Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

You are strongly recommended to add to your library the excellent revised edition of Harper's Bible Dictionary titled, The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition [book review], edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, with the Society of Biblical Literature (NY: Harper Collins, 1996). It is currently the best one-volume Bible dictionary in English, and it is available at Border's Books, Christian Science Reading Rooms,, or

Ham. 1 In the Priestly notices of Gen. 5-10, Noah’s second son (between Shem and Japheth) and the father of Cush, Egypt, Put, and Canaan. In Gen. 9:20-27 (attributed to J), disrespect for Noah by Ham, there his youngest son, earns Noah’s curse on Canaan. Since the curse subordinates Canaan to both Shem and Japheth, perhaps the narrative was originally about Canaan, too. Occasionally Ham is a synonym for Egypt, one of Ham’s sons. 2 A city of the Zuzim in Transjordan (Gen. 14:5).

The Oxford Companion to the Bible

edited by Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan (NY: Oxford University Press, 1993)

Ham/Canaan, Cursing of. According to Genesis 9.20-27, Ham saw his father Noah lying drunk and naked in his tend, and Noah later cursed Ham's son Canaan, pronouncing him a slave to his brothers. Ham's precise offense has been interpreted as castration, sexual assault, and incest. But the simplest explanation seems best: in failing to cover his naked father, Ham was disrespectful. Still, it is not Ham but his sone Canaan whom Noah cursed, almost certainly because the story served to legitimate Israel's conquest of Canaan and the destruction of its inhabitants.

This passage has more recently been used to support another kind of racism. Because some of Ham's descendants, notably Cush, are black (see Gen. 10.6-14), the "curse on Ham" has been interpreted as black (Negroid) skin color and features in order to legitimate slavery and oppression of people of African origin. This interpretation occurs first in the Talmud and has persisted in certain circles. It is also reflected in the postbiblical Christian tradition of three Magi, one of whom is black, in parallel to Noah's three sons. Yet it is neither Ham nor Cush who was cursed, but Canaan, the "brother" of Cush and the "son" of Ham.

The New Jerome Biblical Commentary

edited by Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, & Roland E. Murphy (Englewood Cliffs, NY: Prentice Hall, 1990)

The Character of the Sons of Noah (9:18-29) [J]). The character of the three sons is sketched in the episode of Noah's drunkenness.

20-23. The fault here is not with Noah -- as the first cultivator of the grape he could not have known the intoxicating quality of wine -- but with Ham, who looked on his father's nakedness and told his two brothers. In Lev 20:17-21, to "uncover the nakedness" means to have sexual relations, but Ham's act, does not imply sexual relations. The act and the telling of it imply contempt for one's father, a serious offense. Canaan's offense prefigures the sexual license of the later Canaanites, against which Israel is repeatedly warned. Shem and Japheth respectfully back into the tent (to avoid looking on their father) and cover him with a cloak.

24-27. The point of the story is the curse laid on Ham, who is the father of Canaan (10:6) and the blessings upon Shem and Japheth. Hinted at is the later occupation of Canaan by Israel, the descendant of Shem.

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