1.9 The Sin of Ham
It is with Noah and his sons that the Bible first deals indirectly with the subject of race.
The sons of Noah who came out of the ark were Shem, Ham and Japheth. (Ham was the father of Canaan.) These were the three sons of Noah, and from them came the people who were scattered over the earth (Gen 9:18-19).
This is a simple enough statement, it asserts the common origin of all the people of the world. But this passage leads immediately into a family conflict, and begins a tragic tradition of racial hatred. The incident was started by that "righteous and blameless" man, Noah. Noah got drunk on wine and lay naked in his tent. His son Ham discovered him, and went and told the other two brothers. Shem and Japheth covered their father with a garment, turning their faces away so as not to look on his nakednesss. When Noah awakened, he blessed the two sons who respected him, and cursed not Ham, but one of Ham's four sons, Canaan (Gen 9:20-27).1
On the surface, this is a trivial incident which makes little sense. God has just pronounced a covenant of peace between Himself and all living creatures on earth (Gen 9:17), and in the very next passage, this peace is forever shattered, at least so far as peace among men is concerned. Noah's actions are the cause of the entire conflict -- his drunkenness, which led to his nakedness. But Ham's irreverent conduct earns for his son (and his son's descendants) an anathema that sets him apart from all mankind. He is degraded below all peoples:
"Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers (Gen 9:25)."
This curse closely resembles the curse put on Cain in Gen 4, except that God Himself cursed Cain for his own sin, whereas Noah cursed Canaan for his father's sin. Also, slavery is explicitly mentioned in the latter curse. Noah's curse would have been transmitted to Canaan's descendants -- it was condemning not just an individual, but a family, a tribe, even nations.
In the case of Canaan, though not of Cain, the punishment is out of all proportion to the crime. Because of this fact, one school of interpretation holds that the curse was prophetic, it anticipated the debased conduct of the future Canaanites, and thus cursed their origin. It was speaking judgment ahead of time.2