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File:Ksenophontov noah.jpg

Noah damning Ham, 19th century painting by Ivan Stepanovitch Ksenofontov

The Curse of Ham (also called the curse of Canaan) refers to a story in the Book of Genesis 9:20-27 in which Ham's father Noah places a curse upon Ham's son Canaan, after Ham "saw his father's nakedness" because of drunkenness in Noah's tent.

Some Biblical scholars see the "curse of Canaan" story as an early Hebrew rationalization for Israel's conquest and enslavement of the Canaanites, who were presumed to descend from Canaan.[1]

The "curse of Ham" had been used by some members of Abrahamic religions to justify racism and the enslavement of people of Black African ancestry, who were believed to be descendants of Ham.[2][3] They were often called Hamites and were believed to have descended through Canaan or his older brothers. Proponents of slavery in the US increasingly invoked the 'curse of Ham' in the US during the 19th century, as a response to the growing abolitionist movement.[4]

In the Hebrew Bible


Noah curses Ham by Gustave Dore

The story of the "curse of Ham" is told in Genesis 9:20-27, set soon after the flood:

20 And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard: 21 And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent. 22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without. 23 And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father's nakedness. 24 And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him. 25 And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren. 26 And he said, Blessed be the LORD God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. 27 God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. (KJV)

Ham is not directly cursed for his actions; instead the curse falls upon his youngest son Canaan. The curse seems unduly severe for merely observing Noah unclothed. An explanation sometimes offered notes that the phrase "exposing or uncovering nakedness" is used several times elsewhere in the Pentateuch as a euphemism for sexual relations: the story may therefore be obliquely describing Canaan's origin as the result of an incestuous relationship between Ham and Noah's wife (his own mother); or it may be describing Ham sodomising his father, although in that case it is less obvious why the curse should fall on Canaan.

The story describes Yahweh ("the Lord" in older English translations) as "God of Shem", but not of Japhet. The story also says that while Shem is to be "blessed", only Japhet is to be "enlarged", and that he shall "dwell in the tents of Shem." These factors support a composition date in the post-Exilic period of Jewish history, i.e., after 539 BCE,[5] when the Japhetic (i.e., descended from Iapetos) Persians took over the Semitic Babylonian empire and allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem: thus after 539 Japhet/Persia was "enlarged" and "dwelt in the tents of Shem", while the Yahweh-worshiping Jews returned to their homeland with the national project of subjugating the "Canaanites", those who had remained in the land of Judah but did not share the same worship.


Early Jewish interpretations

Although the story in Genesis is actually about Canaan, and although the Torah assigns no racial characteristics or rankings to Ham, early Jewish writers turned the focus of their attention from Canaan to Ham and interpreted the Biblical narrative in a racial way. The Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 108b states: "Our Rabbis taught: Three copulated in the ark, and they were all punished—the dog, the raven, and Ham. The dog was doomed to be tied, the raven expectorates [his seed into his mate's mouth], and Ham was smitten in his skin." {Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 108b} The nature of Ham's "smitten" skin is unexplained, but later commentaries described this as a darkening of skin. A later note to the text states that the "smitten" skin referred to the blackness of descendants, and a later comment by rabbis in the Bereshit Rabbah asserts that Ham himself emerged from the ark black-skinned.[6][7] The Zohar states that Ham's son Canaan "darkened the faces of mankind".[8] Evidence against the racist interpretation of "darkened" is found in the episode of Moses marrying a Kushite woman. When Aaron and his sister Miriam question this marriage God punishes Miriam with a skin disease that makes her skin "like snow".[9][10]

Rashi, the medieval Jewish commentator on Torah, explains the harshness of the curse: "Some say Cham saw his father naked and either sodomized or castrated him. His thought was "Perhaps my father's drunkenness will lead to intercourse with our mother and I will have to share the inheritance of the world with another brother! I will prevent this by taking his manhood from him! When Noah awoke, and he realized what Cham had done, he said, "Because you prevented me from having a fourth son, your fourth son, Canaan, shall forever be a slave to his brothers, who showed respect to me!"

Another notable medieval Jewish commentator on Torah, Abraham ibn Ezra, disagrees with Rashi: "And the meaning of '[Cursed be Canaan, he will be a slave] unto his brothers' is to Cush, Egypt, and Put [only], for they are his father's [other] sons. And there are those who say that the Cushim [black skinned people] are slaves because Noah cursed Ham [the father of Cush], but they forget that the first king after the flood [Nimrod] was a descendant of Cush, and so it is written, 'And the beginning of his kingdom was Babylonia.'[11]" I.e. since Nimrod was descended from Cush, and Nimrod was king, this proves the Cushites, i.e. black skinned people, cannot be under Canaan's curse of slavery.


The account given in the Book of Jubilees, now officially considered canonical only by Ethiopian Jews and Christians, mentions Canaan being cursed twice. Firstly in Jub. 7:7-13, Noah curses him for the actions of his father Ham, in language very similar to that found in Genesis, adding only the detail that Ham was so displeased in response that he departed from his father and brothers and built a city at the foot of Mount Ararat named Ne'elatama'uk after his wife.

Canaan is cursed a second time in Jub. 10:29-34 — this time for his own action, of being the first to violate the agreed land division and refusing to travel to his allotted land "west of the sea", and for instead settling in territory (Lebanon) that was allotted to the sons of Shem, specifically to Arpachshad. In this way, the Israelite conquest of Canaan is attributed not only to the promise made by YHWH to Abraham, a descendant of Arpachshad, but also to this curse.

Early and Early Modern Christian interpretations

Many pre-modern Christian sources discuss the curse of Ham in connection with race and slavery:

Origen (circa 185-c. 254): “For the Egyptians are prone to a degenerate life and quickly sink to every slavery of the vices. Look at the origin of the race and you will discover that their father Cham, who had laughed at his father’s nakedness, deserved a judgment of this kind, that his son Chanaan should be a servant to his brothers, in which case the condition of bondage would prove the wickedness of his conduct. Not without merit, therefore, does the discolored posterity imitate the ignobility of the race [Non ergo immerito ignobilitatem decolor posteritas imitatur].” Homilies on Genesis 16.1

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

The 4th century Syriac work Cave of Treasures gives the explanation that Canaan's curse was actually earned because he revived the sinful music and arts of Cain's progeny that had been before the flood.[12] "And Canaan was cursed because he had dared to do this, and his seed became a servant of servants, that is to say, to the Egyptians, and the Cushites, and the Mûsâyê, [and the Indians, and all the Ethiopians, whose skins are black]."[13]

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.

Eutychius, Alexandrian Melkite patriarch (d. 940): “Cursed be Ham and may he be a servant to his brothers… He himself and his descendants, who are the Egyptians, the Negroes, the Ethiopians and (it is said) the Barbari.” Patrologiae cursus completes…series Graeca, ed. J.P. Migne (Paris, 1857–66), Pococke’s (1658–59) translation of the Annales, 111.917B (sec. 41-43)

Ibn al-Tayyib (Arabic Christian scholar, Baghdad, d. 1043): “The curse of Noah affected the posterity of Canaan who were killed by Joshua son of Nun. At the moment of the curse, Canaan’s body became black and the blackness spread out among them.” Joannes C.J. Sanders, Commentaire sur la Genèse, Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium 274-275, Scriptores Arabici 24-25 (Louvain, 1967), 1:56 (text), 2:52-55 (translation).

Bar Hebraeus (Syrian Christian scholar, 1226–86): “‘And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and showed [it] to his two brothers.’ That is…that Canaan was cursed and not Ham, and with the very curse he became black and the blackness was transmitted to his descendents…. And he said, ‘Cursed be Canaan! A servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.’” Sprengling and Graham, Barhebraeus’ Scholia on the Old Testament, pp. 40–41, to Gen 9:22.

See also: Phillip Mayerson, “Anti-Black Sentiment in the Vitae Patrum”, Harvard Theological Review, vol. 71, 1978, pp. 304–311.

According to Catholic mystic Anne Catherine Emmerich, "I saw the curse pronounced by Noah upon Ham moving toward the latter like a black cloud and obscuring him. His skin lost its whiteness, he grew darker. His sin was the sin of sacrilege, the sin of one who would forcibly enter the Ark of the Covenant. I saw a most corrupt race descend from Ham and sink deeper and deeper in darkness. I see that the black, idolatrous, stupid nations are the descendants of Ham. Their color is due, not to the rays of the sun, but to the dark source whence those degraded races sprang".[14]

In the parts of Africa where Christianity flourished in the early days, while it was still illegal in Rome, this idea never took hold. A modern Amharic commentary on Genesis notes the 19th century and earlier European theory that blacks were subject to whites as a result of the "curse of Ham", but calls this a false teaching unsupported by the text of the Bible, emphatically pointing out that this curse fell not upon all Hamites or blacks, but only on Canaanites, and asserting that it was fulfilled when Canaan was occupied by both Semites (Israel) and Japethites (ancient Philistines). The commentary further notes that Canaanites ceased to exist politically after the Third Punic War (149 BC), and that their current descendants are thus unknown and scattered among all peoples.[15]

Pre-modern European interpretations

In the Middle Ages, European scholars of the Bible picked up on the idea of viewing the "sons of Ham" or Hamites as cursed, possibly "blackened" by their sins. Though early arguments to this effect were sporadic, they became increasingly common during the slave trade of the 18th and 19th centuries.[16] The justification of slavery itself through the sins of Ham was well suited to the ideological interests of the elite; with the emergence of the slave trade, its racialized version justified the exploitation of a ready supply of African labour. This interpretation of Scripture was never adopted by the African Coptic Churches.

In the Latter-day Saint Movement

After the death of Joseph Smith, Jr., Brigham Young, the church's second president, taught that people of African ancestry were under the curse of Ham, although the day would come when the curse would be nullified through the saving powers of Jesus Christ.[17] In addition, based on his interpretation of the Book of Abraham, Young believed that as a result of this curse Negroes were banned from the Mormon Priesthood,[18] but in 1978 Spencer W. Kimball received a revelation that extended the Priesthood to all worthy males.[19]

Islamic interpretations

The Curse of Ham is not mentioned in the Qur'an.[20] Early Islamic scholars were aware of the story in the Torah and debated whether or not there was a curse on Ham's descendants, or instead on the descendants of Shem, and whether it even had any connection to their skin color. The author Al-Jahiz, an Afro-Arab and the grandson of a Zanj (Bantu)[21][22][23] slave, wrote a book entitled Superiority Of The Blacks To The Whites and explained why the Zanj were black in terms of environmental determinism in the "On the Zanj" chapter of The Essays.[24]

Ibn Khaldun also disputed this story, pointing out that the Torah makes no reference to the curse being related to skin colour and arguing that differences in human pigmentation are caused entirely by climate[25] and environmental determinism, and not because of any curse.[26] Ahmad Baba agreed with this view, rejecting any racial interpretation of the curse.

Modern Mythological Analysis

Graves and Patai [27] suggest that the story is related to the Greek myth of the castration of Cronos by Uranus. They also propose a connection with a Hittite myth in which the supreme God Anu's genitals were "bitten off by his rebel son and cup-bearer Kumarbi, who afterwards rejoiced and laughed (as Ham is said to have done) until Anu cursed him". (Ref. [27], Ch 21, note 4).

See also


  1. Donald E. Gowan, Genesis 1-11: Eden to Babel, Wm. B. Eerdmans, ISBN 0802803377, p.110-15
  2. Daly, John Patrick When Slavery Was Called Freedom: Evangelicalism, Proslavery, and the Causes of the Civil War (Religion in the South The University Press of Kentucky (31 Oct 2004) ISBN 978-0813190938 p.37
  3. Taslitz, Andrew E. Reconstructing the Fourth Amendment: a history of search and seizure, 1789-1868 New York University Press (15 Oct 2006) ISBN 978-0814782637 p.99
  4. Sylvester A. Johnson (2004). The myth of Ham in nineteenth-century American Christianity: race, heathens, and the people of God. Macmillan. p. 37. ISBN 9781403965622.
  5. John Van Seters, "Prologue to History: The Yahwist as Historian in Genesis" (Westminster John Knox, 1992) pp.178-9
  6. Solors, Werner, Neither Black nor White Yet Both: Thematic Explorations of Interracial Literature, 1997, Oxford University Press, p. 87
  7. The Midrash: The Bereshith or Genesis Rabba
  8. Solors, p. 87
  11. Gen. 10:10
  12. This sentiment also appears in the later Syriac Book of the Bee (1222).
  13. Cave of Treasures, E. Wallis Budge translation from Syriac
  15. ኦሪት ዘፍጥረት ት.መ.ማ. (Commentary on Genesis) p. 133-142.
  16. 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 LIV (January 1997): 103–142. See also William McKee Evans, "From the Land of Canaan to the Land of Guinea: The Strange Odyssey of the Sons of Ham,"American Historical Review 85 (February 1980): 15–43
  17. Simonsen, Reed, If Ye Are Prepared, pp. 243-266.
  18. Bush, Lester E. Jr; Armand L. Mauss, eds. (1984). Neither White Nor Black: Mormon Scholars Confront the Race Issue in a Universal Church. Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books. p. 70. ISBN 0-941214-22-2.
  19. "Official Declaration—2". Doctrine and Covenants. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 30 September 1978. Retrieved 14 August 2009.
  20. "The Sons of Noah and the Construction of Ethnic and Geographical Identities in the Medieval and Early Modern Periods". Doctrine and Covenants. The William and Mary Quarterly. Vol. 54, No. 1 (Jan., 1997). Retrieved 27 April 2010.
  21. F.R.C. Bagley et al., The Last Great Muslim Empires, (Brill: 1997), p.174
  22. Mohamed Diriye Abdullahi, Culture and Customs of Somalia, (Greenwood Press: 2001), p.13
  23. Bethwell A. Ogot, Zamani: A Survey of East African History, (East African Publishing House: 1974), p.104
  24. "Medieval Sourcebook: Abû Ûthmân al-Jâhiz: From The Essays, c. 860 CE". Medieval Sourcebook. July 1998. Retrieved 2008-12-07.
  25. Solors, Werner, Neither Black nor White Yet Both: Thematic Explorations of Interracial Literature, 1997, Oxford University Press, p. 90
  26. El Hamel, Chouki (2002). "'Race', slavery and Islam in Maghribi Mediterranean thought: the question of the Haratin in Morocco". The Journal of North African Studies 7 (3): 29–52 [41–2].
  27. 27.0 27.1 Hebrew Myths. The Book of Genesis, Robert Graves and Raphael Patai, New York: Doubleday, 1964; London: Cassell, 1964.

Further reading

  • David M. Goldenberg (2003). The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Jews, Christians, and Muslims from the Ancient to the Modern World). Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-11465-X.
  • Stephen R. Haynes (2002). Noah's Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-514279-9.
  • David M. Whitford (2010). The Curse of Ham in the Early Modern Era: The Bible and the Justifications for Slavery (St. Andrews Studies in Reformation History) Ashgate. ISBN 978-0-7546-6625-7.

External links

fr:Malédiction de Cham he:שכרות נח sr:Prokletstvo Hama sh:Prokletstvo Hama

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