual, they would have to depend on Shem. God is the God of Shem and the descendants of Japheth would find God “in the tents of Shem.” Israel was chosen by God to be a “light to the Gentiles” (Isa. 42:6; 49:6), for “salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22). Sad to say, for the most part, the nation of Israel failed to witness to the Gentiles that they might believe in the true and living God (Isa. 52:5; Rom. 2:24).
When Jesus came to earth, He brought light to the Gentiles (Luke 2:32), and the apostles and the early church carried that light to the nations (Acts 1:8; 13:47). The descendants of Noah’s three sons were represented in the early church: the Ethiopian treasurer, a descendant of Ham; Paul, a descendant of Shem; and Cornelius and his family, who were descendants of Japheth.
Noah’s words are not idle words. As the story unfolds, the importance of this curse becomes clear. But as the ancients knew, and we now have forgotten, words have power. It was with a word that God created the heavens above and the earth below. Now Noah’s words create a new reality, a harsh reality for Ham and his children.
From the time the flood was over, Noah lived another 350 years.
Genesis 9:28 (VOICE)
Noah lived another three-and-a-half centuries, and we have every reason to believe that he walked with God and served Him faithfully. As far as the record is concerned, he fell once; and certainly he repented and the Lord forgave him. In our walk with God, we climb the hills and sometimes we descend into the valleys. As Alexander Whyte used to say,
“The victorious Christian life is a series of new beginnings.”