When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said,
“Cursed be Canaan;
a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.”
He also said,
“Blessed be the LORD, the God of Shem;
and let Canaan be his servant.
May God enlarge Japheth,
and let him dwell in the tents of Shem,
and let Canaan be his servant.” – Genesis 9:24-27
It can be surprising what you can learn from seemingly simple passages like this. This is just Noah getting ticked off at one of his kids and praising his favorites, right? Not by a long shot. There is nothing that says Noah was being prophetic here but he was. He was, after all, a “herald of righteousness” (2 Pet 2:5) and though Jacob isn’t called a prophet, his blessings on his kids proved to be prophetic (Gen 49) since the scepter didn’t depart from Judah, for example.
In the past, some in the church have talked about “the curse of Ham” and “the mark of Cain” being upon different people groups, whom they refer to as ‘races’. This was then used to give Biblical justification to treating those ‘races’ as less-than-human. Obviously, Cain’s mark was on Cain and not anyone else. Cain complained that once others found out what he’d done, they’d kill him (Gen 4:14). God’s purpose in putting his mark on Cain was to prevent that (Gen 4:15). After the flood, God had a different solution for murder: execution (Gen 9:6) not Cain’s mark. Besides, Noah was from the line of Seth (Gen 5:6-28) not Cain’s so if the mark was genetic, it died in the flood.
Well, what of the curse of Ham? Ham’s descendants settled in Africa so the theory goes that the children of Ham bear his curse. Except, Ham didn’t get cursed. Noah/God cursed not Ham, for that would be a third of humanity at that point, but he/they cursed Ham’s son Canaan. Canaan’s descendants didn’t make it to Africa, they settled in the Promised Land (Gen 10:15-19). God endured with them not for only 400 years while Israel was in Egypt (Gen 15:16) though that would be significant. But more than that, God endured with that cursed people from the days of Noah! Their deeds were exceedingly evil (cf. Lev 20:2-5) and yet it took that long for the full measure of their sin to equal the full measure of God’s patience with them.
What happened was that Ham was not curse. Nor was he blessed. He was simply cut out. The blessing to Japheth was that he be enlarged. It is a play on Japheth’s name which is the same Hebrew word as “enlarge” but it is more than that. Japheth will, one day, dwell in Shem’s tents. Shem who’s God is Yahweh. Those tents. We can see this idea of Ham being ignored again in the genealogy of Genesis 10. When we get to Shem’s descendants, Shem is introduced as “the father of all the children of Eber, the elder brother of Japheth.” “Eber” is where we get the name “Hebrew” and Shem is his father which is where we get the term “Semite” as in “anti-semite”. Also, Shem is the elder brother not of Ham and Japheth, but only Japheth. Moses is pointing out that Ham’s descendants will be included in Japheth’s blessing (he will be enlarged) and only Canaan will be cursed.
Seem thin? Let me fill it in just a bit then. Back to Genesis 10 but let’s take a look at Ham’s descendants for a moment. One is Nimrod, a mighty man and a mighty hunter. He founded two important cities, Nineveh and Babylon. These become very important later in redemptive history when God judges Israel and Judah for their faithlessness. Nebuchadnezzar is the king of Babylon and God repeatedly refers to him as “my servant” in Jeremiah (Jer 25:9, 27:6, 43:10). In Daniel 3 when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are delivered from Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace he makes the proclamation that “Any people, nation, or language that speaks anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins, for there is no other god who is able to rescue in this way” (Dan 3:29). Then in chapter 4, where Nebuchadnezzar himself seems to be the author of inspired scripture, God doesn’t destroy Nebuchadnezzar for his sin but sends him a dream and Daniel to interpret it. He then causes Nebuchadnezzar to go mad for a time so that when he is restored he praises God. Sounds like this son of Ham is dwelling in Shem’s tents. Also, God sent Jonah to Nineveh and extended his mercy to them.
Another son of Ham is Egypt (Gen 10:6). When God brought Israel out of Egypt he judged their gods, not them (Ex 12:12, Num 33:4). God later calls Egypt “my people” and Assyria “the work of my hands” (Isa 19:24-25). And these two sons of Ham will surely be among the “strong nations” that will lay hold of the robe of a Jew and say “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you” (Zech 8:22-23). Again, that sounds like they are dwelling in Shem’s tents.
I’m not saying that these men or nations were eternally saved, but they had an encounter with Yahweh that the Canaanites didn’t. That isn’t to say that God didn’t extend opportunities for repentance to Canaan, he did, but he didn’t take the extraordinary steps he took with others of Ham’s children. Caleb’s father, a Kenizzite (Num 32:12, Gen 15:18-19), turned to Yahweh. Rahab and her family heard about Yahweh’s might and turned to him (Josh 2:8-13). When God’s wrath fell on the people of the land of Canaan, these were saved so even in his judgment, God saved some. In the end, Japheth is enlarged and dwells in Shem’s tents while Ham is pretty much ignored.