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Shabbat Noah: The Curse of Canaan

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

Opinion

A Torah scroll. Photo: RabbiSacks.org.

After the great flood, Noah emerged from the ark with his family. He offered a thanksgiving sacrifice to God. And then the first thing he did was to plant a vineyard and make wine. I suppose if you had been locked up for a whole year in an ark with all those animals, you might well turn to alcohol for comfort also. Sadly, Noah got drunk, and he was rolling around naked in his tent. His youngest son, Ham, came in and saw him there, and went and told his brothers, Shem and Yafet. They took a blanket between them and walked with their backs to the naked Noah, so as not to see their father, and covered him. When Noah woke up, he realized what his younger son had done to him.

The Torah doesn’t tell us what Ham had done. The authors of the Midrash offered a range of different options, including merely being disrespectful. When Noah regained his balance and realized what had happened, strangely he did not curse Ham. Instead, he cursed Canaan, the son of Ham. He said that he would always be a servant of servants.

What was Noah’s intention with the curse?

The Torah often uses curses to express disapproval, and blessings to express approval — but usually not to determine fate, or map out the future irrevocably. After all, repentance is encouraged from the very start of the Torah for everyone. Yet many churches have used this text to justify slavery. South Africans well know that the Dutch Reformed Church for many years maintained it as an article of faith that Black people were cursed by the Bible, and this empowered them to impose apartheid.

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Avraham Ibn Ezra, the great Spanish commentator on the Bible who lived a thousand years ago, says about this text, that only fools take it to mean an ongoing curse. He points out that there were Canaanite kings who lived for many generations long after the curse — which does not make sense if the curse meant that they should be powerless. Besides, Canaan is not the same as Africa and does not imply black or any other color necessarily. Still, this myth was perpetuated, and it was used to oppress people.

So, what did Canaan’s curse mean? There is a theme that runs through Genesis that implies that Canaan was morally and sexually corrupt — which explains why God allowed the people there to be displaced by the Israelites. And at the same time, God told the Israelites that if they did not do better, they too would be dispossessed. This is a metaphorical way of saying that some cultures are simply worse and more corrupt than others. In making the choices as to how we should live, we should avoid the Canaanite option over all others.

A blessing in the Bible, in addition to praise, implies that good things will come out of a good person. A blessing is an encouragement to do good. A curse implies bad things — but it is never and can’t be a general statement about individual humans being condemned forever. Even with a curse, we see that human beings have the opportunity to change.

I consider this to be a very important message for us now in the 21st century. People must be judged individually, and the distinction has to be made between people who behave ethically, and those who don’t. Just like earlier corrupt tribes, regardless of what background they come from, we should avoid the bad and cling to the good.

The author is a writer and rabbi currently living in New York.

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