Bible Studies on Genesis 1–11 – Lesson 17: Canaan and the Nations

READ GENESIS 9:18–10:32

The genealogy (“generations/account”) of Noah began in Genesis 6:9, and it now comes to its conclusion in Genesis 9:29. Genesis 10:1 begins a new section, one that deals with the three sons of Noah: Shem, Ham and Japheth. Genesis 9:18–29 contains another of what I call an "epilogue of shame" that concludes the account of Noah. We have seen these epilogues earlier (e.g., Genesis 4). God’s grace must move through a human history that sees a pitiful parade of characters whose hearts are constantly inclined toward evil, even from their youth upward.

Noah, tiller of the soil (9:18–20)

The text of the Bible begins a subtle shift away from Noah himself toward his three sons, who, with their wives, had survived the flood on the ark with Noah (vv.18–19). Adam had three sons: one a murderer, one murdered, and one who became the hope of eventual restoration. Seth carried on the line of God's faithful. Noah, too, had three sons, but only one of them carried on the promised seed. Through Shem we see that God's blessing and covenant promises continue.

Following the flood Noah took up his calling as a farmer, a tiller of the soil. This had been the work of Cain before him (Genesis 4). Let it be said that there was nothing inherently evil about such work. Indeed, God had told Adam in Genesis 2 to till the ground, work the soil, develop the world for the glory of God. All legitimate tasks and efforts, done out of true faith according to God’s law and for His glory, are good works (see Heidelberg Catechism, Q/A91 ). Christians must rightly devote their talents and gifts to God in every area of life so that His honor and glory may be declared in the midst of our society. Although farming is a calling and vocation taken up by fewer people today in our Western world, it is one of many tasks where God may rightly be honored.

What Noah prepared was a vineyard, a grape arbor. Some scholars have suggested that ancient peoples believed that drinking of the fruit of the vine made one more fertile. They even suggest that this may have been, in part, why the daughters of Lot got their father drunk, not only to make him unaware of their incestuous plot, but also to make him more potent (Gen. 19:30–35). If this be true, then perhaps Noah also sought more virility in order to be “fruitful and multiply.” But, if that indeed is the reason, what a lack of faith in God’s promised covenant blessing!

Drunk and naked in his tent (9:21)

In this story we have the first mention of wine, the alcoholic drink made from grapes (among other things). The juice from grapes could not be refrigerated in the ancient Near East. Therefore, the bacteria that was present in the jars and in the juice would soon begin to act upon the sugars within the juice to cause a natural fermentation and thus produce the resultant alcohol. To be sure, the alcohol content that would be naturally present in such grape juice would not be as high as modern day beers and wine. Nevertheless, if imbibed in sufficient quantities, ancient wine made one drunk. Noah drank from the fruit of his vineyard, and he became intoxicated. Wine “gladdens the heart of man” (Ps. 104:15a), but it also can make one drunk.

It is a well-known fact that people who are drunk lose several things, the most important being the ability to make quick judgments and reactions. They also lose some of their rational and critical faculties. They may think that they are capable of handling matters before them, but in fact they are impeded in judgment and movement. In Noah’s case, he uncovered himself within his tent and lay naked. “Wine is a mocker and beer a brawler; whoever is led astray by them is not wise,” says Proverbs 20:1.

Is this the same Noah we met earlier at the end of Genesis 5 and the beginning of chapter 6? There he was described as righteous and blameless, a man who walked with God and found favor in the eyes of the LORD. But we are reminded here that Biblical saints are of like passions and sinful natures similar to our own. Abram lied about Sarai his wife (Gen. 12:10ff), and David committed both adultery and murder (II Sam. 11). Simon Peter boasted of his fierce loyalty and devotion to the Master, but before the cock crowed, this same disciple denied our Lord three times. The holiest of saints have but small beginnings in the obedience that God requires of us all.

It is interesting to note that the text at this point does not approve nor disapprove what Noah has done. To be sure, other portions of Scripture condemn drunkenness (see Hosea 7:5; Prov. 23.20–21; 23:29–30; 31:4–5; Rom. 13:13; Eph. 5: 18a). As for nakedness, it has several kinds of meaning in the Bible. It was, in fact, our natural state in the beginning (Gen. 2:25). It is our state when we enter this life and when we leave it (Job 1.21 a; Eccl. 5:15). It can be one’s condition in poverty and want (Job 24:7,10; Ezek. 18:16). Oftentimes, it represents being exposed, defenseless, guilty, and thus embarrassed and ashamed (d. Gen. 3:7,10,11; Isa. 20:4). In other words, nakedness and sexuality are not always linked together in the Bible. Tragically, Western society has seen far too much exploitation of the human body for prurient interest. Sex sells in this society, and too many men and women are either exploiters or the ones exploited in the process.

The sin of Ham (9:22–24)

The exact nature of Ham’s sin has provoked discussion among Bible students. The mere fact that he encountered his father while uncovered cannot be sinful in itself. Such encounters can happen, and there does not seem to have been any premeditation by Ham to invade his father's privacy in any inappropriate way. Later on, after Noah had recovered from his drunken stupor, he realized “what his youngest son had done to him” (v.24). This last phrase has led some to think that Ham had engaged in some type of improper sexual activity with his drunken father. While such an interpretation is possible, the words used here do not require such an understanding.

Two things are certain. First of all, the fact that the other two sons, Shem and Japheth, cover up their father means that Ham did nothing to cover his father. He left him in this embarrassing and exposed condition. Second, that Ham told his two older brothers suggests that he was continuing the “exposure” by spreading the tale, thus subjecting his father to further dishonor and embarrassment. While Ham may have done something of a sexual nature that was sinful (the seventh commandment in view), it is clear that the fifth commandment has been violated. Children are to honor their father and their mother (Exodus 20:12). Ham sinned against his father by not covering him, thus leaving him exposed and spreading the tale within the family.

The other two sons of Noah act in stark contrast to Ham’s behavior. So careful is their behavior that they walk into the tent backward with a garment or tunic to cover their father. They will not allow him to continue in a position of uncovered embarrassment. A spiritual division has become discernible within the household of this “new father” of the human race (d. Adam's sons: Cain, Abel and Seth).

The curse of Canaan (9:25)

In time Noah’s body processed the alcohol, and eventually he came back to his normal senses. He then became aware of what Ham, his youngest son, had done to him (how Noah comes to know this, we are not told). Noah must have experienced revulsion and embarrassment that his son had sinned against him in this way. For the first time in the Biblical text, we readers hear Noah speak, and his speech is not one of blessing.

Noah pronounces a curse not upon his son Ham, but upon Ham's son, Canaan. Several questions have been raised concerning this. First, why does the son receive the punishment? Second, what was this curse? The reader has been set up along the way in the text to see the connection of Ham and Canaan. In Genesis 9: 18 and 9:22 we read about "Ham, the father of Canaan." These are proleptic references (Le., early mention of matters that become important later). In Genesis 10:6 we read that Ham has at least four sons, Canaan likely being the youngest. But it is Canaan who is the object of his grandfather's curse.

The text does not tell us why Noah curses Canaan. Perhaps Noah is led by the Spirit to curse the one who is the ancestor of the wicked Canaanite peoples, conquered later by the Israelites under Joshua. Later Canaanites would become even more wicked than their ancestor (see Lev. 18:2ff). Or, it may be that Canaan had joined his own father Ham in dishonoring the uncovered and drunken Noah. Some suggest that the “law of just retribution” puts the judgment against the sin of the youngest son of Noah (namely, Ham) upon the youngest son of Ham (namely, Canaan). At the same time, we should note that later prophetic words point out that each soul will be punished for its own sin (see Jer. 31:29; Ezek. 18:2). In any case, as Victor Hamilton says (The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, p. 325). “Canaan’s father has eaten sour grapes and therefore Canaan’s teeth are set on edge.” The sins of the fathers are visited in the lives of the children.

The blessing of the LORD (9:26–27)

Noah has more to say, but this time he speaks in blessing. In Genesis 9:26–27 he pronounces blessing, but surprisingly the blessing is directed to the LORD, the God of Shem. Evidently Noah saw in the actions of Shem and Japheth the working of God. By nature we hate our neighbors (including our parents!). but something of that evil and hatred is broken when the Holy Spirit regenerates us. This becomes a bright spot, one might say, in this “epilogue of shame.” All is not black in the home of Noah, for the LORD has once again preserved for Himself a faithful and obedient remnant. Shem has acted in accordance with God's will. Therefore, “blessed be the LORD, the God of Shem!”

Something else to notice here is that the LORD through Noah is demonstrating His electing choice. Canaan is cursed, prophesied to become the lowest of slaves to the others. In the statements of blessing, it becomes evident that both Shem and Japheth are honored, but Shem will have pride of place. Japheth will have a wide territory (the name Japheth in the original language sounds like the verb “to extend”). but he also is said to dwell in the tents of Shem. In other words, God’s greater favor will fall upon Shem. From Shem will come Abram, Israel. David, and thus the Lord Jesus Christ. God’s sovereign grace discriminates in its blessing.

Noah lives 50 years short of a full millennium, almost as long as Methuselah before him. But in accordance with the judgment of God upon our old sinful nature, Noah died at age 950 years. Hebrews 11:7, 13ff, reminds us that Noah, despite his weaknesses and failings, lived by faith and died in faith, looking forward to a better city, a heavenly one that God Himself is preparing for all those who long to see the coming again of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Noah’s father Lamech had hoped that his son would bring comfort from the hard struggles of life (Gen. 5:29). Noah was a type of a greater One to come. Noah built the ark and saved a remnant of humanity along with the elements of creation, bringing them over from an old world to a cleansed (although not sinless) world. But then he succumbed to the fruit of the vine in foolishness. How urgent it is that God’s covenant of grace keeps moving forward to bring onto history’s stage the “Seed of the woman.” He saves His own church, peoples from all nations, carries them through the judgment at the Cross, and someday He will drink anew the cup of life, the new wine, in His Father's kingdom (see Matt. 26:29; I. de Wolff, Genesis: outlines, p. 44).

Three sons: fathers of the world

Genesis 10 introduces another of the “generationsl account” (d. Gen. 2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 11:10; 11:27). The focus here is upon the races and peoples that descended from the three sons of Noah: Shem, Ham and Japheth. The reader will notice that the Bible actually takes up the catalogue of nations in the reverse order of the usual order of the names. Therefore, Japheth comes first, but this will allow the family list of Shem, carrier of the “Seed of the woman,” to be recorded last.

In looking over the vast numbers of names that are recorded in Genesis 10, we have to keep several things in mind. First. it has often been said that Japhethites are the Indo-European peoples, the Hamites are those peoples who live in Africa, and the Semites (from Shem) are Asiatic peoples. This is surely incorrect as a scientific description of population origins. For example, it has been said that God cursed Ham, and this is the origin of the black peoples. In fact, however. Canaan is cursed, and the Canaanites were not a black race. There is absolutely no evidence in Scripture that identifies having dark skin with God’s judgment. Indeed, any biologist will tell you that the lighter-skinned peoples descended from the darker-skinned peoples (the darker gene is dominant; the lighter gene is recessive!). Any attempt to use Scripture to justify racial prejudice is wicked. Christians rightly condemn all attitudes and practices of hatred and prejudice against other human beings, created in the image of God.

Second, the list of peoples in Genesis 10 is not an exhaustive listing of every people group in the world. Many are not mentioned at all. In addition, among the names given here we will find individuals, places (e.g., Sidon, a Phoenician city perhaps named after an indi~ vidual?), and whole populations (note the names that end in-im or-ites; 10:4, the Kittim; 10:16, the Hittites).

Third, in general we can say that the descendants of Japheth are peoples who moved to the region of Anatolia (modern day Turkey). Greece, and tothe north. They are the “Gentiles.” The Hamitic peoples in general moved to the south and the southwest (northeast Africa and Arabia). The Semitic peoples moved to the south, the southeast, and the east.

Scholars count a total of 70 nations represented in the descendants of Noah’s three sons: from Japheth, 14; from Ham, 30; and from Shem, 26. The number 70 seems to become a symbolic number that represents a total population (10 x 7 = 70; both 10 and 7 being symbolic numbers of wholeness). Later on, 70 people of Jacob’s family will enter Egypt (d. Gen. 46:27; Exodus 1:5). In any case, the chapter closes with a summarizing statement in 10:32, “From these the nations spread out over the earth after the flood.” Yet in the face of all this diversity, Paul told the Athenians on Mars’ Hill (and he says to us as well). “From one man He (God) made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and He determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live” (Acts 17:26). Over all this diversity of people God has appointed Jesus Christ to be both present Lord and coming Judge.

POINTS TO PONDER AND DISCUSS

1. What does the Bible say about the use of alcoholic beverages? Does the principle of non-offense toward the “weaker brother” apply in the use of alcoholic beverages? Is it best never to drink alcoholic beverages at all, or is this too restrictive?

2. Is there a difference between drunkenness and alcoholism? If there is a difference, what is it exactly? What kind of approach should the Christian community take toward those afflicted with alcoholic addiction and drunkenness?

3. The Bible is neither prudish nor pornographic in dealing with the human body, including matters of sexuality. What kinds of things can Christian churches and Christian families do to develop healthy attitudes toward the human body (and sexuality)? How can we reclaim that part of God’s creation that the evil one and the sinful world has taken, exploited and perverted?

4. “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight,” goes the song. When we think of all the various peoples and cultures in the world today, do we typically think of the differences in the human race, or do we think of the things that are common to humanity?

5. We are all descended from one pair of parents, first Adam and Eve, and then later. from Noah and his wife. Yet in human history there have been those who have said that one race is truly human while another race is subhuman or non-human. Is division along racial lines a “natural” thing, or is it a sinful thing? What exactly is racism?

6. God left the nations behind, so to speak, when He turned His attention to Abram and his call out of Ur. Yet He continued to control the times and places of all nations on earth (d. Acts 17:26–27) for the sake of Christ. To the Romans Paul writes, “Is God the God of the Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith” (Rom. 3:29–30). What can you and your congregation do to bring the Gospel to your area, your neighbors, your community? How can you include in the church the variety of people living near you?

Mark D. Vander Hart

Outlook Index
2019
2018
2017
2016
2015
2014
2013
2012
2011
2010
2009
2008
2007
2006
2005
2004
2003
2002
2001
2000
1999
1951