Cursing Canaan


A Misdirected Curse?

Following the account of the Flood and its aftermath, Bereshit 9 presents an epilogue in which Noach gets drunk and exposes himself in his tent ("וַיִּתְגַּל בְּתוֹךְ אָהֳלֹה"). The Torah proceeds to describe the contrasting reactions of Noach's children:


(כב) וַיַּרְא חָם אֲבִי כְנַעַן אֵת עֶרְוַת אָבִיו וַיַּגֵּד לִשְׁנֵי אֶחָיו בַּחוּץ. (כג) וַיִּקַּח שֵׁם וָיֶפֶת אֶת הַשִּׂמְלָה וַיָּשִׂימוּ עַל שְׁכֶם שְׁנֵיהֶם וַיֵּלְכוּ אֲחֹרַנִּית וַיְכַסּוּ אֵת עֶרְוַת אֲבִיהֶם וּפְנֵיהֶם אֲחֹרַנִּית וְעֶרְוַת אֲבִיהֶם לֹא רָאוּ.

(22) Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. (23) Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it on both their shoulders, went in backwards, and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were backwards, and they did not see their father’s nakedness.

While Cham "sees" his father's nakedness, Shem and Yefet cover their father.  As a result, when Noach awakens from his drunken stupor and becomes aware of what transpired, he blesses Shem and Yefet.  Surprisingly, though, he conveys his displeasure with Cham, not by cursing Cham himself, but rather by singling out one of Cham's sons, namely Canaan:


(כד) וַיִּיקֶץ נֹחַ מִיֵּינוֹ וַיֵּדַע אֵת אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לוֹ בְּנוֹ הַקָּטָן. (כה) וַיֹּאמֶר אָרוּר כְּנָעַן עֶבֶד עֲבָדִים יִהְיֶה לְאֶחָיו.

(24) And Noach awakened form his wine and he knew what his youngest son had done to him. (25) And he said: 'Cursed is Canaan; a slave of slaves he will be to his brethren.'

Bereshit Rabbah36:7About Bereshit Rabbah asks the obvious question, "חָם חָטָא וּכְנַעַן נִתְקַלֵּל, אֶתְמָהָא"?  If Cham sinned, why is it Canaan who is punished?!

Who is the "Youngest Son"?

Two other phrases in the story raise further questions about the connection between Cham and Canaan's role in the deed.  The story opens with the announcement that Cham was the father of Canaan ("וְחָם הוּא אֲבִי כְנָעַן"), and when Cham acts against his father, he is again identified as Canaan's father ("וַיַּרְא חָם אֲבִי כְנַעַן").  Why does the narrator find it necessary to share this fact here, let alone repeat it?  Does the pairing of father and son suggest that the two acted in concert, or that Canaan played some role in the episode?

Additionally, after Noach awakens from his stupor, the Torah states that he became aware of what "his youngest son" ("בְּנוֹ הַקָּטָן") had done to him (9:24). On first read, it is natural to assume that the text refers to the previously mentioned Cham.  However, based on the order given elsewhere in the lists of Noach's sons,1 Cham would appear to be not the youngest son of Noach, but rather his middle child.  If so, who is the "בְּנוֹ הַקָּטָן" who committed the offense?  Interestingly, Canaan is listed last among Cham's sons,2 suggesting that he was the youngest of them.  It is possible that the text refers to him?  Why, though, would he be referred to as Noach's son?

What was Done to Noach?

Verse 22 speaks of Cham "seeing" Noach's nakedness ("וַיַּרְא חָם אֲבִי כְנַעַן אֵת עֶרְוַת אָבִיו").  Yet, while viewing his father naked would have been a disrespectful act, it is unclear why such an action would be deserving of eternal damnation.  Could the verse be a euphemism for something more than meets the eye?  Indeed, the term "ראה ערוה" and the similar phrase "גלה ערוה" are used elsewhere in the Torah to connote a sexual act.3  Did Cham merely look at his father, or might he have done something much more sinister?