The Curse of Ham: The Most Misunderstood Bible Story

Noah cursing Ham

One of the characters in Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice warns us, “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose. An evil soul producing holy witness is like a villain with a smiling cheek, a goodly apple rotten at the heart. O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!” Many Bible verses and Bible stories have been used for bad purposes. The worst example of this was the story of the Curse of Ham from the book of Genesis (Gen. 9:20–27). This story has been used to justify the trans-Atlantic slave trade. However, the original meaning of the story had nothing to do with Africans or the slave trade. Originally, the story was probably about a scandal that erupted within a king’s harem. However, the story involves a figure of speech whose meaning is not immediately obvious, and the story itself was inserted into the Biblical narrative at a point where there were not yet any kings. This insertion probably resulted from an editing process that occurred late in the development of the Bible text (possibly as late as the third century BCE) and served a political purpose. Fortunately, the Bible gives us another clue that helps us discover the original meaning of the story.

Noah’s Drunken Stupor

According to the biblical book of Genesis, Noah was the man who built an ark to enable his wife and three sons and their wives to survive the Great Flood. After the floodwaters receded, Noah became a farmer and planted a vineyard. Noah then got drunk on wine and fell asleep naked in his tent. Noah’s son Ham “saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren outside.” Those brothers, Shem and Japheth, took a garment and walked into the tent backward so that they could cover their father without seeing him naked. When Noah awoke, he “knew what Ham had done to him.” Noah then rewarded Shem and Japheth but put a curse on Ham’s son Canaan.

Why Was Nakedness Such a Big Deal?

I first read this story in the Bible when I was in second grade. It caught my attention because it was in the Bible but not in any of the books of Bible stories that I had read. At the time, the story made absolutely no sense to me. I could understand why religious people would take a dim view of drunkenness and public nudity. However, not even my most pious relatives would have cared if someone was naked in his own tent. So why was it so alarming that Ham “saw the nakedness of his father”? Surely it would not have been unusual for boys to see their father naked at some point. And if it was a crime for Ham to see his father naked, why would one of Ham’s sons be punished, instead of Ham himself? Many years later, I figured out the answer from reading another Bible verse, Leviticus 18:8. The King James version of the Bible renders this verse delicately: “The nakedness of thy father’s wife shalt thou not uncover: it is thy father’s nakedness.” The New International Version is much more frank: “Do not have sexual relations with your father’s wife; that would dishonor your father.”

Ham’s Father’s Wife

Ham’s crime was not catching a glimpse of his father’s naked body. His crime was having sexual relations with one of his father’s wives. This explains why the “Curse of Ham” was actually given to Ham’s son Canaan, and not to Ham or to Ham’s other three sons. Canaan was presumably the son produced by the illicit union between Ham and one of Noah’s wives. Thus, Canaan’s birth was illegitimate. He was therefore not in the line of succession. Instead, he was relegated to the lowest rung of society. In contrast, Ham and Ham’s other three sons remained royal princes.

A Royal Harem

The story of the Curse of Ham may be an example of prochronism, which is an object or idea that had not yet been invented at the time that the story supposedly took place. In other words, it was a story from a late historical period that was inserted in an unrealistically early point in the historical narrative. The story of the Curse of Ham was probably originally the story about a problem that arose in a royal harem, not in the homestead of an isolated farmer with only one wife. (The account in Genesis suggests that Noah had only one wife at the time of the flood, but it does not give us her name.)

Note that one verse in Leviticus forbids men to uncover the nakedness of their mother, and the following verse forbids men to uncover the nakedness of their father’s wife (i.e., the man’s stepmother). It was common for the men in the Bible to have more than one wife. It was particularly common in ancient times for kings to have multiple wives. Also, kings would have been concerned about lines of succession, whereas a small band of flood survivors would not care about such things since there was no kingdom to inherit.

A True Story?

The story of the Curse of Ham might have originated as the true story of a scandal at a royal court. However, it could also have arisen as a false rumor that was spread to discredit a potential heir to a throne. Note that the ancient Greeks told a similar story, in which Oedipus the King discovers that he has unwittingly married his own mother. It’s tempting to speculate that both stories could have been derived from the same historical scandal, perhaps in ancient Egypt. (The Greek tragedy Oedipus the King is set in Thebes. There was a city named Thebes in ancient Greece, but there was also a Thebes in Egypt that served as the capital of Egypt during the Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom periods.) However, it is also easy to imagine that scandals involving the questionable paternity of princes occurred more than once in the ancient world.

The Purpose of the Curse of Ham

Why was this tale about a problem with royal genealogy inserted in the book of Genesis, in a story about a time before there were any kings? The story’s original purpose was to justify the conquest of the land of Canaan by the Israelites after the Exodus. The story of the Curse of Ham is immediately followed by chapter 10 of Genesis, which explains that Canaan became the ancestor of the tribes that lived in the area that corresponds to modern-day Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, western Jordan, and western Syria. If the ruler of the land of Canaan was not of legitimate royal descent, then the Israelite conquest of Canaan was presumably justifiable. Thus, this story was originally intended to justify the oppression of people in western Asia, not people from sub-Saharan Africa.

Progenitor or King?

Perhaps the Bible stories of a particular man becoming a progenitor of a particular nation should not be taken literally. Instead, these stories about progenitors might have been originally about kings, who were regarded as “fathers of their country” in a figurative sense. (Note that George Washington was considered the father of his country, even though he did not have any biological children.) Likewise, kings in Christendom were considered to be embodiments of their country. At some point in the evolution of the story, the founder of a royal dynasty might have been reimagined as the progenitor of a tribe.

This theory could reshape our understanding of other Bible stories. For example, the Bible tells us that the Lord promised Abraham that his descendants would be more numerous than the stars in the sky or the grains of sand along the seashore. Was the Lord God promising Abraham that he would have many descendants in the distant future, or was the Egyptian pharaoh offering to make Abraham a client king of a realm that already had countless subjects?

The Son of His “Favorite” Wife

Abraham fathered many sons, but only Isaac, the son of Abraham’s wife Sarah (whose name means princess), was regarded as his true heir. Genesis tells us that the pharaoh of Egypt had briefly taken Abraham’s wife Sarah as his own wife, which raises the interesting question of whether pharaoh was Isaac’s biological father. The authors of Genesis go to great lengths to imply that more than nine months elapsed between that royal marriage and the birth of Isaac. Isaac’s son Jacob (who was also called Israel) also had a favorite wife whose sons were special in some unspecified way. Perhaps these favorite wives were foreign princesses whose sons were expected to succeed their father as king or were even regarded as princes of some other country, perhaps even Egypt itself.

Israel’s Seed

A stele (stone monument) engraved during the reign of the Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah talks about Merneptah’s successful military campaign in Canaan, concluding that “Israel is laid waste and his seed is not.” Did this “seed” refer to the heirs of some pretender to the throne of Egypt, as opposed to a tribe of people? Was the “Israel” mentioned in the Merneptah stele the same person as the Israel (Jacob) of the Bible? These questions are hard to answer because the Bible never gives the name of the pharaohs who are mentioned in Bible stories. For this reason, it is hard to give a precise date to the stories.

Justifying the Slave Trade

The book of Genesis says that Canaan was the forefather of the people of the Levant, which is in Western Asia. Yet during the trans-Atlantic slave trade, many people used the story of the Curse of Ham to justify the enslavement of people from sub-Saharan Africa. Many proponents of the slave trade argued that the dark color of African people’s skin was a mark of the curse of Ham, an indication that the people were to be slaves. Yet even in the seventeenth century, intelligent Christians could see through this argument.

Blackness and Beauty

Robert Boyle, a devout Anglican who was one of the founders of the Royal Society and is regarded as the first modern chemist, argued that the Bible does not say that Canaan was black or African. Boyle believed that all human beings were descended from Adam and Eve, and that differences in appearance were probably the result of differences in climate. Boyle pointed out that dark skin is an advantage in hot climates,

Nor is Blackness inconsistent with beauty, which even to our European Eyes consists not so much in Colour, as an Advantageous Stature, a Comely Symmetry of the parts of the Body, and Good Features in the Face.”

Nevertheless, Robert Boyle was a director of the East India Company, which played an active role in the African slave trade.

The Church of England’s Slaves

Boyle was a devout member of the Church of England. Back then, the Church of England was a proponent of slavery. It argued that Jesus Christ had never specifically preached against slavery. In 1710, the Church of England received two sugar plantations in the West Indies in a bequest from the estate of Christopher Codrington. Much of what we know about the horrors of slavery on the sugar plantations comes from the careful records kept by the Anglican church officials who ran those plantations.  The death rates on these plantations were shockingly high. Four out of every 10 slaves bought by the plantations in 1740 reportedly died within 3 years. Many of the proponents of slavery felt that the slaves had been cursed by God. However, the slaves were suffering at the hands of other human beings. Shakespeare warned us that the devil can cite scripture for his own purposes. The story of the Curse of Ham has been used to serve one of the most devilish purposes ever.


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