What’s in a Name?

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

NOACH | GENESIS 6:9-11:32
The name Canaan appears for the first time in this story of the degradation of Noah.
Canaan was 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.
The majority of traditional commentators explain the inclusion of Canaan by suggesting that he castrated his grandfather. This was what Ham really saw and reported to his brothers — the ultimate degradation.
In order to further understand the text, we must take a look at the next time Canaan appears in the Bible, right at the end of our portion: “And Terah took his son Abram… to set out for the Land of Canaan; they arrived at Haran and settled there.”
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 to remain. Only two verses later, and as the opening of the next 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 wonder why God is now electing Abram, and why Abram is so willing to obey the divine command.
Maimonides suggests that the renamed Abraham had actually discovered God by means of his own rational gifts of analysis, beginning at the tender age of 3. He even cites the famous Midrash that Abraham’s father, Terah, was an idol maker, thereby positioning Abraham as an iconoclast.
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. Abraham even gives Melchizedek tithes — a gift that one usually would give to the priests of the Holy Temple.
The Ramban therefore suggests 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. 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 it their eternal homeland. Abraham, unlike Noah, succeeded in parenting a grandson — Jacob — 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.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin  is the chief rabbi of Efrat.


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