Many people call the Bible, “The Good Book”, but it’s not really always good. In its volumuous pages, it describes heroes and villains, depicts triumph over adversity, and even provides a set of rules to live by. But sometimes the Bible doesn’t live up to its reputation, or at least doesn’t appear to. There are passages that extoll the subservience of women to men, insist that parents should kill their children if they do not behave, and even depicts God declaring genocide against nations that opposed Israel, including women and children. Rabbis and theologians have debated these portions and have found ways to look at many of them, sometimes to the extent of saying that a text means the opposite of what it says, like God has put a riddle in the Bible for us to solve. Despite that, the face readings of these texts have caused significant hardship and strife over hundreds of years. The “Curse of Ham” is one of these unfortunate portions.
After the story of Noah and the flood, Genesis describes there is a second and final chapter in Noah’s life. It’s not a healthy depiction: Noah is drunk. More than that, Noah is really drunk. Noah is so drunk that is is lying sprawled and naked on the floor of his tent. Ham, one of Noah’s sons, comes by and sees his father in this state, and then tells his brothers about it. The two other brothers, Shem and Japheth, take a cloth and walk BACKWARDS into Noah’s tent to cover their father without looking at his nakedness.
So far so good, but when Noah wakes up and “learned what his youngest son had done to him”, he issues a startling curse:
“Cursed be Canaan;
the lowest of slaves
shall he be to his brothers.”
And he said,
“Blessed be the Lord,
the God of Shem;
let Canaan be a slave to them.
May God enlarge Japheth,
and let him dwell in the tents of Shem;
and let Canaan be a slave to them.”
Let’s recap: Noah gets himself drunk, exposes HIMSELF in his tent, Ham just happens to see, and then Noah doesn’t curse Ham but rather Canaan, one of Ham’s sons. (By way of explaining how this affront could be so severe as to punish all of one of Noah’s own grandchildren’s descendants, some authorities suggest that “seeing” Noah naked is code for some sort of sexual assault. That is possible perhaps, but even so Canaan had nothing to do with it.)
There is a lot of interesting things going on in this curse. For example, God is now defined as the God of Shem. In later portions of the Hebrew Bible, God is the God of “Abraham, Issac, and Jacob” and Shem is indeed their ancestor. Does that imply that all of Shem’s descendants would be monotheists? Perhaps. Traditionally however, Abraham is described as the first monotheist and his (Abraham’s) father is described as the maker of idols in some texts. (But I can’t immediately recall if this is in the Torah or in the madras. I will know in a few days…)
Second, absolutely no fate, positive or negative, is ascribed to Ham or his other sons (Egypt, Put, and Cush). We can suspect that they are the forefathers of the Egyptians, the Cushites, and Phutites or, approximately peoples in Egypt, Sudan/Ethiopia area, and the Libyan area. Notice, all of these groups are in Africa. (The Canaanites would eventually control the area that would be Israel and does not fit the African pattern.)
So, in a historical sense, this curse was a validation of the Israelites’ conquest of “Canaanite” territories in Biblical times. It certainly would have justified slavery of them. (But there was a defined code of slavery in the Torah that isn’t exactly how it sounds, though it was fairly atrocious. I’ll probably talk more about it in Exodus and Leviticus, when those bits come up.)
But because every aspect of the Bible is interpreted and reinterpreted for and by different generations, the “Curse of Ham” was able to be interpreted more broadly. Africans, not just Canaanites, were the ones cursed by God and doomed to subservience to the other descendants of Noah. This would come back over the centuries such that religious and social conservatives in the 19th century would even cite this “curse” as proof that God intended the while man to enslave the black. This curse didn’t cause early-modern European slavery, but it’s a great example of how a passage from the Bible can be twisted (and in this case, not very hard) to very evil ends.
I try and look at this passage in a different way. This wasn’t God cursing Ham and so what effect could it possibly have had? This was the ramblings of an embarrassed drunk with an insane hangover, who yells and curses but can’t even correctly spit out the name of the one he is angry at. Even so, it’s caused or reinforced a lot of damage in the world.