Biblical studies: April 2008 Archives

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.

The Bible study group that I attend has been studying Exodus, and we're nearing the end of the plagues. I've been thinking anew about Pharaoh and the hardening of his heart. People holding to a libertarian view of freedom like to point out that Pharaoh hardens his own heart before the first time it says God hardens it. It isn't a simple progression. Sometimes his heart is simply hardened in the passive, and I don't think there's a neat order to it. The passive formulation occurs in what I believe is even the first instance (Exodus 7:21), and that occurs three times in ch.7 before 8:21, where Pharaoh is first said to harden his own heart. But it is true that Pharaoh is said to harden his own heart before God is said to harden it.

On the other hand, compatibilists about freedom and predetermination notice that God predicted long before the encounter even happens, when Moses hadn't even returned to Egypt, that he would harden Pharaoh's heart and that Pharaoh wouldn't let him go. (Exodus 4:21) This may not require a compatibilist view, but there's one view that I think doesn't fit well at all with this whole sequence, and that's open theism.

First, God predicted that Pharaoh would not to let them go. He even predicted that he would harden Pharaoh's heart. He told Moses to ask for a three days' journey to sacrifice and return. But he promised to Moses that Pharaoh wouldn't let them go and that it would lead to their permanent freedom from Egypt. What needed to happen for God's prediction to come true? Pharaoh needed to resist Moses, something open theism doesn't allow God to predict. Yet God had predicted it, and it was at least in part dependent on Pharaoh's hardening of his own heart.

As libertarians like to point out, God hardens Pharaoh's heart only later in the series of plagues. God nevertheless predicts that he'll do it to Pharaoh before Pharaoh even hardens his own heart. There's only one way I can make sense of this is open theism is true, and that's that Pharaoh is one unusual exception of someone who simply isn't free. In order to predict that Pharaoh would refuse to let them go, God must have forced him to do what he did. Why, then, does Pharaoh harden his own heart before God hardens it?

Open theists often go the Exodus narrative because of Moses' interaction with God after the golden calf incident, saying that the classical view of divine foreknowledge doesn't fit well with the plain sense of that text and others like it (although there are problems even with that claim). But it seems to me that open theists are the ones that have a problem with the plain meaning of this narrative.

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