When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said,
“Cursed be Canaan;
a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.”
He also said,
“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem;
and let Canaan be his servant.
May God enlarge Japheth,
and let him dwell in the tents of Shem,
and let Canaan be his servant.” (Genesis 9:24-27 ESV)
It was my first Christian retreat in college. I met another student just a few years older than me the first night of the weekend, and we struck up a friendship. But the next day, we had a conversation that has stuck with me for years. I have no idea how it got started, but it was about whether or not the Bible allows interracial marriage. My new friend, growing up in a rural part of southern Virginia, insisted that God absolutely forbids white people from marrying black people.
“Where is that in the Bible?,” I asked with curiosity and amazement. I had only recently started reading the Bible, so perhaps there was something in there that I had not seen yet. His response bothered me:
“Well, I am not exactly sure where it is. But I know it is in there.”
Later that weekend, I asked him again if he could show me the verse.
He never was able to find it.
Let me rewind a few more years. I was a mere toddler when the famous Loving v. Virginia case was resolved in 1967, overturning Virginia’s statute forbidding “miscegenation.” The Lovings, a black and white couple, from Caroline County, about an hour away from where I grew up, had driven up to Washington, D.C., to get a marriage license, where interracial unions were permitted. Upon returning to Caroline County, Virginia police raided their home, but the couple responded to their arrest by going all the way to the Supreme Court to defend their case … and they won.
Such action to change the law that had been embedded in the culture of the so-called “Bible Belt” was not a concern to my new college Christian friend in the early 1980s. In his mind, the Bible still forbade mixed marriages between people of different skin colors, and that was all he needed to know. He had no animosity towards African-Americans. He was really a nice guy, and a devout believer. It was simply and clearly taught in the Bible that God does not allow interracial marriage, according to him.
The problem was… and still is…. he had no verse from the Bible to back up his belief.
So, where did this whole thing about the Bible forbidding interracial marriage come from?
Using the Bible to Justify Racism
The rejection of interracial marriage is really another way of interpreting those passages of the Bible where the people of God are warned not to marry people outside of the faith. For example, Deuteronomy 7:1-4 warns the Israelite not to marry non-Hebrews, as such intermarriage might tempt the Israelite to forsake the worship of the one True God. Likewise, New Testament believers are urged not to become unequally yoked with non-believers (2 Corinthians 6:14-15), as such compromises in marriage can have devastating results in one’s spiritual and family life.
Somehow, over the years, many Americans, mostly white Southerners (but not only them!) simply equated this religious or spiritual prohibition with a racial distinction as well. However, there is really no biblical justification for such an interpretive move within Holy Scripture. Just because someone thinks the Bible forbids interracial marriage, does not mean that such an interpretation is faithful to God’s Word.
So, where did my friend get his interpretation of the Bible from? Why did my friend assume that the prohibition regarding mixed marriage had something to do with skin color?
The American Justification of Racial Slavery…. and Its Ramifications
This past summer, our church did a sermon series on the first eleven chapters of Genesis. The passage in Genesis 9:24-27 has always stood out to me like a sore thumb, and it typically gets missed by most Christians who read the Bible. So, on a recent vacation I decided to do a little investigation on this.
When I did some digging, I learned that this passage of the Bible, in Genesis 9, was for years cited as the primary prooftext justifying racially-based slavery in America. Once notions of racially-based slavery took hold in American culture, particularly in the antebellum South, it was a very easy step from there to read a prohibition against interracial marriage into the whole Bible.
On that recent vacation, I read Rhodes College professor Stephen R. Haynes‘ book, Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery. Professor Haynes helped me trace the history of how many Christians unwittingly bought into a theology of racism. So to get a handle on how racism got read into the Bible, Haynes’ research focuses on this passage in Genesis 9 and how it got interpreted and re-interpreted over the years.
Genesis 9:20-27 and the Genesis of Racism
This is pretty much how it worked. Noah got plastered one night and he fell asleep naked (Genesis 9:20-27). Of his three sons, Ham did something that horribly exposed his father’s nakedness. Exactly what Ham did is still a subject of great debate. The truth is that we simply do not know exactly what happened, but whatever it was, it was bad. Ham’s brothers, Shem and Japheth, honored their father. But when Noah woke up, he realized what Ham had done, and then he uttered his famous curse.
The connection between this curse and slavery is evident enough within the text. A line of Ham’s descendants were prophetically declared by Noah to become “a servant of servants.” Professor Haynes observes that early Jewish and Christian interpreters saw that Ham’s moral transgression placed a type of stigma on Ham and at least some of his progeny. Since Shem, Japheth, and Ham were survivors of the great flood, they became the great ancestors of the peoples of the then known world. Following the table of nations given in Genesis 10, it was thought that Ham’s descendants originally populated the lands to the west and south of Mesopotamia. This area would have included Africa.
But how did the reference to Ham and a line of his descendants get attached to skin color? As Professor Haynes remarks, scholars simply do not know for sure exactly where and when skin color got tied to Ham in the history of biblical interpretation. After all, skin color varies from Mesopotamia down to the tip of southern Africa, ranging from light skin to dark skin color, with many shades in between.
It could have been either Jewish or Christian interpreters who made such an exclusive connection with Ham to dark skin. But surely by the time the Muslims came along and entered the slave trade around 650 A.D., the association between the skin color of the Africans, Ham, and the curse pronounced by Noah began to come together.
Another scholar, David M. Goldenberg at the University of Pennsylvania, author of The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in the Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, thinks that he may have the answer to where this all got started. Goldenberg argues that it was a misunderstanding of the Hebrew and other Semitic languages by Jewish scribes that the word “Ham” meant “dark, black, or heat.” As a result, Christian and Muslim interpreters simply followed along with that logic uncritically. Whether or not Goldenberg’s thesis is correct, the idea of Ham’s blackness in terms of skin color was implanted in the minds of many European Christians by the time Columbus discovered the New World.
But the identification of Ham’s black skin color with the prophecy of slavery was not fully cemented together until the American slave trade expanded several hundred years ago. By the time American Southern slavery reached its full height in the early 19th century, the association between Noah’s curse and the racial-based slavery of Africans was made complete. I conclude from reading Stephen Haynes that white Southerners read their understanding of racial-based slavery into Genesis 9 as a way of justifying morally their actions and attitudes. Even after the elimination of slavery during the American Civil War, the curse of black skin color still carried forward among many Christians, finally coming to a head in American social consciousness during the era of the Civil Rights Movement, when I was simply a mere toddler in the 1960s.
The Civil Rights Movement era jolted many American evangelicals who were inclined towards racism. Even the most fundamentalist leaders, such as Jerry Falwell, had repented of their racist past by the end of the 1970s. It was as though it finally dawned on Christians that many of them had read a theology of racism back into the Bible, using passages like Genesis 9. Granted, not everyone was like this, but enough otherwise sincere followers of Jesus had bought into such a gross misinterpretation of God’s Word.
The Problems With a Racist Reading of Genesis 9:24-27
There are a few problems with this way of reading Genesis 9. First, there is no real evidence that “Ham” equals “black.” There is no reference to Ham’s skin color anywhere in the Bible. Zippo. Nada. Sure, some descendants did have dark skin color, but not all. So, the whole exclusive “black” skin thing is clearly a human invention, something read into the Bible to reinforce a particular worldview or prejudice.
Secondly, it should be noted that the curse that Noah makes is not against Ham. Rather, it is against Ham’s son, Canaan. Furthermore, there is no evidence that Canaan, nor any of his descendants, had dark skin color!
But right here, we should pause for a moment. If Ham was in the wrong, why then was Noah cursing his own grandson, Canaan?
Now, that is a question that has puzzled students of the Bible for centuries!
Okay, you can argue that the sins of the father have an impact for generations and generations down the line (Exodus 20:5). Anyone, who has a history of alcoholism or drug addiction in their family can probably identify with such inherited maladies. But on the other hand, the Bible also teaches that every person suffers the punishment for their own sin, not for someone else’s sin. So, a son can not bear the punishment of his father’s sin, thus leaving the father unpunished (Ezekiel 18:20)…(follow this link for an extended discussion of this issue). It would only make sense then if Noah had uttered the curse to Ham and all of his descendants. But he did not do that. Noah only cursed Canaan, without any word about Ham in particular, or any other children of Ham.
Combine this observation with the fact that for the entire discourse about Noah, starting in Genesis 6, Noah never speaks… until this passage in Genesis 9:24-27. When we first meet Noah, he is described as a righteous man (Genesis 6:9). But as soon as he opens his mouth in Genesis 9, he utters out something that really seems a bit out of place.
It is worth considering the possibility that something does not appear to be completely “right” with “Mr. Righteous.” After all, this is a rather bizarre way to respond to whatever specific wrong Ham committed. So while Noah’s “curse” is most probably a type of “prophecy” regarding what would eventually happen to Canaan and his descendants (a point I explore below), we need not automatically conclude that God would necessarily concur with the moral correctness of Noah’s “curse.”
Some may object to this criticism of Noah, arguing that if God were to inspire the sacred writer of Scripture to record Noah’s curse against Canaan, then it would demonstrate that God approves of Noah’s actions. But this need not be the case. For one thing, the text nowhere says that God endorses Noah’s curse. It simply describes what Noah said. There is nothing in the Bible that explicitly gives us God’s point of view as to the moral quality of what Noah said and did. Furthermore, there are numerous other cases in the Bible where the sacred writer describes for us things that happened, without necessarily offering some type of divine commentary to go along with it.
The classic example would be how the Bible describes on several occasions the polygamist relationships that some of the founding patriarchs engaged in, such as involving Moses and Jacob. Simply because the Bible gives us descriptions of polygamist behavior in the Bible in no way implies that God believes polygamy to be morally acceptable and prescriptive. In other words, there is a difference between that which is merely descriptive in the Bible versus what is prescriptive for righteous living.
It does help to remind the Bible reader that Genesis 6-9 describes God’s attempt to rid the earth of all human wickedness by cleansing the earth of all unrighteousness and starting over with the “righteous” man Noah and his family with a supposedly clean slate. But then we have this story in Genesis 9:24-27 that demonstrates that “starting over” does not mean that sin has been totally eradicated from the human heart. Such a condition anticipates what God would eventually do centuries later by bringing Jesus, His Messiah, into the world to completely address the problem of sin deep within the human heart.
There is a lot of food for thought in reading Genesis 9:24-27. There is also a lot of questions for which the answers are not very clear. But no matter how we look at it, the skin color issue is a far cry from what is really going on here.
A Curious Counter-Argument
Some might suppose that the confusion over to whom the curse is given, Ham or Canaan, is really a no-brainer. Of course, it was Canaan! Right?
Well, it turns out that some defenders of racial slavery in the 19th century brought out a very interesting, albeit technical, counter argument. They would cite evidence that the curse was really uttered against Ham anyway! For example, an old Arabic translation of Genesis 9:25 reads “cursed be the father of Canaan,” as opposed to simply the “cursed be Canaan,” found in most English Bibles today. Also, some copies of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament used by the early Christian movement, read “cursed be Ham,” instead of “Canaan.”
However, this appeal is rather spurious considering the fact that the Arabic translation appears rather late, after the closing of the New Testament era. Furthermore, there are other variations of the Septuagint that agree with what we have in our English Bibles today, along with what is found in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Most scholars would therefore argue that these variant translations were most probably attempts by scribes to somehow “fix” what they saw as a problem within the text they were copying or translating. In other words, it is not just modern readers who scratch their heads, all trying to figure out why Noah cursed his grandson and not his offending son. Even ancient readers of the Bible were puzzled by this problem, sometimes provoking them to try to “correct” the Bible in the process.
Talk about a bad idea!! Those translators should have just left the text alone!
What Canaan Signifies in Genesis 9:24-27
So, if those early translators messed up so poorly, along with the badly thought out interpretations by white, 19th-century Southern Christians, what then is the right way to read this passage of the Bible?
As you can read in just about any modern commentary, most Bible scholars today conclude that the curse on Canaan made by Noah serves a particular place within the whole of the Old Testament story. As indicated by the name “Canaan,” the descendants of this particular son of Ham were the Canaanites. As we read later in the story of Joshua’s conquest of the Promised Land, the Canaanites were the primary people group that inhabited that land that God’s chosen people, Israel, were called to dwell in and settle.
The people of Israel were called to drive the Canaanites out of the land, not because of their skin color (which was not black, by the way… just to be clear), but because of their severe idolatry and wicked behavior (Deuteronomy 18:9-12). Curiously, the Canaanites were not all driven out of the land, as Joshua 17:12-13 shows that the people of Israel allowed many of the Canaanites to stay in the land, though the Canaanites were eventually subjected to forced labor through slavery.
This is the real tie-in to the slavery “prophecy,” if you will, that is made in Genesis 9. This early reference to Canaan through Noah’s curse is a way of anticipating the eventual clash that Israel would have with the Canaanites, and the Canaanites’ eventual subjection to the Israelites.
The connection back to mixed marriages then should be quite evident. In his last speech to the people, Joshua warned his fellow Hebrews not to inter-marry with the Canaanites, as this would most probably lead to unbelief and apostasy towards the God of Israel (Joshua 23:11-23):
Be very careful, therefore, to love the Lord your God. For if you turn back and cling to the remnant of these nations [such as the Canaanites] remaining among you and make marriages with them, so that you associate with them and they with you, know for certain that the Lord your God will no longer drive out these nations before you, but they shall be a snare and a trap for you, a whip on your sides and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from off this good ground that the Lord your God has given you.
Sadly, the people of Israel ignored Joshua’s warning in repeated generations over and over again. Mixed marriages among the Canaanites and others did lead to idolatry. Eventually, the situation resulted in such terrible calamities as the annihilation of the Northern Hebrew tribes by the Assyrians and the exile into Babylon of the Southern tribes.
This interpretive approach to Genesis 9:24-27 supported by most scholars today is probably most faithful to what the sacred writer had in mind. The whole Canaanite vs. Israel struggle is pretty central to the entire Old Testament narrative, emphasizing the conflict between idolatry and true worship of God, whereas the idea of connecting Noah’s curse to racially-based slavery just seems so irrelevant to the Bible’s primary concerns.
A lot more can be said here, but let it suffice to say that the issue at hand is how God would deal with idolatry and wicked behavior, not the color of a person’s skin.
What Do We Learn From All of This?
How we read and interpret the Bible matters. The great American tragedy that led to the enslavement of many, many thousands of African Americans, that prompted a bloody Civil War, and that continues today with racially-motivated violence has been greatly complicated by the Christian community’s failure to interpret passages like Genesis 9:24-27 properly. The tradition that persisted for generation after generation that linked Genesis 9:24-27 with skin color and slavery was simply accepted uncritically by too many Christians, with devastating consequences socially and spiritually.
In this blog essay, I have only scratched the surface on this complex web of issues that continues to reverberate throughout the church and the society at large today. But if I had yet but one thing to take away, it would be this:
I can sympathize with the fact that my college Christian friend had assumed something to be true and supposedly taught by the Bible, when in fact, the substance of his argument was completely without foundation. I am just as guilty. We all learn many things about the Bible from our upbringing as passed down from previous generations, our family, our neighbors, and even our misinformed Christian friends. We pick up a lot of things from the media, dubious Internet websites, and other sources of information, that upon closer inspection, lack the ring of truth.
But how often do we actually try to “fact check” what we have learned? Do we simply accept what other people have told us and go on with life, blissfully unaware that there might be more to the story?
For generations of white, Bible-believing Southerners, questioning the tradition of racially-based slavery was tantamount to questioning the authority of the Bible (If you do not believe me, pick up just about any serious treatment of Southern history during and after the slave era for yourself). What would it take for people to have the courage to ask questions, not about the authority of the Bible, but rather about possible misinterpretations of the Bible?
I still sometimes run into people (mostly in older generations) that repeat the same story that God somehow forbids interracial marriage, or who make other, similar unsubstantiated claims. But in all of the years since I became a follower of Christ in high school some 35+ years ago, I have never heard a single teaching in a pulpit, or a serious Christian book, make the type of argument supporting racially-based slavery from Genesis 9 that often typified many “Bible-believing” pulpits throughout the South, and even other parts of America, up to the eve of the Civil Rights movement in the era of Loving vs. Virginia. The tradition of Noah’s curse and its prophetic designation for justifying the enslavement of generations of African Americans is never taught today.
Times change. This is true. I am glad for it. Hopefully, the Christian community has learned a lesson here. Perhaps God had to finally push his people by whatever means necessary to read the Bible responsibly and ask questions, and not fall back on the vague, “well-I-know-it-is-in-the-Bible-somewhere” argument.
Reading and interpreting the Bible matters. It should matter to you.
For a general overview to the topic of American history with respect to racial slavery, and how it has intersected with Bible interpretation, I have started to read Mark Noll’s The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, which so far is a very brilliant book… highly recommended.
An often overlooked problem regarding Noah’s curse concerns the idea that blackness, according to many white, 19th. century Southern interpreters, was actually a result of Noah’s curse. In other words, some supposed that part of the result of Noah’s curse was that Ham’s skin was turned black. But this would somehow assume that the whiteness of skin is somehow a good thing and blackness a bad thing.
William J. Anderson, a 19th. century black slave originally from Hanover County, Virginia, eventually secured his freedom, and wrote a book with a rather long title, beginning with Life and Narrative of William J. Anderson, Twenty-four Years a Slave…. recounting his experiences from the perspective of his devout Christian faith. In an appendix in the book, Anderson gives a different twist as to the relationship of skin color to the Bible. Anderson argues that Genesis 2:7 proves that blackness, not whiteness, was actually the default skin color of the first humans. Adam is black because he came from the black soil. Whiteness, on the other hand, is actually a result of yet a different biblical curse. In 2 Kings 5, the prophet Elisha heals Naaman of leprosy. But then, Elisha’s servant, Gehazi, lies to Elisha in an effort to obtain something deceitfully from his master. Elisha discovers the lie and curses Gehazi, such that his skin turns “white as snow,” like a leper. For Anderson, dark skin is a result of God’s good creation whereas whiteness is a result of disobedience and treachery.
That makes you think a little bit, does it not? The best and most balanced way to read the Bible, however, is to realize that despite different skin colors, there is yet but one human race created by the one Creator God (Acts 17:26)!