A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's up with the biblical story of drunken Noah? (Part 2)

January 27, 2005

Dear Straight Dope:

Genesis 9:20-25 seems to be one of the strangest stories in the Bible. Noah lands the ark, plants a vineyard, gets drunk off its wine, lays around naked in his tent and is seen by his son Ham who reports it to his two brothers. Noah sobers up knowing what Ham did and curses his grandson Canaan who apparently was not even there. What is even stranger is when I started researching this mystery I discovered the story was once used to support slavery. Further there are theories floating around concerning castration and incest. What is the real story? Is there a deeper meaning to this than Noah having a case of misdirected anger while hung over? Or are we only hearing the watered-down version in our modern day Bible?

In part 1 of this two-part series, we examined the story of drunken Noah putting a curse on his grandson Canaan. This story came to be used as the biblical justification for slavery in pre-Civil War America, and for racial segregation after the war. The justification wasn't purely an invention of plantation owners, either--its roots go back more than 1,500 years. That seems remarkable, since the story itself doesn't mention race at all. Tracking the development of the slavery interpretation is an object lesson in the use of scripture to justify man's inhumanity to man.

The story of Noah in Genesis was probably written down around 1000 BC, although perhaps as early as 1250 BC or as late as 600 BC. The great period of biblical interpretation was much later, roughly 100 BC to 400 AD, with important contributions by Jewish rabbinic scholars and later the early Christian fathers. We need to understand the historical setting during the interpretive period, particularly with respect to slavery. Generally, slaves were prisoners taken in war. In addition, a black slave trade between Arabia and East Africa flourished under the Roman Empire. The slave trade plus wars of conquest brought blacks into the slave markets in the Near East, Greece and Rome--the three centers of biblical interpretation and scholarship for Jews and Christians. The percentage of slaves who were black was fairly small compared to those who were European or western Asian. However, in those three centers, while not all slaves were black, all blacks were slaves.

All slaves were foreigners and thus "other." On top of that, black slaves had a noticeably different skin color, and so visually stood apart. Over time black skin came to be associated with slavery, and that was reflected in biblical interpretation of the story of Noah's curse. Two key elements were established early on. First, by around 150 AD, some commentators were claiming that the curse of slavery on Canaan either included Ham or was really a curse on Ham. Second, the curse somehow made Ham black-skinned.

How did the commentators arrive at this farfetched interpretation? To reiterate, the bible says nothing about skin color or race. It happened like this: After the story of drunken Noah and the curse on Canaan, there's a table of generations listing seventy children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, etc., who became seventy nations, repopulating the whole world (7 and 10 are both magical numbers of completeness in the biblical texts, and 70 is often used to mean completeness, wholeness). Nahum M. Sarna writes:

Presumably, at one time, these lists were supposed to represent the nations of the world known to the ancient Israelites, but the precise identification was lost over centuries. It defies the consistent application of any single criterion of selectivity or of principles of classification . . . racial characteristics, physical types, or the color of skin play no role in the categorizing. Nor is language a guideline.

The earliest commentators looked at the story in context--the curse on Canaan, followed by the table of genealogies and then the story of the Tower of Babel--and concluded that the sequence as a whole was meant to explain human differentiation, that is, the different nations, languages, and cultures imposed on mankind by God. As early as the first centuries AD, Noah's three sons were connected with the three continents then known--Shem with Asia, Japheth with Europe, and Ham with Africa.

This wasn't a matter of settled opinion. Haynes cites a medieval interpretation that Noah's three sons represented the three classes of society--those who prayed (the clergy), those who fought (knights) and those who worked (peasants and artisans). Nonetheless, the idea that Noah's children were the basis of later racial divisions--broadly put, blacks, whites, and Orientals--was influential and gained wide currency. 

Ham, in this view, had begotten the dark-skinned branch of mankind. In the table of generations, three of Ham's children were dark-skinned peoples: Kush (west central Africa, south of Egypt), Mizraim (Egypt) and Put (Libya). Interestingly, only Canaan--the one who was actually cursed in the bible--was not dark-skinned. (See footnote 1.)

At this time, the name Ham was believed to be related to the ancient Hebrew word meaning black, brown, or dark, as well as another word meaning hot, implying scorched by the sun. (Aside: etymologists now pretty much agree that this is incorrect. For more, see footnote 2.)

Thus many of the Jewish rabbis and the early Christian fathers linked Ham's descendents with dark skin, the mark of Noah's curse. We have statements to this effect from Origen (c. 185-254), Augustine (354-430) and Ambrose of Milan (339-397.) The curse on Canaan, which probably referred to the Middle Eastern political situation in the 10th century BC, was now interpreted by some as a perpetual curse on Ham's descendents.

It wasn't just Christians and Jews who interpreted matters this way. By the late 600s and early 700s, Muslim conquests in Africa brought an increasing number of black African slaves into the Near East. Islamic literature as early as 650 AD includes a few explicit references (such as Wahd ibn Munabbih and Ka'b al Akhbar) saying that God changed Ham's color and the color of his descendents because of Noah's curse. These are the first texts explicitly linking slavery with blackness.

By the mid 700s, we find Christian, Jewish, and Muslim writers commenting and sermonizing that Noah's curse on Ham was twofold: slavery and black skin.

To emphasize, the bible never says that black-skinned people are descended from Ham, nor that black skin is a curse or a debasement. On the contrary, in the bible, black Africans are described as militarily powerful, tall, and good-looking, similar to images in Greco-Roman culture. There is no indication whatsoever of a negative view of black-skinned people. In fact, there is one episode (Numbers 12:1ff) that can be interpreted as God punishing Aaron and Miriam for being prejudiced against the dark-skinned Kushites. No matter--if your goal is to twist the bible to suit your political agenda, the actual text can be ignored.

We now jump a thousand years to the age of colonization, when these concepts were formalized and broadly accepted.

The enslaved black African peoples were physically different from the Europeans doing the enslaving. In the 1500s, beginning in Spain and Portugal, physical status (like race) was linked to social status and the slave stereotype was established. The stereotype went beyond mere slavery. Ham was also a symbol of sexual transgression (based on interpretations that his offense against Noah was somehow sexual and that he was sexually loose in the Ark). Not only were blacks destined to be enslaved, they were connected with sexual depravity.

There's no clear date when what Stephen Haynes calls "the fateful conjunction of slavery and race in Western readings of Noah's prophecy" occurred. The process was gradual. As sermons and speeches re-interpreted the biblical text, the curse of Ham became the ultimate justification for slavery. It explained why there were different races, and why the black races were slaves. David Goldenberg writes:

Perhaps the clearest and most succinct expression of this belief are the words of the Dominican Fray Francisco de la Cruz, who reported to the Inquisition in 1575 that, "'the blacks are justly captives by just sentence of God for the sins of their fathers, and that in sign thereof God gave them that color."

By the late 1600s, the curse of Ham was well entrenched as divine sanction for slavery. In colonial America, the belief that Ham was black, and that Noah's curse was race-related, was widely subscribed to in both the North and South.

By the 1830s, when the American anti-slavery movement had become a political force, slavery advocates had evolved an elaborate, systematic defense of slavery, arguing from scripture. Haynes writes, "Noah's curse was a stock weapon in the arsenal of slavery's apologists, and references to Genesis 9 appeared prominently in their publications." For example, J.J. Flourney, writing in 1838, says, "the blacks were originally designed to vassalage by the Patriarch Noah." Even many blacks accepted this as their God-ordained state.

The literal meaning of the biblical text was left far behind. This wasn't the first time, and won't be the last, that the bible has been twisted to support beliefs that are completely incompatible with the original intent. David Goldenberg writes: 

Of course, anyone could look in the Bible and see that the Curse of Ham was a chimera. But it didn't matter how patently absurd was the argument from Scripture. When the Bible states that Canaan was cursed, it really means that Ham was cursed. And what was the proof? The fact that Blacks are enslaved. These arguments are, of course, irrational (Canaan means Ham) and circular (it must have been black Ham who was cursed with slavery because the Blacks are enslaved) but that did not matter. The Curse of Ham legitimized and validated the social order by divine justification. No matter how irrational or circular, the arguments were accepted because they supported society's beliefs and practices, and with God's approval.

Remember that, in the biblical text, the only one of Ham's children who is NOT dark-skinned is Canaan, and the curse of slavery is actually put upon Canaan! So the curse is not merely irrational and circular, but ass-backwards.

Belief in the curse of Ham didn't stop with the abolition of slavery. Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, the notion that the lowly status of black people was divinely ordained was repeated in sermons and speeches. Noah's curse re-emerged virulently in the 1950s and 1960s, when southern white Christians used it to justify racial segregation in the face of the civil rights movement. Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia read the text of the Noah story and curse into the Congressional Record as part of a filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, saying, "Noah saw fit to discriminate against Ham's descendents."

A 1969 study of Lutheran Sunday school lessons and other educational materials found an implied justification of black slavery and segregation. James Baldwin, in The Fire Next Time (1964) wrote, "I knew, according to many Christians, I was a descendent of Ham who had been cursed, and I was therefore pre-destined to be a slave."

Following passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, one might think that Ham's curse was at last put to rest. Alas, no. Haynes writes: "Because a majority of Americans now share the vision of an integrated society it is tempting to regard Noah's curse as discredited and irrelevant. Yet the stereotypes and myths that once animated racial readings of Genesis continue to operate on the American imagination."

As recently as October 17, 2004, Louis Farrakhan, an anti-white and anti-semitic extremist, mentioned the Hamitic curse in a rant blaming the Jews for mistreatment of the blacks.

What do we conclude from all this? The bible is a complex set of texts, including poetry, allegory, parable, and folktale, written over a long period of time. It has spawned a great deal of mythology not found in the actual text. You can use the bible to support almost any point of view, if you're willing to twist the words a bit.

Finally, the Bible is very consistent in deploring and limiting slavery. While slavery is not condemned outright--that would have been very difficult for a people in antiquity--slaves must be set free in the seventh year, slaves cannot be mistreated, etc. The bible was not written with modern sensibilities, but it was advanced for its time.

Using the bible to justify enslaving black people is taking a sentence out of context and horribly distorting the tone and thrust of the rest of the text. That doesn't stop racists and loonies from doing it, of course. In short: "The devil quotes Scripture for his own purposes."

Sources:

Torah Commentary: Genesis, by Nahum M. Sarna, Jewish Publication Society (1989)

Noah's Curse, by Stephen R. Haynes, Oxford University Pres (2002)

The Curse of Ham, by David M. Goldenberg, Princeton University Press (2003)

Footnotes:

(1) Regarding the genealogical tables, we note that Ham has four children whose names came to be associated with four regions of the ancient world:

  • Kush (sometimes spelled Cush from the Latinized version) is applied to the African area south of Egypt, called Ethiopia by the Greeks but encompassing a broader area than modern Ethiopia. The term Kush was used by the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians and Persians, so this is one for which there is wide agreement, although confusingly elsewhere in the bible the term seems to be applied to the Midianites, an Arabic people. A separate problem: the descendents of Kush include several ethnically and geographically distinct groups--Africans (Seba), Arabians (Sabtah), and Mesopotamians (Havilah). Nimrod, a Mesopotamian, is a descendent of Kush.
  • Mizraim, the Hebrew word for Egypt, here refers to lower Egypt, from the Mediterranean Sea to Memphis.
  • Put is assumed to mean Libya, west of Egypt, based on the Greek Septuagint translation of Put as Libya.
  • Canaan, referring to an area at the eastern end of the Mediterranean

(2) On the meaning of the name Ham:

David Goldenberg says the initial Kh of the name Ham was originally different from the initial H of the Hebrew ham meaning dark, but that the two sounds became confused over the centuries. Thus, to the earliest people telling or hearing the story, there was no confusion of Ham with dark, but by the rabbinic and early Christian period (100 BC to 400 AD), they no longer knew that the words were different, and they assigned the term "dark" to Ham.

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