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Eve’s Curse

I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; also that women should adorn themselves modestly and sensibly in seemly apparel, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly attire but by good deeds, as befits women who profess religion. Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty. (1Tim 2:8-15 RSV)

I devoted the previous entry to this blog to “observations concerning the very real damage that unsophisticated or self-serving biblical interpretation can do to people” on the example of the so-called “Curse of Ham.”  The damage done by wrong-headed biblical interpretation in that case was and is, of course, to black people.  A range of other biblical texts, in the hands of careless or selfishly-motivated interpreters, have done and still do similar damage to other groups of people, and even to creation and the public good.  Hopefully, an examination of several of these texts, and, more importantly, of the poor hermeneutical practices that render them dangerous, will help readers to be better biblical interpreters and will provide them with resources for correcting such abuse of scripture as they encounter it.

According to an interpretation with an ancient pedigree, the passage from 1 Timothy cited above describes unequivocally and categorically the proper status of women in God’s order: they are to be submission (even silent); they may not hold positions of authority over men; these strictures result from the role Eve played in the Garden of Eden fiasco. In the background, of course, is the twofold “curse” placed upon Eve (Gen 3:16) involving pain in childbirth (cf. 1 Tim 2:15) and hierarchical gender relations (1 Tim 2:12).

Christians – from Roman Catholic officialdom to American Evangelicals – base their views on issues such as women in ministry and the proper model for Christian marriage on this strict, “literal” interpretation of this passage. Closer examination – of the wording of the text, of its context in scripture, and of its context in history and culture – suggests, however, that this interpretation need not, and indeed, should not prevail.

First, the author (Paul or one of Paul’s disciples, if, as many modern scholars think, the Pastoral Epistles are “Deutero-Pauline”) twice explicitly states that he is describing his personal wishes (v 8 – Βούλομαι boulomai “I wish”) and values (v 12 – οὐκ ἐπιτρέπω ouk epitrepō “I do not turn to” in the sense of “I do not turn over to”), implying that these wishes and desires do not reflect a divine mandate. On occasion elsewhere, Paul makes this distinction between his thinking and divine mandate explicit (cf. 1 Cor 7:12). This observation, in turn, raises the question of the nature of the Bible, of biblical authority, and of the authority of biblical authors.  Readers of the Bible must remember that, although we refer to the Bible, as a whole, as the word of God, it contains many statements that should not and cannot be understood as statements of God’s will. Further, the authority of the prophets (cf. Jeremiah’s hesitancy to denounce Hananiah without the divine mandate to do so – Jer 27-28; or Amos’ efforts to divert God from the plan to punish Israel – Amos 7-8) and of Paul was not a personal characteristic, i.e., they were not personally authoritative in and of themselves. Unless upon divine instruction and inspiration, the words of biblical authors carry no more authority than the words of any other person. Paul, in fact, typically based his claims to authority on tradition (cf. 1 Cor 11:23; 15:1, 3) and biblical interpretation (Rom 1:17; 2:24; 3:4, 10; 4:17, etc.).

Second, this text expresses an attitude toward women that does not comport with scripture taken as a whole.  It describes Miriam (Exod 15:20), Huldah (2 Kgs 22:14), Noadiah (Neh 6:14), Anna (Luke 2:36), and the four anonymous daughters of Philip (Acts 21:9) as prophetesses.  Deborah was a judge, exercising authority over Barak (Judg 4:6-9). The first to bring the Good News of the resurrection of Jesus, the first evangelists, were women. Prisca taught the Gospel message to Apollos (Acts 18:26) and Phoebe was a deaconess (Rom 16:1). In his letters, Paul sent greetings to scores of women whom he hailed as co-workers in Christ.

Indeed, an interpretation that regards the perpetuation of the curse upon Eve as an element of the Gospel entirely misapprehends the Gospel, itself. Paul wrote, “Christ redeems us from the curse of the law” (Gal 3:13), a recognition that enable him to assert just a few verses later that, therefore, “…in Christ…there is neither Jew nor Greek…slave nor free…male nor female…” (Gal 3:27-8).  In other words, while the fallen state of humanity may involve hierarchical gender relations, a redeemed humanity will enjoy restoration to the original harmonious equality between the genders. Disciples of Jesus Christ should not enforce the curse but participate with God in Christ lifting the curse.

Third, of course, one must take historical and cultural factors into account. First Timothy dates to a period and a place in which a casual observer would probably assume that a well-dressed, bejeweled, well-coiffed, vocal woman was a prostitute or mystery religion priestess.  Indeed, some in the churches Paul founded across the eastern Mediterranean probably came from such backgrounds. Everything that I have already said notwithstanding, one can understand why it would have been important, even in the symbolic mode of dress, to distance one’s self from such pasts.  In fact, if the passage before us continues to speak a positive word to Christians, and I believe that it does, it is probably on this point. Even our symbolical statements of who we are, as in how we dress and the vocabulary we use, stand under the claim of God. We should be careful not to undermine our confession through our style of dress and manner of comportment.

Finally, many of the conservative, Evangelical Christians, including Baptists in the South, who insist on the strict interpretation of the “silent and submissive” interpretation of this Timothy passage, do not employ a consistent hermeneutic.  They take “literally” the components of this passage with which they are comfortable; but ignore or explain away the rest. If this passage calls for “silent and submissive” women, it also calls for women to dress frumpily, to wear their hair simply, and to eschew jewelry.  Understood “literally,” this text calls for Christian women to be silent, submissive, and plain. I find it somewhat hypocritical for male evangelicals who insist on the “silent and submissive” interpretation not also to insist that their wives be as plain as possible. I suspect an ulterior motive – the will to dominate instead of the determination to serve as the lowliest.

I hope that readers of the Bible will see the importance of taking in the full biblical panorama. A snapshot cannot convey the breadth and grandeur.  Readings of the Bible designed to limit God’s grace do damage. The Bible is not the problem.


Note:  It is summer. I am busy with family visits and household chores in addition to my regular schedule of editing and writing.  Until September, I will be making blog entries irregularly, but I will not be entirely quiet and come fall, I will return to a normal weekly (or nearly so) schedule.

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.

No Stream without a Source

Part II

In the most recent entry in this blog, I reacted to Brent Strawn’s, The Old Testament is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment by offering reflections concerning factors that may contribute to the phenomenon Strawn describes.  This second entry on the subject will examine some of the dangers for believers and for the church inherent in Continue reading No Stream without a Source

No Stream without a Source

Part I

A few days ago, an email brought to my attention a review of a new book by Emory OT professor Brent Strawn (The Old Testament is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment [Theological Explorations for the Church Catholic; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017]). Strawn concludes from surveys of biblical knowledge, statistics Continue reading No Stream without a Source

To An Unknown God

Acts 17:22-31

Luke’s record of the Apostle Paul’s foray into the philosophy of religion/apologetics (Acts 17:22-31) portrays an approach to evangelism that differed significantly from Paul’s typical practice. Earlier in the chapter, Luke recounts Paul’s visits to the synagogue in Thessalonica, where “as he was accustomed,” Paul argued for faith in Christ based on his Continue reading To An Unknown God

Wise Expenditure of Energy

“A fool expends all his [sic] energy,                                                                                                               but a wise person keeps it in reserve” (Prov 29:11, my trans.)

In January a few years ago, a colleague and I attended a conference in the Tampa/St. Petersburg, Florida.  We had made our flight arrangements separately, but ended up booked for the same return flight. I reached the airport first and went to the kiosk to print out my boarding pass. The kiosk computer informed me that I needed to consult a ticket Continue reading Wise Expenditure of Energy

Seeing Only What We Expect to See

Luke 24:13-35

According to the Revised Common Lectionary, the Gospel reading for this Sunday, April 30, 2017, is the story of the encounter between two of Jesus’ disciples and the risen Lord on the road to Emmaus, some seven miles outside Jerusalem. Only Luke tells this story, suggesting that he gathered it along with other information during his own research (cf. Continue reading Seeing Only What We Expect to See

“Whispering Hope”

Heb 11:1

One day early in my teaching career, I was laboring to help students in a small seminar on hermeneutics (the art of interpretation) to understand the logical and grammatical structure of a passage in Paul. As is often the case in Paul’s letters, the issue involved a simple “therefore,” by which Paul argued for the connection between what Christians Continue reading “Whispering Hope”

Dry Bones

Ezek 37:1-14

Many know the Old Testament lectionary reading for this coming Sunday, the fifth Sunday in Lent, through the familiar spiritual. Slaves in the American Sought clearly heard in Ezekiel and his visions of a wheel and a valley of dry bones a promise of God’s power to bring life out of death, freedom out of slavery. The passage finds its place in the common Continue reading Dry Bones

An Appeal to Young Christians and a Prayer

Sometimes multiple needs coincide to offer solutions to one another. I suggest that the contemporary church faces just such a confluence of opportunities masquerading as problems.  The church needs help; resources are available. Continue reading An Appeal to Young Christians and a Prayer