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Genesis 9:20-27 And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard: And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without. 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. And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him. And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren. And he said, Blessed be the LORD God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. (KJV).

From the above Scriptures it is obvious that Ham was the one who committed an offense against his father. Why then did his father leave him and curse his son instead? Why did he bless Shem and Japheth and not their sons as he did unto Ham?

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  • Although investigative journalism had not yet been invented (Luke), this event was probably one of its triggers. Considering that the world’s population was very small at the time, the story was probably not written down until centuries later, by distant relatives who tried to patch together the “who’s done what”. It must have been a difficult task, which shows in its vagueness. One possibility is that Ham had been found guilty of something of which the punishment was to be a pack-mule for the others for one year; a role Canaan volunteered to fill for him, since he was the stronger of the two. Dec 24 '19 at 8:53
  • @Constantthin 'All scripture is given by inspiration of God'. 2 Timothy 3:16.
    – Nigel J
    Dec 24 '19 at 10:04
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    @Constantthin What was the offense committed by Ham that deserved such a grievous punishment? I think that Ham did not see his father's nakedness because he wanted to. His only offense was going to tell his brothers outside instead of covering it. Any of them could have stumbled upon their father's nakedness as well. If this offense was so grievous, then was it right for Noah to get himself so drunk that he became naked without knowing it in the first place? Could his rage be as a result of the shame he felt for not been a good example to his family? Dec 24 '19 at 11:26
  • @Nigel J. True. But it still needs to be interpreted. Dec 24 '19 at 12:11
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    Does this answer your question? Why does Noah curse Canaan?
    – Bach
    May 3 '20 at 2:09

10 Answers 10

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According to Genesis 9:1 Ham had already been blessed by God

And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth

God word is final so when Ham looked upon his father’s nakedness, the punishment was the pushed onto Ham’s first born which happened to be Canaan. And from my interpretation of the scripture, Genesis 9:25 only Canaan was cursed not his decedents.

And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.

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  • Welcome to the site, and if you take the 'Tour' link at the bottom of this page, you will find useful tips on how best to answer. As this site is looking for evidence-based answers and not opinions or personal interpretations, you might like to expand your answer by quoting from theological sources that deal with this particular point. Looking forward to hearing more from you!
    – Anne
    Jul 9 '20 at 18:59
  • Do you have any supporting documents for this view; any evidence?
    – Dottard
    Jul 10 '20 at 5:33
  • @Dottard I do not. The reason why I believe this is due to the fact that majority of the time in the scripture when someone and their descendants are cursed, it is typically made clear that the cursed party’s generations are typically included in the curse. But oldhermit makes a very compelling point and has scripture to support his comment. Also if you read about the descendants of Canaan, majority of them are defeated in battle by Joshua.
    – Magic Ex
    Jul 11 '20 at 15:38
  • But Canaan is Ham's fourth son, right? Ham's sons are Cush, Mizraim, Put and Canaan, right? Oct 22 '20 at 2:51
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Noah pronounced the curse directly on Canaan because the cursing of Ham had the implications of a generational curse. Noah was not just going to be satisfied at seeing Ham suffer for his wrongdoing. He was so embittered and could only have pacified his anger in seeing a high range of calamity blazing down on not only Ham, but also on his seeds. It was one of the ways that Noah could reinforce the gravity of the offence of Ham; that is, by letting him know that he was not just going to suffer alone for his wrongdoing.

“24And 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.

(Genesis 9:24-25 kjv)

In other words, Noah extended the curse beyond Ham to prove to him that what he did was highly injurious and summarily unpardonable. If it was not so, then, Noah wouldn’t have had any need extending the consequences beyond the life and time of the direct offender.

Another way we can explain why Noah went beyond Ham the offender to curse his son Canaan can be drawn drawn from the scriptures by cross-examining what transpired between Elisha and Gehazi.

“Therefore the leprosy of Naaman shall cling to you and your descendants forever.” And he went out from his presence leprous, as white as snow” (2 kings 5:27 kjv)

Elisha was so aggrieved over what Gehazi had done to him. And the only way he could pacify his anger was to see a grave consequence burning down on him and his descendants forever, in so much that only that gravity of punishment would be commensurate to the degree of injury that the offender had inflicted on his soul. Just like you would pronounce huge blessings upon anyone that impresses greatly upon your soul.

The case scenario surrounding Elisha here is similar to what Noah felt over the offence of his younger son. So, from the Elisha-Gehazi picture, we can clearly see why the judgment was not directed to Canaan personally but rather to his descendants, and more specifically, Canaan, even though Canaan was Ham's fourth son, (Genesis 10:6). The only thing we can deduce from why all four sons were not rather affected and/or why Ham’s first son, Cush didn’t instead have to bear the brunt is simple: Canaan was Ham’s favourite son. Notice that, Canaan, is named in verse 22 as Ham's son. That Ham is Canaan's father is emphasized twice in the account (verses 22, 24), whereas his other sons were not mentioned by name throughout the chapter under review.

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    Your explanation using Elisha -Gehazi as examples and Canaan being Ham's favourite son makes sense, but I still have some grey areas. On the incident of Elisha-Gehazi case which you referenced, Elisha did not go straight to cursing the descendants of Gehazi directly. The curse first went to Gehazi himself (who was the offender) before his descendants. This was not the case with Noah; he left Ham (the offender) altogether and went straight to cursing Canaan his "favourite" son. Why was it so? Dec 24 '19 at 11:10
  • The exact nature of Ham's transgression and the reason Noah cursed Canaan when Ham had sinned have been debated for over 2,000 years. en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curse_of_Ham But it can be implied that Noah refused to curse Ham directly because he had a degree of tolerance for Ham being his biological son and the only way to make him pay for the offense (of mocking at his father’s nakedness) was to afflict Canaan, the son that Ham loved most. Dec 24 '19 at 12:30
  • @Ernest Abinokhano. It is hard to believe that the godly Noah was a vindictive person. It is even harder to fathom that he would be vindictive for something that he himself had caused. Cursing Ham for stumbling upon his accidental indiscretion doesn’t make sense. Cursing Ham’s son for it makes less sense. Dec 24 '19 at 12:51
  • @Constantthin. Your guess is as good as mine. Who would have thought that the ‘goldly Noah was a vindictive person’ and such a religious mulato for being so ‘vindictive for something that he himself had cursed.’ That is exactly why the nature of Ham’s transgression and the reason Noah cursed Canaan has been debated for over 2000 years. And trust me, the debate is still on. For instance, Rashi asserts that Canaan was the fourth son of Ham. And, according to Ramban, Canaan was the eldest son, the firstborn, whereas the chapter says his younger son.... Got the point! The debate continues... Dec 24 '19 at 13:50
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    @ErnestAbinokhauno Whatever the nature of Ham's transgression was. Noah had his own share of the blame. He was the one who lost control with the liquor, got excessively drunk & exposed himself without discretion. Why then could he not look inwards as the righteous man that he was and make amends instead of raining curses on his innocent grandson? Dec 24 '19 at 16:00
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My understanding is that "Ham, the father of Canaan, SAW THE NAKEDNESS OF HIS FATHER" is an euphemism.

Lev_18:8 The nakedness of thy father's wife shalt thou not uncover: it is thy father's nakedness.

Lev_18:16 Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy brother's wife: it is thy brother's nakedness.

Lev_20:11 And the man that lieth with his father's wife hath uncovered his father's nakedness: both of them shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.

Lev_20:20 And if a man shall lie with his uncle's wife, he hath uncovered his uncle's nakedness: they shall bear their sin; they shall die childless.

Lev_20:21 And if a man shall take his brother's wife, it is an unclean thing: he hath uncovered his brother's nakedness; they shall be childless.

Canaan is a fruit of an incest. By incest I mean sexual activity between people related by affinity (marriage). That is why he got cursed. The fact that the text doesn't say anything about the punishment of Ham and Noah's wife doesn't mean they weren't punished. Noah's wife is never called Shem's, Japheth's and Ham's mother. I presume she was their stepmother. Genealogy of every patriarch ends with "And SO AND SO lived after he begat SO AND SO x years, and begat sons and daughters." We don't see it with Noah. He didn't have any more children, even though he lived another three hundred and fifty years after the flood. He must have divorced his wife after that episode. Later on in the book we have a similar story of Reuben and Bilhah. No offspring is produced but Reuben still loses his double portion and more.

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  • This sounds logical. The only problem I have with this explanation is the fact that Canaan was born, because considering that childlessness was metered out in the lesser cases (uncle/brother) to let the baby be born in a case that is deemed to be the most severe among the possible combinations is illogical. Dec 26 '19 at 1:32
  • It also says "Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy father's sister: she is thy father's near kinswoman." (Lev 18:12) But still "And Amram took him Jochebed his father's sister to wife; and she bare him Aaron and Moses". (Exo 6:20) Dec 26 '19 at 1:37
  • The referenced Scripture did not tell us that it was Ham who uncovered Noah, but rather that Noah was was drunken and was uncovered within his tent. Ham only went in and saw his father's nakedness. The only thing inferred here is that Ham did not act with discretion. I think it is wrong to conclude that the offense committed was incest. @ארקדיוס Jan 5 '20 at 11:17
  • It is obvious that we will not have full understanding of certain things in the Bible until we see the Lord in His glory 1 Cor 13:12 Jan 5 '20 at 11:19
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Brethren, your contributions really broadened my literal knowledge of the curse/curses by Noah on Canaan instead of Ham the offender as stated in Genesis chapter 9, verses 24-27. Let's note the following: (1) Gen.9:20 factually said Noah was the first farmer to plant a vineyard. Truely and spiritually, with his rating by God in Gen 6:9-10 as the only good man of his time, he was corrupted by Satan as in the case of Eve/Adam and later Cain to have been overdosed and drunk because, being the first planter of vine, he Noah did not have the knowledge of the intoxication effect of the plant hence he was caught in the error of alcohol consumption and drunkenness. (2) By tradition/custom, Ham should have proven his moral uprightness by effort fully covering his father's nakedness even though he stumbled on Noah's nakedness. (3) Ham should not have blown out to the public, (to his brothers), the sudden unplanned spiritual weakness of the most good man now suddenly turned a drunken. (4) Since Ham has been inclusively blessed by God in Gen 9:1 and is therefore uncurseable by man, Ham's chosen son Canaan, must bear the type of long-term pain, agony, spiritual disgrace etc that he Noah is in as he felt this was the only way that would make Ham to lament for life hence the curse of Canaan instead of Ham. Brethren, this is my own contribution as directed by the Holy Spirit. (5) We shall not be pulled down by Satan in Jesus name.

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    Hi Taiwo Sunday Akanbi, welcome! Please consider giving a proper format to the answer, as it is that's very difficult to read. Sep 2 '20 at 10:02
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When the incident takes place, all four of Ham's sons are already born. Pronouncing the curse upon Canaan narrows the parameters of the curse to only one line of Ham's descendants. It was not uncommon for the curse of a father's sins to be passed down through the extended line of succeeding generations until the fourth generation.

"The Lord visits the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation." Ex 34:6-7, Deut 5:8-10.

In the case of Ham, God is being quite merciful in the limitations of this curse to a single line of descendants. The fact that God restricted the curse only to the line of Canaan did not subject the other sons of Ham to the same curse because of the sin of their father.

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  • Your answer is quite similar to this answer posted to a duplicate question of the OP hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/32520/…. It's a novel answer indeed, and I wonder if it's logically sound.
    – Bach
    May 3 '20 at 2:16
  • I am little concerned with whether or not it may seem "logically" sound. Perhaps the more relevant question may be, is it biblically sound, If you have a better explanation, I would be pleased to hear it.
    – oldhermit
    May 3 '20 at 2:26
  • That's exactly what I meant. "biblically sound".
    – Bach
    May 3 '20 at 2:28
  • The history of the Canaan conquest paints a rather clear picture as to which line of Ham was the target of destruction. It was narrowed to the descendants of Canaan, not all the descendants of Ham.
    – oldhermit
    May 3 '20 at 2:34
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Genesis 10:6 The sons of Ham: Cush, Egypt, Put and Canaan.

Why did Noah Curse Canaan and not Ham?

If Noah had cursed Ham directly, then all 4 of his sons would have been cursed. By grace, only Canaan was cursed.

Why did he bless Shem and Japheth and not their sons as he did unto Ham?

Noah blessed Shem and Japheth directly and blessed their descendants through them.

The book of Genesis was written by Moses before Joshua led the Israelites to cross the Jordan to enter Canaan proper. What were relevant to them at that time in their history?

  1. They had left Egypt who was somewhat cursed because he was a son of Ham.
  2. Israel is blessed by Noah through Shem, their ancestor.
  3. They are about to conquer Canaan fulfilling the prophecy spoken by Noah in

Genesis 9:26 He also said, "Praise be to the LORD, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem.

If you were an Israelite at that time, Genesis 9 made a whole lot of sense and you felt that you were making history, fulfilling the word of God.

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Noah knew not to curse Ham because God had just blessed him (Genesis 9:1). But Ham didn't get off scot-free: https://utreon.com/v/04BEDuNN7xs

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    – agarza
    Jul 7 at 3:08
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Ham's son Canaan was cursed because Ham had "seen" his father's nakedness while he was in a drunken state.

The word "nakedness" in Hebrew is highly significant here. Using the Bible's own definitions of this word we can piece together what really happened.

The nakedness of thy father's wife shalt thou not uncover: it is thy father's nakedness. (Leviticus 18:8)

And the man that lieth with his father's wife hath uncovered his father's nakedness: both of them shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them. (Leviticus 20:11)

To have sexual relations with one's father's wife (whether one's mother or not) was to "uncover" the father's nakedness. And the crime of Ham was to see his father's nakedness. Clearly, this is a Hebrew euphemism for something much more egregious than simply stumbling upon someone while in a state of nudity. It involves activity, and not merely sight.

The child born to Ham's father's wife, fathered by Ham, was not Noah's son. It was Ham's son. God had blessed all of Noah's sons, and many interpret that what God had blessed, Noah was unable to curse.

And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth. (Genesis 9:1)

But God had not, in blessing Noah's sons, blessed the results of their unfaithfulness. Ham's son, Canaan, was the product of incest--a bastard. The Bible's strongest curses are reserved for bastards.

A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD; even to his tenth generation shall he not enter into the congregation of the LORD. (Deuteronomy 23:2)

Clearly, this curse of a bastard was to extend well beyond his own generation. In Canaan's case, the curse extended also to his posterity.

Noah's curse of Canaan was not merely uttered in anger or of a vengeful spirit--he spoke prophetically under the inspiration of God. God purposed to show the results of such wickedness, and to help His people see the true cause and effect in their proper connection.

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There are a lot of questions on this site that ask for details of events that aren't provided in the scriptures, and I'm not sure what questionners are expecting to get other than speculation. So I'll provide some of the traditional answers, but these are all speculation.

Note that most of the rabbinical interpretations and many of the Christian interpretations also refer to Ham's blessing as preventing Noah from cursing Ham. In what follows, I will skip that part.

Rabbinical tradition

Rashi points out four options:

Genesis 9:22 — וירא חם אבי כנען AND HAM THE FATHER OF CANAAN SAW — Some of our Rabbis say that Canaan saw it and told his father about it, and on that account he is mentioned in connection with this matter and was cursed (Genesis Rabbah 36:7).

וירא את ערות אביו AND HE SAW HIS FATHER'S NAKEDNESS — Some say that he castrated him and some say that he sodomized him (Sanhedrin 70a).

e.g, that it could have been Caanan who did X and then told Ham, or perhaps Ham did X, where X is either castrate Noah or Sodomize him.

If castration, then the idea would be that as Noah can't have more sons, then he will curse Ham's son. The castration option was supposedly motivated by Ham not wanting to share the world with more sons, as a three way split was enough:

Genesis 9:25 — ארור כנען CURSED BE CANAAN — You have brought it about that I cannot beget a fourth son to serve me; cursed, therefore, be your fourth son (see Chap. 10:6) to serve under the descendants of these elder ones upon whom the duty of serving me will devolve from now on. Why did Ham maltreat him in this manner? He said to his brothers, “Adam Harishon had two sons and one killed the other in order that he might possess the whole world(Genesis Rabbah 36:7): our father already has three sons, and he wishes to have yet another “. Rashi Commentaries. (n.d.). (p. 33).

There are other options that "expose nakedness" is a reference to raping Noah's wife, and thus Canaan was actually the son of Noah's wife and Ham, which is why he was cursed. In this interpretation, Noah notices this only after some time and the bedcover is placed over the wife.

Of all of these rabbinical interpretations, I think castration is the most plausible in terms of fitting the text.

Christian Tradition

Luther

Luther has a beautiful interpretation, which does not assume any euphemisms for uncovering nakedness, and merely points out that in Noah's shame and humility, God grants him a revelatory vision. So Noah's curse is more of a prophecy brought on by God rather than any kind of vengenance, and the humility of the experience is what brings this prophecy on.

  1. Also the punishment of this wickedness is carefully set before us. Noah, looked upon by his son as a foolish, insane, and ridiculous old man, now steps forth in the majesty of a prophet, to announce to his son a divine revelation of future events. Truly does Paul declare that “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9); for the certainty characterizing Noah’s utterance is proof that he was filled with the Holy Spirit, notwithstanding that his son had mocked and despised him as one utterly deserted by the Holy Spirit.

Luther, M. (1910). Luther on Sin and the Flood: Commentary on Genesis. (J. N. Lenker, Ed. & Trans.) (Vol. II, p. 314). Minneapolis, MN: The Luther Press.

Calvin

Calvin also focuses on the curse as coming from God rather than Noah, but as he does not focus on Noah's weakness, the exegesis is more cerebral and complex:

It is strange that Noah curses his grandson and passes over in silence Ham who committed the crime. The Jews give God’s favor as the reason and say that God had so greatly honored Ham that the curse was shifted to his son. But that is a foolish conjecture. I am sure that the punishment was transferred to posterity to make its severity all the more obvious; for God was giving clear testimony that he did not consider the punishment of one man alone to be sufficient, and that therefore the curse had to include his descendants and continue in force through the ages. Meanwhile Ham himself was certainly not exempted; God made his judgment heavier by including his son with him. Now another question arises. Why did God single out from among Ham’s many sons one man in particular for the blow? But here we must not allow too much range to our curiosity. We should keep in mind, it is not without reason that the judgments of God are called an unfathomable abyss. It is not fitting that God, before whose tribunal we must all finally stand, be subjected to our judgment—or rather to our foolish temerity. God chooses as he pleases some, to make them examples of his grace and long-suffering; he destines others for a different purpose, to be proofs of his anger and severity. Here human minds are blind; yet each one of us, knowing his own failure, should learn to praise God’s justice rather than hurl himself by insane audacity into the deep abyss. The curse of God included the whole seed of Ham. But he singled out the Canaanites by name as cursed above all others. We know that this judgment was from God, for it was afterwards validated by the event. Noah was a man and did not know what was to happen to the Canaanites; but in such obscure and hidden matters he spoke as the Spirit directed his tongue. There is still another difficulty. The Scripture teaches that the sins of men are punished to the third and fourth generation; and yet [our text] seems to depict the punishment of God’s wrath as reaching to ten generations. I answer: Scripture does not prescribe a rule which God himself may not transgress, as though he were bound not to punish beyond four generations. We must see grace and punishment as combined and so understand that, while God justly punishes our crimes, he is still more inclined to mercy. Meanwhile, let us admit that he is free to extend punishment as far as it seems good to him.

Haroutunian, J., & Smith, L. P. (1958). Calvin: Commentaries (p. 275). Philadelphia: Westminster Press.

Ephraim the Syrian (363-373)

Argues that Canaan saw the nakedness, told his father, and the father joked about it.

Noah cursed Canaan, saying, “Cursed be Canaan. A slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers.” But what sin could Canaan have committed even if he had been right behind his father when Ham observed the nakedness of Noah? Some say that because Ham had been blessed along with those who entered the ark and came out of it, Noah did not curse Ham himself, even though his son, who was cursed, grieved him greatly. Others, however, say from the fact that Scripture says, “Noah knew everything that his youngest son had done to him,” it is clear that it was not Ham who observed his nakedness, for Ham was the middle son and not the youngest. For this reason they say that Canaan, the youngest, told of the nakedness of the old man. Then Ham went out and jokingly told his brothers. For this reason then, even though it might be thought that Canaan was cursed unjustly in that he did what he did in his youth, still he was cursed justly for he was not cursed in the place of another. Noah knew that Canaan would deserve the curse in his old age, or else he would not have been cursed in his youth. COMMENTARY ON GENESIS 7.3.1–2.

Louth, A., & Conti, M. (Eds.). (2001). Genesis 1–11 (p. 158). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Justin Martyr (100-165)

In the blessings with which Noah blesses his two sons, he also curses his son’s son. For the prophetic Spirit would not curse that son himself, since he had already been blessed by God, together with the other sons of Noah. But, since the punishment of the sin was to be transmitted down to all the posterity of the son who laughed at his father’s nudity, he made the curse begin with the son’s son

Louth, A., & Conti, M. (Eds.). (2001). Genesis 1–11 (p. 159). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

I'll stop here as my reading hasn't revealed any new arguments than what have already been made.

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I had 2 thoughts about why Noah cursed Cannan.

  1. It may have been the first sin of scapegoating an offspring. Noah blamed Ham for Noah’s self inflicted drunkenness and instead of being responsible for falling below Gods vision of his typical good behavior, he blamed Ham. A way to punish Ham is to curse his son.

I doubted there was incest as a reason to curse Cannan since seems to be born later. Hard to tell.

However, in Genesis 6:2 …’sons took daughters’…God didn’t seem to appreciate this and perhaps Noah knew. It was the beginning of the evil the flood was supposed to eradicate. And if Ham had incest with his mother then Noah would have been angry because it is same behavior And the flood was for nothing.

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