Reading one of the Bible’s oddest stories got me to thinking about the Bible’s “jealous god” and how this portrayal came to be. I’ll say more about that in an upcoming post. Right now I just want to tell the story and show how it’s been used to justify a surprising array of atrocities.
The story begins after the great flood has ended, and Noah and his family—including sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth—have come out of the ark to resume their lives. Here’s Genesis 9:20-27 (ESV):
Noah began to be a man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned backward, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. 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.”
Moral of the story: Do not look at your dad’s junk. More importantly, don’t let your dad look at grandpa’s junk. Your future may depend on it. The NIV translates “servant of servants” in verse 26 as “the lowest of slaves.”
Some Bible commentators think the narrator is being reticent, that to receive such a curse Ham (and Canaan) must have done something more than just look at Noah, such as raping or castrating him. It doesn’t matter. That’s not the point of the story. Taken in context the meaning is clear enough. Traditionally, Moses was said to have written the first five books of the Bible before the wandering Israelites finally entered the promised land of… Canaan. This story was part of the justification for the dispossession and butchery of the Canaanite peoples that’s described in various Old Testamant books. For our purposes, it’s not important that these books were actually assembled centuries after the events they purport to describe; the point is that these stories served as nationalistic propaganda.
In other bizarre rationalizations based on the same story, Jewish and Muslim writers later interpreted the “Curse of Ham” as dark skin and slavery. Medieval European writers employed the story to justify serfdom, and American plantation owners enjoyed the comforting practicality of knowing their black slaves were “Sons of Ham.”
And in America’s home-grown religion, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Brigham Young cited the story when banning black men from the Mormon priesthood. His prohibition stood for many years until a later LDS president had a revelation in which God said he wanted to abandon his whites-only policy. So the Curse of Ham finally ran its course…
Thus, genocide in the ancient world, serfdom in the medieval, and slavery and racism into modern times were all justified, in part, by the same story of a nude, passed-out drunk guy.
Say what you will about the logic, but that’s some potent junk.