Tag Archives: Noah

Does the Bible Really Support Slavery on the Basis of Skin-Color?

Noah curses his son Ham, a 19th-century painting by Ivan Stepanovitch Ksenofontov. Ham looks pretty white to me here, but for thousands of Christians in the American South, from at least the 19th century to recent times, they thought Ham (or his son Canaan) had black skin.

One of the persistent criticisms made against the Christian faith is the claim that the Bible supports slavery. The “New Atheists” argue that the Bible’s support for slavery demonstrates that the Bible is an immoral book, an ancient text better left to the Bronze age, from which it came. Overly-enthusiastic defenders of the faith, eager to answer such critics, can sometimes overreact in the opposite direction, ignoring some of the more difficult statements found in Scripture.

The answer is, as is the case with all “social justice” issues, is a bit more complicated. For the critics, they have a point in that Leviticus 25:44-46 looks to be, on a surface reading, to be condoning chattel slavery, treating persons as property, that can be bought or sold. However, Tyndale House linguistics scholar Peter J. Williams makes the case that passages like these require a more thoughtful reading, paying closer attention to the historical context in which they were made (see video below).

Many people today find the Bible’s comments on slavery disturbing, because they often confuse the Bible’s discussion of slavery, with how Americans in the antebellum South practiced slavery, with dark-skinned Africans. Many Americans, particularly in the antebellum Old South (and even perhaps some even today!!), based the enslavement of dark-skinned Africans on a rather crude reading of Noah’s “Curse on Ham”, as found in Genesis 9:20-27, when Ham’s son, Canaan, was cursed by Noah, after Ham uncovered “the nakedness of his father.” What is striking right away is that the curse was actually made against Canaan, Ham’s son, and not Ham himself. The “African slavery” interpretation is all the more alarming, when one considers that Canaan is the ancestor of the Canaanites who populated the Promised Land, that Joshua and the Israelites settled. There is no evidence in Scripture that Canaan had any African descendants.

By the 15th century, an interpretive tradition became popular, identifying the practice of enslaving Africans, as a result of this so-called “Curse on Ham.” But according to semitic and Old Testament scholar Michael Heiser, in an episode of FringePop321, this particular Bible interpretation is woefully flawed, in multiple ways, failing to take into account, the critical presence of metaphor in Genesis, that can be seen by a more broad reading of Scripture, following the practice of interpreting Scripture with Scripture (see second video below).

So, what was the whole “nakedness of [Noah’s] father” all about? Dr. Heiser makes the compelling case that it had EVERYTHING to do with Ham seeking to usurp his father’s clan leadership, and absolutely NOTHING to do with skin color.

The bottom line? Whatever criticisms can be levied against the Bible regarding the practice of slavery, such slavery can NOT be equated with the kind of racial-based slavery practiced in the antebellum American South.

Bible interpretation matters, folks. Bible interpretation matters.

For a helpful summary of the Bible’s teaching on slavery in general, please read this excellent article over at Alisa Childers’ apologetics blog. For a critical interaction with the idea that the Bible only endorses indentured servitude, and not chattel slavery, consult this YouTube video by Digital Hammurabi (also this additional video by Digital Hammurabi: scholars appear to be divided on this issue concerning chattel slavery). For a summary of scholarly views on the Genesis 9 text, with an extensive interaction with Dr. Heiser’s exegesis, read this article by Kathleen Kasper at YourBibleBlog. Dr. Heiser’s work largely depends on research done by Roman Catholic scholars John Sietze Bergsma and Scott Hahn. Peter Leithart summarizes Bergsma and Hahn. This current blog article updates the research I did regarding the “Curse of Ham,”  for a previous blog article I wrote in 2015.


Bill Nye Visits the Ark Encounter

Exactly three years ago today, the arguably most recognizable popular advocate for modern science, Bill Nye, debated one of the most controversial leaders in evangelical Christianity, Ken Ham, of Answers and Genesis, on the topic of creation. Since then, this debate has received nearly 6 million views on YouTube, which is a lot for a two-hour debate on science and the Bible.

This past year, Bill Nye returned to Kentucky to take a tour of the new Ark Encounter exhibit, just days after its opening. Cameras were rolling as Answers in Genesis recorded the casual, yet often heated, discussion between these two iconic men. Bill Nye and Ken Ham represent two very opposite ends of the pole on this topic, so I frankly found the discussion rather frustrating and exasperating. It felt like the two sides were just talking past one another. Nevertheless, it gives a good example of the type of challenges Christians face when defending their faith, with skeptics who are enamored by the prospects of modern science.

UPDATE: April 2018.  I originally posted a 2o-minute edited version of the discussion, which has since been taken down. Here is the full 2-hour version, from Answers in Genesis:

Noah’s Curse

Noah curses his son Ham, a 19th-century painting by Ivan Stepanovitch Ksenofontov. Ham looks pretty white to me here, but for thousands of Christians in the American South from at least the 19th century to recent times, thought Ham had black skin.

Noah curses his son Ham, a 19th-century painting by Ivan Stepanovitch Ksenofontov. Ham looks pretty white to me here, but thousands of Christians in the American South, from at least the 19th century to even fairly recent times, thought Ham had black skin (photo credit: Wikipedia).

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?
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Noah vs. Noah

A Veracity reader suggested that I review the Darren Aronofsky movie, Noah, if I happen to see it. My small group wanted to go, and since I had just seen God’s Not Dead, I figured I was on a roll anyway.

My biggest problem with Noah was that it really departed greatly from the story of the Bible without a compelling reason as to why this was necessary. To say that Aronofsky had a “creative interpretation” of the Genesis story is clearly an understatement. To put it in a nutshell, though I was fairly critical of some aspects of the God’s Not Dead movie, as a Christian if you had to pick between movies, go see God’s Not Dead instead, save the rest of your money and read the Bible story of Noah on your own. Probably the best thing to come out of the Aronofsky film is that hopefully it will encourage people to actually go read and study the Bible and talk about it (that is why I went to see the film in the first place with my Bible study small group!).

Please do not get me wrong. I really like well-constructed, imaginative sci-fi flicks and Noah was no exception.  Noah clearly had a strong mythological feel to it, provocative reflections on the Book of Enoch’s “Watchers” (speculative ancient Jewish literature based on Genesis 6), a somewhat curious allusion to Abraham’s faith testing with respect to offering up Isaac as a sacrifice, and a strong environmentalist message with breathtaking views of Iceland. As a story with lots of Biblical elements, Noah was intriguing.  I just think the actual Biblical story in Genesis 6-9 is far more interesting. Not only that, the Biblical narrative is also true. I will take the truth of Scripture any day over the speculative fantasies of Hollywood film producers.

The challenge for the Christian in reading Genesis is in trying to determine in what sense is it true. We already covered some of the basics here before on Veracity, but in light of the movie, a number of creationist ministries have produced material to help the church to process the Genesis Flood story.

  • Reasons to Believe has a number of helpful videos, podcasts, and other resources from an Old Earth perspective that sees the flood more in terms of a local event impacting the then known world of that time.
  • The BioLogos Foundation understands the flood from an Evolutionary Creationism perspective, viewing the flood with respect to the original, ancient literary genre of the text as the key to interpreting this passage of Scripture.

I want to highlight one approach from BioLogos given by Old Testament scholar, John Walton, from Wheaton College, who views the Noah story in terms of transforming the world of disorder into non-order and then into a world of order within the context of God’s covenant with His people.

One more closing thought: one of the problems with the flood narrative from a  scientific perspective is that if you understand a pure literal reading of only Noah and his immediate family and their wives entering the ark, it makes the subsequent re-population of the earth problematic from a genetic diversity perspective.  But if the human population on the ark also includes others in Noah’s extended family, household servants, etc. that the Bible simply omits to tell us about, this becomes less of a problem. Also, remembering that the flood was specifically sent upon the “world of the ungodly” (2 Peter 2:5), this  may allow for the possibility of the Noahic survivors of the flood contacting other humans who were not impacted by the judgment of the flood. I have nothing definitive here, as these are just some thoughts to stimulate further study in this most intriguing text of God’s Word.

The final takeaway: the movie is more than a little weird, but it has some elements that warrant good discussion and critical engagement with its themes, and it rightly presents Noah as a complicated man. Contrary to popular belief, the Biblical Noah was not righteous because of his works. Rather, he was declared righteous by the grace of God. Humanity is in rebellion against God. That includes Noah. Thankfully, God’s salvation is extended to us by His loving mercy. If we can get this central message of the Biblical Noah in our minds and hearts, then the rest of the details should fit within the proper Biblical perspective.

Flood, Faith, and Russell Crowe

From Hurricane Katrina to SuperStorm Sandy to various massive typhoons across the world, the thought of a Great Flood triggers thoughts of complete destruction.  No greater event as described in the Bible confronts us with the terrifying power of nature than Noah’s Flood. Yet the central theme in the Noah story is not mindless natural forces, but rather the supreme Holy authority of a Merciful Creator God faced with human disobedience.

Even popular culture is fascinated with Noah and God’s Flood.  I do not know how good a film this will really be, but a new movie staring Russell Crowe due in 2014 promises to explore the theme using the latest computer generated imagery techniques:

Film director Darren Aronofsky tells that the story of Noah had captivated him ever since he was about thirteen years old. What do we make of the narrative about Noah’s flood in Genesis 6-9 that would inspire a movie like this?
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