The Curse of Ham: An Admonitory Case-Study in Misreading Scripture

And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it upon both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said, “Cursed be Canaan; a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers.” He also said, “Blessed by the LORD my God be Shem; and let Canaan be his slave.” God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his slave.” After the flood Noah lived three hundred and fifty years.  (Gen 9:22-28 RSV)

As reported by many news outlets including The Atlantic, “The Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting turned chaotic in Phoenix [last] week over a resolution that condemned white supremacy and the alt-right” ( More than 150 years after it withdrew from the national Baptist Triennial Convention because the Convention would not appoint a slaveholding southerner as a missionary, the SBC is finally, if fitfully, addressing its history of racism.  I am no longer a member of a Southern Baptist church because, about a decade ago, I acknowledged that the SBC does not want me.  Further, it does not want me largely because, although I revere scripture, as a biblical scholar, I cannot interpret it in the prescribed manner.  Other (also no-longer-Southern-)Baptist theologians have commented on the significance of the SBC’s resolution, and I recommend reading them (e.g. Steve Harmon and Curtis Freeman, I want to offer a few observations concerning the very real damage that unsophisticated or self-serving biblical interpretation can do to people.

Early Southern Baptists and other slaveholding southern Christians often justified the institution of slavery by appealing to the so-called “Curse of Ham.” In their interpretation, the Genesis account about Noah cursing his grandson, Canaan (quoted above), establishes that God wills black people to be perpetually enslaved. Slave ownership, then, they argued, simply fulfills God’s will.

The biblical account does not support the interpretation. Indeed, it raises a number of questions.  The first, of course, involves the nature of Ham’s offense against his father.  Since, however, it does not impinge upon the proper understanding of the curse itself I will set it aside. More pertinent, Noah strangely does not curse the perpetrator of the offense, but the perpetrator’s son. Why did Noah shift the curse one generation? The passage, as it stands, then, relates the “Curse of Canaan,” not the “Curse of Ham” as the slaveholding interpretation titles it. What would motivate this misnaming? Further, what element of the text suggests identifying Ham as representative and ancestor of all black people?  According to two recent, book-length studies of the history of the interpretation of Gen 9 (Stephen R. Haynes, Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery [Oxford: Oxford, 2002]; David M. Goldenberg, 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, 2005]), the slaveholders’ racial reading first surfaced in the 16th or 17th century.

Genesis reflects the ancient Israelite understanding of the world’s population. According to the biblical history of the world’s beginnings, every human being on earth descends from Noah and from (at least) one of his sons (and their wives). The theory underlying the pro-slavering interpretation holds that ancient Israel knew of only three population groups in the world:  the Semites (descendants of Shem), the Africans (descendants of Ham), and the Europeans (descendants of Japheth).  In order to serve its function, the curse must apply, then, to Ham, also the ancestor of Cush (Ethiopia), Egypt, and Put (Libya) in order to extend it to actual Africans. The “Curse of Ham” works only if one reverses Noah’s generation shift and only if the Bible actually understood Ham to be the ancestor of all Africans.

In fact, as the so-called “Table of Nations” (Gen 10) suggests, the authors of the Bible did not subscribe to this cultural anthropology.  In its list of Ham’s descendants, which curiously omits Put/Push/Libya, Ham’s son, Cush, appears as the ancestor of only one nation, Nimrod, who settled Mesopotamia (not Africa; vv 10-12) becoming the ancestor of the “Akkadians,” the Assyrians and the Babylonians – ethnic Semites.  Furthermore,

Canaan became the father of Sidon his first-born, and Heth, and the Jebusites, the Amorites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, the Arkites, the Sinites, the Arvadites, the Zemarites, and the Hamathites. Afterward the families of the Canaanites spread abroad. And the territory of the Canaanites extended from Sidon, in the direction of Gerar, as far as Gaza, and in the direction of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, as far as Lasha. (Gen 10:15-19 RSV)

In sum, apart from those of his son Egypt, Ham had primarily Semitic descendants in the biblical understanding. The Canaanites were not, indeed, black Africans. Instead, they spoke Semitic languages and, judging from biblical and other descriptions of the population, they looked Semitic and practiced a Semitic culture and religion.

Which brings us back to the question of why, according to the text, Noah expressly cursed 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 the history of ancient Israel: as irritants, as competitors for land and resources, as the source of religious temptation. One major issue relates to the fact that God had instructed the first generation of Israelites in the Promised Land to eradicate Canaanites and Canaanite influences.  Yet, they survived on into the monarchial period. At least two texts point to a biblical tradition that, rather than eradicating them, Israel enslaved the Canaanites (e.g. Josh 9:21, 23). Indeed, 1 Kgs 9:16 records that Solomon systematically enslaved Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites (compare the list in Gen 10:15-19).

Why does this case study of one misinterpretation matter today? First, interpreters of the Bible – and all readers are interpreters – must acknowledge that bad interpretations hurt people. Since believers consider the Bible authoritative to some degree and the Bible influences even secular culture in the West, bad interpretations can justify unjust institutions, can perversely motivate immoral behaviors, and can encourage harmful attitudes. The Bible can be an instrument for evil in the hands of malevolent or even just careless interpreters. The so-called “Curse of Ham” does not stand alone. Misogyny, child abuse, warmongering, and greed join racism as evils that bad interpretations of scripture have undergirded.

Second, the pro-slavery interpretation of Genesis 9 exhibits the major characteristics of flawed hermeneutics.  It does not take the text seriously; instead, governed by ulterior motives, 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, which in this case undercuts the “Ham = Africans” interpretation and has to include the biblical call to treat others justly and the Gospel message that, in Christ, there is neither slave nor free.

Third, it fails to acknowledge the situation-bound character of much of the Bible. In this case, put simply, there are no Canaanites left in the world to whom this curse could possibly apply. The Canaanites disappeared as a distinct people well before Christ. No one has the right capriciously to designate another nation or ethnicity to take their place.

Fourth, with respect to texts like Genesis 9, interpreters often overlook the fact that Noah pronounced the curse, God did not. The text says nothing about whether God even approved or endorsed Noah’s curse. Certainly, Noah’s wish (curses are malevolent wishes: “Let Canaan be his slave”) did not obligate God to carry out Noah’s will. In fact, I suspect that Noah’s wish may have been no more in line with God’s will than the slaveholders’ revision and reapplication of the text was.

Finally, bad interpretations of the Bible give it a bad reputation. I can only speculate about the extent to which popular attitudes toward the Bible have been tainted, not by what the Bible actually says, but by what people have been taught that it says.

I applaud the SBC for adopting its resolution. I admonish its members and all other readers of the Bible to take inventory of its collection of hateful and harmful interpretations of biblical texts. We are all responsible for the real damage done to human lives because of our sloppy and selfish interpretations.