The twentieth century of history (since the time of creation) brings us to the threshold of God’s revelation to Abraham of more specific details of the promised savior. According to the timeline based upon the dates and lifetimes found in Scripture, Abraham was born at the beginning of the twenty-first century. In the next article, the Lord willing, we will focus on the descendents of Shem, and specifically on Abraham as the prophecy that Noah spoke concerning his son Shem begins to unfold. Before moving on to God’s focus on one family in the line of Shem, we will take one more look at the broad picture in the history of the descendants of Ham. We discussed Japheth and his descendents in the last article and noticed the earthly prosperity and expansion of these people at the expense of the descendents of Ham.
From an outward perspective, it would look as though the power of sin in the world was quickly growing just like it had before the flood. This time the development of sin and worldly power revolved around the descendents of Ham. Ham had shown himself to be an ungodly man, and God records for us his descendants’ earthly accomplishments. Nimrod, a descendent of Ham, was given special attention. As we noted in an earlier article, Nimrod arose as an early type of the antichrist who attempts to unite the world apart from God and his purposes in Christ. He was a world famous hunter, established cities, and began the God-defying work of building a tower. While the listing of Japheth’s sons and grandsons is covered in only five verses (Gen. 10:1–5, double the space is given to the listing of Ham’s sons and grandsons in verses 6–20. The achievements of other descendents of Ham include the building of cities and the acquisition of the fertile land of Canaan that God had chosen to be the stage for revealing the promised Messiah. By the time Joshua sent in the spies, they reported a well-developed land with a great abundance of fruit and people who were giants.
This great development and progress may seem strange to us in light of the fact that God had pronounced a curse upon Canaan, a son of Ham. At the heart of this curse was the pronouncement by God that the future for the descendents of Canaan would be the role of “servant of servants.” We read of the wicked attitude of Ham and the curse pronounced upon Canaan in Genesis 98:24–27: “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.” These words were not spoken by Noah in a fit of anger and embarrassment, but rather God used this occasion to reveal through Noah some more general characteristics of his plan of salvation.
In the previous article we considered some of the ideas of Dr. Custance, who follows the development of Ham’s descendents as they venture out into the world after Babel. In his studies he suggests that the families of Ham possessed a genius of survival and inventiveness that enabled them to venture into, survive, and establish themselves in some of the harshest environments of the uncivilized world. They pressed southward into the jungles of Africa and northward into the arctic regions; they trekked through the mountains and along the coast of China, followed the receding glaciers across the land bridge (now the Bering Strait), and populated North and South America. As they went, they left ingenious tools for survival in these regions and developed edible, productive plants from wild vegetation. Dr. Custance devotes a lengthy section of volume 1 of the Doorway Papers quoting authorities on anthropology and describing the extraordinary ingenuity and technical solutions to the many problems of living in such regions as the arctic, the desert, high elevations, as well as the general wilderness of the Americas as they were found by these explorers. All this ingenuity, Custance argues, was used by God to serve his purpose as the gospel was brought by Europeans to the New World and the missionaries and settlers relied on the natives for their early survival. In this way they were servants to Japheth and Shem, and in doing so, served in the spreading of the gospel to the ends of the world.
Serving as pioneers may be a part of the fulfillment, but many questions remain. Along with the question concerning the apparent prosperity of future generations of Ham, including Canaan, we need to address some other questions concerning this revelation of God through Noah. We immediately wonder why God cursed Ham’s son instead of cursing Ham himself. When and how is this curse fulfilled? How long does this curse last? Does it apply to all the descendents of Ham?
As we look for answers to these questions, we need to remember that God is revealing general characteristics of his plan of salvation and not simply a preview of earthly history. We already looked at the history of Japheth and noticed that his entering into the tents of Shem means that his future descendents would be gathered into the church. We understand from observing history, the world around us, and the word of God, that this does not mean that every descendent of Japheth became a believer. Many of them do not enter the tents of Shem. When we look ahead, we see that when the cup of iniquity for Canaan is full, God drives his descendants from their land and makes many of them to be servants of the lowest sort. But even with Canaan, we see that God also gathers some from the line of Canaan into the tents of Shem. In fact, God was pleased to weave Rahab, a descendent of Ham and Canaan into the genealogy of Christ (Matt. 1:5). God cursed Ham’s son Canaan instead of Ham himself because Canaan had become a clear manifestation of wickedness as it develops in generations. We know that God is a just God and that he does not punish children for the sins of the parents. In the light of all Scripture, we can conclude that Ham’s son Canaan clearly manifested the same rebellious spirit of his father, and that any and every curse of God upon sin is justified. Just as God is pleased to use covenant families and gather his people from covenant homes where they grow in the fear of the Lord, so God reprobates in the line of families who develop in sin. Even so, we know there are some children in covenant homes who show themselves to develop in sin; and there are some who are raised in dens of iniquity who are called by the power of God’s grace into his marvelous light.
Our sinful human nature and pride are inclined to look in a passage like this and find some kind of merit and reward, and a basis for exalting ourselves on a pedestal. Somehow we imagine that belonging to a particular race that comes from Shem or Japheth brings superiority and advantages because God blessed them and not Ham. The child of God who really knows himself and his God comes to see that there is not a particle of merit in us before God, who is pleased to save his people by grace alone. God’s purpose here is not to reveal a punishment and reward for bad and good deeds. God uses the occasion of Noah’s sin of drunkenness and the behavior of his three sons in reaction to this sin to give a general outline of the plan that he has laid out for the fulfillment of the promise he had given of a Savior. That we do not have here a reaction of God here to punish Ham’s sin and reward Shem and Japheth is clear from the fact that God does not even direct the curse at Ham himself. Neither does he direct a blessing at Shem himself, but rather directs the glory and attention to Jehovah God, who has sovereignly chosen to work salvation through the line of Shem. God will raise up the promised Messiah from Shem, but not all of Shem’s descendents will share in that salvation. Japheth will be enlarged and will dwell in the tents of Shem, but not every person head for head. God cursed Canaan to be a servant of servants, but some of these servants became servants of God. God is pleased to work salvation in the line of families, and in contrast with that work, the development of sin and the related curse is also something that often develops along family lines. Noah’s pronouncements of blessing and curse are not a reaction, but a declaration of God’s sovereign work of salvation and reprobation.
When God reveals to his church from time to time the big picture of history and his work, , as he does here, the church sees that God reveals these things for the comfort and instruction of his people as the church lives in a world where the ungodly seem ready to swallow her up. Later on when the church was taken into Babylon and tossed to and fro among the waves of the raging nations, God comforted his people with the vivid dreams of king Nebuchadnezzar and glorious visions of Daniel. Through these dreams and visions God made perfectly clear that all things were under his sovereign control. God used vivid imagery and visions again through John to comfort the church of the current age and assure us that the powers of Satan, no matter how powerful and influential they become in this world, are all under the sovereign control of God for the salvation of his people and his glory. Here also, as Noah watches the shockingly rapid development and growth of sin after the Flood, God assures the church that sin will serve his purposes and that the God of Shem, the God of the church, will indeed be blessed forever.
It may very well be that Ham’s son Canaan laughed when he heard about his father’s behavior and the curse Noah pronounced upon him. He had no use for the church or her God, and it may be that this pronouncement encouraged and motivated him and his descendents to prove God wrong. History makes it clear that God often allows sin to develop only to demonstrate more clearly the glorious power of God’s justice and love for his church. God, as it were, has a set measure, a cup for each individual or nation. When that cup of iniquity is full, God demonstrates his justice and judgment in connection with the salvation of his church. The families of Canaan succeeded in developing the best land in the area for their own enjoyment, but the curse pronounced upon Canaan would be fulfilled as these mighty men were destroyed and driven from the land of Canaan to make room for the church of God. At the heart of God’s curse was that Canaan would be a “servant of servants unto his brethren.” Though mighty and skilled, all the enemies of the church, even Satan himself, are used by God to serve his purposes.
As with all the prophecies of Scripture that speak of the future work of God, this prophecy also has both a historical and a spiritual fulfillment. The future generations of Canaan historically became servants of servants to both Shem and Japheth. The spiritual reality that governs all of God’s work in history is that wickedness and the wicked are cursed by God. The future generations of Japheth did grow and fill the earth and became the objects of mission work by the church. The spiritual reality that governs all of God’s work in history is that a diverse church will be gathered from the multiplying of people in the world. Noah said of Shem, “Blessed be the LORD God of Shem,” and the covenantal instruction endured in Shem’s family until Christ himself was born of Mary. The spiritual reality is that wherever is found the true knowledge of God and people who confess Jehovah to be their God, God is glorified and blessed in them.
God’s curse upon Canaan was that he would be a servant of servants. Being a servant of servants in itself is not a cursed life, because we are all servants. Christ became the servant of servants when he humbled himself even unto death to save each of his children, from the lowly slave to kings. By nature we all like Canaan wallow in servitude to Satan. The blessed servant is one who serves another in the body of Christ and also his God; but the cursed servant is one who hates God and yet serves the purposes of God. Canaan, his wickedness, and all the rebellion and wickedness of Satan and his demons all serve God’s purpose for the church in Christ. For the ungodly apart from Christ, such service only adds to the misery and suffering found in a life of sin. For the godly, however, to be a servant is a great blessing.