Parshat Noah: The significance of the name Canaan

Abraham is the first purely self-motivated seeker of the Divine history.

By
October 23, 2014 14:27
Yoram Raanan

Painting by Yoram Raanan. (photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)

“Noah, the man of the earth, drank of the wine, became drunk, and uncovered himself within his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside.” – (Genesis 9:20-22)

The name Canaan appears for the first time in this story of the degradation of Noah.

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Canaan was not one of his sons, but his grandson, a son of Ham. The truth is that mentioning Canaan here seems totally out of place and superfluous. Noah becomes drunk, perhaps only because he does not realize the evil potential of the fruit of the vine. His son Ham does nothing to hide his father’s shame; much the opposite, he serves as talebearer, reporting his father’s nakedness to his brothers outside. Shem and Japheth cover their father without looking at him in order to protect their father’s honor. Ham is the villain; Shem and Japheth are the heroes. Why mention Canaan? Even more to the point, Canaan is a super-charged name; after all, the Land of Canaan is the Land of Israel, which will ultimately be taken over by Abraham and his progeny, descendants of Shem. There must be a special significance to the mention of Canaan precisely at this biblical juncture, just before the text records the descendants of Noah and the nations they generate.

The majority of traditional commentators explain the inclusion of Canaan by suggesting that Canaan castrated his grandfather. Apparently there was an oral tradition that reported this action. This was what Ham really saw and reported to his brothers – the ultimate degradation.

In order to further understand the biblical text and its significance today, we must take a look at the next time the Land of Canaan appears in the Bible, right at the end of our Torah portion: “And Terah took his son Abram, and Lot the son of Haran his grandson, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, wife of Abram his son, and they departed with them from Ur Kasdim to set out for the Land of Canaan; they arrived at Haran and settled there” (Genesis 11:31).

It is curious that the text tells us Abram’s father meant to go to the Land of Canaan but never really arrived; he only reached Haran, where, for whatever reason, he chose or was forced (perhaps by illness or old age, or the lack of means to complete the journey) to remain. Only one verse later, and as the opening of the next Torah portion, God appears to Abram without any prior buildup, commanding him to “go away from your land, your relatives and your father’s house [in Haran] to the land that I will show you [the Land of Canaan].” The commentators, as well as the Midrash, are hard pressed to discover why God is now electing Abram, and why Abram is so willing to obey the divine command.

Maimonides suggests, on the basis of the Midrash, that the renamed Abraham had actually discovered God by means of his own rational gifts of analysis and had begun his quest to discover the Ruler of the Universe at the tender age of three. He even cites the famous Midrash that Abraham’s father, Terah, was an idol maker, thereby positioning Abraham as an iconoclast.

Abraham is the first purely self-motivated seeker of the Divine history (Mishne Torah, Laws of Idolatry, Chapter 1).

But I would argue that the simple reading of the text leads to a very different conclusion. Terah apparently wanted very much to bring his family to Canaan. Indeed, our Torah reading will soon record how, when Abraham successfully conquers the four terrorist kings of the region, Melchizedek, the king of Salem and priest of God the Most High, brings him bread and wine and blesses God for having delivered Abraham’s enemies into his hand (Gen. 14:18-20). Abraham even gives Melchizedek tithes – a gift that one usually would give to the priests of the Holy Temple. And Salem is the ancient name for Jeru-Salem, which means City of Peace.

The Ramban therefore suggests (in his commentary ad loc.) that in the Land of Canaan, of which Salem is the capital, there was a tradition harking all the way back to Adam of ethical monotheism, of a God of the universe who would ultimately destroy terrorists and reward righteous lovers of peace. Perhaps Terah, having heard of the ethical monotheism being taught in Canaan, wanted his children to be brought up in that environment. From this perspective, Abraham is not a rebel, but a continuator of his father’s geographical and spiritual journey. That is why God is pretty certain that Abraham will accept the divine command; as the son of Terah, he has been primed to do so. Hence we may posit that in its mention of Canaan at this point, the Bible is setting the stage for an Abrahamic takeover of the Land of Canaan, soon to become the Land of Abraham – Israel.

Canaan is pictured as a special location, with specific ethical requirements. Only those who truly aspire to ethical monotheism will be worthy of making Canaan (Israel) their eternal homeland. Canaan the grandson of Noah forfeited his right because, instead of following in his grandfather’s paths of righteousness and wholeheartedness, he chose to destroy his grandfather’s ability to pass these values on to succeeding generations. Abraham, unlike Noah, succeeded in parenting a grandson –Jacob-Israel – dedicated to righteousness and justice.

And herein may well be a warning: The descendants of Abraham will be privileged to live in Israel only for as long as they subscribe to such an ethical lifestyle.

And even if B’nei Yisrael eventually return to the land and are worthy of living in it, their return will always be dependent on the ethical quality of the daily lives they lead. As Rashi warns us in his opening of the Book of Genesis, “the entire world belongs to the Holy One, Blessed be He; He created it, and He will give it to whoever is righteous in His eyes” (Gen. 1:1, Rashi). 

Shabbat shalom

The writer is founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone institutions and the chief rabbi of Efrat. His acclaimed series of parasha commentary, Torah Lights, is available from Maggid Books, a division of Koren Publishers Jerusalem.


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