The Origins of the Curse of Ham

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I've long wondered what idiot first came up with the idea that a curse on Canaan in Genesis 9 someone was supposed to justify mistreatment of black Africans, who have little association with Canaan anywhere in the Bible. Most scholars today don't see Genesis 10's table of nations as showing geneaological connections to begin with, given how such language is often used in ancient near eastern cultures for political and cultural connections of vassalship without geneaological connections (and most of the names are place names and ethnic groups without the usual indications that appear with proper names). However, even if you do take it the way it sounds if you take what's in the English translations literally, the curse is on Ham's son Canaan, not on Ham himself. Black Africans are connected with other sons of Ham, not the one who was cursed. The view is completely at odds with what the text actually says.

So I've long wondered who first came up with the view this curse on Canaan justified enslaving the descendants of Canaan's brothers, Ham's other sons. I'm wondering no longer. It turns out that it wasn't a Jewish or Christian interpreter at all, and the view is actually a lot older than I thought. I figured it appeared at the earliest in the late medieval period. It actually doesn't appear in Europe until the slave trade was well under way, so I was partly right. Medieval Europe (Spain and other Muslim-influenced parts aside) was actually opposed to slavery for the most part (at least if you don't count serfdom as slavery; I do, but I also consider modern employment a kind of slavery, and that's not the kind of slavery this view was trying to justify).

The people who first came up with this justification for slavery of Africans were very early Muslims, and that view was dominant within the Islamic world (but not outside it) for 100 years until it spread to Europeans via contact with the Spanish and their treatment of Moors. Then Europeans and eventually colonial Americans began to adopt it. So it wasn't even initially a misreading of the Bible. The relevant parts of the Qur'an don't mention Ham at all, so it's not even a misreading of the Qur'an. It's simply a fabrication in order to justify the kind of slavery Muslims had been imposing on black Africans.

It was an early Muslims who first (as far as we know) developed the idea that Ham was cursed. I found a quote in Edwin Yamauchi's Africa and the Bible from a Muslim who wrote in the late 7th to early 8th centuries, and the whole view is right there. Noah cursed Ham (not Canaan) by imposing slavery on Africans whenever the descendants of Shem would come across them. It attributes their hair type to the curse as well (but not, interestingly, their skin color, though it does mention their skin color). A 9th century Muslim does bring in a change of skin color because of the curse, and Yamauchi mentions other sources attributing natural slavery to black Africans because of this curse, a view that I'm pretty sure doesn't become entrenched in Europe or the Americas until the slave trade was well under way.

Its first appearance in the colonies isn't long after the British occupied American territory and started importing slaves, but it had been in Europe before that. Various versions of it appear even before the Reformation, as early as the mid-15th century, but that was in formerly-Muslim Portugal regarding the now-enslaved Moors. European theologians generally resisted the idea, and it probably didn't take serious hold until the modern concept of race came into existence through the work of Immanuel Kant and his contemporaries who sought to explain differences in physical features by means of biological essences of different races.

So Muslims, a very dominant form of which has an awful lot of problems with human rights even today, seem to be the initial impetus behind one of the key justifications of European and American slavery of blacks. This doesn't excuse the Europeans and Americans who did it, but Muslim writers were originally responsible for the idea, and it came to the colonies and Europeans via the cotton trade. I think it's time to stop blaming this on Christianity even if there were plenty of Christians who have held this view that originated in Islamic slavery. It's silly enough to blame Christianity for a view that hasn't held sway for most of Christian history but only appeared late and lasted only a couple hundred years before going the way of the dodo except in offshoot groups like Mormons. But if the view originally came from another religion entirely and has been dominant in the members of that religion's justification of slavery, while Christians steadfastly resisted it for centuries before falling sway to it for a few hundred years, I think it's justifiable to claim that those who blame this on Christianity are relying on historical ignorance.

4 Comments

Thanks so much for writing this! I was recently teaching my Sunday School class on Genesis, and I knew of this belief, and made a point that they knew that Canaan was cursed, not Ham, and therefore black Africans were not cursed because of any relationship that did or did not exist with Ham. This is a help to know where it came from.

Hey I wanted to ask you a question actually concerning this. I have been turning over the idea of slavery, some of the historical facts, and what the Bible says, and there are some things I thought would be interested to run by you. Now I don't want to offend anyone, and I want to just point out first these are just "mulling overs", and so they aren't some sorta of position I am standing by strongly, but it is an interesting idea. I was thinking, perhaps the problem with slavery is the hatred and racism involved. In a perfect world, could there perhaps still be slavery, but rather than the bondage of owning the person, its more like "I own your services for this period of time, and I have responsibilities to you within that time to provide for you." The reason why that strikes me that way, is because it seems alot of the early slavery wasn't racially inspired. It was just "we get these people because they are cheap" and then later it was justified via racism. I am not saying that it was right, or the cruelty was right, but it seems to me that in a perfect world, where Paul's commands about master/slave relations were followed, then there could be some room for it. But we aren't in a perfect world, so I wouldn't condone it in our world now. Just curious. Its an idea that I have been mulling over, and I wanted your opinion on it.

I think there are worse aspects about slavery as it's often conceived of, in particular the sense of ownership of a person. No one owns us but God. But I don't think slavery requires that any more than property ownership requires thinking you really own it (as opposed to stewarding God's property for him).

As we've been working through Exodus in the Bible study I attend, one thing the leader of the study keeps pointing out is that Pharaoh's biggest mistake was thinking God's people belonged to him. God keeps saying they're his and that Pharaoh needs to release them, but he can't give them up because he's convinced he has a right to them.

Have you looked at my series on slavery? I spent a while thinking through various aspects of the problem of slavery in the Bible and how the ethical view that I've tried to defend comes to bear on that issue. I said a lot of very controversial things in that series, but I think I still agree with all (or at least almost all) of them.

sure thing I will check that out.

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