Are Black People Cursed? An Analysis of the Use of “Ham’s Curse” as a Justification for African Slavery

Are black people cursed? The question was raised this Sunday as our church concluded its first part of a three part series on racial reconciliation. What about “The Curse of Ham?” What about the white Southerners that used the story in Genesis 9 as a justification for slavery? I was asked to do some digging that we might appropriately respond to this question. Here are my results and conclusions:

The “Curse of Ham” comes a story from Genesis 9, where Noah, after surviving the flood, gets drunk and lays naked in his tent (quote shocking, I must agree, for the righteous man who just watched God unleash his wrath upon the world and save his family). One of Noah’s three sons, Ham, sees his father naked and tells his two brothers, Shem and Japheth . Since Ham’s actions are considered sinful enough to receive a curse, we must assume that he shared this information that was in some way dishonoring to his father. Contrary to Ham, Shem and Japheth honorably drape a garment over their father without looking at him. When Noah wakes up, he places a curse on Ham’s son, Canaan: “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers” (Gen. 9:24-25) for his dishonorable act. He goes on: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem; and let Canaan be his servant. May God enlarge Japheth…and let Canaan be his servant” (Gen. 9:26-27).

It may come as a surprise that many Europeans and Southerners used this “curse” to justify the slavery of African peoples. This, in part, was fueled by the current economic “need” for slavery, and the subsequent need for its approval among a largely religious country. In order to achieve this acceptance, many mistakenly correlated Ham’s Hebrew name with “dark, black, or heat,” and his children as the ancestors of African people (the “servants of servants”). Thus, by the 19th century, the belief that African-Americans were descendants of Ham was the primary justification for slavery among Southern Christians.[1] The line of thinking is this:

“Ham, who’s name might mean “dark,” receives a curse that his son, Canaan, will be a servant of servants. His descendants extend into the African region, and thus, the curse remains for all African, or “dark” peoples, thus making it perfectly acceptable for us to enslave them.”

However, it was not until after the 16th and 17th century that Ham became widely portrayed as black, and the idea of racial hierarchy and servitude evolved. In fact, before the 16th century, the racial interpretation of Ham’s curse is completely absent [2](this fact alone should cause us to be skeptical of the racial interpretation of the curse, for we should be wary of any interpretation of scripture that did not exist for the first 1600years of the church). After this new application gained popularity, many groups began to contribute this “curse” to justify persecuting, diminishing, or marginalizing many other groups throughout the years ( the Jews, peasants, Tatars, have all been considered “cursed”).[3]

However, this interpretation does not stand under the most basic rules of biblical interpretation, and stands in direct contradiction to the core message of the Bible and the Gospel. One of the above mentioned most basic rules of interpreting scripture is to compare it with other scripture. How then, does this racial interpretation compare to other scripture? Here are a few problems:

  1. The Bible places limitations on curses on families to three or four generations (Ex. 20:5).

How then, could all black people everywhere, thousands of years later, be cursed?

  1. Those who repent and turn from their sins may be freed from curses (Ex. 20:6)

Does this biblical truth not apply to African peoples?

  1. Jesus came to proclaim liberty to the captives. (Luke 4:18).

Are we to assume that Jesus did not come to proclaim liberty to those under such a curse?

  1. Paul commands masters of servants (in far better relationship and situation than 19th century American Slavery) to treat them as equal brothers in Christ (1Cor 7:21).

Would Christians not be in direct disobedience to this passage if they treated slaves as inferior?

  1. We are ALL under a far greater curse.

We are all in the same boat, all under the curse of Sin. Only by Jesus taking the curse for our wrong doing upon Himself may we be brought into God’s family (Gal. 3:13). We are removed from the curse of sin and death that reigned through Adam and made members of God’s family (Romans 5:1-21). Even if Ham’s curse did pertain to African people, we would have no right to look on them as inferior because we either are, or were, under a far greater curse.

 

As our Pastor said this Sunday, “all ground is equal at the cross.” In Christ, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). We were all one under the curse of sin, but now we are all one in Christ Jesus. Thus, there remains no room for racial distinction among those in Christ’s family, for he is honored and glorified through the worship of all tribes, tongues, and nations. Therefore, we must deem the racial interpretation of Ham’s curse, particularly pertaining to African peoples, as incorrect, unbiblical, and heretical.

 

For those who are curious bible students, the curse of Ham was given directly to Ham’s son, Canaan. It is important to note that only Canaan, one of Ham’s four sons, was the one cursed. The descendants of Ham’s other sons- Cush, Mizraim, and Put, have continued as national peoples in Ethiopia, Egypt, and Libya. Thus, even if the curse was for unending generations of Canaan’s descendants, there would be no curses on these other peoples, who are also African. How then, can all African people be cursed? [4]

What does the curse mean, then? In short, the curse of Canaan finds its most obvious fulfillment in the ongoing defeat and subjugation of Canaan by Israel (Josh 9:23; 1 Kings 9:20-21). [5] God gives to his people Israel the land of the Canaanites, and they rule over them. Simple, right? Not if you are trying to build a thriving economic system that can only be built on the backs of slaves! It must mean something more, they thought.

This should serve us as a reminder to be ever careful of twisting scripture for our own benefit. The damage done through this interpretation of Ham’s curse extends into the 21st century, leaving people still asking in our churches, “Are all black people cursed?” We must answer with a resounding “NO,” and assure them that all African peoples are preciously prized by God. Slavery grieved the heart of God far more than we can ever imagine, and we can only stand in amazement at his forbearance that he allowed our country to continue under such injustice and disobedience.

All ground is equal at the cross!

[1] Felicia R. Lee, From Noah’s Curse to Slavery’s Rationale, NY Times, Nov. 1, 2003.

[2] Benjamin Braude, Professor of History at Boston College in an interview for From Noah’s Curse to Slavery’s Rationale

[3] George M. Fredrickson, Racism: A Short History, Princeton University Press, 2002.

[4] Tony Evans, “Are Black People Cursed?” http://www.epm.org/resources/2010/Jan/18/are-black-people-cursed-curse-ham/

[5] Ibid.

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