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Let’s start with… Canaan?

When I picked up that copy of The Gay Blade at the age of 14, I knew on an instinctive level that it somehow related to me. I hadn’t thought about that tract in a long time, but when I found it today in the Internet, I noticed something that I had not remembered…

It turns out that Jack T. Chick was on to something that I couldn’t possibly have understood at that time. But now, years later, with countless hours of Bible study and research under my belt, I’ve noticed for the first time that one thing in that pamphlet was true.

Christian and Jewish children alike grow up hearing stories of the land of Canaan, promised first to Abraham and then given to the children of Israel after their captivity in Egypt.

The Bible is sketchy when it gives details about the original inhabitants of the region. But ironically, as we enter the 21st century, we know more about the Canaanites than our ancestors have for millennia.

Canaan appears in various places in recorded history and is recorded in cuneiform (Sumerian writing), Egyptian and Phoenician writings around 1500 BCE.[1] But according to Genesis, Canaan is more than a land. Canaan was a man, the grandson of Noah and son of Ham (Genesis 9:18).

When we talk about homosexuality, we generally make reference to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah or the famous passage in the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. But I’m going to make a radical suggestion: let’s study the subject from the very beginning.

The first reference to a homogenital act in the Bible doesn’t occur in Genesis 19 with the destruction of the cities of the plain. Rather, it is found in Genesis 9, in a story that sets the stage for the occupation of the Promised Land some 1050 years later (give or take a couple of narrative years).

The Drunkenness of Noah

The Drunkenness of Noah
Photo credit: Nick Thompson

Noah, a man of the soil, proceeded to plant a vineyard. When he drank some of its wine, he became drunk and lay uncovered inside his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it across their shoulders; then they walked in backward and covered their father’s nakedness. Their faces were turned the other way so that they would not see their father’s nakedness.

 

When Noah awoke from his wine and found out what his youngest son had done to him, he said, "Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers." He also said, "Blessed be the LORD, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem. May God extend the territory of Japheth; may Japheth live in the tents of Shem, and may Canaan be his slave."  Genesis 9:20-27 (NIV)

In a time when nudity is plastered on billboards throughout the world and carnal scenes are beamed into our living rooms from satellites overhead, it is hard to imagine that simply seeing another person naked could carry a curse of bondage for generations to come. One might even have some sympathy for Ham on reading this story. Noah gets drunk. Noah passes out naked. Ham only walks in and sees the end result. Shem and Japheth cover for their father’s indiscretion and are, hence, rewarded.

Several questions arise. What if Ham had covered Noah up himself? Having already seen Noah and thus knowing to cover him, would he still have been cursed? Did not his information provide forewarning to his brothers, thereby allowing them to avoid the same situation? It seems that Ham was damned simply for entering the tent.

The answer to this mystery lies in the Hebrew. Two words that are key to understanding what happened in this passage appear when Noah was uncovered in verse 21, coupled with the reference to his nakedness in verse 22.

The book of Leviticus presents the Holiness Code that separated the Hebrews from the other nations around them. In Leviticus 18:6-19, Moses presents a list of forbidden sexual relations. While the NIV is very clear in stating, “do not have sexual relations with,” the King James provides the literal translation of the Hebrew phrase as “uncover the nakedness of.”

Taking the linguistic evidence under consideration, it appears that Ham subjected Noah to some kind of sexual act while Noah was unconscious. This conclusion can be further supported by verse 24, when Noah awakes and knows what Ham has done to him. Merely having been seen would not have left any evidence to support Noah’s suspicion. However physical abuse would leave signs that could be easily sensed and interpreted.

Cursed be Canaan

The story of the rape of Noah is not incidental to the epic that unfolds throughout the rest of the Old Testament. Instead, it lays out an explanation for the sins of the fathers being visited on the children for generations to come.

Ham attempted to establish his dominance in the post-flood world by emasculating his father through rape and achieving the "top dog" status. But what he got instead was a curse placed on his offspring. They would not be the leaders of this future world, but the servants of Hebrew slaves when they returned to Canaan’s territory after their slavery in Egypt. This story lays the groundwork for the orders given in Deuteronomy 7:2 to totally destroy the inhabitants of the land, making no treaties and showing no mercy.

If you’re anything like me, then your first impulse on encountering one of those strings of begat‘s in the Bible is to scan down to where the genealogy ends and the story begins again 🙂

But those texts weren’t just put there to fill space. The continuity of the narrative of the Bible is held together by those lists. As we can see here:

  • The sons of Ham: Cush, Mizraim, Put and Canaan. (Genesis 10:6)
  • Canaan was the father of Sidon his firstborn, and of the Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites, Girgashites, Hivites, Arkites, Sinites, Arvadites, Zemarites and Hamathites. Later the Canaanite clans scattered and the borders of Canaan reached from Sidon toward Gerar as far as Gaza, and then toward Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, as far as Lasha. (Genesis 10:15-19)
  • However, in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them— the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites*, Hivites and Jebusites — as the LORD your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the LORD your God. (Deuteronomy 20:16-18)

*Note: It is not clear from the Biblical texts exactly where the Perizzites came from.

Canaan and his offspring are the first people after the flood to follow in the footsteps of Cain who, after slaying Abel and being marked by God, left God’s presence never to return. They are the first pagans in the post-flood world. These are the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah. These are the people who fill the land of Canaan when the children of Israel cross the Jordan. Further references to them in the Torah will tell of "detestable"[2] rituals involving idols, human sacrifice and sexual perversion.

And so it will go for the rest of the Bible: in every subsequent passage referring to homogenital contact, we will find that the act itself is connected with one of two sins: rape or idolatry. It is the heart motives behind these acts against which the Bible speaks.


[1] "Canaan" Encyclopædia Britannica, <http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?eu=20200&tocid=0&query=canaan>, [Accessed March 31, 2002].

[2]> The word detestable in the NIV is often used in the place of the KJV abomination for easier comprehension for modern English speakers. Unfortunately, neither word gives the meaning of the Hebrew toevah, which is used to describe idolatrous practices or, in some passages, idols themselves. More on this in sections to come.

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