Black Slavery as the “Curse of Ham” : Bible Truth or Racist Apologetic?

“And Noah said ‘Cursed be Canaan! A slave of slaves, a slave to his brothers! Blessed be God, the God of Shem, but Canaan shall be his slave. God prosper Japheth…But Canaan shall be his slave’.” (Genesis 9:25-271)

Who Did Noah Curse—Ham, Canaan or Cush?

Turning to Genesis 9, there’s an arresting asymmetry between Noah’s blessing and his curse; he blessed Shem and Japheth; he did not curse Ham. Rather, Noah pronounced a curse on Ham’s son, Canaan, saying, “Cursed be Canaan: A servant of servants shall he be to his brothers…Blessed be… Shem and let Canaan be his servant.” Hence, strictly speaking, it is inaccurate to talk of “the curse of Ham.” The “curse of Canaan” is the correct term. This is important because Ham had four sons: Cush is listed first and Canaan, last (Gen. 10:6.) Witness Lee points out that “Ham’s son was Cush, the forefather of Ethiopia.” Scholars agree that “Cush” means “black.” Hence many expositors concur with Witness Lee that “Ham…was the forefather of the black people,” through his son, Cush.2 Yet, Ham was the forefather of other peoples also—through his other sons. So why focus attention exclusively upon only one lineage—Ham’s black descendents? Moreover, regardless of the ethnic origins or skin colors of the Cushites, the fact remains that no curse is pronounced on either Ham or Cush. The curse of servitude was pronounced on Caanan, another of Ham’s sons. The Bible states clearly that Noah cursed Ham’s fourth son, Canaan, not Ham’s first son, Cush (the black, “Ethiopian.”) There is no Biblical justification for transposing Noah’s curse from one of Ham’s sons to the other.

The Old Testament indicates that Ham had four sons: Cush, Mizraim, Put and Canaan (Gen. 10:6). According to scholars,3 Cush, Ham’s oldest son represents the African tribes known as Ethiopians; Mizraim corresponds to Egypt; Put (or Phut) is linked by some to Somalia, by others to Libya. Lastly, Canaan4 “normally represents the land of Palestine and Phoenicia…the Old Testament… use[s] the term for inhabitants of the area in a general sense…These many tribes are in some way related to Canaan, and thus are called Canaanites.” So “Ham is the ancestor of all these people from Phoenicia [through Palestine and Egypt] to Africa.” It is an unjustified leap of logic to reassign Noah’s curse away from Canaan to Ham (his father) or Cush, his black “Ethiopian” brother. The notion that Ham himself was black, originated in later rabbinical folklore. It is without Scriptural foundation. Hence expositors conclude5 “The reputed curse of Ham is not on Ham, but on Canaan, one of Ham’s sons. This is not a racial but geographic referent. The Canaanites, typically associated with the region of the Levant (Palestine, Lebanon, etc) were later subjugated by the Hebrews when they left bondage in Egypt according to the Biblical narrative.” Thus, these scholars conclude the object of Noah’s curse was not black people, but Canaan, the forefather of the Canaanites. Noah’s curse was fulfilled by the Hebrews’ subjugation of the Canaanites. Canaan became “a slaves of slaves,” when the Canaanites [e.g. the Gibeonites (Joshua 9:21, 27)] served the ex-slaves from Egypt, the Children of Israel. Genesis provides no biblical support for the assertion that black people are under Noah’s curse.

Black Slavery as the ‘Curse of Ham’ :Bible Truth, Jewish Myth or Racist Apologetic?

Cush, the forefather of the black peoples, was not cursed by Noah; rather it was Canaan. Therefore, simple logic dictates that Noah’s curse to be “a slave of slaves, a slave to his brothers,” does not apply to black people. The NIV Study Bible notes,6 “Noah’s curse cannot be used to justify the enslavement of blacks, since most of Ham’s descendants are known to be Caucasian, as the Canaanites certainly were (as shown by ancient paintings of the Canaanites discovered in Egypt).” We conclude that Genesis provides no biblical basis, either ethically or prophetically, to justify black slavery.

If black slavery is not a logical deduction from Genesis, where did this concept arise? Nowhere in Genesis do we find evidence that Ham was black. The tradition that Ham was a black man developed much later. It is a Rabbinical elaboration,7 not explicitly formulated until the Babylonian Talmud of 500 AD. Hence this concept belongs in the category of Jewish “myths and unending genealogies” (1 Tim.1:4). In the Middle Ages, European scholars of the Bible picked up on the Jewish Talmud idea that the “sons of Ham” were “blackened” by their sins.8 These arguments became increasingly common during the slave trade of the 18th and 19th Centuries. A historian, Edith Sanders, concludes that the identification of Ham’s descendents as Black Africans,9 “gained currency in the sixteenth century.” Thereafter, it “persisted throughout the eighteenth century, [and] served as a rationale for slavery, using Biblical interpretations in support of its tenets. The image of the Negro deteriorated in direct proportion to the growth of the importance of slavery.” Benjamin Braude, Professor of history at Boston College, writes10 “in 18th and 19th century Euro-America, Genesis 9:18-27 became the curse of Ham, a foundation myth for collective degradation, conventionally trotted out as God’s reason for condemning generations of dark-skinned peoples from Africa to slavery.” Sadly this notion has been perpetuated through its uncritical repetition by Bible teachers and writers. However, today evangelical scholars reject this view as an out-dated remnant of folklore, masquerading as Scriptural truth. - Nigel Tomes

(This portion is taken from Nigel’s article of the same title to be found on

1. The Recovery Version reads: “And Noah said ‘Cursed be Canaan: A servant of servants shall he be to his brothers…Blessed be Jehovah, the God of Shem and let Canaan be his servant. May God enlarge Japheth…and let Canaan be his servant’.” (Gen., 9:25-27 RcV.)

2. The word “Cush” means “black” and direct references are made to Cushite and/or Ethiopian individuals in the Biblical narrative, such as the wife of Moses, Zerah the Ethiopian army commander (2 Chronicles 14:9-15) and Tirhakah, Cushite Pharoah of Egypt (2 Kings 19:9; Isaiah 37:9). [Allen P. Ross, “The Table of Nations in Genesis 10—Its Content,” Bibliotheca Sacra vol. 138 (1980) pp. 22-34.]

3. See for example: Allen P. Ross, “The Table of Nations in Genesis 10—Its Content,” Bibliotheca Sacra vol. 138 (1980) pp. 22-34.

4. Allen P. Ross, “The Table of Nations in Genesis 10—Its Content,” Bibliotheca Sacra vol. 138 (1980) pp. 22-34

5. Goldenberg, David M. The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Princeton University Press, 2003 (New edition 2005).

6. It’s worth quoting more of the NIV Study Bible’s notes on Genesis 9:25 in their entirety: “Cursed be Canaan! …This account of Noah’s cursing and blessing of his sons is addressed to Israel. Most likely it is for this reason that Canaan is here singled out from Ham’s descendants as the object of Noah’s curse. Israel would experience firsthand the depth of Canaanite sin (see Lev 18:2-3, 6-30) and the harshness of God’s judgment on it. In that judgment Noah’s curse came to be fulfilled in the experience of this segment of Ham’s descendants. But Ham’s offspring, as listed in 10:6-13, included many of Israel’s other long-term enemies (Egypt, Philistia, Assyria, Babylonia) who also experienced severe divine judgment because of their hostility to Israel and Israel’s God. Lowest of slaves. Joshua’s subjection of the Gibeonites (Jos. 9:21, 27) is one of the fulfillments (see also Jos 16:10; Jug 1:28, 30, 33, 35; 1 Ki 9:20-21). Noah’s curse cannot be used to justify the enslavement of blacks, since most of Ham’s descendants are known to be Caucasian, as the Canaanites certainly were (as shown by ancient paintings of the Canaanites discovered in Egypt).” [NIV Study Bible, Zondervan]

7. Ole Bjorn Rekdal, “When hypothesis becomes myth: the Iraqi origin of the Iraqw,” Ethnology vol. 37 (1998): 17-32, p. 19. Jewish scholars, working around the 6th century AD, introduced the idea that Ham was marked by dark skin. From the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 108b: “Our Rabbis taught…[that] Ham was smitten in his skin.” {Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 108b} James Fenton says from the “medieval versions [of these events] we learn more about the nature of Ham’s misdeeds. He mocked Noah’s nakedness, and invited his brothers to do the same (which they refused). What is more, this is not the first of Ham’s transgressions. When they had all been on the Ark together, Noah had insisted that everyone be sexually continent, but Ham, by the aid of a magic demon, slept with his wife. Next day Noah saw his footprints, and there grew up an enmity between Noah and his son. Ham was punished by being given a black skin. When the world came to be divided up, Japheth received Europe, Shem got Asia, and Ham was awarded Africa.” [James Fenton, Fenton, “A Short History of Anti-Hamitism,” New York Review of Books (Feb. IT, 1996), p.7] There is no scriptural basis for the notion that Noah enacted an ordinance of sexual abstinence on the Ark. This fiction is the invention of a religious legalistic mind! Professor Braude notes that there is no black depiction of Ham appears in western art until the nineteenth or twentieth century. This was much later than the tradition of depicting one of the “three wise men” as black. (ref. note 21 below)

8. The following are three examples of Medieval writers who make this extrapolation:[1] “Mar Ephrem the Syrian said: When Noah awoke and was told what Canaan did. . .Noah said, ‘Cursed be Canaan and may God make his face black,’ and immediately the face of Canaan changed; so did of his father Ham, and their white faces became black and dark and their color changed.” Paul de Lagarde, Materialien zur Kritik und Geschichte des Pentateuchs (Leipzig, 1867), part II [2] The Eastern Christian work, the Cave of Treasures (4th century), explicitly connects slavery with dark-skinned people: “When Noah awoke. . .he cursed him and said: ‘Cursed be Ham and may he be slave to his brothers’. . .and he became a slave, he and his lineage, namely the Egyptians, the Abyssinians, and the Indians. Indeed, Ham lost all sense of shame and he became black and was called shameless all the days of his life, forever.” La caverne des trésors: version Géorgienne, ed. Ciala Kourcikidzé, trans. Jean-Pierre Mahé, Corpus scriptorium Christianorum orientalium 526-27, Scriptores Iberici 23-24 (Louvain, 1992-93), ch. 21, 38-39 (translation). [3] Ishodad of Merv (Syrian Christian bishop of Hedhatha, 9th century): When Noah cursed Canaan, “instantly, by the force of the curse. . .his face and entire body became black [ukmotha]. This is the black color which has persisted in his descendents.” C. Van Den Eynde, Corpus scriptorium Christianorum orientalium 156, Scriptores Syri 75 (Louvain, 1955), p. 139.

9. Edith R. Sanders, “The Hamitic Hypothesis; Its Origin and Functions in Time Perspective,” The Journal of African History, Vol. 10, No. 4 (1969), pp. 521-532

10. Benjamin Braude, “The Sons of Noah and the Construction of Ethnic and Geographical Identities in the Medieval and Early Modern Periods,” William and Mary Quarterly, vol. LIV (January 1997): 103–142 Professor Braude points out that the linkage between Noah’s curse and black slavery first appears in Western literature with Portugese voyages to W. Africa of discovery & commerce (including slavery.) He says, “It appears, arguably for the first time in the exploration literature of Africa, in the mid-fifteenth-century Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea of Gomes Eannes de Azurara,” which talks of ‘ancient custom, which I believe to have been because of the curse which after the Deluge, Noah laid upon his son Cain [Portuguese original-”Cairn”], cursing him in this way:- that his race should be subject to all the other races of the world. And from his race these Blacks are descended…’.” (pp. 127-8.) This 15th century writing confuses Canaan (Gen. 9) with Cain (in Gen. 4) both of whom were cursed. This is probably the first historical instance of “Noah’s curse” being used to justify Black slavery.



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