QUESTION: According to Genesis 9:18 Noah had three sons, and one son (Ham) looked at the nakedness of the father. Instead of cursing Ham, the sinner, God cursed Canaan the son. The Bible says in Ezekiel 18:1-5 that the person who sins is the one to die. Was God fair to curse "the innocent child"? And are the black people descendants from Canaan?
ANSWER: Regarding Ham and his father. I need to note a couple of important things as we deal with the incident recorded in Genesis 9:20-27.
First, in these very early times–before we get to Abraham and beyond–a great sweep of history is passed over very briefly. We're looking at thousands of years between Genesis one at the end of chapter eleven, where we get to the family of Abraham. Many details are therefore missing. God has only told us what He wants us to know. For the rest, we can speculate, carefully, but we cannot be dogmatic.
Second, keep in mind the author of Genesis, and the time when the book was written. Genesis through Deuteronomy was written by Moses, after he was used of God to deliver the Israelites from Egypt. Sometimes these five books are called simply "Moses" (Lk. 24:27). Jesus (and others) spoke of them as "the Law of Moses" (vs. 44). My guess is that Genesis (which deals with the time before Moses lived) was revealed to Him on Mount Sinai.
Genesis gave vital information to Israel--about things they would otherwise not have known. It gave them a sense of their identity through the family of Abraham, and an understanding of their relationship with God, because of what's called the Abrahamic Covenant. Also, they needed to realize why the Lord was so angry with the Canaanites, and planned to destroy them–giving their land, instead, to the Israelites.
God is merciful. The Canaanites had time to repent and turn to Him but, in His omniscience, the Lord knew they would not. He tells Abraham that, in his day, "the iniquity of the Amorites [one of the Canaanite peoples] is not yet complete" (Gen. 15:16). It was another 600 years after his time that Israel took possession of the land. By then, the Canaanites were so grossly and incurably wicked that they reaped the judgment of God by the hands of Israel.
Now, let's consider the incident in Genesis. We are told simply that Noah became drunk, and his son Ham "saw the nakedness of his father." But, as I noted earlier, we are missing a great deal in these early years. How did Noah become drunk? Was it an accident (i.e. because he did not know the effects of alcohol)? Or was it something else? And what's wrong with seeing a naked man? Under some circumstances, surely nothing at all? We are clearly missing more with regard to Ham's motivation.
There's a very interesting verse over in the book of Habakkuk. I hasten to add that it is not about Ham specifically. But the parallel is striking. It suggests a possible motive for his actions that would explain a great deal. The passage says: "Woe to him who gives drink to his neighbour, pressing him to your bottle, even to make him drunk, that you may look on his nakedness! You are filled with shame instead of glory" (Hab. 2:15-16).
If that is what happened in Genesis, the responsibility for Noah's drunkenness was Ham's. And it was a premeditated plot to purposely disgrace his father. Perhaps he was chafing at Noah's control of the family, and wanted to show he was unworthy to continue as the head of the clan. Again, we do not know this for certain, but it makes some sense.
Now, what about Canaan? You have made an assumption when you refer to him as an "innocent child." Because of the compression of time in these early accounts, it is quite possible that he was an adult too. Notice vs. 20. Noah took up farming, and developed a vineyard. That didn't happen in a day or a week. It's quite possible that many years had passed since they emerged from the ark.
That leads to the possibility that Canaan, as an adult, was involved in the plot to discredit Noah–he may even have been the instigator, and therefore have had more responsibility for what happened. Noah's words, in vs. 25 and following, suggest that may have been so. But, even if not, you need to realize several things about what Noah says.
It is actually a prophecy, indicating some things that would happen in the future. And, as I noted, these historical details were of great interest to the people of Israel, as they provided information about the origin of the Canaanites.
It's not essential to what happened that Canaan, Ham's son, was in on the plot to disgrace his grandfather–though that may be so. Rather, it could simply be that, with a prophet's insight, Noah was able to see the the same tendency to rebel against authority as may have been evident in Ham would develop in Canaan and his descendants.
While it is true that God does not punish sons for their father's sins, we know that sinful habits and attitudes in parents can definitely have negative effects on the children. Drunkenness, spousal abuse, divorce, and other things, can rob the children of the kind of loving care and moral training that will give them a good start in life. So, perhaps Noah had observed that Ham was not guiding his son aright, and he could see trouble ahead for Canaan.
Notice that Noah's prophetic curse did not rest on all the sons of Ham. Only on one. This again seems to point to some moral deficiency in Canaan, some action that singled him out, and led to the eventual destruction of his descendants.
Finally, there's no evidence at all that the Canaanites were a black people. That false interpretation was promoted in America and elsewhere, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to excuse the evils of slavery, but it's without justification. In any event, the prophecy was fulfilled, long ago. The Canaanites are no longer with us.