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Noah’s Nakedness and the Curse of Canaan (Gen. 9:18-27)

By: David G. - September 05, 2009

18 ¶ And the sons of Noah, that went forth of the ark, were Shem, and Ham, and Japheth: and Ham is the father of Canaan.

19 These are the three sons of Noah: and of them was the whole earth overspread.

20 And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard:

21 And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent.

22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without.

23 And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness.

24 And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him.

25 And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.

26 And he said, Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.

27 God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.

These verses have perhaps had more negative and divisive effect on the God’s children of men than anything in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.  The interpretation of Genesis 9:18-27 since the perhaps 4th century c.e. has justified some of the most pernicious evils in the history of humankind, including the enslavement, segregation, and marginalization of persons of African descent.[1]  Although Latter-day Saints did not invent the racial ideologies supported by these verses, we have added our own chapter to their troubled history.

I get the sense that when most Mormons think about why blacks couldn’t hold the priesthood from 1847 to 1978, they point to the curse uttered upon Cain in Genesis 4 as the ban’s biblical foundation. I suspect that if we asked a random selection of ordinary Mormons, the Curse of Ham would not be among the reasons mentioned. My guess is that that is due to the fact that most Mormons have no idea where in the bible the curse of Ham is located, and those that do, have no clue what it means or why it should be applied to black Africans. Our fellow Saints are not alone in their confusion.  Interpreters in Christian, Jewish, and Muslim circles have offered several possible explanations over the last two millennia, but there is little consensus. The primary problem with racial ideologies based on Noah’s curse on Canaan is that no where in the text is skin color referenced. There’s also the issue of why Canaan was cursed, when it was Ham who had sinned. For that matter, what exactly did Ham do to invoke so much rage from his father?

The issue comes down to how someone interprets the meaning of Ham seeing Noah’s nakedness, why that would be such a terrible offense, and why Canaan, and not Ham, was cursed with slavery. According to scholars John Sietze Bergsma and Scott Walker Hahn,[2] the most popular explanations for the curse over the centuries include voyerism, castration, and paternal incest. The voyerism hypothesis has been appealing because it only requires a literal reading of the text and does not venture into the realm of speculation. But it does little to explain why the punishment matches the crime, or why Noah did not curse Ham, who committed the offense, instead relegating Ham’s son Canaan to a lifetime of slavery to Shem and Japheth. The castration argument would explain the gravity crime and of the punishment, but there is very little evidence to suggest that seeing your “father’s nakedness” was a euphemism for castration. Paternal incest would also suggest the reasons for the curse’s harshness, and “father’s nakedness” is referred to in Leviticus 18:7-8 to refer to some type of sexual assault, but even this theory does not cover the whole ground in a satisfactory manner.

Bergsma and Hahn propose a fourth option, maternal incest, an idea that they did not invent themselves but for whatever reason has not attracted widespread support. They argue that maternal incest makes the most sense given the limited evidence. For one, Lev. 18:7-8, which is cited to support paternal incest, equates “father’s nakedness” with the intercourse with the father’s wife:

7 The nakedness of thy father, or the nakedness of thy mother, shalt thou not uncover: she is thy mother; thou shalt not uncover her nakedness.

8 The nakedness of thy father’s wife shalt thou not uncover: it is thy father’s nakedness. (the NRSV is even more explicit, translating v. 7 as “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father, which is the nakedness of your mother”; see also Lev. 18:14, 16; 20:11, 20, 21, for other references to a man’s nakedness meaning his wife’s nakedness)

Maternal incest was so vilified in the ancient world because it threatened the patriarchal structure of a family or clan, which would suggest that Ham was attempting to usurp power in his family. It would explain why the text mentions Ham telling his brothers what he had done. There are several examples of sons seeking to replace their fathers by claiming their wife or wives in the Bible and in the ancient Near East (but there are no examples of paternal incest as a means to seize power). Bergsma and Hahn also offer other smaller pieces of evidence for their argument, but this is the crux.

Perhaps the most interesting part of their theory is that it explains why Noah cursed Canaan and not Ham. If Canaan was the offspring, not of Ham’s own wife, but of his father’s wife, that would explain Noah’s wrath. It would also suggest a possible explanation for the specific references in vv. 18 and 22, which both specifically note that Ham is the father of Canaan, while neglecting to mention Ham’s other children or the offspring of Japheth or Shem.  Perhaps the author of Gen. 9 is seeking not only to explain the origins of the curse on Canaan, but also how Canaan came to be in the first place.

How Canaan and his descendants, the Canaanites, came to be associated with black Africa is perhaps best saved for another post. For now, it’s sufficient to note that most biblical scholars would argue that Gen. 9 should be read as a polemic against the Canaanites whom according to the biblical narrative the Isrealites displaced in ancient Palestine, not as a statement about the origins of black Africans.[3] Lev. 18:3 even suggests that from the Israelite point of view, the Canaanites had been guilty of, among other sexual sins, maternal incest.

So how does all this apply to Mormons and our history? I think that understanding that Gen. 9 was not initially intended as a racist justification for the marginalization and subjugation of blacks helps us to take a step closer to not only understanding the racial worldview of the early Saints, but also in fully repudiating the Curse of Ham/Canaan in the folklore that still circulates among good intentioned, if ignorant, Latter-day Saints who perpetuate these ideas.[4]

I welcome all comments, but let’s try to keep this within the framework set up in the post. I especially welcome comments from anyone familiar enough with the scholarship in the Hebrew Bible to tell us how Bergsma and Hahn’s ideas have been received, and, if they have been challenged, how so.

________

[1] Jewish Studies scholar David M. Goldenberg in his 2003 work The Curse of Ham traces the earliest implicit connection between Canaan as the ancestor of dark races and slavery to a 4th century Eastern Christian text, the Book of Treasures, which in turn influenced Islamic justifications for the conquest and enslavement of Africans after the 7th century conquest of northern Africa. From there, the interpretation of the curse of Canaan being a black skin and slavery spread to Christian and Jewish circles, and took a preeminent position in European and American justifications for their own brand of chattel slavery in early modern and modern times. For a ‘nacle discussion of Goldenberg and other recent works, see Stirling’s 2007 BCC post and comments.

[2] John Sietze Bergsma and Scott Walker Hahn, “Noah’s Nakedness and the Curse on Canaan,” Journal of Biblical Literature 124, no. 1 (Spring 2005): 25-40. Bergsma and Hahn indicate that F.W. Bassett was the first to propose the maternal incest hypothesis in “Noah’s Nakedness and the Curse of Canaan: A Case of Incest?” VT 21 (1971): 232–37, but that Bassett did not present all the available evidence.

[3] See Claus Westerman, Genesis 1-11: A Commentary, 490-91.

[4] The JST does offer some interpretive difficulties. JST 9:26 states that “Canaan shall be his [Shem] servant and a veil of darkness shall cover him, that he shall be known among all men.” The meaning of “veil of darkness” is unclear. It does not need to be read in terms of race or skin color. Goldenberg and others have shown that ancient Jews were not anti-black, and there are several positive references to black Africans in the Hebrew Bible. Jews however did use blackness/whiteness as a non-racial metaphor for wickedness/righteousness. I’d be interested to know if any research has been done to see if that phrase has any counterparts in the ancient world. Another interpretive option would be to see the reference as Joseph Smith’s language and culture bleeding into the inspired text. The phrase appears at least two other times in restoration scriptures (D&C 38:8 and Moses 7:61). The D&C verse may or may not refer to the veil being over people, but Moses is clearly applying the veil to nature. Alma 19:6 refers to Lamoni having a “dark veil of unbelief.” A quick search on google books turns up several 19th century references to “veil of darkness.” Adam Clarke’s commentary on the bible (p. 339, vol. 2, 1831 edition), which we know JS and other early Mormons did use, as Matt B. and Sam Brown’s forthcoming publications will show, uses the phrase in a gloss on 2 Corinthians 3:12-15:

Seeing then that we have such hope, we use great plainness of speech: And not as Moses, which put a vail over his face, that he children of Israel could not stedfastly look to the end of that which is abolished: But their minds were blinded: for until this day remaineth the same vail untaken away in the readin gof the old testament; which vail is done away in Christ. But even unto this day, when Moses is read, the vail is upon their heart. Nevertheless when it shall turn to the Lord, the vail shall be taken away.

Clarke comments on v. 14 that

by resting in the letter, shutting their eyes to the light that was granted to them, they contracted a hardness or stupidity of heart. And the veil that was on the face of Moses, which prevented the glory of his face from shining out, may be considered as emblematic of the veil of darkness and ignorance that is on their hearts; and which hinders the glory of the Gospel from shining in.

Whether the other restoration scriptures or 19th century commentators like Clarke are using the phrase in the same manner as the JST is open to debate, and more research into 19th century uses will likely tell us more, but we can say that the phrase in these examples is not used in a racial manner.

Many thanks to Dustin N., an LDS student studying the Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University, for his help in locating quality biblical scholarship.

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30 Comments

  1. A funny sidenote. After I read the Bergsma and Hahn article, I excitedly told my girlfriend that scholars had come up with a plausible explanation for Canaan’s curse. Before I could get to the actual explanation, though, she looked at me and said, “Didn’t Ham have sex with his Mom? And wasn’t Canaan their kid?” Apparently, although she can’t remember for sure, her seminary teacher taught her class the maternal incest theory (she would have attended seminary in Texas during the ’90s). Seeing the look on my face, she apologized for “stealing my thunder” (she’s not really into this stuff, but she knows when I’m really exited about something). It was a good reminder that ordinary Saints are sometimes more aware of ideas that we “intellectuals” think are only discussed in scholarly circles.

    Comment by David G. — September 5, 2009 @ 12:26 pm

  2. but there are no examples of paternal incest as a means to seize power

    1-Great Post!!! I am wondering about this statement and how you (or Bergsma and Hahn) see the incident of Lot and his daughters in Gen 19.30-38. It’s hard to say if Lot’s daughter’s viewing their father as the only means of offspring would be a “power issue”, but I think it could be on at least some level.

    2-On another note, this is an interesting story because it provides an etiology of tribes that Israel purportedly displaced in Canaan (Moabites and Ammonites) much like you have suggested for the Canaanites. This may add to your argument since it connects all those other people with incest, a subject that is constantly a taboo subject in the HB.

    Again-Great job on your post!!!
    DMN

    Comment by DMN — September 5, 2009 @ 3:41 pm

  3. Dustin, by paternal incest, the authors mean homosexual paternal incest, a point I should have explained more clearly. They actually point to the Lot/daughters story to support their argument that Gen. 9 should be understood as a heterosexual encounter, rather than homosexual. The authors also mention the Moabites and Ammonites as well, in their paragraph on anti-Canaanite sentiment in the HB.

    Comment by David G. — September 5, 2009 @ 3:50 pm

  4. The meaning of “veil of darkness” is unclear. It does not need to be read in terms of race or skin color.

    Don’t know if this is useful or not, but a quick search for “veil of darkness” in Gospelink turned up 136 hits. Most of them were quotes of the Moses reference, some referred to the 2nd coming as a time when “a veil of darkness would be lifted from the earth”, and others used the term to refer to the “veil of forgetfulness” that was placed over our minds so we can’t remember the pre-earth life. No uses, as far as I could see, had any racial or ethnic connotations. Any further info on this by anyone would be appreciated.

    Comment by DMN — September 5, 2009 @ 4:14 pm

  5. Thanks for searching for that, Dustin. That’s interesting that no one seems to be using it in terms of race.

    Comment by David G. — September 5, 2009 @ 4:18 pm

  6. Hey, David G., the idea of maternal incest makes a lot of sense to me. Even if your girlfriend wasn’t excited about the idea, I am. Thanks for articulating it.

    I get the impression that a lot of Mormon confusion on this derives from an accidental similarity between the names Cain and Canaan. The two names in fact are in no way related (in Hebrew they are Qayin and Kena’an).

    And the point at your footnote 3 to me is very important. The Canaanites absolutely were not black Africans; they were Semites living in the Levant. They were culturally very similar to the Israelites themselves; in fact, the Hebrew language originated as a Canaanite dialect.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — September 5, 2009 @ 5:13 pm

  7. Thanks, Kevin. You’re right that a lot of Mormons confuse Cain with Canaan. There are some early patriarchal blessings that even spell it Cainan. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the name “Cainan” does appear in every standard work except the Book of Mormon(Gen. 5:9-10, 12-14; Moses 6:17-19, 41-42; Luke 3:36-37; D&C 107:45, 53). Also, thanks for the additonal information on the Canaanites.

    Comment by David G. — September 5, 2009 @ 7:31 pm

  8. Please tell me you didn’t start a post on the evils of racism talking about the “children of men” and “mankind”!

    Comment by Inclusive Language Police — September 5, 2009 @ 10:15 pm

  9. In regards to the Lot/daughters story, I once read a commentary about the naming of the sons. The commentary stated that one of the daughters was more wicked than the other and that this was discernible because of the names given to the children.

    According to this commentary, ‘Moab’ essentially meant “from the father” or “of the father” – pointing to the fact that the child was conceived by the son’s mother with her own father.

    Ammon (the other name), on the other hand, meant something like ‘from the people’ or ‘of the people’ which was a little more discreet in regards to the child’s incestuous origins.

    Comment by danithew — September 5, 2009 @ 10:29 pm

  10. Sorry, ILP, I guess reading the KJV language got me in that mode. ;-) But you make a good point. I’ll change the language. Any thoughts on the post’s substance?

    Danithew, thanks for adding that. Definitely interesting stuff.

    Comment by David G. — September 5, 2009 @ 11:35 pm

  11. A lot of Mormons not only confuse Cain with Canaan, but Cainan and Cainan with Canaan. There was an antediluvian patriarch named Cainan/Kenan-in Hebrew Qeynan(son of Enos) as well as a grandson of Shem named Cainan-in Hebrew Kainam (father of Shelah). Small wonder huh?

    Kevin- Since you brought up confusion, might I suggest caution when using the word “Semite”? The word is used to define a language family (not a biological family) that are closely related. Because the words “semitic/semite” are derived from the name “Shem”, many people confuse the distinction of speaking a “semitic language” with the idea that the Canaanites were descendants of Shem.

    Some black Africans were semites and not all of Canaan’s posterity settled in the Levant.

    Comment by estella — September 6, 2009 @ 12:11 am

  12. Yes, estella, I was thinking linguistically, not genealogically. I didn’t mean to suggest that the Canaanites were necessarily descended from Shem.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — September 6, 2009 @ 12:54 pm

  13. This is truly interesting. A theory that makes a lot of sense.

    My favorite theory, however, is that Ham stole Noah’s priesthood garments. I’m guessing there isn’t a whole lot of history to back that one up though.

    Comment by Ian Cook — September 6, 2009 @ 1:03 pm

  14. Very interesting. Is there any acceptance among Mormon scholars of the idea that the curse was a result of Ham stealing Noah’s garment of the priesthood (didn’t this come from Nibley?)?

    Comment by zehill — September 6, 2009 @ 1:15 pm

  15. Estella, thanks for the additional information and clarifications.

    Ian and zehill: Perhaps someone who has a better understanding of this can chip in, but as I understand it the story of the garment comes from an apocryphal work called the Book of Jasher, which is not certain to have existed prior to the 17th century c.e. There certainly isn’t any support for the story in the Genesis 9 text, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the story doesn’t have some truth to it.

    Comment by David G. — September 6, 2009 @ 1:35 pm

  16. Ok, the essay where Nibley recounts the story of Ham stealing the garment is called “Sacred Vestments,” and it is published in Temple and Cosmos. He quotes not only the Book of Jasher but also several earlier works. Nibley quotes Rabbi Eliezer, who lived in the 1st and 2nd centuries: “When Noah found out what he [Ham] had done, he cursed Ham and said, ‘Becuase you grabbed it ahead of time, Ham, you cannot have the priesthood until the end of time. Meanwhile, I will give the garment to Shem, and part of it to Japheth, but you cannot have it’” (129). So, this reference is much earlier than the Book of Jasher, but still centuries after the text of Gen. 9 was composed.

    Comment by David G. — September 6, 2009 @ 4:00 pm

  17. Thanks David, I read Temple and Cosmos years ago, but, I didn’t recall where I heard the story. The incest story seems more likely, but the garment story sounds cooler. lol.

    Comment by Ian Cook — September 6, 2009 @ 6:29 pm

  18. David, this is really quite interesting stuff, and for the reason spelled out in your last paragraph, quite important in helping LDS repudiate racist folklore surrounding the priesthood ban. Are you planning a follow-up post on how Canaan and his descendants came to be associated with black Africa?

    Re: Kevin Barney’s comment #6 concerning the confusion among LDS between Cain and Canaan: is this something early Mormons picked up from the Protestant culture in which Mormonism was birthed, or something unique to LDS?

    Comment by Christopher — September 7, 2009 @ 12:20 pm

  19. Thanks, Chris. I am planning on doing at least one more post on the racialization of Gen. 9, and maybe a post or two on Gen. 4 (Curse of Cain) and its racialization.

    As for your other question, I’m not sure if this was conscious adoption, or simply that Mormons like other peoples of Western European descent got the two confused. A quick glance through Haynes’ Noah’s Curse turned up this reference from Portuguese scholar Gomes Eanes de Azurara’s Chronicles of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea (1441-48), which invoked Gen. 9 to justify the enslavement of black Africans: “the curse, ‘which after the Deluge, Noah laid upon his son Cain [sic], cursing him in this way:–that his race should be subject to all the other races of the world. And from this race these blacks are descended. . . .’” (Haynes, 34). I suspect that the confusion in the wider culture and in Mormonism stems from lack of familiarity with the relevant texts.

    Comment by David G. — September 7, 2009 @ 1:37 pm

  20. David, great post, and I’m glad to hear you’re planning some follow up.

    I also think this is a great step toward the folklore repudiation spoken of. It’s tricky, but I hope that studies like this will seek to engage the text of the Book of Abraham as well since that seems to be widely influential in the folklore’s persistence.

    Comment by Jared T — September 7, 2009 @ 1:55 pm

  21. Thanks, Jared. The Book of Abraham, along with a few verses in the Book of Moses, do present some interesting interpretive challenges. I am pleased that Dustin and my admittedly preliminary research on the JST’s “veil of darkness” does not turn up any reason to interpret the phrase in racial terms.

    Comment by David G. — September 7, 2009 @ 2:56 pm

  22. Ok, I’m going to plead guilty of confusing the two, not that I think that blacks ever should have been regarded as inferior or withheld the Priesthood.

    What are the main differences between Cain and Canaan? I obviously know who Cain, son of Adam, is, but maybe I’m lost in my own thoughts; that is definitely a possibility.

    Thanks.

    Comment by Tod Robbins — September 8, 2009 @ 2:46 pm

  23. Tod, no problem. Cain, as you note, was Adam’s son who according to Gen. 4, killed his brother Abel and was cursed and marked by God for the crime. The text itself says nothing about race (although some commentators have misread Cain’s face falling in v. 6 to mean he turned black), but later interpreters came up with several different theories about how Cain was the father of black Africans.

    Canaan, as this post notes, was the son of Ham and grandson of Noah. Interpreters have come up with several theories as to how Canaan (and through a few interpretive leaps, Ham) either started a new black race after the flood or continued Cain’s seed on the earth. By extension, these commentators argued that blacks were destined to eternal servitude due to Canaan’s misdeed. The Curse of Ham was the centerpiece of American justifications for slavery from the 17th through the 19th centuries, and after the abolition of slavery in 1865, for the segregation of persons of African descent through the 1950s and in some areas even today.

    Church leaders from 1847 to 1978, borrowing and developing these ideas from the wider culture, drew upon both the Curse of Cain and the Curse of Canaan/Ham racial ideologies to explain the Priesthood Ban.

    Is that clear as mud? Let me know if you need me to clarify anything.

    Comment by David G. — September 8, 2009 @ 3:01 pm

  24. Is it possible that the “veil of darkness” refers to Canaan’s mental state? If he was the product of incest, it would be highly possible that he might posess the kind of birth defects common to such poor unfortunates. If he was mentally retarded, or blind, Noah could simply have been reminding Ham of the consequences of his sinful actions, in an attempt to shame him to repentence.

    Comment by Gary Cooper — September 9, 2009 @ 11:56 am

  25. @Gary C

    The connotation of the term as used by LDS church leaders clearly has the idea of the human mind or the earth being separated from some sort of light, knowledge, etc.

    As far as birth defects go, this seems unlikely since, if the OT is taken literally, many were the offspring of incestuous relationships and yet a connection w/ birth defects does not seem apparent. E.g. the assumption is that Eve’s and Adam’s children procreated w/ each other and yet birth defects do not seem to be connected. Again, this is only if these stories are being taken in the most literal sense (which has it’s own set of problems :)

    Comment by DMN — September 10, 2009 @ 11:11 am

  26. DMN–

    Good points.

    Comment by Gary Cooper — September 10, 2009 @ 11:48 am

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