Summary: The Curse of Ham is described in the Book of Genesis as imposed by the patriarch Noah upon Ham's son Canaan. It occurs in the context of Noah's drunkenness and is provoked by a shameful act committed by Noah's son Ham, who "saw the nakedness of his father."
Ham, Noah's Son
Scholars believe Ham is the youngest of Noah's three sons. Ham asks his brothers to help cover Noah when drunk and naked.
According to the Table of Nations in the Book of Genesis, Ham was the second son of Noah and the father of Cush, Mizoram, Phut, and Canaan. Flavius Josephus and others interpret Ham's descendants as having populated Africa and adjoining parts of Asia.
Curse of Ham
The Curse of Ham is described in the Book of Genesis as imposed by the patriarch Noah upon Ham's son Canaan. It occurs in the context of Noah's drunkenness and is provoked by a shameful act committed by Noah's son Ham, who "saw the nakedness of his father." The exact nature of Ham's transgression and the reason Noah cursed Canaan when Ham had sinned has been debated for over 2,000 years.
The story's original purpose may have been to justify the subjection of the Canaanites to the Israelites. However, in later centuries, the narrative was interpreted by some as an explanation for black skin and added a justification for the slavery of black people. Similarly, the Latter Day Saint movement used the Curse of Ham to prevent the ordination of black men to its priesthood.
Nevertheless, most Christians, Muslims, and Jews now disagree with such interpretations because Ham himself is not cursed in the biblical text, and race or skin color is never mentioned.
The concept of the Curse of Ham finds its origins in Genesis 9:
20 And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard:
21 And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; he was uncovered within his tent.
22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brethren without.
23 And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father, and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father's nakedness.
24 And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him.
25 And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.
26 And he said, Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; Canaan shall be his servant.
27 God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.
– Genesis 9:20–27, KJV
The story's objective may have been to justify the impact of the Canaanites, the descendants of Ham, to the Israelites, the descendants of Shem. The narrative of the Curse is full of difficulties. It is uncertain what the precise nature of Ham's offense is. Verse 22 has been a subject of debate whether it should be taken literally or as "a euphemism for some act of gross immorality. In verse 25, Noah refers to Shem and Japheth as the "brethren" of Canaan, whereas in verse 18, they are identified as his uncles. The Table of Nations presents Canaan and Mizraim (Egypt) among the sons of Ham (10:6). In the Psalms, Egypt is equated with Ham.
The treatment of Japheth in verses 26–27 raises questions: Why is YHWH named as the God of Shem, but not of Japheth? What does it mean that God will "enlarge" Japheth? Moreover, why will Japheth "dwell in the tents of Shem"? Further difficulties include Ham's being referred to as "the youngest son" when all other lists make him Noah's second son. Biblical scholar Nahum Sarna says that the biggest challenge of the narrative is why Canaan was cursed rather than Ham and that the concealed details of the shameful incident bear the same discretion as Reuben's sexual transgression.
The narrative's eight verses indicate that Canaan's Hamite paternity must have had great significance to the narrator or rewriter, according to Sarna, who adds, "The curse on Canaan, invoked in response to an act of moral depravity, is the first intimation of the theme of the corruption of the Canaanites, which is given as the justification for their being dispossessed of their land and for the transfer of that land to the descendants of Abraham."
Seeing Noah's nakedness
The majority of commentators, both ancient and modern, felt that Ham's seeing his father naked was not a sufficiently serious crime to account for the punishment. Nevertheless, Genesis 9:23, where Shem and Japheth cover Noah with a cloak while averting their eyes, suggests that "seeing (Noah's) nakedness" is to be taken literally. It has recently been pointed out that, in the first millennium Babylonia, looking at another person's genitals was indeed regarded as a serious matter.
Other ancient commentators suggested that Ham was guilty of more than the Bible says. The 2nd century Targum Onqelos has Ham gossiping about his father's drunken disgrace "in the street" (a reading which has a basis in the original Hebrew) so that being held up to public mockery was what had angered Noah; as the Cave of Treasures (late 6th – early 7th century) puts it, "Ham laughed at his father's shame and did not cover it, but laughed about it and mocked."