There are numerous ancient stories of great floods unleashed by (usually angry) deities as punishments to be suffered by non-divine, morally imperfect, human-all-too-human beings.


Among the oldest of the ancient great flood stories is found in the Epic of Gilgamesh. But the most famous is presented in the Book of Genesis, featuring Noah, his three sons, Ham, Shem, and Japeth, the wives of these men, a wooden ark filled with animals, and, of course, Yahweh, the God known to students of ancient Hebrew as Elohim, or El.

According to Genesis, Yahweh’s flood destroyed “every living thing that moved on land perished—birds, livestock, wild animals, all the creatures that swarm over the earth, and all mankind.”

Everything on dry land that had the breath of life in its nostrils, died. Every living thing on the face of the Earth was wiped out; people and animals and the creatures that move along the ground and the birds were wiped from the Earth. Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark (Genesis 7:21).

After the flood, the Book of Genesis reports that Noah got drunk on wine, apparently took off his clothes, and conked out. Noah’s son, Ham, noticed, and told his two brothers, Shem and Japeth, who proceeded to cover their naked, drunk, unconscious father with a blanket, taking care not to look at him or alert others to his indecorous condition.


The sons, apparently, didn’t want their father embarrassing himself, while he slept off his excess of wine, in front of the women who had accompanied the men of the ark, which included Noah’s wife.

Then again, those women had just witnessed and survived a genocidal flood of unimaginable global destruction, so it’s unclear whether any of these women would have been much scandalized by seeing a naked old man sleeping his way to a hangover.

When he woke from his drunken stupor, however, instead of thanking his sons, Noah cursed Canaan. Who was Canaan, you ask? Canaan was the son of Ham. Canaan was Noah’s own grandson.

The moral of the story, if there is one, is quite strange. Noah was clearly unhappy with his son Ham. Yet, what had Ham done that so angered his father? Ham merely told his brothers that their dad was drunk, naked, and unconscious, and the brothers then covered Noah with a blanket.

Further, what had Canaan, the son of Ham, the grandson of Noah, done to anger his grandfather? Nothing. By the account in Genesis, Canaan appeared innocent of any serious wrongdoing. But that did not stop Noah from cursing Canaan, declaring that Canaan would become the “lowest of slaves to his brothers” and also become a slave to his uncles, Shem and Japeth (Genesis 9:25).


The story of the flood, Noah, and the subsequent curse of Canaan is one of numerous Biblical accounts of slavery that some theologians have presented as evidence that slavery is a Biblical institution nowhere denounced by God.

In the mid-19th century, Americans started incorporating scientific, biological theories of “race” and racial “evolution” into their public political philosophy (some probably put up yard signs announcing IN THIS HOUSE WE BELIEVE IN SCIENCE!). Entire theological-racial-biological “disciplines” quickly arose.

Some of the most learned scholars in the United States, which included anthropologists, biologists, theologians, preachers, and professors of political philosophy, were busy trying to trace the genealogy of “master” white races back to Shem and Japeth, and alleged “inferior” African races back to the cursed Canaan and his father, Ham.

Of course, whether people of one “race” can be traced, genealogically, to Ham, Shem, or Japeth, every human being today is a descendent of Noah, if the Book of Genesis is to be believed: “Shem, Ham and Japheth…were the three sons of Noah, and from them came the people who were scattered over the whole earth” (Genesis 9:18).

Regardless of the common human ancestry traceable to Noah, Biblical arguments regarding which “races” descended from Canaan and Ham versus Shem or Japeth were theologically persuasive, convincing many Southern Christians that the enslavement of African blacks lined up with Biblical piety, fidelity, and righteousness. One could be a good slave-owner, they believed, and a good Christian at the same time.

In the 1840s and 50s, growing numbers of Americans suspected that everyone opposed to legalized slavery must, therefore, be heathen atheists. Maybe even Satanic. By the 1860s, on the eve of the Civil War, many American Southern Christians denounced Northern abolitionists as “Red Devil Republicans” for their suggestion that the enslavement of men, women, and children with black skin might be morally wrong.

So, to the degree that the American heritage of legalized, government-sanctioned slavery continues to reverberate in the American mind, there’s a connection between the ancient story of Noah and the curse of Canaan to some of the most deeply vexing social and political subjects in the United States today. And that ancient story began with a flood.