Noah Predicts the Future of His Sons―Part 2 (series: Lessons on Genesis)
by John Lowe
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.
To the ancient people, even seeing one's father naked was a breach of family ethics, which could lead to the destruction of the sanctity of the family and make a mockery of the father's strength. Ham evidently stumbled upon this scene by accident, but then he went out and jubilantly told his two brothers, as if he had triumphed over his father. Some people find satisfaction in gossiping and discrediting others, because it makes them feel that they are better than them.
Instead of laughing along with Ham and going to see the humiliating sight of their father's nakedness, Shem and Japheth showed their love for their father by practicing Psalm 10.12, "Love covers all sins." (Also see 1 Pe. 4.8.xvi). The brothers stood together and held a garment behind them, backed into the tent with their eyes averted, and covered Noah's naked body. By covering their father's naked body they would prevent others from seeing him in this condition, and make it possible for him to think they had not seen it either. "He who covers a transgression seeks love" (Prov. 17.9), and "a prudent man covers shame" (Prov.12.16).
Love doesn't cleanse one of sin, because only the blood of Christ can do that (1 John 1.7xvii); nor does love condone sin, for love wants God's very best for others. But love does cover sin and doesn't go around exposing sin and encouraging others to spread the bad news. When people sin and we know about it, our task is to help restore them in a spirit of meekness (Gal. 6. 1-2xviii). Instead of severely judging them and seeking to cut them off from fellowship, seek lovingly to lead them back from their fault. It's been said that on the battlefield of life, Christians are prone to kick their wounded; and too often this is true. But before we condemn others, we'd better consider ourselves, since all of us are candidates for conduct unbecoming to a Christian.
The consequence of Noah's sin was shame. Here we can see the great evil of the sin of drunkenness. It reveals the frailties of men and when they are drunk any secrets they have been entrusted with are easily got out of them. Drunkenness disgraces men and exposes them to contempt from even their family and friends. Men say and do things when they are drunk that they would never think of doing when they are sober (Hab. 2.15-16xix). Friend, I have seen the shame of drunkenness first hand—my father, brother, and son are alcoholics—as I type this on my computer my son is in the hospital due to a severe binge. He has damaged his liver and will likely lose his job. My heart is broken!
This is one of those stories that we may wish were left out of the Bible since it shows the failure of a great godly man. But the Holy Spirit has put it here for what I believe is a good reason—to show that even the best men cannot stand upright, unless they depend upon Divine grace, and are upheld by it. Personally, I sometimes shudder at the thought of what I might have become without the Grace that God extended to me, and the Holy Spirit He put into this tabernacle.
24 And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him.
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 for him to speak with Japheth, his firstborn; and he and Shem must have told him what Ham had done.
Ham is thought to have been Noah's second son, and if that's true, the words, "knew what his younger son had done unto him," refer to Canaan, his grandson. Canaan may have discovered Noah's condition, and told Ham about it. In any event, Noah must have considered his grandson guiltier than anyone else, since he pronounces a curse on him.
25 And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.
Because of this incident Noah prophesized about his son's descendents. He began with the direct words, "cursed be Canaan!" However, Noah was not punishing Canaan for something Ham had done. Instead, Noah's words referred to the nation of Canaanites that would come from Ham through Canaan. Ham's act of pretentiousness could not be permitted to stand without repercussions. A humiliation in like manner was needed, according to the principle of retributive justice. Ham had made an irreparable breach in his father's family, thus a curse would be put on his son's family. It has been suggested that Ham may have tried to seize leadership over his two brothers for the sake of his own line. This would be the same as other ancient traditions where a son replaced his father. But if he did attempt a take over his attempt failed, and his line through Canaan was placed NOT in leadership over them, but under them.
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 (Ham's youngest son; Ge. 10.2) three times. It was a principle in later Jewish law that the children could not be punished for the sins of their fathers (Deut. 24.16xx), and it's likely that this principle applied in patriarchal times, as well.
Looking down the centuries, Noah predicted three times that the descendents of Canaan would become the lowest servants. The Canaanites are listed in Genesis 10.15-19 and they are the very nations Israel conquered and whose land they inhabited (Ge. 15.18-21xxi) It is 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 to go in that direction (Ex. 34.10; Deut. 7).
The doom predicted by Noah was fulfilled in the destruction of the Canaanites, in the degradation of Egypt, and in the slavery of Africans, the descendents of Ham. It should be noted that though I have given here my opinion, Scripture does NOT provide any explanation of why Canaan and not his father was cursed. But obviously he had done something despicable. The use of this passage to justify Negro slavery and the superiority of the white race is an evil misuse of Scripture.
26 And he said, Blessed be the LORD God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.
Noah didn't bless Shem, he blessed "the LORD God of Shem." In other words, Noah gave glory to God for what he will do with the descendents 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 (Ge. 11.10-32) who is the founder of the Hebrew nation, so Noah is talking about the Jewish people. That the Lord would enrich the Jewish people spiritually was promised to Abraham (Ge, 12.1-3xxii) and later explained by Paul (Rom. 3.1-4xxiii). It's through Israel that we have the knowledge of the true 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 (v. 24), but wherever the three sons are listed Shem's mane is first (Ge. 5.32). It is 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 (Ge. 4.4-5), Isaac instead of Ishmael (Ge. 17.15-22), and Jacob instead of Esau (Ge. 25.19-23). Paul discusses this profound theological truth in Romans 9.
Noah predicted that the Canaanites would be in servitude to the Shemites (v. 26) and the Jephethites (v. 27). But this was because the Canaanites lived degrading lives like Ham, not because of what Ham did. The point is that nationally, at least, drunken depravity enslaves a people. That is why, in God's program to bless Israel, the Canaanites were condemned. They were to be judged by God through the Conquest because their activities were in the same pattern and mold as their ancestor Ham.
The enslavement of Canaanites is seen in many situations in the history of the Old Testament. Such a case turned up fairly soon; the Canaanites were defeated and enslaved by eastern kings (Ge. 14). Another example was the Gibeonites who later under Joshua became wood choppers and water carriers for Israel's tabernacle (Josh. 9.27). Conquered peoples were called servants, even if they were not household or private slaves. Shem, the ancestor of Israel, and the other "Shemites' were to be masters of Ham's descendents, the Canaanites. The latter would surrender their land to the former.
Through a long period of history the people of Israel hated the Canaanites. It is an ironic fact, that the Jews themselves have been victims of race prejudice and persecution. What is the reason for race prejudice? I can think of some reasons and you may add some yourself:
a) Dislike of those who are different. To be different is to be suspect.
b) A feeling of superiority. The race that prides itself in its own excellence, real or supposed, is apt to despise others.
c) The "haves" and the "have not's" are two classes that always seem to be at odds, because of jealousy and suspicion.