After the story of the flood, the Bible relates this strange episode:
"And the sons of Noah, that went forth of the ark, were Shem, and Ham, and
Japheth: and Ham is the father of Canaan. These are the three sons of Noah: and
of them was the whole earth overspread. And Noah began to be an husbandman,
and he planted a vineyard: And he
drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent.
And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw
the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without. And 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. 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. And Noah
lived after the flood three hundred and fifty years. And all the days of Noah were nine hundred
and fifty years: and he died." Genesis 9:18-29
The text does not indicate exactly the nature of the wrongdoing. Did Canaan do something to Noah? Did Canaan tell his brothers about their drunken and naked father in a dishonorable, contemptuous way? Who knows. At any rate God punishes Canaan by ordaining that his descendants will be servants to slaves to Shem.
Perhaps this serves to justify the Hebrew conquests of the Canaanites and the seizing of their lands that came in the future. While the Hebrews slaughtered some branches of the Canaanites, they subjected others to slavery or tribute. In any case, this is another example of that strange notion of biblical justice about collective guilt. According to this notion, all members of some people group, whether contemporaries or later descendants, bear the guilt and receive the punishment of wrong doing. Readers already have encountered it in the account of mankind's fall. Because Adam and Eve sinned, not only to they experience death as a punishment, but also so do all their descendants. And now once again, the bible depicts God punishing multitudes of a person's descendants for the actions of that one person.
This ancient Middle Eastern notion of justice is alien to the Western idea that justice mean each man receiving his due--or what is owed to him. While no one can deny the immeasurable influence of the Bible on Western civilization, it is fortunate the the biblical notion of collective guilt and punishment was not one of those enduring ones.