Genesis 9:25

ESV he said, “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.”
NIV he said, 'Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.'
NASB So he said, 'Cursed be Canaan; A servant of servants He shall be to his brothers.'
CSB he said: Canaan is cursed. He will be the lowest of slaves to his brothers.
NLT Then he cursed Canaan, the son of Ham: 'May Canaan be cursed! May he be the lowest of servants to his relatives.'
KJV And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.

What does Genesis 9:25 mean?

What was Ham's wrongdoing, exactly? At the very least, his choice to tell his brothers about seeing Noah's nakedness made him guilty of furthering Noah's dishonor. Perhaps he laughed at Noah, telling his brothers in an effort to mock his father. It's possible Ham was attempting to use what he had seen to elevate his own importance in the family. It's also possible, though not stated, that Ham did something to additionally violate Noah while he was helpless. Either way, the prior verse makes it clear that Ham has sinned against Noah (Genesis 9:24). And, as this passage shows, that results in dire consequences.

If Ham's intent was to improve his status by humiliating his father, it backfired. Instead, Noah now curses Ham's descendants. They will become servants to the descendants of Ham's brothers. The curse is actually levied against Canaan, Ham's son. This is the first time in recorded Scripture that a human being curses other people. Apparently, Noah's curse was backed by God's authority.

Why curse Canaan, the son, instead of Ham himself? We're not given the reason. God had blessed Noah and his sons earlier in the chapter, so perhaps it wasn't an option to curse one God had blessed. Or perhaps it was a case of the punishment fitting the crime as Canaan would become dishonorable to Ham as Ham was dishonorable to Noah.

In any case, the curse is that Canaan, and his descendants, will become the lowest of slaves or a "servant of servants" to Ham's brothers and their descendants. Much later, these descendants of Canaan became known as the Canaanites, the people who occupied the Promised Land Israel conquered after the exodus from Egypt. The following two verses will expand on the curse.

This verse has, unfortunately, often been used in an attempt to justify various forms of racism, including slavery. Under that use, this verse would suggest that the curse was really on Ham, not on Canaan, and implies there is a certain "race" of men divinely appointed to slavery and subjugation. This is not supported by the Hebrew, however, which does not use the terminology for slavery, even in the limited sense in which it was practiced by Israel. In fact, for most of the history recorded in the Old Testament, it is the descendants of Ham who have the advantage over the descendants of Shem and Japheth.
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