Slaveholding southern Christians often justified the institution of slavery by appealing to the so-called Curse of Ham (Gen 9:22-29). In their interpretation, which first surfaced in the sixteenth or seventeenth century, the Genesis account establishes that God wills black people to be enslaved perpetually. Genesis does not support this interpretation, however. Apart from the fact that the nature of Ham’s offense against his father is unclear, Noah strangely does not curse Ham, but his son, Canaan.
What element of the text suggests identifying Ham as representative and ancestor of all black people? Why did Noah shift the curse one generation?
According to Genesis, every human being descends from Noah and from (at least) one of his three sons (and their wives): Shem (ancestor of the Semites), Ham (ancestor of the Africans), and Japheth (ancestor of the Europeans). Ham was the father of Cush, Egypt, Put (Libya), and Canaan. In the so-called Table of Nations (Gen 10), Ham’s son Cush appears only as the ancestor of Nimrod, who settled Mesopotamia (not Africa; Gen 10:10-12) and became the ancestor of the “Akkadians,” that is, the Assyrians and the Babylonians—ethnic Semites. Ham’s son Canaan was the eponymic ancestor of the Canaanites, who were also apparently Semites judging from their language, culture, and religion (Gen 10:15-19). In sum, according to Genesis, Ham had primarily Semitic descendants. In order to extend to actual Africans, the curse must apply to Ham and proceed through him to his sons, Egypt and Put.
Why, then, did Noah expressly curse Canaan instead of Ham? Scholars have long recognized this passage as an etiology—a story of the origins of a name, a practice, or an institution. The Canaanites figure prominently in ancient Israel: as irritants, as competitors for land and resources, as the source of religious syncretism. Canaanites survived on into the monarchial period. At least two texts indicate that, rather than eradicating them, Israel enslaved the Canaanites (e.g., Josh 9:21, Josh 9:23). 1Kgs 9:16 records that Solomon systematically enslaved Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites (compare Gen 10:15-19). Thus, Genesis traces later circumstances to the earlier event in Noah’s family. That is, a later voice provided an ideological justification for the Israelite treatment of its perpetual enemies and placed it in Noah’s mouth to give it the authority of age.
The Curse of Ham interpretation ignores the fact that Noah curses Canaan and the biblical understanding of the identity of Ham’s descendants. It assumes that Ham was cursed and that Ham was the ancestor of all black peoples.
Why does this misinterpretation continue to be dangerous?
First, bad biblical interpretation hurts people. Bad interpretations justify unjust institutions, perversely motivate immoral behaviors, and encourage harmful attitudes. Misogyny, child abuse, warmongering, and greed join racism as evils that bad interpretations of scripture have undergirded. In this case, misinterpretations perpetuate the abhorrent notion that God endorses the systematic oppression and subjugation of any given group of people.
Second, the proslavery interpretation of Gen 9 exhibits the major characteristics of flawed hermeneutics. It does not take the text seriously; it engages in logical trickery and a kind of reorientation by substitution (Ham for Canaan, then all black persons for Ham); it does not consider the broader context of scripture (Gen 10, for example); and it overlooks the fact that Noah pronounced the curse, God did not. This observation is particularly telling. Gen 9 does not grant divine authority to Israel’s oppression of the Canaanites—or of anyone else.
Third, it fails to acknowledge the situation-bound character of much of the Bible. In this case, there are no Canaanites left in the world to whom this curse could possibly apply. The Canaanites disappeared as a distinct people long ago.
- Goldenberg, David M. The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Jews, Christians, and Muslims from the Ancient to the Modern World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.
- Haynes, Stephen R. Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.