The Curse of Ham
Slaveholding southern Christians often justified the institution of slavery by appealing to the so-called Curse of Ham (
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 (
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.,
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
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.