Genesis 9
Lange Commentary on the Holy Scriptures
And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.
And the sons of Noah, that went forth of the ark, were Shem, and Ham, and Japheth: and Ham is the father of Canaan.

The Revelation of Sin and of Piety in Noah’s Family—The Curse and the Blessing of Noah—The twofold Blessing, and the Blessing in the Curse itself.

CHAPTER 9:18–29

18And the sons of Noah that went forth of the ark were Shem, and Ham, and Japheth; and Ham is the father of Canaan. 19These are the three sons of Noah; and of them was the whole earth overspread. 20And Noah began10 to be a husbandman, and he planted a vineyard; 21And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent. 22And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without. 23And 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. 24And Noah awoke from his wine [his sleep of intoxication], and knew what his younger son had done unto him. 25And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants11 shall he be unto his brethren. 26And he said, Blessed be the Lord God of Shem [Jehovah, God of the name, or who preserves the name]; and Canaan shall be his servant. 27God shall enlarge Japheth12 [one who spreads abroad], and he shall dwell13 in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. 28 And Noah lived after the flood three hundred and fifty years. 29And all the days of Noah were nine hundred and fifty years; and he died.


1. The Significance of this Jehovistic Section. This second event in the life of Noah after the flood is evidently of the highest meaning; as was the first, namely, Noah’s offering and God’s blessing and covenant. In the first transaction there are delineated the ground-features of the new constitution of the earth, as secured by the covenant of God with the pious Noah. In the present Section we learn the advance of culture, but we recognize also the continuance of sin in the new human race; still, along with the earlier contrast between piety and perverseness, there comes in now the new contrast of a blessed life of culture as compared with the religious life of a divine cultus, or worship. In what Noah says of his sons, we read the ground-forms of the new state, and of the world-historical partition of mankind. In Knobel’s representation of it, this higher significance of the Section is wholly effaced. In the curse upon Canaan (according to this view), and in his appointment to servitude, the Jehovist would give an explanation of the fact, that the Canaanites were subjugated by the Hebrews, and that Phænician settlers among the Japhethites14 appear to have had a similar fate. But that the curse was pronounced upon Canaan, and not upon Ham, was because other Hamitic nations, such as the Egyptians, etc., were not in the same evil case. Still, it is not Canaan, but Ham himself, who is set forth as the shameless author of the guilt, (?) because the writer would refer certain shameless usages of the Hamitic nations to their first ancestor. Now, on the simple supposition of the truth of the prediction, and of the connection between the guilt of the ancestor, and the corruption of his descendants, this construction must fall to the ground. Knobel cites it as “an ancient view,” that the cursings of those who are distinguished as men of God, have power and effect as well as their blessings.

2. Gen 9:19. By them was the whole earth overspread.—A main point of our narration. “The second event in the life of Noah after the flood shows us the germs for the future development of the human race in a threefold direction, which is prefigured in the character of his three sons.” To this end the repetition of their names. The mention of Canaan introduces the mention of the land in the following verse, as used for the inhabitants of the land; as in Gen 10:25; 11:1, and other passages in which cities and lands are frequently named instead of their population.” Keil.

3. Gen 9:20, 21. Noah’s Work, his Indulgence and his Error. The translation: “and Noah began to be a husbandman” is rightly set aside by Delitzsch and Keil. The word for husbandman has the article, and is, therefore, in apposition with Noah. Noah, as husbandman, began to plant a vineyard. The agriculture that had been interrupted by the flood, he again carries on, and makes it more complete by means of the new culture of the vine. Armenia, where he landed with the ark, is an anciently known vine-land. “The ten thousand (XEN., Anab. 4, 4, 9) found in Armenia old and well flavored wines: even at this day the vine grows there, producing wine of great excellence, even at the height of four thousand feet above the level of the sea (RITTER: Geography, x. p. 554). That the culture of the vine came from Asia is well known. The Greek myth ascribes it to Dyonysus or Bacchus, representing it, sometimes, as derived from the Indians, and again, as belonging to the Phrygians, who were related to the Armenians (DIOD. SIC. 362; STRABO, 10).” Knobel. The story designates a hill on the northwest, adjacent to the Great Ararat, and furnishing the means of its ascent, as the region where Noah set out his vine-plants. The village of Arguri (Agorri), which in 1840 was destroyed in an eruption of Ararat, stood upon the place referred to. Frequent projections of stones, and outpouring streams of lava and mud, have, in the course of time, destroyed all the fertile soil of Ararat (K. KOCH, in “Piper’s Year Book,” 1852, p. 28).” Delitzsch. The wine-garden of Noah is a mild reflex of paradise in the world of the fallen human race; and this enjoyment, in its excessively sinful use, to which Noah led the way, although he was not aware of its effect, has become a reflex of Adam’s enjoyment of the tree of knowledge; with this difference, however, that Noah erred in ignorance, and not in the form of conscious transgression. Intoxication by wine makes men lax in respect to sexual sin; and this connection is gently indicated in the fact that Noah, as he lay unguarded in his tent, exposed himself contrary to the law of modesty. In the error of the father there reveals itself the character of the sons.

4. Gen 9:22, 23. The Behavior of the Sons. Ham’s conduct was, at first, a sin of omission. He saw the nakedness (the shame) of his father, and neither turned away his eyes nor covered him; then he told it to his brethren without, and this was his sin of commission. His behavior had the character not merely of lustful feeling, but of utter shamelessness; whereas the act of the two brothers presents a beautifully vivid image of delicacy, being at the same time an act of modesty and of piety. Reverence, piety, and chastity, are, in children, the three foundations of a higher life; whereas in impiety and sensual associations, a lower tendency reveals itself. Out of the virtues and the vices of the family come the virtues and the vices of nations, and of the world. At the same time, the manner in which the two sons treat the case, presents a charming image of prudence and quick decision. They seize the first best robe that comes to hand, and that was the שִׁמְלָה, spread it out, and as they go backward with averted faces, lay it upon the nakedness of their father.

5. Gen 9:24–29. Noah’s Curse and Blessing. His end.—And Noah awoke from his wine; that is, the intoxication from wine (see 1 Sam. 1:14; 25:37).—And knew.—This seems to suppose that his sons had told him, which, however, may have been occasioned by his asking about the robe that covered him. The whole proceeding, however, must have come to light, and that, too, to his own humiliation.—His younger son (literally, his son, the little, or the less; see Gen 5:32).—The effect upon him of the account is an elevated prophetic state of soul, in which the language of the seer takes the form of poetry.—Cursed be Canaan.—The fact that he did not curse the evil-doer himself, but his son, is explained away, according to Origen, in a Hebrew Midrash, which says that the young Canaan had first seen his grandfather in this condition, and told it to his father—clearly an arbitrary exegesis. According to Hävernik and Keil, all the sons of Ham were included in the curse, but the curse of Ham was concentrated on Canaan. Keil and Hengstenberg find, moreover, a motive in the name כְּנַעַן, which does not mean, originally, a low country, but the servile. “Ham gave to his son the name of obedience, a thing which he himself did not practise.” Hengstenberg supposes that Canaan was already following his father’s footsteps in impiety and wickedness. According to Hofmann and Delitzsch, Canaan had the curse imposed upon him because he was the youngest son of Ham (Gen 10:6), as Ham was the youngest son of Noah. “The great sorrow of heart which Ham had occasioned to his father was to be punished in the suffering of a similar experience from his own youngest son.” Rightly does Keil reject this. The exposition of Knobel we have already cited; according to it the later condition of the Canaanites was only antedated in the prophecy of Noah. Before all things must we hold fast to this, that the language of Noah is an actual prophecy; and not merely an expression of personal feeling. That the question has nothing to do with personal feeling is evident from the fact, that Ham was not personally cursed. According to the natural relations, the youngest grandchildren would be, in a special manner, favorites with the grandfather. If now, notwithstanding this, Noah cursed his grandchild, Canaan, it can only he explained on the ground that in the prophetic spirit he saw into the future, and that the vision had for its point of departure the then present natural state of Canaan. We may also say, that Ham’s future was contained in the future of Canaan; the future of the remaining Hamites he left undecided, without curse and without blessing, although the want of blessing was a significant omen. Had, however, Noah laid the curse on Ham, all the sons of Ham would have been denoted in like manner with himself; even as now it is commonly assumed that they were, though without sufficient ground (see DELITZSCH, p. 281). There is no play upon the name Canaan, as upon the name Japheth—a thing which is to be noted. But that in the behavior of Canaan Noah had a point of departure for his prophecy, we may well assume with Hengstenberg.—A servant of servants; that is, the lowest of servants. If the language had had in view already the later extermination of the Canaanites, it must have had a different style. The form of the expression, therefore, testifies to the age of the prophecy. We must also bear in mind, that the relation of servant in this case denotes no absolute relation in the curse, or any developed slave relation, any more than the relation of service which was imposed upon Esau in respect to Jacob. There even lies in it a hidden blessing. The common natures must, of themselves, take a position of inferiority; through subordination to the nobler character are they saved, in the discipline and cultivation of the Spirit.—Blessed be Jehovah, God of Shem.—The blessing upon Shem has the form of a doxology to Jehovah, whereby, as Luther has remarked, it is distinguished as a most abundant blessing, which finally reaches its highest point in the promised seed. “If Jehovah is the God of Shem, then is Shem the recipient and the heir of all the blessings of salvation which God, as Jehovah, procures for humanity.” Keil.—And Canaan shall be his servant.—The word לָמוֹ (regularly לָהֶם) is taken by Gesenius as a poetical expression for לוֹ; Delitzsch refers it, as plural, to both brothers—Keil and Knobel to their descendants. The descendants, however, are represented in the ancestor, and, therefore, the explanation of Gesenius gives the only clear idea.—God shall enlarge Japheth, [or, as Lange renders it], God give enlargement to the one who spreads abroad.—In the translation we retain the play upon the word, and the explanation of the name Japheth. Keil explains the word (meaning literally, to make room, to give space for outspreading) as metaphorical. To make room is equivalent to the bestowment of happiness and prosperity. It must be observed, however, that the name Shem, and the blessing of Shem, denotes the highest concentration; whilst in opposition to this the name Japheth and the blessing of Japheth, denotes the highest expansion, not only geographically, but also in regard to the spread of civilization through the earth, and its conquest both outwardly and intellectually. This is the spiritual mission of Japhethism to this day—namely, the mental conquest of the world. The culture life of Japheth, as humanitarian, scientific, stands in harmonious contrast with the cultus, or religionism, of Shem. Therefore, too, must Japheth’s blessing come from Elohim.—And he shall dwell in the tents of Shem.—The words, he shall dwell, are by some (Onkel, Dathe, Baumgarten) referred to Elohim. But this had already been expressed in the blessing of Shem, and had therefore nothing to do with the blessing of Japheth. What is said relates to Japheth; and that, too, neither in the sense that the Japhethites shall settle among the Shemites, or that they shall conquer them in their homes (Clericus, Von Bohlen, and others), but that Japheth’s dwelling in the tents of Shem shall be in the end his uniting with him in religious communion (Targum Jonathan, Hieronymus, Calvin, and others). The opposite interpretation (Michaelis, Gesenius, De Wette, Knobel, and others), which explains Shem here (שם) as meaning literally name, or fame (dwell in the tents of renown), appears to have proceeded from a misapprehension of the prophetic significance of the language. To dwell in the tents of any one, Knobel holds, cannot mean religious communion. That would be true, if the one referred to had not immediately before been denoted as an observer of the true religion. That the Japhethites, that is, the Greeks, early dwelt in the tents of renown, is, in this respect, a matter by itself, which had already been set forth in Japheth’s own blessing, as implied in what is said of his expansion. As the brothers, whatever contrast there might have been in their characters, had been one in their piety towards their father, so must their posterity become one in this, that they shall finally exchange with each other their respective blessings—in other words, that Japheth shall bring into the tents of Shem what he has won from the world, and, in return for it, share in the blessing of the Name—the name Jehovah, or the true religion.—And Noah lived.—In the Armenian legend, Arnojoten, in the plain of the Araxes, has the name of his place of burial. With the death of Noah, the tenth member of the Genealogical table, ch. v., finds its conclusion.

[NOTE ON THE CURSE OF CANAAN—THE SUPPOSED CURSE OF HAM—THE BLESSING OP SHEM AND JAPHETH. Gen. 9:24. And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his youngest son had done unto him. וַיִּיקֶץ, LXX. ἐξένηψε, became fully conscious of his condition. Comp. 1 Cor. 15:24. וַיֵּדַע, knew, became sensible of. It is not the word that would have been employed had he learned it from the information of others. It denotes intelligence—by the eye, as Is. 6:9,—by the touch, Gen. 19:33,—experience by any sense, Deut. 11:2,—or by the exercise of the mind as following such experience, Judg. 13:21. Had done unto him, עָשָׂה לו. This is, something more than an omission or a neglect. The word is a very positive one. Something unmistakable, something very shameful had been done unto the old man in his unconscious state, either the stripping off his robe, or some act of abuse or mockery of such a nature that it becomes manifest to him immediately on his recovery. It may be remarked, too, that אֵת אֲשֶׁר may more properly be rendered, indefinitely, a thing which, or something which, his youngest son had done unto him. But who was the culprit? Of this, too, the patriarch appears to have been immediately sensible, or to have immediately inferred it from something he must have known of the supposed perpetrator. He seems to have had no doubt. Now Ham had done nothing to his father. On discovery of his state he hastens to his brothers, it may be with the same filial intentions that they more promptly carried out. The sight appears to have been accidental and involuntary. The word is וַיַּרְא, he saw, not וַיַּבֵּט, he looked at, spectavit, ἐθεάσατο, gazed at, implying interest, emotion. There is in the account no intimation of any of that scoffing demeanor that some commentators have so gratuitously charged upon him. He saw and told his brothers. At all events, his fault, if there was one, was simply an omission, which seems to fall altogether short of the force of the words עָשָׂה לוֹ, had done unto him, regarded, too, as something obvious or immediately discoverable by the one who had suffered the indignity. There seems to be a careful avoidance of particularity. The language has an euphemistic look, as though intimating something too vile and atrocious to be openly expressed. Thus regarded, everything seems to point to some wanton act done by the very one who is immediately named in the severe malediction that follows: “Cursed be Canaan.” He was the youngest son of Ham, as he was also the youngest son of Noah according to the well-established Shemitic peculiarity by which all the descendants are alike called sons. Beside the general designations, sons of Israel, בני ישראל, sons of Judah, etc., see such particular cases as Gen. 29:5, where Laban is called the son of Nahor; Ezra 5:1, where the prophet Zachariah is called the son of Iddo; whereas, as appears from ZaGen 1:1, he was his grandson. בְּנוֹ הַקָּטָן is rendered in our English version, his younger son, to make it applicable to Ham, on the supposition that he was the middle son, younger than Shem. But this will not do. It would be a vague way of designating him at any rate, even if the language would allow it. But the term קטן can only denote the younger (minor) when used of one of two, and standing in contrast with גדול. Standing alone, as it does here, or in connection with three or more, it can only be rendered minimus, the little one distinctively, the least or youngest of all. The terms are derived from the early family state with its disparity of appearance in size, though afterwards retained or transferred to express simply juniority, as the Latin major and minor in like cases. The primitive association, however, is not wholly lost, and this makes the term such a favorite to express the very youngest in the family, who is regarded as the little one long after he has grown up to maturity of age and size. So Benjamin, even when he was twenty-three years of age, was still הַקָּטָן, the little one. The term, it is true, denotes comparative juniority, yet still it derives its etymological emphasis from the fact that he was יֶלֶד זְקֻנּים, τηλυγέτος, the late-born, the child of old age, and so still thought of as the little one of the family. To the father, especially, or to the grandfather, an epithet of this kind retains all its force. Such, most likely, was the relation between Noah and the young Canaan, until his vile abuse of it called out the greater severity of malediction. So David, too, was specially named after he had arrived at robust manhood. The other sons of Jesse are called collectively גְדֹלִים, and are named, moreover, first, “second, third, etc., but of David it is said הוּא הַקָּטָן, he was the little one, minimus, youngest of all. See also Gen. 29:18, where, from a similar association of ideas, Rachel is called בִּתְּךָ הַקְּטַנָּה, thy little daughter, though in that, case there were but two of them.

Everything points to Canaan as the youngest son, at that time, of all the Noachic family. He was the direct object of the curse, which, instead of ascending to the father, contrary to everything else of the kind in the Bible, was so fully accomplished in Canaan’s own direct descendants. So clear is this, that some of the best commentators, including most of the Jewish, although still keeping Ham as the main figure, in consequence of the old prepossession, represent Canaan as playing an active part in the business. It is the current Jewish tradition, that he first saw the exposure and told it to his father. Others ascribe to him a shameful act of mutilation, from whence it is thought came the old fable of Saturn. “It was Canaan that did it,” says Aben Ezra, “although the Scripture does not in words reveal what it was.” Rashi also gives the story of mutilation, יש אוֹמרים סרסו, and he refers to the Sanhedrin of the Talmud. That most acute critic, Scaliger, not only ascribes the act to Canaan, whether it was a positive exposure or anything else, but acquits Ham of all positive blame: “Quid Cham fecit patri suo? Nihil; tantum fratribus de patris probro nuncius fuit.” SCALIG., Elench., p. 54.

Ham might have been called the younger son in respect to Shem, as he was the elder in respect to Japheth, but this would neither answer to בן קטן here, nor suit the evidently intended distinctiveness of the designation. On the other hand, he was in no sense minimus or youngest, unless there is wholly disregarded the order in which the names occur at every mention of the three: Shem, Ham, Japheth. See Gen. 5:32; 6:10; 7:13; 9:18; 10:1. This would make him the middle one, at all events, whether Shem or Japheth were regarded as the eldest. The determination of the latter question would depend upon the interpretation of Gen. 5:32, and 10:21. “Noah was five hundred years old and begat Shem, Ham, and Japheth.” It is not at all credible that the births of these sons should have been so near together that they all took place at, or even about, the time when Noah was five hundred years old. It appears from Gen. 11:10, that Shem was born about this time, making him about one hundred years old at the beginning of the year after the flood. Now, if we render Gen. 5:32: “Noah was five hundred years old, and had begotten,” or, when he had begotten, etc., making the series end at that time, which is perfectly consistent with the Hebrew idiom, then the first-named would probably have been the youngest, as last begotten, and marking the date. If they were all born afterwards, the inference would, for the same reason, have been just the other way. In favor of the first view, which would make Japheth the elder, there is the rendering which our English version gives to Gen. 10:21: Shem, the brother of Japheth the elder, instead of, the elder brother of Japheth. Some commentators have favored this on the ground that Shem must have been born after Noah was five hundred years old, because his own age is stated as being one hundred years, two years (שְׁנָתַיִם or the second year, or, as the dual form more strongly implies, between one and two years) after the flood. But besides the minute trifling of such an interpretation, there is a grammatical difficulty in the way which is insuperable. In the expression הַגָּדוֹל אֲחִי יֶפֶת, the two first ords being in regimen, the epithet הַגָּדוֹל must belong to the whole as a compound: Japheth’s brother, the elder; otherwise it would be like making the adjective in English agree with the possessive case. Compare Judges 2:7, כָּל מַעֲשֵׂה יְהוָֹה הַגָּדוֹל, every great work of the Lord;1 Sam. 17:28, אֱלִיאָב אָחִיו הַגָּדוֹל, Eliab his elder brother, where the pronoun corresponds to the noun in regimen, and, especially, such cases as Judges 1:13; 3:9, which are precisely like this, logically and grammatically: אֲחִי כָלֵב הַקָּטֹן, Caleb’s younger brother, not, the brother of Caleb the younger. So far the sense may be said to be fixed grammatically, but the fair inference from the context, and the fact that appears in it that there were three brothers, would seem to give it not only a comparative, but a superlative sense: the brother of Japheth, the elder one,—implying that there were two brothers older than Japheth, and that Shem was the oldest of them. If we look at the whole context (Ham and his genealogy having been just disposed of), we shall see that there was more reason for the narrator’s saying this than for merely mentioning that Shem was older than Japheth. These considerations would seem to fix the position of Ham as the middle son; although, without them, it might have been reasonably argued that Ham himself was the oldest, from the fact that his descendants, with the exception of Canaan (unless we may reckon the Phœnicians among them), so get the start, in history and civilization, of both Shem and Japheth.

A very strong argument against the hypothesis that Ham was cursed here instead of Canaan, arises from the want of allusion, in all other parts of the Scripture, to any such sweeping malediction as involving all Ham’s descendants. The accomplishment of the curse upon Canaan is mentioned often, and the frequent allusion to them as “hewers of wood and drawers of water,” is only an emphatic repetition of Noah’s words, עֶבֶד עֲבָדִים, servant of servants—not slave of slaves, as some would take it, but an intensive Hebrew idiom to denote the most complete subjugation, such as the Canaanites were reduced to in the days of Joshua and Solomon.15 How utterly strange would such language have sounded, had it been applied, at any time during the national existence of the Jews, to the lordly descendants of Cush, Mitzraim, and Nimrod! “Shall be servant to them,” לָמוֹ, a collective term for the descendants of Shem, who had just been blessed. So is it taken by all the Jewish expositors, who regard the antecedent in Gen 9:26 as being Shem alone, no other being mentioned or implied, and in Gen 9:27, as being Shem and the God of Shem who should dwell in his tents. See also GESENIUS, Lehrgeb., p. 221. Instead of having ever been servant to Shem, either in the political or commercial sense, Mitzraim held the Israelites for centuries in bondage; Cush (the Æthiopians and the Lubims) conquered them (see 2 Chron. 12:3; 16:8); the nation that Nimrod founded sacked their cities and brought their land under tribute. Instead of being servants to Japheth, the descendants of Ham were founding empires, building immense and populous cities, whilst the sons of the younger brother, with the exception of the Mediterranean or Javanic line, were roaming the dense wilds of Middle and Northern Europe, or the steppes of Central Asia, ever sinking lower and lower into barbarism, as each wave of migration was driven farther on by those that followed. The more abject race, as some would hold them, were the pioneers of the world’s civilization, advancing rapidly in agriculture and the arts, organizing governments admirable for their order though despotic in form, digging canals and lakes to fertilize the desert, everywhere turning the arid earth into a luxuriant garden, whilst the early Gomerites, and those who followed them in their wilderness march to the extreme west of Europe, were falling from iron to copper, from copper to stone, from the implements of Lamech, and of the ark and tower-builders, to the rude flint axes and bone knives that some have regarded as remains of pre-adamite men. The Hamites go down to Egypt, or ascend the Euphrates, and how soon uprise the pyramids, the immense structures of Thebes, the palaces of Babylon and Nineveh, whilst the other wretched wanderers of the wild woods and marshes were building rude huts on piles, over lakes and fens, to protect themselves from the wild beasts, or herding in caves with the animals whose bones are now found mingling with their own. Such was their progress until there met them again that primitive central light, which had been preserved, especially in the Shemitic, and had never gone wholly out in the Hamitic and Javanic lines. Even this Greek or Javanic branch of the Japhethan family, though ever preserving a position so much higher than that of their Northern consanguinii (this coming from their Mediterranean route furnishing greater facilities of intercourse, and keeping up an accessible proximity between the different pioneering waves and the source whence they came) derived, nevertheless, their earliest culture, from the Egyptians and Phœnicians, as, in still later times, they received their highest cultus from a Shemitic source. The wisest among the Greeks ever traced their best thinking to the East, that is, to a Shemitic or Hamitic origin. They were ever kept in connection with the primitive light and primitive spiritual vigor, and this was the chief respect in which they differed from our Japhethan ancestors who were so early lost in the woods, and who had no fresh emanations from this central life until long after, when it had been renewed to more than its primitive power by the coming of Christ and Christianity.

The application of this curse to Ham was early made by commentators, but its enormous extension to the whole continent of Africa belongs to quite modern times. The first, though having so little support in the letter of the Scripture, had some plausible ground in the unfavorable contrast that Ham’s neglect, or carelessness, presents to the pious earnestness of his two brethren; and this may give the reason why he is, personally, neither cursed nor blessed. It derived countenance, also, from the subsequent wickedness of the great Hamitic nations, and that constant antagonism between them and Israel which appears throughout the Bible. The second feeling seems almost wholly due to certain historic phenomena that have presented themselves since the discovery of America. What has favored this tendency has not been alone, or mainly, the defence of slavery, as some would allege; since men have supported it, like Dr. Lange and others, who abhorred the idea of human bondage in all its forms. It has been, rather, the desire to give a worldly, political importance to the Scriptural predictions, especially the early ones, thus magnifying the Scriptures, as they suppose, and furnishing remarkable evidences of the truth of revelation. Very modern changes in the relative position of continents are seized upon for this purpose, to the ignoring or obscuring the true dignity of the Divine Word. It is safest to regard prophecy as ever being in the direct line of the church, and to judge of the relative importance of world-historical changes solely by this standard. Except as standing in visible relation to the chosen people, the chosen church, or to that extraordinary divine doing in the world which is styled revelation, the greatest earthly revolutions have no more super-earthly value than have to us the dissensions of African chiefs, or the wars of the Heptarchy. To the divine eye, or to the mind that guided the Biblical inspiration, human politics, whether of monarchies or republics, and all human political changes, in themselves considered, or out of this visible relation, must be very insignificant things. Judged by such a rule, Trojan wars, Peloponnesian wars, or the wars of Bonaparte, fall in importance below the wars of Canaan, or Hiram’s sending cedarrafts to Joppa to aid Solomon in the construction of the temple.

It is this feeling which has also affected the interpretation of Noah’s blessing of Shem and Japheth, Gen. 9:26, 27, especially the words וְיִשְׁכֹּן בְּאָחֳלֵי שֵׁם, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem. It is somewhat remarkable that the Jewish authorities should have given what seems the more spiritual, and even evangelical, interpretation here, whilst so many Christian commentators have been fond of what may be called the political or secular aspect of the prophecy, referring it, as many of them do, to the mere predominance of European power and culture among the Asiatic nations in these latter days. To support this there is carelessly assumed an ethnological view untenable in the wide extent given to it. Europe is Japheth, Shem Asia, Ham Africa. At all events, the prophecy is supposed to set forth three types, embracing all mankind. It is thought to be greatly to the honor of Scripture that it should display such a philosophy of history bearing upon the remote, latter ages, as though this were a greater thing than that fixed spirituality of view which is the same for all ages, and for less or greater territory in space. It is easy to find events which are regarded as supposed fulfilments. The English in India, the French in Tonquin, Opium wars in China, Russia forcing its way into Central Asia; it is all Japheth dwelling in the tents of Shem; it is the fulfilling of the Scriptures. There is a bad moral influence in this. An interest in the prediction, or in its supposed interpretation, blinds the moral sense to the enormity of some of the acts by which it is thought to be verified. Much of it, moreover, is false ethnology. The British subjugation of the Hindoos, instead of being Japheth dwelling in the tents of Shem, is nothing more than Japheth dwelling in the tents of Japheth. This political mode of interpretation has affected other prophecies of the Bible, and there is reason to believe that it has been especially blinding in the study of the Apocalypse. It proceeds, often, upon the idea that events which seem very large to us, greatly magnified as they are by nearness or other perspective influences, must have the same relative rank in the divine estimation. Now, the Scriptures teach us, that it is ofttimes directly the reverse; see Luke 16:15, what is said about “things highest in the sight of men,” τὸ ἐν ἀνθρώποις ὑψηλόν. Great as they may seem to us, they may have comparatively little bearing upon that which is the special object of the divine care in human history; whilst their over-estimate favors the false idea, that the church is for the world, and not the world for the church. They may even have much less to do, than is generally imagined, with the highest secular progress of mankind. One political eruption may be the mere filling up of a vacuum produced by another, leaving unaffected the general historical evenness, or making even less deflection from the general course of things than other events of seemingly much less show and magnitude.

Now, in distinction from the political, there is what may be called the spiritual interpretation of this very ancient prophecy, as given by some of the best Christian commentators (see the references to them in POLE’S “Synopsis,” and the Philologica Sacra of GLASSIUS, p. 1998), and held, with few exceptions, by the Jewish authorities. The Targum of Onkelos interprets the Hebrew by making אֱלֹהִים the subject of יִשְׁכֹּן and renders it araphrastically, וְיַשְּׁרֵי שְׁכִנְתֵּהּ בְּמַשְׁכְּנֵהּ דְּשֵׁם, His Shekinah shall dwell in the dwelling of Shem (or of the Name). Maimonides, Rashi, and Aben Ezra, all follow this, though they also allude to a secondary sense: that Japheth should learn in the schools of Shem, which is also expressed in the Targum of Jonathan. This, however, is founded on the former idea of the divine indwelling light, in the blessing of which all nations are ultimately to share. So the Judaico-Arabic translation of Arabs Erpenianus: His Light shall dwell in the tents of Shem; the words light and Shekinah being interposed to avoid the seeming anthropomorphism. The rendering, the Shekinah, is suggested to them, moreover, by the etymological connection between שׁכן (Shakan), the verb here for dwelling, and שְׁכִינָה, the Shekinah: as though such language as we have Deut. 12:11, לְשַׁכֵּן שְׁמוֹ שָׁם, and Ps. 85:10, לִשְׁכֹּן כָּבוֹדִ בְּאַרְצֵנוּ, came directly from this passage. Some Christian commentators carry this still farther, recognizing the same etymology in the Greek ἐσκήνωσε (root, S K N) of John 1:14. Surely the fact has been so. God has specially dwelt in the tents of Shem; “He hath put his glory there.” The Shemite family alone preserved the pure monotheism as against the Eastern pantheism and the Western polytheism lying on each side of it. Even the Arabians and the Syrians kept the holy Name. A chosen branch had the Shekinah, the visible, divine presence, the temple, the promise, and the type of the Messiah. There is, finally, the presence and dwelling of the Messiah with the spiritual Israel down to this day. The interpretation, too, must have been very ancient, antecedent to Targums and Talmuds, as it seems to have colored everywhere the poetry and language of the Old Testament. Hence that frequent imagery of God’s dwelling with his people, or the converse in expression, though essentially the same in thought, His being his people’s “dwelling-place in all generations.” See 1 Kings 6:13; 8:29; Exod. 25:8; Ps. 90:1; Ezek. 43:9; ZeGen 8:3. Such was Shem’s blessing here literally expressed, though clearly implied in the previous verse: blessed be the Lord God of Shem (the name), which was the highest mode of saying, blessed be Shem himself, the people whose God is Jehovah. Ps. 33:12; 144:15.

But besides its Scriptural and evangelical fitness, this interpretation has the strongest grammatical reasons. Two verbs in Hebrew, like יפת and ישכן, joined by the conjunction, whether taken copulatively or disjunctively (that is, whether rendered and or but), must have the same grammatical subject, unless a new one clearly intervenes, or the context necessarily implies it. Neither of these exceptions exist here, and, without them, it is irregular to make the object of the first verb the subject of the second. He (God) will enlarge Japheth, but he will dwell in the tents of Shem. The contrast is between the two acts of Deity, the enlarging—the indwelling—an antithesis that seems demanded by the parallelism, but is wholly lost in the other version. If it is the same subject (the blesser), then there are two objects; and two distinct blessings stand in striking contrast. It is outer growth and inner sacredness. Two states, moreover, and two dispositions are described: Japheth, the foreign rover, Shem, the home devotee, abiding mainly in the old father-land, preserving the

Sacra Dei, sanctosque patres.

Japheth is to have enlargement of territory, and, ultimately, worldly power; Shem, though small, is to have the special divine presence and indwelling. He is the divine inheritance (see Deut. 32:9) among the nations.

The more secular interpretation has, indeed, some strong points of seeming fulfilment, which may affect the sense and the imagination; but for the reason, as well as for faith, how much greater is the idea of such divine indwelling than that of any outward changes, whether of power or culture, in the relations of mankind! Our estimate of causes, as great or small, even in their earthly aspect, is much affected by an after-knowledge of the effects with which they are seen to be connected. As we look back they appear greatly magnified through the medium of such sequence. It is like the mind correcting the perspective errors of the sight in respect to size and distance. What Philosophy of History, written three hundred years before Christ, even though it had been more acute than any modern production of the kind, could have given the true place of the Jewish people of that day, or would even have taken any notice of them, or regarded them as having any rank among the potent causalities of the world! How small, how secluded, how unrecognized their earthly position at that time! Nothing short of prophetic insight could discover what then lay concealed from all the learning and wisdom of the age,—the divine Name and the divine presence, unfigured on Egyptian monuments, unknown in Athenian temples (see Acts 17:23), but dwelling, as a reserve power, in the sequestered tents of Shem.—T. L.]


1. See the preceding Annotations.

2. Noah the enlarger and the ennobler of human culture. The dangers of progress in civilization. Men become intoxicated with the success of their worldly efforts—especially in the beginning. After the waters of the flood the gift of wine. Under the sacrament of the rainbow, Noah as husbandman and vineyard-keeper, prepares the elements of the New Testament sacrament, bread and wine.

3. The vine is a mild reflex of the tree of knowledge; how Noah’s sin becomes a mitigated figure of the sin of Adam.

4. Noah, whom all the waters of the flood did not harm, received hurt through his unguarded indulgence in a small measure of wine. The history of Adam teaches us the sacredness of limitation, the history of Noah teaches us a holy carefulness in respect to measure or degree. Moderation was a fundamental law of the ancient Chinese, as the piety that preserved Shem and Japheth.

5. The intimate connection between intoxication by wine and sexual unguardedness, or sensual indulgence in the sins of voluptuousness (see the history of Lot).

6. The three sons of Noah. The simple contrast: Cain and Abel, or godless culture and a holy cultus, develops itself in a more manifold contrast: Shem and Japheth, Shem and Ham, Japheth and Ham. For the interpretation of these contrasts, see just above. It is evident, however, that many Christians even now recognize only the contrast of Cain and Abel; that is, they do not recognize that the line of Japheth had likewise its blessing from God, although he can only reach the blessing of Shem after great wanderings. In the heart of the prophecy, Japheth has already taken up his abode in the tents of Shem, when, on the contrary, Shem himself, in the unbelieving Jews, has been given up to a long-lasting alienation.

7. Shem and Japheth are very different, but are, in their piety, the root of every ideal and humane tendency. The people and kingdom of China are a striking example of the immense power that lies in the blessing of (filial) piety; but at the same time a proof that filial piety, without being grounded in something deeper, cannot preserve even the greatest of peoples from falling into decay, like an old house, before their history ends.

8. The blessing of Shem, or the faith in salvation, shall avail for the good of Japheth, even as the blessing of Japheth, humanitarian culture, shall in the end avail for Shem. These two blessings are reciprocal, and it is one of the deepest signs of some disease in our times, that these two are in so many ways estranged from each other, even to the extent of open hostility. What God has joined together, let not man put asunder.

9. It is a fearful abuse of God’s word, when men refer to the curse of Canaan in defence of American slave-traffic, and slave-holding—as is done in the southern portions of the United States. For in the first place, Canaan is not the same as Ham; in the second place, the conception of a servant in the days of Noah is not that of a slave in modern times; in the third place, Canaan’s servitude is the service of Shem, therefore of the Prince of Shem, that is, he becomes the servant of Christ, and in Christ is free; fourthly, as servant of Shem, and servant of Japheth, he becomes a domestic partner in the religion of Shem, as well as in the civilization of Japheth. On the other side, however, it is a misapprehension of the curse as exhibited in history, when the essential equality of all men before God is regarded as a direct abstract equality of men in their political relations. This comes from not taking rightly into account the divine judgments in history, and the gradualness of the world’s redemption (see Rom. 10:12). The reader is referred to MICHEL’S “History of the Cursed Races of France and Spain” (Paris, 1847), as also the “History of the Cursed Villages” (Delessert, Paris). But such histories do not weigh merely on Canaan, or even generally on Ham. They are always economic, that is, temporary, not perpetual dooms. They are districts in which human compassion shall yet appear as a prophet announcing the turning away of the divine wrath, or as a priest interceding against it.

10. The sons of Noah do not appear to clear up the facts in respect to the race-formations. It is quite evident, however, that Ham (the hot, the dark, the southern) forms a special race, and that with the Æthiopian type the Malayan stands in close relation. On this side there becomes evident the whole power of the life from nature, as the spiritual life becomes subservient to it. Whilst, therefore, it is partly an imperfect distinction when we regard the Shemitic and the Japhethic race (the people of renown, as consisting in the name of God, the δόξα τοῦ θεοῦ, and the people of the outward and bold dispersion over the earth) as having become blended in the Caucasian, it is also in part a proof of the fact that community in the higher spiritual tendency may cause very great contrasts to lose themselves in almost imperceptible distinctions. It is, however, quite consistent with the nature of the “outspreading,” that is, of Japheth, that whilst, on the one side, he may become one with Shem in the Caucasian, he may, on the other, represent the Mongolian, and in the American, even make a near approach to the race of Ham. On the question of races, see LANGE’S “Posit. Dogmatic,” p. 324. On the theocratic significance of Shem, Ham, Japheth, compare DELITZSCH, p. 282.

11. The fact that Noah lived three hundred and fifty years after the flood, is a proof that the cosmical change which was brought on by the flood is not to be regarded as sudden in all respects—not, at least, in its relation to human life.

12. The poetical form of Noah’s blessing shows that he spake in a highly rapt state of soul, in which he was as much elevated above any passionate, inhuman wrath against Canaan, as above any weak human sympathy for him. The form of curse and blessing, where both are divinely grounded, indicate a prophetic beholding of the curse and blessing, but not a creating, much less any arbitrary or magical production of the same.

13. The tenor of the Noachian blessing in its Messianic significance, cannot be mistaken. It connects itself with the name Shem. The Protevangel announced a future salvation in the seed of the woman; the language here connects the same with the name of God which was to be entrusted to Shem. Shem is to be the preserver of the name of God, of Jehovah—the preserver of his religion, of his revelation. With this office is he, as the thoughtful, the contemplative one, to dwell in tents, whilst, in some way, God is to be glorified in him, a fact which Noah can only express in the form of a doxology. In this way Shem has it as his task: 1. to rule over Canaan, and to educate him as the master the servant; 2. to receive Japheth as a paternal guest who returns after a long wandering, and to exchange with him good for good—the goods of cultus and the goods of culture.

14. The number of Noah’s sons is three, the number of the Spirit. The Spirit will get the victory in the post-diluvian humanity that has been baptized in the flood.


See the Doctrinal and Ethical. The form of life in Noah: 1. Wherein similar to that of Adam? 2. wherein similar to that of Christ? 3. wherein it possesses something peculiar, that lies between them both. Noah’s wine-culture—the sign of a new step in progress in the life of humanity.—The vine in its significance: 1. In its perilous import; 2. in its higher significance.—God hath provided not merely for our necessity, but also for our refreshment and festive exhilaration. The more refined his gifts, so much the more ought they to draw us, and make us feel the obligation of a more refined life. Noah’s weakness; its connection with his freedom, his struggle and inquiry. The watchfulness and discipline of the Spirit is the only thing that can protect us against the intoxication of the sense.—How one sensual excess is connected with another.—How the sins of the old have for their consequence the sins of the young. Impiety (irreverence, want of a pious fear), a root of every evil, especially those of an impure tendency.—Piety a root of everything noble. It has two branches: 1. devoutness; 2. moral cultivation. The harmony of Shem and Japheth. O, that it were so in our times. How they should mutually feel the obligation to cover their father’s nakedness; that is, in this case, the harm of the earlier time and tradition. What glorious effects would come from the harmony of Christendom and civilization? Shem, Ham, and Japheth: 1. All three distinct characters and types; 2. regarded as two parts, they are two sons of blessing, one child of the curse; 3. as one group. Canaan the servant of Shem and Japheth. Japheth the guest and the domestic inmate of Shem.—The blessing of Noah: 1. Its most universal significance; 2. its Messianic significance.—Noah’s joy, sorrow, and consolation after the flood: 1. The expanding race; 2. the new development of evil; 3. the pre-signal of the patriarchal faith.

STARKE: Inebriatus est, non quod vitiosus esset, sed quod inexpertus mensurœ assumendœ. Basil.—Noah ad unius horœ ebrietatem nudavit femoralia sua, quœ per sexcentos annos contexerat. Hieron.—Quem tantœ moles aquarum non vicerant, a modico vino victus est. EPHRAEM (Natalis Alexander i. p. 228: Ebrietas hœc non solum innoxia sed et mystica fuit. Hieronymus interprets the planting of the vine of the planting of the Church; Noah exposed, he interprets of Christ on the cross; Ham, of the Jews, and so on. In a similar manner Augustine). (As it happens to people in sleep, when they become warm; they uncover themselves unconsciously to get air; and so it happened to Noah.) The sin of excess cannot be excused by the example of Noah. This transgression did not, however, cast him out of the grace of God; for we see that in the prophetic spirit he announces the future destiny of his sons, which certainly could never have happened if the Spirit of God had departed from him. But none the less holds true in this respect what Luther says, namely, that they who go too far in excusing the patriarch throw away the consolation which the Holy Spirit has deemed it necessary to give the Church in the fact that the greatest saints do sometimes stumble and fall (Ps. 34:9).—The nobler the gift, the worse the abuse (1 Cor. 9:7; Sirach 31:35; 1 Tim. 5:23).—Ham: Sic in sacro Dei asylo inter tam paucos diabolus unus servatus est. Calvin.—HEDINGER: The spreading of sin is just as much an evil as the perpetration of sin.—LANGE: The curse went not forth properly, against the spiritual in men, as though beforehand they had been declared to have forfeited eternal life, but properly against the corporeal only. So it was, that among the Canaanites there were some who were actually blest (there are cited as examples the cases of Melchisedek and the Gibeonites). Even at this day, it is true that Japheth dwells in the tents of Shem, since the promised land has come into the hands of the Turk instead of the Egyptian sultan. This appears also in a more spiritual manner, since in the New Testament heathen and Jews have become one in their conversion to Christ. (Noah’s long life after the flood is represented as designed to instruct his posterity in the knowledge of God.)

GERLACH: It is worthy of remark, that the father of Prometheus in the Grecian fable, and who was a giant, bears the name of Japetus.—BUNSEN: Gen 9:18 is the introduction to an old family tradition concerning the irreverence and dissoluteness in the family of Ham, with special reference to Canaan.

CALWER HANDBUCH: Noah’s human sin regarded as excusable, gives occasion to Ham’s inexcusable sin. The curse comes mainly upon Canaan, since it was just in his race that the most shameless and unnatural abominations prevailed. At the present day the last trace of this people, together with their name, has disappeared from the earth. The highest distinction is that which God hath appointed for Shem. It is the propagation of the kingdom of God by means of his descendants (John 10:16). LUTHER: And so there was a real scandal in the case, in that when Ham stumbled upon his father’s drunkenness, he judged him wrongly, and even took satisfaction in his sin.

SCHRÖDER: VALER. HERBERGER: Here will the reviler say, this is the text for me: Noah behaved himself in a sottish and unseemly way, and therefore may I do the same. Hold, brother. Noah’s example serves not at all your turn. Only once in his life had Noah overshot the mark; but how oft hast thou already done as much? Noah did not do it purposely or wittingly. The lesson thou art to learn from Noah is not drunkenness, but to guard thyself from drunkenness, that thou mayest not, through his example, come to mischief, and cause a scandal. Wouldst thou be joyful, so let it joy remain. Pleasant drink, and wholesome food God grudges not to thee. Drink and eat, only forget not God and thine hour of death. Neither forget the death of Christ; on this account it was, that formerly the image of the cross was made in the bottom of the tankard. Let a man come to the table as to an altar, says Bernhard. In the weakness of Noah there is enkindled the wickedness of Ham. “Then saw Ham.” Love covers; he (Ham), instead of veiling his father’s nakedness, only the more openly exposes what he had left uncovered. As a son he transgresses against his father; so, as a brother, would he become the seducer of his brother.—CALVIN: His age did not excuse him. He was no merely mischievous boy, who, in his inconsiderate sport betrayed his own thoughtlessness, for he had already gone beyond his hundredth year. LUTHER; Whilst, in other cases, the servant has only one master, Canaan here is the servant of two lords, therefore doubly a servant. (In this way, indeed, it is, that by Shem he is drawn to piety, whilst by Japheth he is educated to a human civilization.)—The sins of Ham, as the deep stain of the Hamitic race in general. Farther on the writer speaks of the corruption of Canaan, and the evil reputation of the Phœnicians and Carthaginians.

CALVIN: Shem holds the highest grade of honor. Therefore it is that Noah, in blessing him, expresses, himself in praise of God, and dwells not upon the person. Whenever the declaration relates to some unusual and important pre-eminency, the Hebrews thus ever ascend to the praise of God (Luke 1:68).—Japheth: God gives enlargement to the enlarged.—LUTHER: Since Abraham, in his fiftieth year, had so good and excellent a teacher in Noah, he must have had quite a growth in doctrine and religion.—HERBERGER: Fear not the cross, since here thou hast before thee one who bore it for nine hundred and fifty years.


10[Gen 9:20.—וַיָּחֶל נֹחַ אִישׁ הָאֲדָמָה, rendered “and Noah began to be a husbandman,”—man of the adamah, or man of the soilγεωργόςagricola. It cannot mean that this was the first time he had practised husbandry, but the beginning of it after the flood, when he and his sons had descended into the low country.—T. L.]

11[Gen 9:25.—עֶבֶד עֲבָדִים, “a servant of servants,”—a Hebraism to denote the intensity or degradation of Canaan’s servitude—the lowest and vilest of servants, or, as they are afterwards characterized, “hewers of wood and drawers of water,” in distinction from the ordinary subjugation of a conquered people. For remarks on בְּנוֹ הַקָּטָן, “his younger son,” or little son, and its reference to Canaan alone, see appended Note, p. 337, on Noah’s curse and blessings.—T. L.]

12[Gen 9:27.—יַפְתְּ—לְיֶפֶת, “shall enlarge Japheth.” Europe (εὐρώπη), wide-faced, extensive, spacious. This supposed residence, as it mainly was, of the sons of Japheth, had this name very early. From its unknown extent it was probably so called in comparison with the better known parts of contiguous Asia. The Greeks may have simply translated the early tradition of the prophecy into the name εὐρώπη, and afterward perverted it, according to their usual course by one of their absurd fables.—T. L.]

13[Gen 9:27.—יְיִשְׁכֹּן, “and he shall dwell,” etc. Who shall dwell? The Jewish authorities, with few exceptions, say it is God, the subject of the verb just preceding, and this is, doubtless, according to grammatical regularity. See Aben Ezra, Rashi, and others. Sometimes, to avoid the seeming anthropopathism, they substitute for God the word אוֹרוֹ, his light, or שְׁכִינָה (Shekinah), deriving it from this very verb ישכן. Thus, the Targum of Onkelos, וְיַשְׁרֵי שְׁכִנְתּהּ בְּמַשְׁכּנֵהּ דִּשֵׁם, “His Shekinah [or indwelling) shall abide in the dwelling (mashkeneh) of Shem.” So the Arabic, both of the Polyglott and of Arabs Erpenianus, ويساَـن ذـورة فو اجبيا ىثىم, “His Light shall dwell in the tents of Shem.” See further, appended note, p. 337. on the blessing of Noah.—T. L.]

14[The Phœnicians, as distinguished from the Canaanites and Sidonians, were probably Shemites, as they spake the Shemitic language, and thus made it the language of the whole district. This corresponds to what is said by Herodotus and Strabo, that they came from the Persian Gulf—the land of Shinar, the old home-land.—T. L.

15[The fact that, of all the descendants of Ham, Canaan was the nearest object of interest to the Jews, and so historically of most importance to them, gives the reason of the somewhat peculiar designation, Gen. 9:18, where a kind of note is affixed to Ham’s name, stating that he was the father of Canaan, or rather that this was another name specially given to him by the Israelites, as being beet known to them, or called to mind to them, through his son; יְחָם הוּא אֲבִי כְנַעַן, “Ham, that is, the father of Canaan,” or Ham, that is, ’Abi-Canaan,—according to a method of naming that has ever prevailed among the Arabians, down to this day, as Abu-Beker, Abulwalid, or, as in this case, Abu-Canaan, where the son is better known, or an object of nearer interest than the father who is thus named after him.—T. L.]

Lange, John Peter - Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical

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