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Misreading the Torah: The Curse of Ham and Racism

October 23, 2009 by  
Filed under Philosophy


Misreading the Torah:  The Curse of Ham and Racism

 Guest Post  

By Alan Yuter

 The curse of Ham has wrongly been cited to wrongly justify the wrongful treatment of human beings without power by human beings with power.  In this essay, we first define the problem, outline the facts recorded in the Hebrew Bible, summarize the thoughtful findings of Rabbi Professor David Goldenberg, and offer a literary understanding of the literary problem.  The essay concludes with a conversation regarding what is at stake in the conversation, the uses and misuses to which the  Bible has been put, and what the problem, the curse of Ham, really means.

I.  The problem

The facts of the Biblical narrative [Genesis 9:18-27] are rather clear. Noah leaves the ark to find a desolated world. He plants a vineyard because his world is desolate. While in a state of toxic stupor, Noah’s son, Ham, and Ham’s son and Noah’s grandson, Canaan, violate Noah.  Upon realizing that their father was violated, Noah’s other two sons, Shem and Yafet, cover their shamed father without casting an immodest eye on the horrific evidence of violation. Shem and Yafet, the ancestors of Semitic and Aryan civilizations, which have “culture,” are blessed, but Ham and Canaan are cursed with the burden of being slaves to superior cultures.

In the Biblical economy of ideas, the sexually aggressive descendants of Ham populated Egypt, and its “son” was Canaan, Egypt’s northern outpost, according to the Egyptian accounts.  In the West and for the Islamic world as well, Noah’s curse of Ham, that his offspring should be slaves, was seen as a divine mandate that justified the bondage of Africans in order that they fill the role Scripture providentially had intended.

II.   David Goldenberg, The Curse of Ham

The curse of Ham was studied in detail by Professor David Goldenberg, a personally observant graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, who was a member of the Seminary’s one-time Kollel, the “Talmud” special program, and completed his doctorate at Brown in Religious Studies under Professor Jacob Neusner. 

That the “sons of Ham” were taken to be Black is a misunderstanding that is first found in the 7th Christian century Christian and Islamic writing, while the very concept is not attested in any canonical Torah book. Social structure made it easy to justify the enslavement of Blacks, with the Torah, twisted by people who spoke, or so they thought, in God’s voice, to justify the demoting a race from the status of divine human dignity to being beasts of burden.

Latter day saintliness perverted Scripture’s content, the theme to which we now turn.

III.             The Literary Facts and their Theological Implications

The curse of Ham was uttered not by God, the author of the moral law, but by Noah, a victim of incestuous homosexual rape. To understand the Noahide curse of Ham, we review God’s disappointment, disapproval, and distancing from Cain.

Scripture reports two cases of Cainite misdeeds. First, his offering to God was the fruit of the earth, while his brother offered meat.  Ancient humankind regarded meat as a superior gift to vegetables; the leg of lamb is more prized than the heart of lettuce. And because God saw that the anthropomorphic intent of Cain was spiritually and qualitatively deficient, God rejected the offering.

Responding to the rejected, dejected Cain is told that he can do better, the choice of destiny is his to make, and he retains the power to choose his actions. But because he was dejected and his offering to God was rejected, his subsequent behavior required that he be ejected from before the divine presence.

So while walking in the field, Cain rose over his brother, whose offering God accepted, and killed him. Note well that Cain the person, the gavra, is never abandoned by God, even though God rejects what he does, actions that he takes. God confronts Cain Socratically, or perhaps to be historically more precise, pre-Socratically, with as before, a probing question, “Where is Abel, your brother?”  God asks the question with the idiom, “your brother,” as an adjectival appositional phrase. Morally obtuse and remaining insensitive, Cain takes, or to be precise, mistakes the appositional idiom as a follow-up question, understanding God’s one rhetorical question as a quest for information:

1.    Where is Abel?

2.    Where is the man who also happens to be your brother?

Cain’s answer anticipates the modernist mood in Western literature, where the exterior gesture and spoken word reveal a window into the narrator’s character.  To the first question, “where is Abel,” Cain lies to God, saying “I do not know”;

To the second “question,”  “where is the man who happens to be your brother, Cain lies to God and to himself, asking the avoidance and guilt- ridden rhetorical question, “am I my brother’s keeper?”  Ignoring the excuse articulated in the guise of a question, God confronts Cain with the challenge, “Listen [qol!] your brother’s blood[s] are calling to me from the earth.

God condemns Cain to be a wanderer, [na-va-nad] Cain acknowledges that either the punishment or the guilt [avoni] is too great to bear, and because of contrition, Cain will not wander but will reside in the land of Nod, halving the punishment of na va-nad.  Recalling that upon ejection from Eden, God provided clothing for the exiled first family of humankind, when God is informed of Cain’s terrifying fear, that as the first murderer, he is a target for being a murder victim. The mark/curse of Cain, like God’s pep talk after Cain’s abortive offering, is a divine challenge and blessing and a condemnation or rejection.

God will not overly protect Cain. He who kills Cain, so marked as a murderer, will be avenged sevenfold. God never removes the human freedom to choose, the very right to be wrong.  The curse of Cain was his act of murder, that led to ten generations of violence, with his progeny being wiped away in the Great Flood, with the line of Adam’s third son, Seth climaxing with Noah, who continues the moral ideal that will be embodied in the to be revealed Torah of Moses.

The Biblical narartive’s notion that the curse is the product of human deed and not divine misanthropy appears in mAbot 2:6 and in mAbot 4:2. The former passage teaches that upon viewing a skull floating in water, Rabban Gamliel teaches in triadic Tannaitic discourse, that

1.    because you drowned others

2.    you were drowned

3.    those who drowned you will themselves be drowned

This concrete moral lesson is restated in the latter passage, according to which performing a precept yields more precept performance.   Anticipating Jean Paul Satre’s No Exit, human actions if good, are blessings; if human actions are not good, they create the curse.  Thus it the human hand and human choice, and not any predestined fate, that forges the destiny of humankind.  It is in this literary context and with this theological construct that the curse of Ham is to be construed.

The curse of Ham was uttered by Noah; it was not decreed by God.  Human curses carry a predictive valence but do not represent an iron cast destiny, as human beings are not endowed with such power.  The sin of Ham was the release of unnatural, unbridled libido.   Noah’s curse is a challenge: will your offspring me animals as are you? Will they be slaves to their passion without compassion, like you? Just as there are ten evil generations from Adam to Noah, there are ten evil generations from Noah to Abraham.

Consider Hagar, the Egyptian. We are not told who her father was. We are told that she is an Egyptian, indicating that only all-knowing God would be able to fathom who her father was.  Hagar was hired as a concubine not for her profundity but for her fecundity.  And since she was all passion and no heart, she would in despair abandon her son when without water, and Scripture describers her son as “yado ba-kol ve yad ko bo,”  his hands were everywhere they should not be, requiring others to defensively put their hands on him.

Consider Mrs. Potifer. She so desires to seduce the Hebrew Joseph that she would betray her husband.   Egyptian mythology and history is replete with, and very tolerant of, sexual license.  Here also is the “curse of Ham,” the transmission of wicked patterns of behavior within a culture.

Consider the Pharaohs of Abrahamic and Mosaic time. They would kill the men and preserve, keep alive, the women, in the pi’el conjugation. Leviticus 18:2, before outlining the list of prohibited sexual liaisons, reminds the reader not to act like Hamitic Egyptians or like the residents of the land of Canaan, who act in a sexually objectionable fashion

IV.             The meaning of the problem

Having defined  the curse of Ham in its Scriptural context, we turn to the non-Biblical and indeed anti-Biblical  notion that maintains that [1] Hamites are Black, [2] Noah cursed Noah’s progeny to be slaves because of Ham’s and Canaan’s deviant sexual outrage, so [3] it is the revealed will of God that Blacks ideally be enslaved and minimally,  be seen as a second rate slice of humankind.

However, we recall from the Cain narrative that humanity is held to be morally accountable because, being endowed with God’s image, humans are empowered to make moral choices.  Unlike Paul of Tarsus, who could not control himself, arguing that the individual is saved by faith, both Biblical Israel [Numbers 15:40] and Rabbinic Liturature proclaim (as seen in commandment blessing formula, asher qiddeshanu be-mitsvotav) that the individual is sanctified by observing the commandments, which are doable [Deuteronomy 30:12].  The notion that people are fated to fail, present in Gilgamesh, Homer, the great Greek Tragedians, and in Christian Scripture, is foreign to the Hebrew spirit and to the Pentatechual covenant.

Islam enslaved the Black of Africa from its inception.   Augustine taught that slaves must be loyal to their masters and not to their spouses, a doctrine that seems to conflict with the notion that marriage is forever. Recalling Rudyard Kipling’s condescending notion of the “White Man’s burden,” European gentlemen have the right to extract resources and labor from what it, in its enlightenment disposition, regards as second rate humans. We recall that Ghandi, an Indian of color, a higher western law education and subject of the British crown, who at first naively accepted the enlightenment bargain, that one can adopt English mores and morph into an Englishman, he was discourteously disgorged from the White Man’s train because, for all of his acquired English elegance, he remained a human of color.  The curse of Ham became the apologia for the White Man’s Burden, which is a euphemism not for noblesse oblige, but for the ignoble exploitation of one human being by another.    

The invocation of and reading in to the “curse of Ham” reflects readers who invoke the god of their minds and not the God of the Hebrews. Pagans create idols of wood and stone, iconic images imagined by self-serving savants, always justifying lower self-interest by appealing to high sounding clichés, putative proof texts, and a narcissism that would be laughable were it not so malevolent.  We are reminded to be ware and to be aware of elites with discriminating taste and well-biased opinions. People who speak in God’s voice discriminate against other peoples, humans who are not beasts treat the image of God with the requisite dignity that God demands.

Biblically speaking, humans did not evolve from beasts and ought not to devolve into beasts. Beasts live with, by, and for their passions. Cain should have, could have, but did not make correct moral choices. Cain’s deeds doomed his destiny, cursing his destiny with his actions. The so-called “curse of Ham” was a prediction, not a prophecy. The curse of Ham was broken by Abraham’s ethic, by the moral choice that was his, and ours, to make.


Rabbi Dr. Alan Yuter is the rabbi of Congregation Bnai Israel in downtown Baltimore, MD.   


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