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Blacks: Damned by the Bible

In Mark Twain’s still underappreciated novel Pudd’nhead Wilson, Roxy, a recently freed Missouri slave who acts and speaks like a black even though “only one-sixteenth of her was black,” shocks her arrogant grown son Tom Driscoll by informing him for the first time that she is his true mother: “Yassir, en dat ain’t all! You is a nigger!—bawn a nigger en a slave!—en you’s a nigger en a slave dis minute.” Tom had been raised as a privileged white and had even spent two years at Yale. Later, in bed, Tom groans and mutters, “A nigger!—I am a nigger!—oh, I wish I was dead!” As he struggles to confront this new identity, Tom “said to himself that the curse of Ham was upon him.”

In 1894 Mark Twain could still assume that most of his readers knew something of the Bible and were familiar with “the curse of Ham” by his father Noah, or at least with the way Tom interpreted it. That Noah had cursed Ham after the Flood was something a great many people believed, and most of them would probably have thought Ham’s descendants were black and condemned to slavery. Alexander Crummell, a distinguished free African-American who had been educated at Cambridge, hardly exaggerated when he declared in 1862 that “the opinion that the sufferings and the slavery of the Negro race are the consequence of the curse of Noah [is a] general, almost universal, opinion in the Christian world.” This opinion, Crummell added,

is found in books written by learned men; and it is repeated in lectures, speeches, sermons, and common conversation. So strong and tenacious is the hold which it has taken upon the mind of Christendom, that it seems almost impossible to uproot it. Indeed, it is an almost foregone conclusion, that the Negro race is an accursed race, weighed down, even to the present, beneath the burden of an ancestral malediction.

Crummell knew that there were other, quite separate sources of anti-black racism, including secular, scientific racism. The scientific classification of blacks as an inferior breed derived, contrary to many present-day assumptions, from the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and flourished in the second half of the nineteenth century and early decades of the twentieth. But in contrast to the belief of some scientists in the genesis of separate white and black human species, which soon became linked with Darwinian natural selection, the biblical story of Noah, Ham, and his son Canaan, who was specifically cursed by Noah, provided supporters of slavery with a way of remaining faithful to the biblical account of a common human origin. They could believe that all human beings are created in “the image of God”—the very core principle of the abolitionist movement—while also claiming divine authority for the enslavement and subordination of African blacks and their descendants. Acceptance of this preeminent curse, even by many blacks, continued well into the twentieth century and was used by Senator Robert Byrd and others in attacking the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Belief in Noah’s curse has surely not disappeared among Christian and probably even Jewish and Muslim biblical fundamentalists.1

An understanding of Alexander Crummell’s “ancestral malediction”—and of David M. Goldenberg’s important new book on the subject—requires preliminary recognition of two key points. First, and most important, for millennia most Jews, Christians, and Muslims believed that the Old Testament’s account of creation and early human history was the literal word of God and thus the supreme moral authority for all human affairs. But since the Bible is filled with obscurities, ambiguities, contradictions, and highly disturbing passages, there was a continuing need for traditions of explanation, interpretation, and reinterpretation by supposed experts (a problem later posed on a lesser scale by such documents as the US Constitution). A second point to keep in mind is the fact that “curses” have had a central role in most premodern cultures as a way of explaining catastrophes or the misfortunes of a special group. The Bible contains scores of curses, beginning with the Lord’s curse of Adam’s son Cain for killing his brother Abel.2

But no other passage in the Bible has had such a disastrous influence on human history as Noah’s slightly later curse in Genesis 9:18–27. David Goldenberg’s invaluable and deeply researched work reconstructs the history of early Jewish, Christian, and Muslim interpretations of Noah’s curse of Canaan (or Ham) while correcting many myths and misrepresentations along the way. By helping to explain why as well as when the misinterpretations occurred, Goldenberg illuminates one of the most important sources of anti-black racism.

The story of the curse of slavery comes soon after God succeeds in using a catastrophic flood, lasting just over a year, to “blot out from the face of the earth” all land and air life (or “flesh,” not trees), except for the animals and eight humans who were allowed to board Noah’s ark. The human survivors, whom God orders “to be fruitful and multiply,” were Noah, his three sons, and their four wives. The story then reads as follows:

The sons of Noah who came out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth—Ham being the father of Canaan. These three were the sons of Noah, and from these the whole world branched out. Noah, the tiller of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a cloth, placed it against both their backs and, walking backwards, they covered their father’s nakedness. When Noah woke up from his wine and learned what his youngest son had done to him, he said, “Cursed be Canaan;/The lowest of slaves [literally ‘the slave 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.”3

These biblical words immediately raise two problems that were bound to intrigue generations of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim interpreters of the text. First, the punishment of eternal slavery seems excessive for Ham’s vaguely described crime. It is noteworthy that at the beginning of human history, according to the Bible, hereditary slavery is seen as a severe penalty or punishment, not as a natural part of the human world, as Aristotle claimed. By the early fifth century Saint Augustine stressed that the word for “slave” does not appear in the Bible until Noah branded his son Ham with this name and condition—proving that all slavery is the result of human sin. In other words, in an ideal and sinless world there would be no slavery. According to Gratian, the great twelfth-century legal scholar and founder of the science of canon law, human bondage began with Noah’s curse, and “if there had not been drunkenness, there would not be slavery today.”4

As for the sin committed, the severity of the punishment elicited some extraordinarily imaginative speculations about what Ham may have done to deserve it. According to one tradition attributed to a rabbinic authority of the third century CE, Ham had castrated his father, Noah, in order to humiliate him and prevent the future conception of any further siblings. One Talmudic debater of the same period even accused Ham of sodomizing his unconscious father (in the laws of Leviticus 18, which also prohibit male homosexuality, “uncovering nakedness” is a euphemism for sexual intercourse). Yet on a far less extreme level, the scrupulous care shown by Shem and Japheth to cover Noah without glimpsing his naked body suggests that simply staring at his naked body would have been regarded at that time as an egregious offense. It has been argued that in ancient Mesopotamia, “looking at another’s genitals” was seen as a way of obtaining illegitimate “mastery and control,” for which slavery, or “losing all mastery and control,” would be an appropriate punishment. According to many interpreters, including Origen in the mid-third century CE, Ham worsened this sin by laughing contemptuously, in front of his brothers, after he had viewed his father’s body.

The obvious second problem arises from the fact that Noah does not curse Ham, the offender, but rather Ham’s son and Noah’s grandson, Canaan, whose name appears without any mention of his birth or age. For well over two thousand years Jews, Christians, and Muslims wrestled with this anomaly, sometimes arguing that Ham could not be directly cursed since he had been blessed by God, as stated earlier in Genesis, or that Ham and the youthful Canaan had both gazed on Noah. These ingenious explanations of the biblical story, which can be found in the Dead Sea Scrolls (dating from circa 200 BCE to 68 CE) as well as in much later Jewish, Christian, and Islamic commentary, are all attempts to make sense of an enigmatic passage (which the redactors who compiled the biblical text had probably edited centuries after its first composition).

When we go back and reread the text, Noah’s curse of slavery clearly punishes only Canaan but it also benefits Ham’s two brothers, Shem and Japheth, and their descendants. The story makes no mention either of Africans or of skin color. Nevertheless, as we have seen in both Pudd’nhead Wilson and Alexander Crummell’s powerful statement, the tale came to be widely understood as imposing the curse of slavery upon Ham and thereby providing divine justification for the eternal servitude of black Africans. This was probably the most popular and widespread defense of racial slavery in the nineteenth-century American South.5

But why were the descendants of Ham and Canaan understood to be black? The biblical Table of Nations, which immediately follows the story of Noah’s curse, provides genealogical lists of Noah’s descendants; it makes no reference to race or skin color and contains few clues regarding the later racist interpretation of the curse. The descendants of Japheth include the peoples to the north and west of the ancient Near East, such as the Scythians, “the maritime nations,” and the ancestors of the Greeks and other Eastern Europeans. The peoples descended from Shem include not only the Arabs and Assyrians, but a line of descent leading to the Hebrew Abraham and Sarah and thus to the future “great nation” of Israelites, to whom God promises the land already occupied by the Canaanites, or descendants of Canaan. The latter, who were white or swarthy, like the Egyptians, Philistines, Babylonians, and other future enemies of Israel, were the offspring of Ham, the sinner. But so was Cush (or Kush, to use the Hebrew term), who was thought to be black and who occupied the African lands south of Egypt including Nubia (or Ethiopia in later Greek). Despite all the later attempts to extend the curse of slavery to black-skinned Kushites, the Bible tells us that “Kush also begot Nimrod,” who was the first great king on earth, and “was a mighty hunter by the grace of the Lord.” In human rankings, kings like Nimrod have stood at the top of the scale, slaves at the bottom.

  1. 1

    See especially Stephen R. Haynes, Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery (Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 161–221.

  2. 2

    According to an alternative biblical theory, it was not Ham who was the ancestor of blacks but Adam’s son Cain, who was punished with a dark skin for killing Abel. In 1773 the poet Phyllis Wheatley wrote in one of the first books published by an African-American: “Remember Christians, Negroes black as Cain/May be refined, and join the angelic train.” Goldenberg traces this notion of Cain’s change of skin color back to a fifth or sixth century mistranslation of Genesis 4:5 in an Armenian work in which Cain’s blackness is first found. In antebellum America, the Mormon Church ruled that “the seed of Cain were black and had not place among [the seed of Adam],” and Brigham Young taught his fellow Mormons that blacks would “continue to be the servant of servants until the curse is removed.”

  3. 3

    Genesis 9:18–27, in Tanakh: A New Translation of the Holy Scriptures According to the Traditional Hebrew Text (Jewish Publication Society, 1985), pp. 14–15. This JPS translation differs little from that in The HarperCollins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version, edited by Wayne A. Meeks (HarperCollins, 1993), p. 16, except that the latter clearly states that Shem and Japheth “did not see their father’s nakedness,” and in a footnote observes that “the hostility toward Canaan is rooted in Israel’s memory of Canaan’s onetime hegemony in the land under protection of Egyptian might.”

    According to the famous biblical scholar Gerhard Von Rad (1901–1971), the original narrative had nothing to do with Shem, Ham, and Japheth, or the ecumenical “Table of Nations” which follows. Rather, there had been an older story, limited to Shem, Japheth, and Canaan, that was based on the horror felt by the newly arrived Israelites at the sexual depravity of the Canaanites. Later on, supposedly, an editor inserted the name “Ham” as father of Canaan, in an effort to harmonize the narrative with the later Table of Nations. Such theories and speculations have not been included in the more recent scholarship and debates on the historical interpretations of the “curse.”

  4. 4

    Augustine, City of God, book 19, chapter 15; John T. Noonan Jr., A Church That Can and Cannot Change (University of Notre Dame Press, 2005), p. 54. Augustine like many others assumed that it was Ham who had really been cursed.

  5. 5

    For many examples of prominent Southerners invoking Noah’s curse, see Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese, The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders’ Worldview (Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 521–526.

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