The Curse of Ham, part 1
Updated: May 31, 2019
When discussing scripture as it relates either explicitly or implicitly to race in these blog posts, my goal is to do so accurately using the process of exegesis correctly. According to Websters, exegesis is an explanation or critical interpretation of a text. When doing exegesis, one seeks to pull out of the text the meaning. Its opposite, eisegesis seeks to read into the text what the interpreter wants it to say. When interpreting scripture, our desire should always be exegesis and never eisegesis. The so-called “Curse of Ham” is one of the most hideous examples of eisegesis in the history of the church and is pulled from Genesis 9:18-27.
Beginning in verse 18, we are told of the three sons of Noah; Shem, Ham, and Japheth. The author explicitly calls out Ham as the father of Canaan. No other grandson of Noah is mentioned. Verses 20-21, “And Noah began to be a farmer, and he planted a vineyard. Then he drank of the wine and was drunk, and became uncovered in his tent.” We can see that man quickly fell back into sin after the great flood with Noah so drunk he passed out naked in his tent. This is presented as an act of shame. Critical for this pericope, Noah’s son Ham “saw the nakedness of his father” and told his brothers. In ancient Hebrew to look on the nakedness of someone implied immorality. What that was, we are not told.
In contrast, Ham’s brothers in verse 23, “took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders and went backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness.” When Noah awoke and realized what his youngest son, Ham had done, he was angry and pronounced a curse on Ham’s youngest son, Canaan while blessing Shem and Japheth.
“Cursed be Canaan;
A servant of servants
He shall be to his brethren.”
And he said:
“Blessed be the Lord,
The God of Shem,
And may Canaan be his servant.
May God enlarge Japheth,
And may he dwell in the tents of Shem;
And may Canaan be his servant.” Verses 25-27
“This oracle, the first time Moses recorded a human uttering a curse, is a prophecy announcing divine judgment on Canaan's descendants for their sin—that had its seed in Ham's act. Noah, as a prophet, announced the future of this particular grandson's descendants.” (The Curse of Ham)
Here I have given a brief and straightforward interpretation of the curse of Canaan, and the quote from Dr. Constable at the end of that section brings it to a close. This is exegesis--my attempt to understand what Moses intended the Israelites to know when he wrote it. So where did the curse of Ham come from? This is where the faulty interpretive method of eisegesis was employed.
Beginning in the eighth century AD, Muslims started to use this as justification for the enslavement of Black Africans and then Europeans and Americans did the same. The interpretation went something like this. The curse (which is slavery) is meant for all descendants of Ham because Ham was not included in the blessings of Shem and Japheth. The descendants of Ham settled Africa (Genesis 10). Therefore, Africans can be enslaved as stated by the prophet Noah. “The servitude of the race of Ham, to the latest era of mankind, is necessary to the veracity of God Himself, as by it is fulfilled one of the oldest of the decrees of the Scriptures, namely, that of Noah, which placed the race as servants under other races." Josiah Priest, a clergyman in the Antebellum South 1853.
How much of some of the worst suffering in recorded history could have been avoided with a proper reading of scripture? I am convinced that the truths of scripture are vital to overcoming the racial divide, but we must guard against eisegesis; against reading into it what we want it to say. Here are some helpful tips:
1. Read and study scripture prayerfully. Go to your Lord and seek Him as you open His word. Ask for His guidance.
2. Study the word in a quiet place, without distractions so that you can concentrate.
3. Use a good translation like the New King James Version or the New American Standard Version.
4. Discuss your interpretations with those whose perspectives you trust.
5. If you are going to use a commentary, only use those from authors, and sources that you know are true to God’s word.
6. Be consistent in your studies. Your interpretations with grow deeper as you do.