Curse of Ham
The curse of Ham (actually placed upon Ham's son Canaan) occurs in the Book of Genesis, imposed by the patriarch Noah. It occurs in the context of Noah's drunkenness and is provoked by a shameful act perpetrated by Noah's son Ham, who "saw the nakedness of his father". The exact nature of Ham's transgression and the reason Noah cursed Canaan when Ham had sinned have been debated for over 2,000 years.
The story's original purpose may have been to justify the subjection of the Canaanite people to the Israelites, but in later centuries, the narrative was interpreted by some Christians, Muslims and Jews as an explanation for black skin, as well as a justification for slavery. Similarly, the Latter Day Saint movement used the curse of Ham to prevent the ordination of black men to its priesthood.
Nevertheless, most Christians, Muslims, Jews and Mormons now disagree with such interpretations, because in the biblical text, Ham himself is not cursed, and race or skin color is never mentioned.
The concept of the curse of Ham finds its origins in Genesis 9:
20 And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard:
21 And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent.
22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without.
23 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.
24 And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him.
25 And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.
26 And he said, Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.
27 God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.
– Genesis 9:20–27, King James Version
The objective of the story may have been to justify the subject status of the Canaanites, the descendants of Ham, to the Israelites, the descendants of Shem. The narrative of the curse is replete with difficulties: It is uncertain what the precise nature of Ham's offense is. Verse 22 has been a subject of debate, as to whether it should be taken literally, or as "a euphemism for some act of gross immorality". In verse 25, Noah names Shem and Japheth as the "brethren" of Ham. The Table of Nations presents Canaan and Mizraim (Egypt) among the sons of Ham (10:6). In the Psalms, Egypt is equated with Ham. The treatment of Japheth in verses 26–27 raises questions: Why is YHWH named as the God of Shem, but not of Japheth? What does it mean that God will "enlarge" Japheth? And why will Japheth "dwell in the tents of Shem"? Further difficulties include Ham's being referred to as "the youngest son", when all other lists make him Noah's second son. Biblical scholar Nahum Sarna says that the biggest challenge of the narrative is why Canaan was cursed, rather than Ham, and that the concealed details of the shameful incident bear the same reticence as Reuben's sexual transgression.
The narrative's short five verses indicate that Canaan's Hamite paternity must have had great significance to the narrator or redactor, according to Sarna, who adds, "The curse on Canaan, invoked in response to an act of moral depravity, is the first intimation of the theme of the corruption of the Canaanites, which is given as the justification for their being dispossessed of their land and for the transfer of that land to the descendants of Abraham."
The majority of commentators, both ancient and modern, have felt that Ham's seeing his father naked was not a sufficiently serious crime to explain the punishment that follows. Nevertheless, Genesis 9:23, in which Shem and Japheth cover Noah with a cloak while averting their eyes, suggests that the words are to be taken literally, and it has recently been pointed out that, in first millennium Babylonia, looking at another person's genitals was indeed regarded as a serious matter.
Other ancient commentators suggested that Ham was guilty of more than what the Bible says. The 2nd century Targum Onqelos has Ham gossiping about his father's drunken disgrace "in the street" (a reading which has a basis in the original Hebrew), so that being held up to public mockery was what had angered Noah; as the Cave of Treasures (4th century) puts it, "Ham laughed at his father's shame and did not cover it, but laughed about it and mocked."
Ancient commentaries have also debated whether "seeing" someone's nakedness meant to have sex with that person (e.g., Leviticus 20:17). The same idea was raised by third-century rabbis, in the Babylonian Talmud (c. 500 AD), who argue that Ham either castrated his father, or sodomised him. The same explanations are found in three Greek translations of the Bible, which replace the word "see" in verse 22 with another word denoting homosexual relations. The castration theory has its modern counterpart in suggested parallels found in the castration of Uranus by Cronus in Greek mythology and a Hittite myth of the supreme god Anu whose genitals were "bitten off by his rebel son and cup-bearer Kumarbi, who afterwards rejoiced and laughed ... until Anu cursed him".
Book of JubileesEdit
In the Book of Jubilees, the seriousness of Ham's curse is compounded by the significance of God's covenant to "never again bring a flood on the earth". In response to this covenant, Noah builds a sacrificial altar "to atone for the land".[Jub. 6:1–3] Noah’s practice and ceremonial functions parallel the festival of Shavuot as if it were a prototype to the celebration of the giving of the Torah. His priestly functions also emulate being "first priest" in accordance with halakhah as taught in the Qumranic works. By turning the drinking of the wine into a religious ceremony, Jubilees alleviates any misgivings that may be provoked by the episode of Noah's drunkenness. Thus, Ham's offense would constitute an act of disrespect not only to his father, but also to the festival ordinances.
The medieval commentary of Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki 1040–1105), who cites older sources from Judaism's Oral Torah, which is relied upon by traditional Judaic scholarship as the most basic commentary to the present time, provides an introductory explanation. (Genesis 9:22–27):
- Genesis 9:22: and Ham, the father of Canaan, saw: "There are those among our rabbis who say that Canaan saw and told his father [Ham] and this is why Canaan was mentioned with regard to the matter and was cursed." (Tanhuma 15; Genesis Rabbah 36:7). And [Ham] saw his father's nakedness.: "There are those of our rabbis who say he emasculated (סרסו castrated) him, and there are those who say he had (homosexual רבעו) relations with him." Sanhedrin 70a. [The opinion that holds Ham had homosexual relations with him agrees that Ham also emasculated Noah.]
- Genesis 9:23: And Shem and Japheth...covered their father's nakedness, their faces were turned backward...: "...as for Ham who disgraced his father it is said of his offspring 'Thus will the king of Assyria lead the captives of Egypt and the exiles of Cush and the exiles of Ethiopia, young and old, naked and barefoot, and with buttocks uncovered, to the shame of Egypt." (Isaiah 20:4). (Tanhuma 15; Genesis Rabbah 36:6).
- Genesis 9:24: his small (הקטן) son:" הפסול The 'defective' one (Genesis Rabbah 36:6) והבזוי and the 'disgraceful' one. ['small' does not mean 'the youngest' since Ham was older than Shem] similar to 'Behold, I have made you the smallest (קטן) among the nations.'" (Jeremiah 49:15, Obadiah 1:2).
- Genesis 9:25: Cursed (ארור) is Canaan: Noah said to Ham: "You caused me that I should not father a fourth son, another one to serve me. May your fourth son [Canaan was Ham's fourth son, see Genesis 10:6] be cursed by serving the offspring of these greater ones [of Shem and Japheth]... What did Ham see that he emasculated him? He said to his brothers Adam the first man had only three sons (Cain, Abel, and Seth) yet one killed the other because of the inheritance of the world [Cain killed Abel over a dispute how to divide the world between them according to Genesis Rabbah 22:7] and our father has three sons yet he seeks still a fourth son."
- Genesis 9:26: ...Blessed is יהוה the God of Shem: "Who is destined to keep His promise to [Shem's] offspring to give them the Land of Canaan" and he shall be: "Canaan shall be to them as a servant to pay tribute."
- Genesis 9:27: and Canaan shall be a slave to them.: "Even after the children of Shem will be exiled slaves will be sold to them from the Children of Canaan." [Rashi explaining why the curse is repeated.]
Curse of CanaanEdit
- Genesis 9:25: "And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren"
It is noteworthy that the curse was made by Noah, not by God. Some biblical scholars claim that when a curse is made by a man, it could only have been effective if God supports it, unlike the curse of Ham and his descendants, which was not confirmed by God or, at least, it is not mentioned in the Bible that he had confirmed it.
Dead Sea ScrollsEdit
4Q252, a pesher (interpretation) on the Book of Genesis found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, explains that since Ham had already been blessed by God (Genesis 9:1), he could not now be cursed by Noah. The 4Q252 scroll probably dates from the later half of the first century BC. A century later, the Jewish historian Josephus argued that Noah refrained from cursing Ham because of his nearness of kin, and so cursed Ham's son instead.
A new alternative interpretation of 4Q181, which is a Dead Sea scroll of Genesis, parallels the Book of Jubilees, suggesting that Canaan was cursed because he defied Noah’s division of the land.
The Book of Jubilees also recounts the incident between Ham and Noah, and Noah's resulting curse against Canaan, in similar terms. Later, however, Jubilees explains further that Noah had allocated Canaan a land west of the Nile along with his brothers, but that he violated this agreement and instead chose to squat in the land delineated to Shem (and later Abraham), and so rightly deserved the curse of slavery.
Philo of Alexandria, a 1st-century BC Jewish philosopher, said that Ham and Canaan were equally guilty, if not of whatever had been done to Noah, then of other crimes, "for the two of them together had acted foolishly and wrongly and committed other sins." Rabbi Eleazar decided that Canaan had in fact been the first to see Noah, and had then gone and told his father, who then told his brothers in the street; this, said Eleazar, "did not take to mind the commandment to honour one's father." Another interpretation was that Noah's "youngest son" could not be Ham, who was the middle son: "for this reason they say that this youngest son was in fact Canaan."
Genesis 9:25: Cursed (ארור) is Canaan: Noah said to Ham: "You caused me that I should not father a fourth son, another one to serve me. May your fourth son [Canaan was Ham's fourth son, see Genesis 10:6] be cursed by serving the offspring of these greater ones [of Shem and Japheth]... What did Ham see that he emasculated him? He said to his brothers Adam the first man had only two sons (Cain and Abel) yet one killed the other because of the inheritance of the world [Cain killed Abel over a dispute how to divide the world between them according to Genesis Rabbah 22:7] and our father has three sons yet he seeks still a fourth son."
Genesis 9:26: ...Blessed is יהוה the God of Shem: "Who is destined to keep His promise to [Shem's] offspring to give them the Land of Canaan" and he shall be: "Canaan shall be to them as a servant to pay tribute."
Genesis 9:27: and Canaan shall be a slave to them.: "Even after the children of Shem will be exiled slaves will be sold to them from the Children of Canaan." [Rashi explaining why the curse is repeated.]
While the episode about Ham and his father Noah displays like a banner the actions of the fathers unto the shame of their sons, the codifiers of Jewish law assert that a Canaanite slave is obligated to perform certain mitzvot, just as Jewish women do, making him of a higher rank than ordinary gentiles when there is a question on whose life should be saved first. Moreover, according to the Hebrew Bible (Exo. 21:26-ff.), whenever a Canaanite slave is set free from his yoke by losing either a tooth or an eye, or one of twenty-four chief limbs in a man's body that cannot be replaced, where the Torah says of him, “he shall set him free,” according to the exponents of Jewish law, the sense here is that the same emancipated slave becomes a "freeborn" (benei ḥorīn) and is received in the Jewish fold and is permitted to marry a daughter of Israel. However, his emancipation must be followed by a written bill of manumission (sheṭar shiḥrūr) by the rabbinic court of Israel. Hence: a Canaanite slave's bondage was meant to elevate himself at a later juncture in life, although his Master in ordinary circumstances is under no constraints to set him free, unless he were physically and openly maimed.
The rules governing a Canaanite slave are used generically, and may apply to any non-Jew (gentile) held in bondage by an Israelite.
According to Rashi, citing an earlier Talmudic source, the heathen were never included in the sanction of possessing slaves as the children of Israel were permitted to do, for the Scripture says (Leviticus 25:44): "Of them you shall buy, etc.", meaning, "Israel alone is permitted to buy from them [enslaved persons], but they are not permitted to buy [enslaved persons] from you, nor from one another."
Misconception, racism, and slaveryEdit
In the past, some people claimed that the curse of Ham was a biblical justification for imposing slavery or racism upon black people, although this concept is essentially an ideologically driven misconception. Regarding this matter, the Christian leader Martin Luther King Jr. called such an attempt "a blasphemy" that "is against everything that the Christian religion stands for." (Quote from Galatians 3:28 found in the New Testament or "Christian Scriptures of the Judeo-Christian Bible.
For Southern slave owners who were faced with the abolitionist movement to end slavery, the curse of Ham was one of the only grounds upon which Christian slave owners could formulate an ideological defense of slavery. Even before slavery, in order to promote economic motivations within Europe associated with colonialism, the curse of Ham was used to shift the common Aristotelian belief that phenotypic differentiation among humans was a result of climatic difference, to a racialist perspective that phenotypic differentiation among the species was due to there being different racial types. This latter effort started in England. Englishmen were widely afraid to further the colonial efforts of The Crown and begin a new life in lower latitude colonies for fear of becoming black.
In 1578, George Best, a sea captain who was a member of the Elizabethan court, first popularized the myth of racial differences within what would be a widely read book on the search for a Northwest passage to Asia. Best used careful ethnographic descriptions to portray the indigenous peoples of North America as being sophisticated hunters and gatherers, not different in spirit than the white Englishmen. At the same time he presented a scathing account of Africans, saying that they are a "black and loathsome" people on account of being descendants of the “cursed chus". Best does not mention the curse as lying upon Ham, but rather upon Chus (son of Ham, commonly known as Cush).
The historian David Whitford writes of a “curse matrix” which was derived from the vagueness of Genesis 9 and interpreted to mean that it didn’t matter who was cursed or what group of people the curse originated with, all that mattered was that there was a vague reference to a generational curse that could be exploited any which way by racists like George Best.
Pro-slavery intellectuals were hard-pressed to find any justification for slavery and racism within Christian theology which taught that all humans were descendants of Adam and therefore one race, possessed with equal salvation potential and deserving to be treated as kin. The curse of Ham was used to drive a wedge in the mythology of a single human race, as elite intellectuals were able to convince people that the three sons of Noah represented the three sects of Man and their respective hierarchy of different fates. Leading intellectuals in the south, like Benjamin M. Palmer, claimed that white Europeans were descended from Japhet who was prophesied by Noah to cultivate civilization and the powers of the intellect, while Africans, being descendants of the cursed Ham, were destined to be possessed by a slavish nature ruled by base appetites.
Early Judaism and IslamEdit
While Genesis 9 never says that Ham was black, he became associated with black skin, through folk etymology deriving his name from a similar, but actually unconnected, word meaning "dark" or "brown". The next stage are certain fables according to ancient Jewish traditions. According to one legend preserved in the Babylonian Talmud, God cursed Ham because he broke a prohibition on sex aboard the ark and "was smitten in his skin"; according to another, Noah cursed him because he castrated his father.
Although the Talmud refers only to Ham, the version brought in a midrash goes on further to say "Ham, that Cush came from him" in reference to the blackness, that the curse did not apply to all of Ham but only to his eldest son Cush, who migrated to sub-Sahara Africa. Thus, two distinct traditions existed, one explaining dark skin as the result of a curse on Ham, the other explaining slavery by the separate curse on Canaan.
The concepts were introduced into Islam during the Arab expansion of the 7th century, due to cross-pollination of Jewish and Christian parables and theology into Islam, called "Isra'iliyyat". Some medieval Muslim writers—including Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari, Ibn Khaldun, and even the later Book of the Zanj—asserted the view that the effects of Noah's curse on Ham's descendants included blackness, slavery, and a requirement not to let the hair grow past the ears, despite the fact that this contradicted the teachings of the Islamic prophet Muhammad regarding skin color and racial equality, most notably in his last sermon. This is also in spite of the fact that the account of the drunkenness of Noah and curse of Ham are not present within the text of the Quran, the Islamic holy book, and not consistent with Islamic teachings that Noah is a prophet, and prophets do not drink alcohol. Islam holds prophets of God in very high esteem, and some Muslims suggest the prophets are infallible.
Historically, other Muslim scholars such as Ahmad Baba al-Timbukti criticised the Curse of Ham narrative and went on to criticise the association of black Africans with slaves. Others, such as Ibn Kathir, more broadly criticised the Isra'iliyyat tradition, and avoided using such reports when explaining verses of the Quran.
Medieval serfdom and "Pseudo-Berossus"Edit
In medieval Christian exegesis, Ham's sin was regarded as laughter (for mocking his father and doing nothing to rectify his condition).
Elsewhere in Medieval Europe, the curse of Ham also became used as a justification for serfdom. Honorius Augustodunensis (c. 1100) was the first recorded to propose a caste system associating Ham with serfdom, writing that serfs were descended from Ham, nobles from Japheth, and free men from Shem. However, he also followed the interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:21 by Ambrosiaster (late 4th century), which held that as servants in the temporal world, these "Hamites" were likely to receive a far greater reward in the next world than would the Japhetic nobility.
The idea that serfs were the descendants of Ham soon became widely promoted in Europe. An example is Dame Juliana Berners (c. 1388), who, in a treatise on hawks, claimed that the "churlish" descendants of Ham had settled in Europe, those of the temperate Shem in Africa, and those of the noble Japheth in Asia (a departure from normal arrangements, which placed Shem in Asia, Japheth in Europe, and Ham in Africa), because she considered Europe to be the "country of churls", Asia of gentility, and Africa of temperance. As serfdom waned in the late medieval era, the interpretation of serfs being descendants of Ham decreased as well.
Ham also figured in an immensely influential work Commentaria super opera diversorum auctorum de antiquitatibus (Commentaries on the Works of Various Authors Discussing Antiquity). In 1498, Annius of Viterbo claimed to have translated records of Berossus, an ancient Babylonian priest and scholar; which are today usually considered an elaborate forgery. However, they gained great influence over Renaissance ways of thinking about population and migration, filling a historical gap following the biblical account of the flood. According to this account, Ham studied the evil arts that had been practiced before the flood, and thus became known as "Cam Esenus" (Ham the Licentious), as well as the original Zoroaster and Saturn (Cronus). He became jealous of Noah's additional children born after the deluge, and began to view his father with enmity, and one day, when Noah lay drunk and naked in his tent, Ham saw him and sang a mocking incantation that rendered Noah temporarily sterile, as if castrated. This account contains several other parallels connecting Ham with Greek myths of the castration of Uranus by Cronus, as well as Italian legends of Saturn and/or Camesis ruling over the Golden Age and fighting the Titanomachy. Ham in this version also abandoned his wife who had been aboard the ark and had mothered the African peoples, and instead married his sister Rhea, daughter of Noah, producing a race of giants in Sicily.
American/European slavery, seventeenth and eighteenth centuriesEdit
The explanation that black Africans, as the "sons of Ham", were cursed, possibly "blackened" by their sins, was sporadically advanced during the Middle Ages, but its acceptance became increasingly common during the slave trade of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The justification of slavery itself through the sins of Ham was well suited to the ideological interests of the elite; with the emergence of the slave trade, its racialized version justified the exploitation of African labour.
In the parts of Africa where Christianity flourished in its early days, while it was still illegal in Rome, this idea never took hold, and its interpretation of scripture was never adopted by the African Coptic Churches. A modern Amharic commentary on Genesis notes the nineteenth century and earlier European theory that blacks were subject to whites as a result of the curse of Ham, but calls this a false teaching unsupported by the text of the Bible, emphatically pointing out that Noah's curse did not fall upon all descendants of Ham, but only on the descendants of Canaan, and asserting that it was fulfilled when Canaan was occupied by both Semites (Israel) and Japhetites. The commentary further notes that Canaanites ceased to exist politically after the Third Punic War (149 BC), and their current descendants are thus unknown and scattered among all peoples.
Robert Boyle—a seventeenth-century scientist who was also a theologian and a devout Christian—refuted the idea that blackness was caused by the curse of Ham, in his book Experiments and Considerations Touching Colours (1664). There, Boyle explains that the curse of Ham as an explanation for the complexion of coloured people was but a misinterpretation that was embraced by "vulgar writers", travelers, critics, and also "men of note" of his time. In his work, he challenges that vision, explaining:
And not only we do not find expressed in the Scripture, that the Curse meant by Noah to Cham, was the Blackness of his Posterity, but we do find plainly enough there that the Curse was quite another thing, namely that he should be a Servant of Servants, that is by an Ebraism, a very Abject Servant to his Brethren, which accordingly did in part come to pass, when the Israelites of the posterity of Sem, subdued the Canaanites, that descended from Cham, and kept them in great Subjection. Nor is it evident that Blackness is a Curse, for Navigators tell us of Black Nations, who think so much otherwise of their own condition, that they paint the Devil White. Nor is Blackness inconsistent with Beauty, which even to our European Eyes consists not so much in Colour, as an Advantageous Stature, a Comely Symmetry of the parts of the Body, and Good Features in the Face. So that I see not why Blackness should be thought such a Curse to the Negroes... [author's italics and capitalization]
A number of other scholars also support the claim that the racialized version of the curse of Ham was devised at that time because it suited ideological and economical interests of the European elite and slave traders who wanted to justify exploitation of African labour. While Robinson (2007) claims that such version was non-existent before, historian David Brion Davis argues, as well, that contrary to the claims of many reputable historians, neither the Talmud nor any early post-biblical Jewish writing relates blackness of the skin to a curse whatsoever.
Latter Day Saint movementEdit
In 1835, Joseph Smith, the founder of the Latter Day Saint movement, published a work which was titled the Book of Abraham. It explicitly denotes that an Egyptian king who is referred to by the name of Pharaoh was a descendant of Ham and the Canaanites, who were black (Moses 7:8), that Noah had cursed his lineage so they did not have the right to the priesthood, and that all Egyptians descended from him. It was later considered scripture by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church). This passage is the only one which is found in any Mormon scripture that bars a particular lineage of people from holding the priesthood, and, while nothing in the Book of Abraham explicitly denotes that Noah's curse was the same curse which is mentioned in the Bible or that the Egyptians were related to other black Africans, it later became the foundation of church policy with regard to the priesthood ban. The 2002 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual points to Abraham 1:21–27 as the reason why black men were not given the priesthood until 1978.
In the following year, Smith taught that the curse of Ham came from God, and it stated that blacks were cursed with servitude. He warned those who tried to interfere with slavery that God could do his own work. Without reversing his opinion on the curse of Ham, Smith started expressing more anti-slavery positions starting in 1842.:18:18–19 After Smith's death, leaders of the LDS Church continued to teach that black Africans were under the curse of Ham and that those who tried to abolish slavery were going against the decrees of God, although the day would come when the curse would be nullified through the saving powers of Jesus Christ. In addition, based on his interpretation of the Book of Abraham, Brigham Young believed that, as a result of this curse, negroes were banned from the Mormon priesthood.
In 1978, LDS Church president Spencer W. Kimball said he received a revelation that extended the priesthood to all worthy male members of the church without regard to race or color. In 2013, The LDS church denounced the curse of Ham explanation for withholding the priesthood from black Africans. However, the essays have not been well publicized, and many members remain unaware of the essays and hold to racist beliefs that had been taught in the past. The Book of Abraham is still considered scripture in the LDS church. The Old Testament student manual, which is published by the Church and is the manual currently used to teach the Old Testament in LDS Institutes, teaches that Canaan could not hold the priesthood because of his ancestral lineage but mentions nothing of race or skin color:
Therefore, although Ham himself had the right to the priesthood, Canaan, his son, did not. Ham had married Egyptus, a descendant of Cain (Abraham 1:21–24), and so his sons were denied the priesthood.
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As the fact is uncontrovertable, that the first mention we have of slavery is found in the holy bible... "And he said cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren"... the people who interfere the least with the decrees and purposes of God in this matter, will come under the least condemnation before him; and those who are determined to pursue a course which shows an opposition and a feverish restlessness against the designs of the Lord, will learn, when perhaps it is too late for their own good, that God can do his own work without the aid of those who are not dictate by his counsel.. p. 290 – via
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But [the essay] was published online, rather than read over the pulpit, which means many members still know little about it.
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an ideologically driven misnomer...
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