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A rarely used clobber text – The Curse of Ham

March 22, 2017

This has been used to clobber gays and blacks (justifying segregated schools for ‘coloureds’ in the USA).

It refers to the story in Genesis 9.20-7 where Ham ‘uncovers the naked­ness’ of his father Noah after the latter has become drunk, and tells Shem and Japheth about it. When Noah finds out what has happened, he curses Ham’s son Canaan and says thereafter that he will be a servant to his brothers.

His­torically, many interpreters have asserted that this explains and/or justifies the subjugation of ‘Hamitic’ black people to white rulers, since black people (in some accounts, those descended from people of North African origin; in oth­ers, anyone with black African heritage) are said to be descended from Ham and Canaan.

For example, Origen’s sixteenth homily on Genesis: ‘For Egyptians are prone to a degenerate life and quickly sink to every slavery of vices. Look at the origin of the race and you will discover that their father Ch [that is, Ham], who had laughed at his father’s nakedness, deserved a judgment of this kind, that his son Chanaan [Canaan] should be a servant to his br ers, in which case the condition of bondage would prove the wickedness of conduct. Not without merit, therefore, does the discolored posterity imitate ignobility of the race’ (Origen in Heine 1982, p. 215). For an overview of his cal Jewish, Christian and Muslim texts about the curse of Ham, see Golde 2003.

Note that Noah is the one who curses and Canaan is the one who is cursed. It not Ham’s curse at all, but Ham is the one who is made the scapegoat for Noah’s transgressions and for failing to conceal them from his brother.

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,[40] that the curse did not apply to all of Ham but only to his eldest son Cush, Cush being a sub-Saharan African. 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 explanation that black Africans, as the “sons of Ham”, were cursed, possibly “blackened” by their sins, was advanced only sporadically during the Middle Ages, but it 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 the 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 fell not 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.

Some suggest that Ham’s transgression may have been a more overtly sexual one. The character of Ham ‘repeats’ the character of Eve, becoming `feminized’ through being blamed for Noah’s error but it seems more likely that Noah curses Ham’s son not because Ham is ‘as a woman’ to him, but because Ham himself has undermined Noah’s own patriarchal masculinity, either by seeing him in an undig­nified state or by actually penetrating or otherwise assaulting him.

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 3rd-century rabbis, in the Babylonian Talmud (c. 500 CE), 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.

Here’s how Robert Gagnon explains it in The Bible and Homosexual Practice:

It is, in effect, in the Canaanite blood to be unremittingly evil. Canaanite proclivity to homosexual rape is hinted at by J in Gen 10:19 when he mentions the fact that the territory of the Canaanites extended as far south as Sodom and Gomorrah…. And the punishment eminently fit the crime (lex talionis). Just as Ham committed a heinous act with his ‘seed’ (sperm), so too the curse fell on his ‘seed’ (son, descendants).

Even if we accept the idea that Ham raped his drunken father, there are a few question that come to mind:

  • Did God make all of the Canaanite people “unremittingly evil”? Are all of their descendants evil today? Do they still have a “proclivity to homosexual rape”?
  • If Ham raped Noah, why didn’t God punish Ham?
  • Since Canaan had nothing to do with the Ham/Noah incident, how does the punishment “eminently fit the crime?”
  • How is a curse transmitted by “seed” (semen)? Is it still being transmitted “by seed” today?
  • How did Noah know what happened to him in the tent? And how did he know who did it?
  • Since Ham had four sons, why did God select his fourth son (Canaan) to punish?

If anything, it is Ham who renders Noah ‘feminised’.

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From → Biblical, Sexuality

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