What is the Curse of Ham?

The Curse of Ham

The Curse of Ham, a bible story in Genesis 9, tells of patriarch Noah cursing his son Ham’s descendants to eternal slavery. Image: Noah damning Ham, 19th-century painting by Russian painter Ivan Stepanovitch Ksenofontov

As described in the Book of Genesis, which is the first book of the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament, the Biblical patriarch Noah – a figure considered a prophet in the three Abrahamic religions – curses his grandson Canaan. According to the scriptures, Canaan was punished because his father, Ham, “saw the nakedness” of Noah.

Was Ham’s seeing of Noah’s nakedness some kind of euphemism for a sexually perverse action? Why was Canaan punished in the first place for the ‘transgressions’ of his father? And why was the story grossly misinterpreted to defend the institution of slavery?

Read on to find out more.

The children of Noah

In Genesis, Ham is seen as the ancestor of Africans. To some scholars, he is the progenitor of the Kushites, Egyptians, Libyans and Canaanites. For example, Ham’s son Cush was said to be the ancestor of Nimrod. His son Canaan, in turn, is believed to be the ancestor of the Canaanites.

Noah had a number of sons, including Shem, Japheth, and Canaan, according to verse 25 of Genesis 9. In verse 18 of the same chapter, Shem, Japheth and Ham are his sons, meaning Canaan was Noah’s grandson.

Scholars of the past often held the view that Shem and Japheth were the ancestors of the Semites and the Europeans, respectively. Ham, on the other hand, is generally considered the ancestor of Africans. However, to this day, there is no evidence whatsoever to substantiate such claims.

Some scholars maintain the belief that story of Noah getting drunk and the Curse of Ham is incomplete. They claim that this would explain the level of inconsistencies that we see in the story. For example, in one verse Canaan is seen as one of the sons of Noah.

How Noah fell into a drunken stupor

12th-century Venetian mosaic depiction of Noah sending the dove

After the Great Flood, it is said that Noah and his family, who according the Bible were the only people that survived the Great Deluge, disembarked the arch. Noah went into farming thereafter, cultivating several acres of grape-bearing vines. Once the crops were harvested, Noah made wine.

One day, Noah drank copious amounts of his produce and thereafter got drunk. The story goes on to say that, Noah, in his drunken state, laid “uncovered” in his room. It was in that moment that one of Noah’s sons, Ham, entered the room and saw his father’s “nakedness”.  To make matters worse, Ham told his brothers – Shem and Japheth – about the incident. Unlike Ham, Shem and Japheth immediately went into the room and “covered” Noah.

The following day, when Noah had sobered up, he was incensed by the transgressions of Ham. The Biblical patriarch then cursed Ham’s son, Canaan with eternal slavery.

As for Noah’s “good” sons – Japheth and Shem – verse 26 and 27 state that Noah blessed them. It’s in those verses that Noah curses Canaan and his descendants to be eternal servants to Shem and Japheth.

Image: Noah’s drunkenness, Ham mocks Noah, Noah is covered, Canaan is cursed. Egerton Genesis.

What was the true nature of Ham’s sin?

Ham’s sin, which was seeing “his father’s nakedness”, has been interpreted by scholars over the centuries. Some say, the sin should not be taking literally; instead it was supposed to mean the castration (or emasculation) of Noah by Ham. Ham’s reason for castrating Noah was to prevent his father from having a fourth child, which would have affected his and his brothers’ inheritance. Therefore Noah retaliated by cursing Canaan, Ham’s fourth son

Others say that Ham was rather the one who got intoxicated and thereafter slept with his mother. Another popular interpretation of the Ham’s actual sin is that Ham sodomized his father while they were on the ark. In all those varied interpretations, we get a sense of sexual immorality on the part of Ham.

It’s also been stated that Ham simply mocked his father for fallen into a drunken stupor. He also gossiped about it to everyone, making no attempt to “cover” it.

Possible explanation of why Canaan was cursed for the sin of his father

In some parts of the story, Ham is described as the middle son of Noah. And Noah’s curse was said to have been visited upon his “youngest son”. This point would give credence to assertions by some scholars that maintain that Canaan was indeed Noah’s son – Noah’s youngest son, to be precise.

In other some other commentaries, Ham’s sin of seeing his father’s nakedness is interpreted to mean Ham either sleeping with Noah’s spouse or sodomizing his father.

Were the latter interpretation true, it would explain why Noah’s curse was visited upon Canaan. Canaan might have been the product of the incestuous relationship between Ham and his own mother. Out of anger, Noah then cursed Canaan instead of Ham.

Curse of Ham

“Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.” (Gen. 9:24–25). Noah after awakening from his drunken stupor and then cursing Ham’s son, Canaan. Image: Noah curses Ham by French artist Gustave Doré

Noah’s excuse for drinking excessively

A number of early Byzantine Empire scholars, including John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, gave a possible explanation as to why Noah got drunk in the first place. Those scholars state that Noah had no idea of the intoxicating nature of wine as he was the first wine drinker.

Then there are the defense from some ancient Jewish interpretations that maintain that the devil (i.e. Satan) was the one responsible for making the wine Noah drank very intoxicating. Noah can therefore not be blamed for fallen into such drunken stupor.

“Noah fell into a drunken stupor and he was uncovered within his tent”. Ham, his son, then “saw the nakedness” of Noah.

Curse of Ham

For many, many centuries, scholars and theologians have debated the true nature of Ham’s transgression. However, many of those commentaries point to a kind of sexual pervasion and immorality on the part of Ham, with some going as far saying that Ham had an affair with Noah’s wife. Image: Genesis 9, verses 20–27, King James Version

Ramifications and interpretations

There were some later scholars who claimed that curse of Ham was meant to follow his descendants forever. But why?

Ancient scholars that held this view make reference to ancient Israel, where the Canaanites were seen as greedy and immoral people who were often up to no good. The scholars cite this as one of the reasons why ancient Israeli rulers, who were seen as the descendants of Noah’s so-called “good” son Shem, took the decision to systematically oppress and enslave the Canaanites, who were seen as the descendants of Canaan.

A false justification of the enslavement of Black Africans

The million dollar question then is: Was Canaan the “father” of black people? For many centuries, slave traders used this story to establish a link between Canaan and Black Africans in order to justify the prevailing social structure at the time. As slave trade and the oppression of the black race spread, so did the spread of this idea.

Connections were established between Ham and the black race, which were then used to justify not just the transatlantic slave trade but also the trans-Saharan slave trade.

Using this false interpretation of the scripture, many trans-Saharan slave traders were able to justify their heinous action of trading Africans as chattel.

Annius of Viterbo (1437-1502), an Italian Dominacan friar, stated that black people’s enslavement at the hands of Muslims was as a result of blacks being inferior.

There were even some scholars that misinterpreted the curse as an explanation for black skin. For quite a long time, this interpretation and false narrative were used by the Latter Day Saint movement (i.e. the Mormons) to justify why they banned black men from becoming priests until the late 1970s, when it was lifted by LDS president Spencer W. Kimball.

Struggling to find any tangible justification for slavery in the Bible, some Christian slave owners, especially those in the South, had to misinterpret the Curse of Ham.

At the peak of slavery in America, many Southern slave owners claimed that the curse of Ham was a biblical justification for their subjugation of blacks and racial discrimination against African Americans. They supported their interpretation with Genesis 9:25, which states “And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren”. To those slave owners and pro-slavery preachers, including Baptist pastors Patrick Mell (1814-1888) and Iveson L. Brookes (1785-1868), the Creator willed for black people (i.e. Canaan and his descendants) to live in perpetual slavery.

The idea reverberated throughout America as many pro-slavery pastors and slaveholding southern Christians used it to justify segregation and other forms of racial discriminations against blacks.

The ‘reversal’ of Noah’s curse – another misinterpretation by Spanish painter Modesto Brocos

Scholars that took the Curse of Ham to imply the inferiority of black people to whites often proposed “laundering” of the population and approximation to European culture. This, they hoped would remove all other minor ethnicities and non-white customs from the population. Image: A Redenção de Cam (Ham’s Redemption, 1895) by Modesto Brocos

“Ham’s Redemption” (Portuguese: A Redenção de Cam), an 1895 painting by Spanish painter Modesto Brocos (1852-1936), is considered a very controversial work in modern times. The painting depicts the gradual ‘whitening’ of a family with each passing generation. The painting tries to show the reversal of the curse Noah placed on Ham’s descendants. This is done through whitening of each family generation through interracial marriages.

In the painting, a black grandmother raises her hands to the sky in an apparent thanks to God for making her grandchild white. In her mind, her grandchild has escaped the “curse” of being black.

The painting evokes the theme of not just racial “purification” but also the deluded notion of ‘progress’. To the painter, were racial whitening to continue for generations, the world could rid itself of the so-called descendants of Ham, i.e. black people. Some have termed this as “whitening reproduction”.

Also, notice how the ground on which the white man in the painting stands on is made of stone, while the ground on which the two women (i.e. the mother and grandmother) stand on is bare earth. Known for being a big supporter of eugenics theories and miscegenation (i.e. interracial marriages), Brocos used this imagery to portray the white race as an evolved and enlightened race – one of great beauty, competence, and health.

Brocos, who later became a Brazilian citizen, and other scholars that held those racist ideologies back then, believed that the world needed to move in the direction of “whitening” (Portuguese: branqueamento) in order to remove black African features from the Brazilian population.

Basically, Brocos’s painting captures the racist ideologies and propaganda of the time.

Meaning of the Curse of Ham

The Curse of Ham has been noted as one of the passages that were often misinterpreted and used to rationalize enslavement of Black Africans and make them look inferior to other races. The idea spread for centuries because it gave some sort of divine approval to the prevailing social structure at the time, in which blacks were enslaved.

Why did the misinterpretation spread and perpetuate for many centuries?

The idea is said to have emerged out of the environment at the time – an environment in which black Africans often found themselves oppressed.

It was also wrongly assumed that the name Ham translates to ‘black’ in Hebrew and other Semitic languages. And as slavery increased, the interpretation of blacks being descendants of Ham increased as well.

In some commentaries, the Curse of Ham was linked to the Curse of Caine. Known as the one of the two sons of Adam, Caine killed his brother Abel. The first murderer in the Bible was then punished for his sin. It’s said that Caine’s skin turned black, and he thus became the ancestor of black people.

Those two narratives were used by some scholars of the time as a way to maintain and justify a social structure in which blacks were enslaved.

The question that begs to be answered is: If all human beings descended from Adam, according to Genesis, then why were some seen as inferior to others?

What Islam has to say about the story

The curse of Ham and the drunkenness of Noah can’t be found in the Quran simply because drinking is forbidden in Islam. Even more so, a distinguished person as Noah, who is seen as a prophet in Islam, could certainly not have drunk.

So how did the story come to be believed by some Muslims, especially those that engaged in slave trade and the subjugation of Black Africans for centuries? It so happened that there was some bit of cross-pollination of Jewish and Christian stories into Islam in the 7th century. Those foreign imports, so to speak, came to be called Isra’iliyyat.

“O people, your Lord is one and your father [Adam] is one,” the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) said in his farewell sermon given in the Uranah valley of Mount Arafat in 632. In a final admonishment against slavery, the Prophet added, “There is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab, nor a non-Arab over an Arab; no superiority of a white person over a black person, nor superiority of a black person over a white person – except through mindfulness of God.”

Curse of Ham

In Islam, however, Noah couldn’t have gotten drunk as Islam heavily frowns at drinking. Image: A depiction of Noah and the ark in a Mughal miniature from the 16th century

Interpretation in modern times

Modern scholars now unanimously agree that the Curse of Ham was subject to many false interpretations in order to defend the institution of slavery. It was used to perpetuate the false narrative of blacks being an inferior race.

There are some scholars who maintain that early Jews had very positive attitude toward black Africans, siting Biblical patriarch Moses‘ Kushite wife.

When asked what he thought about the story and misinterpretation, renowned American civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. described it as nothing short of “blasphemy”.

Read More: Major Accomplishments of MLK

Did you know…?

Some scholars in the Middle Ages misinterpreted the Curse of Ham to justify serfdom. Ham was associated with the serfs, while the nobles and free men were seen as descendants of Japheth and Shem, respectively.

Ham has also been connected with Greek myths of the castration of Uranus by Cronus (i.e. Saturn). In those accounts, Ham abandoned his wife on the ark, had numerous children with African women, and married his sister Rhea, daughter of Noah, and produced a race of giants in Sicily.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *