After the Great Flood subsides, the Torah states: “The sons of Noah who came out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth – Ham being the father of Canaan. These three were the sons of Noah, and from these the whole world branched out.” (Genesis 9:18-19).
What are we supposed to make of that apparent aside that Ham is the father of Canaan? The very next verse tells us that these three brothers are the ancestors of everyone. Why single out one in particular, and for no contextual reason?
Our Rashbam scholar par excellence, Martin Lockshin, offers this insight:
Already Rashi feels that the phenomenon requires explanation and, in a quite uncharacteristic manner, verbalizes the problem by asking “Why did this have to be written here?” However, it is his grandson, Rashbam, who first proposes a solution that sees this type of phrase as a regular part of biblical narrative methodology.
In fact, Rashbam turns this verse into a paradigm, the “Ham and Canaan paradigm.” In his commentary on Genesis 1.1, Rashbam writes, “The Scriptural pattern [consists] of regularly anticipating and explaining some matter which, though unnecessary to the immediate context, serves the purpose of elucidating some matter to be mentioned further on, in another passage.”
In other words, Rashbam understands the Torah to speak a literary language, one that uses techniques such as anticipation (or foreshadowing), which heighten the reader’s curiosity and create connections throughout the literary work. For Rashbam, knowing that Canaan is the son of Ham helps us understand why Noah curses Canaan instead of Ham after Ham embarrasses Noah. Of course, an even larger context understands Canaan’s descendants, those known as Canaanites, to be wicked, and therefore the whole story about Ham and Noah points towards a later disappointment with the conduct of the Canaanites.
What might we learn from the Rashbam’s paradigm of literary anticipation for our own spiritual lives? We are both like and unlike sacred texts. Unlike sacred texts, we do not know how our story will turn out. We cannot read forward and discover all of the connections that our experiences have anticipated or foreshadowed. Much of our lives is just a little more coincidental than a highly intentional literary work.
But, we are like sacred texts in that as we learn to become aware of our personal life story, we can trust in the richness of meaning. Like sacred texts, our stories, experiences, and character qualities are worthy of deep study, especially in conversation with each other.