“Cursed be Canaan;
a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.”
(Genesis 9:25 ESV)
In past centuries, people who have abused the Bible have appealed to this passage to justify the enslavement of African people, resulting in grievous abuse, injustice, and inhumanity to people created in the image of God.
Yet when Noah cursed his son Canaan, which focuses on his being a servant, the curse anticipated the time when judgment would fall on the Canaanites.
When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than you, and when the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. (Deut 7:1-3)
Canaan fathered Sidon his firstborn and Heth, and the Jebusites, the Amorites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, the Arkites, the Sinites, the Arvadites, the Zemarites, and the Hamathites. Afterward the clans of the Canaanites dispersed. And the territory of the Canaanites extended from Sidon in the direction of Gerar as far as Gaza, and in the direction of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, as far as Lasha. (Gen. 10:15-19)
This, coupled with the fact that the curse falls on Canaan alone and not on Ham’s other children (who settled in northern Africa), shows how illegitimate it was to use this text to justify enslaving African people.
Also note how not all of Canaan’s children are included in the tribes that God listed for destruction. Yet even for those tribes that are listed, we know from the example of Rahab and the Gibeonites that God did not show indiscriminate judgment on the people. In all honesty, the judgment of the Canaanites might be seen as a microcosm of the global flood that God unleashed on the ungodly.
Just as He spared Noah and his household for their faithfulness, but punished the rest of the world with a flood, so too does He spare Rahab and her household and the Gibeonites for showing faith in Him, but punished the rest of the inhabitants of Canaan through the agency of Israel.
Also the fact that Rahab can be found in Jesus’ lineage (Matthew 1:5) provides an interesting twist on the idea of the Curse of Canaan. The fact that Rahab, a Canaanite, is found in the Redeemer’s lineage rather implies God’s desire that blessings and not curses have the final word for His people. Also God’s people are not exclusively Jewish but rather include people groups of the whole world, as represented by the inclusion of Rahab.
Noah placed a curse on Canaan, but it is partly through Canaan that the Messiah came and the Messiah comes to reverse the curse that was placed on Canaan, and ultimately the curse that was placed on the whole world because of Adam’s sin.
So the way I see the curse of Canaan is that it provides a particular picture of the general curse on the creation, and thus provides a backdrop behind how Jesus the Messiah comes to reverse the curse that fell on both the Canaanites and the created order.
Just as Adam’s sin led to a curse on the whole creation,
so too does Ham’s sin led to a curse on Canaan, and
Jesus as the descendant of both
comes to redeem both of them to bring blessings to the nations.