Skip to content

Noah's Curse: Punishment and Paradox

Pages 123 - 135


Netivot, Israel

1 The author would like to fully acknowledge the Hemdat Hadarom College Research Authority for their support in writing this paper.

2 Although intoxication is portrayed in the story as a problematic state with potential for grave consequences, Noah's behavior is not to be viewed as sinful or as an unequivocal ethical lapse. That imbibing wine alone does not tarnish Noah's image is clear from the fact that Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, and his brothers all participate in drinking parties — Abraham on the occasion of the weaning of his son (Gen. 21:8), Jacob on the occasion of his wedding (29:21–24), and Joseph and his brothers at a meal marking their reconciliation (43:34). Even if Noah did overreach by drinking to the point of drunkenness, he could not have foreseen what his son would do to him, just as Joseph's brothers could not have anticipated the stratagem that their brother Joseph would employ against them when they drank to drunkenness.

3 The act of sexual malfeasance — the rape of the drunken father, Noah, at the hand of his son Ham — is not explicit in the story, but vaguely and equivocally intimated. Umberto Cassuto (Peirush 'al Sefer Bereshit [Jerusalem, 1987], 112) identified the expression “what his youngest son had done unto him,” employed by the narrator in v. 24, as attesting purposeful avoidance of crudity. On the vagueness of the description of what Ham did, see Holzinger to v. 22 (Heinrich Holzinger, Genesis [Freiburg, 1898]). The ambiguity appears to result from a desire to strike a balance between two contradictory goals: presenting the abominable act committed by Ham, father of Canaan, and minimizing the violence done to Noah's image.

4 H. Gunkel, ‘Aggadot bereshit, translation Alexander Zeron and Ruth Feld (Jerusalem, 1997/1998), 59.

5 See, e.g., J. Skinner, Genesis, International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh, 1930), 182. Y. Zakovitch and A. Shinan (Kakh Lo Katuv ba-Tanakh, 174) view the punishment given by Noah as very much in keeping with the offense committed. They argue that “Canaan, the son of Ham, receives this curse and this punishment measure for measure: a son (Ham) harmed his father, and hence the son of the offender (Canaan) will be harmed.” Noah's image suffers although his behavior is not sinful or representative of an unequivocal ethical lapse, as explained in note 1, supra.

6 H. Hayun, And Dinah went out: Reading Genesis 34 and Related Texts, Jerusalem 2011, 76–77.

7 U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Jerusalem 1985, 2:152.

8 R. Se'adya Ga'on proposes an augmented reading of the verse—“Cursed be the father of Canaan”—so that the actual object of the curse is Ham. ‘Ibn ‘Ezra’ suggests that the offense done to Noah should be viewed as resulting from joint action by Ham and Canaan, while Bassett conjectures that Canaan was the incestuous product of the union of Ham and Noah's wife. However, such explanations gloss over the unambiguous basic details of the story, which presents Ham as a lone sinner, Noah and his three sons as the sole active characters, and Canaan son of Ham as a man thrice cursed with bondage.

9 Among the proposals offered are: (a) Noah found it emotionally difficult to curse his own son, and thus preferred to bypass him and instead curse his grandson. (b) By cursing Canaan, Noah sought to drive a wedge between Ham and his son Canaan (on the assumption that Canaan would blame his father for the curse he received), with the objective of putting Ham through a similar experience to that undergone by his father.

10 E. A. Speiser, Genesis, Anchor Bible (New York, 1964), 62–63.

11 G. von Rad, Genesis. A Commentary, Old Testament Library (Philadelphia, 1972), 133, describes Canaan's comportment as “immodesty.” Cassuto (Bereshit, 105) establishes that “Noah's comments on the imprecation of Canaan and his enslavement to Shem and Japheth are not directed against the man Canaan, the son of Ham, but against the Canaanite people.” M. Buber (Darko shel Miqra: ‘Iyyunim bi-Defusei Signon ba-Tanakh [Jerusalem, 1978], 275) refers in his discussion of the story to the principle that “a deed of the fathers is a portent for the children.” His focus is not on the punishment of enslavement that is meted out to the Canaanite people for their progenitor's sin, but on how the conduct of the Canaanite nations (who in Gen. 15:16 are indicted with “the iniquity of the Amorite”) reflects the deed of their ancestor Canaan son of Ham. According to Buber, the purpose of Noah's curse is to express revulsion at the base sexual conduct of the Canaanites.

12 See D. Neiman, “The Date of the Circumstances of the Cursing of Canaan,” in Biblical Motifs, ed. Alexander Altmann (Cambridge, 1966), 113–114; Y. Kaufmann, Toledot ha-'Emuna ha-Yisre'elit [Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, 1971/1972], 3:651. For an account of the Israelites' evolving view of the Canaanite population in the era following the conquest, see M. Weinfeld, “Zion and Jerusalem as Religious and Political Capital: Ideology and Utopia,” in The Poet and the Historian: Essays in Literary and Historical Biblical Criticism, ed. R. E. Friedman (Chico, CA, 1983), 81–85.

13 Kaufmann, Toledot, 3:651. According to M. Naor (Ha-Miqra ve-ha-'Areẓ [Tel Aviv, 1951/1952], 1:5), the story of the curse of Ham serves “to justify Canaan's being ‘a servant of servants' to the Hebrews” in the context of the conquest of the Land of Canaan. See also R. Graves and R. Patai, Hebrew Myths: The Book of Genesis (London, 1964), 122.

14 In the view of Graves and Patai (Hebrew Myths, 113), the Philistines' conquest of the coastal Canaanite cities and Israelite assimilation within their culture, as reflected in the story of Samson and Delilah (Jdg. 15), represents cooperation by the descendants of Shem and Japheth in subjugating the Canaanites. However, Scripture depicts the Philistine invasion of Canaan as a punishment for the Israelites' sins that is antithetical to their interests. See Jdg. 3:3; 10:7.

15 This issue was raised by Goldenberg (“What Did Ham Do to Noah?” 257) as the first of several problems that remain unresolved in the story of Noah and Ham. See D. M. Goldenberg, “What Did Ham Do to Noah?” in “The Words of a Wise Man's Mouth Are Gracious” (Qoh 10, 12): Festschrift for Günter Stemberger on the Occasion of His 65th Birthday, ed. M. Perani (Berlin, 2005), 257–265. Goldenberg's solution to this question, however, relies on Rav's interpretation of Ham's sin cited in the Talmud (castration; Sanh. 72), which is not in keeping with the plain sense of the verses.

16 The Gibeonites, who are members of the Hivites (one of the seven nations of Canaan), are punished with slavery for deceitfully forging a peace agreement with the Israelites by concealing their identity. The nature of their sin, however, is altogether different from that of Ham, and their punishment, viz., serving as cutters of wood and drawers of water for the Temple and the assembly, is not representative of true slavery.

17 B. Ehrlich, Miqra ki-Peshuto (New York, 1969), 28.

18 In four instances in Genesis, a young family member is presented as acting against the head of the family by committing a sexual act in violation of unambiguous core behavioral conventions. The comparable acts described in Genesis aside from that of Ham are those by the daughters of Lot (ch. 19), Jacob's son Reuben (ch. 35), and Judah's daughter-in-law, Tamar (ch. 38). In each of these four cases, the scene opens with a description of the conduct of the head of the family in making a decision with consequences for the family unit, and this brings a young family member to react with a crass sexual act. For a more expansive discussion, see A. Blecher, “The Intergenerational Conflict in the Biblical Narrative: Sociological Phenomenon in Literal and Thematic Aspects” (PhD diss., Bar-Ilan University, 2014).

19 For a survey, see Y. Avishur, Studies in Biblical Narrative (Tel Aviv — Jaffa, 1999). Zakovitch and Shinan, Lo Kakh.

20 Analysis of these stories in aggregate, with the numerous duplications and the tensions between them, figured prominently in an expansive and animated scholarly debate concerning the question of the text's original form beginning in the nineteenth century. The issue recently was revisited by B. J. Schwartz, “Sippurei ha-Mabbul she-ba-Tora u-She'elat Nequdat ha-Moẓa shel ha-Hisṭorya,” in: Shai le-Sara Japhet: Mehqarim ba-Miqra, be-Parshanuto u-bi-Leshono, ed. M. Bar-Asher et al. (Jerusalem, 2007), 139–154.

21 This point was emphasized recurrently by commentators in discussing the occasion of the establishment of the covenant. See Cassuto, Mi-No'aḥ ve-'ad ‘Avraham, 86; N. Leibowitz, ‘Iyyunim be-Sefer Bereshit (Tel Aviv, 1986/1987), 53–56.

22 Y. Moshe Emanueli, Sefer Bereshit: Hesberim ve-He'arot (Tel Aviv, 1976), 136.

23 See Y. Zakovitch, “‘Al Shelosha … ve-'Al ‘Arba'a”: Ha-Degem ha-Sifruti Shelosha—‘Arba'a ba-Miqra (Jerusalem, 1978/1979).

24 Some have read Gen. 7:1–3 as indicating that the animals too are saved by virtue of Noah's righteousness. See Schwartz, “Sippurei ha-Mabbul,” 150.

25 According to Sh. Gelander (Sefer Bereshit [Ra'ananna, 2000], 1:253), Noah is motivated to offer sacrifices by the human need to express gratitude to God after being saved from danger. G. J. Wenham (Genesis 1–15, World Biblical Commentary [Vaco, TX, 1987], 1:191), following R.W.L. Moberly (At the Mountain of God, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series, 22 [1983], 89–93, 113–115) associates the sacrificial act with a different purpose: assuaging God's anger. Wenham compares Noah's successful appeasement of God through sacrifice after the Flood (Gen 8:20–22) to Moses' success in appeasing God's wrath at the Israelites subsequent to the Sin of the Golden Calf (Exod. 32:11–33:17), arguing that in both cases, God recognizes the degeneracy of the sinner and the inexpediency of harsh punishment (Exod. 33:3). Yet in the present case, notwithstanding the proposed comparison, God expresses His declaration not to Noah, but “in His heart,” as a kind of internal monologue. Noah is apprised of the divine commitment not to impose another flood only when God establishes a covenant with him and his three sons.

26 The Table of the Nations records: “The sons of Japheth … Of these were the isles of the nations divided in their lands, every one after his tongue, after their families, in their nations” (10:2–5). “And the sons of Ham … And Canaan begot … and afterward were the families of the Canaanite spread abroad … These are the sons of Ham, after their families, after their tongues, in their lands, in their nations” (10:6–20). In the story of the Tower of Babel, we read: “And they said: ‘Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth’” (11:4); “So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth; and they left off to build the city” (v. 8); “Therefore was the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth; and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth” (v. 9).

27 On the role of space as a significant aspect of plot description that contributes, inter alia, to defining inner conflicts experienced by one of the characters concerned, see Gelander, ‘Ommanut ve- Ra'yon ba-Sippur ha-Miqra'i, 55–57.

28 Shunya Bendor, Beit ha-'Av be-Yisra'el le-min ha-Hitnaḥalut ve-'ad Sof Yemei ha-Melukha: Mivne ha-Ḥevra ha-Qeduma be-Yisra'el (1986), 64.

29 Jer 35:6–7.

30 A. Frisch (Yegi'a’ Kappekha: Yaḥas ha-Miqra ‘el ha-'Avoda [Tel Aviv, 1999], 44) comments on the duality of Noah's pursuits. In the present story, Noah is presented as a farmer (a “husbandman”) who plants a vineyard. The story of the Flood, meanwhile, places him in a capacity comparable to that of a shepherd, inasmuch as he is intensely occupied by providing care for the animals that he keeps in his ark. Yet this duality too is suggestive of the tension within Noah, between the desire to move about in the way of nomadic herdsmen and the wish to put down roots and take on a land-bound existence.

31 On Noah's drunkenness as a means of escape from the angst of being saved from a traumatic experience.

32 On the relationship between these two modes of enslavement in Israelite society, see I.J. Gelb, “From Freedom to Slavery,” in Gesellschaft im Alten Zweistromland und in den angrenzenden Gebiete—XVIIIe Rencontre assyriologique internationale, ed. D. O. Edzard (Munich, 1972), 81–92.

33 On the phenomenon of slavery incurred by debt, see G.C. Chirichigno, Debt-Slavery in Israel and the Ancient Near East, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series, 144 (Sheffield, 1993).

34 The usual reason for the sale of children is economic distress on the part of the parents, as for example in the Emar VI.3 217 text (translated by M. Dietrich, “Archive und Bibliotheken von Emar,” Ugarit-Forschungen 22 [1990]: 39–40), a bill attesting a poor couple's sale of their four children, one yet un-weaned, due to financial straits.

35 J. Fleishman, Horim vi-Yeladim be-Mishpeṭei ha-Mizraḥ ha-Qadum u-be-Mishpaṭ ha-Miqra (Jerusalem, 1999).

36 J. Fleishman, “The Reason for the Expulsion of Ishmael,” Dinei Israel 19 (1997–1998): 75–100.

37 Y. Zakovitch, Ẓevat bi-Ẓevat ‘Asuya (Tel Aviv, 2009).

38 The view that enslavement is fundamental to the identity of Canaan appears as a presumption in the story in Genesis 19, but no justification is offered. It may stem from a critical assessment of Canaanite sexual morality, as indicated in the rubric of the sexual laws in Leviticus (18:3). However, we would do well to consider Schwartz's proposal (‘Issur, 76) that Leviticus 18 advances dual justifications for the bitter fate of the Canaanites: sexual atrocities, and a murderous infanticidal cult. See Schwartz, “‘Issur Ha'avarat ha-Zera’ la-Molekh,” Shnaton 12 (2000): 76. The Canaanites, so it would seem, also do not appear in Scripture as a society that is home to proper intergenerational relations, a flaw well represented by their antecedent Ham.


Export Citation