Seminary and the Curse of Ham: On the need for Diverse Faculty

 

Ksenophontov_noah

Noah damning Ham, 19th-century painting by Ivan Stepanovitch Ksenofontov.

 

Part I: Seminary, the Sons of God, and the Curse of Ham (if all you care about is the interpretation of the curse of Ham feel free to skip to Part II below)

I went seminary to learn the Bible. I think all of us who become clergy or professors are drawn in part by our curiosity about the Scriptures. We are driven by a desire to know. At our best, we want to take that information and use it to preach God’s word faithfully to those he has entrusted to us. For me, this desire to know took me far from the south of my childhood. But I was willing to brave the snowstorms and New England culture that was so alien to me if it meant understanding the Scriptures better by the end.

So I did as I was told. I learned my Greek and Hebrew. I studied paradigms and learned (at least partially) how to diagram sentences. But the more time I spent in exegesis and theology courses, the more I realized that my interests and those of my caucasian colleagues diverged at a variety of points, none more so than in the issues that received extended discussion in class.

I remember being told that everybody had to be able to answer questions about the following text, as it was sure to come up during the course of our pastoral ministry:

When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. Then the LORD said, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years (Gen 6:1–3).”

Who were these sons of God? Fallen Angels? The descendants of Seth? If memory serves, we were all required to write a paper on the topic. I honestly cannot recall what I said. Before seminary, I had never given much thought to who these sons of God might be and since seminary, no one has asked me about them.

From childhood, I had known about the curse of Ham. I knew that it meant I was supposed to be inferior. Thus, black slavery in the past and our present second-class status was a manifestation of the will of God. I remember looking forward to dealing with this text in detail at some point in seminary.

Sure enough, one day a professor began to interpret Genesis 9, and he discussed the curse. I think he told us a story about how he was once approached by a little black girl who said that black people were under the curse of Ham. This shocked the professor and he rightly dismissed it as nonsense, but then he moved on to Gen 10. I was disappointed. I had hoped that the scholarly acumen that had been on display when it came to other topics would come to the fore in this moment. Maybe he thought that the “curse of Ham” did not warrant serious exegetical analysis. He was right. There is no basis for linking the curse of Ham to the African Slave trade. But that was not the point. That text had a deep impact on the lives of many black people and it is still well known to this day. Ask around.

For many at my seminary, a world in which black people struggle with questions of identity and worth and their place in the biblical narrative was as foreign to them as New England was to me. They did not realize how often Black Christians have to struggle and strive to prove to skeptical friends and family members that Christianity is a religion that has a place for black folk.

The controlling paradigm for many Evangelicals is liberalism vs. conservatism. The danger the church must face is a creeping distrust in the truthfulness of the Scriptures. One can’t line things up so smoothly in the black community. When I was growing up, the prime challenge to Christianity was an extreme form of Black nationalism that assumed Christianity was inherently anti-black and oppressive. The early writings of Malcolm X were much more important than Rudolph Bultmann. Today Ta-nehisi Coates is a more important dialogue partner than the German scholarship that I am forced to interact with.

This should not be heard as a criticism of my professor or former seminary. I learned a lot from his classes and my overall experience was positive. But it is a statement that we all come to texts with our own issues and questions. When certain perspectives dominate the discussion, then issues that are of deep concern for others get neglected. This is why the diversity of faculty matters. Our social location not only impacts our exegesis, it also influences the subject matter of our classroom discussions. I grew up poor, black, male, and southern. Most folks who teach Old and New Testament didn’t. This matters.

All these memories returned to me as I was preparing my lecture on Genesis for a class that I will be teaching this summer. For good or ill, I will not spend much time discussing the “sons of God” in Genesis 6. I will, however, be spending quite a bit of time on the curse of Ham. This is what I will tell them.

Part II: The Curse of Ham examined

The Curse of Ham is the belief:

1) that black skin is the result of God’s curse and is therefore a signal and sign of the African’s cursedness to slavery;

2) that Africans embodied this cursed nature through hyper sexuality and libidinousness; and

3) that these sinful and cursed Africans were also uncivilized brutes and heathens who were helped by slavery because they were exposed to culture and the saving gospel of Jesus Christ.[1]

It is based upon this text:

Noah …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… 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 (Gen 9:20–26).

This text implies that Ham did something wrong (although the exact nature of the offense is unclear). Then Noah, upon realizing that Ham did this, cursed Canaan, Ham’s Son. That Canaan is cursed is important because Genesis 10:6 tells us that Ham had four sons: Cush (Ethiopia), Egypt, Put (Libya), and Canaan (Modern Israel, Lebanon, Syria). Two of these sons–Cush and Egypt–were the ancestors of Africans. But they were not the sons who were cursed. Furthermore, nothing in Genesis leads us to believe that skin color was the curse or that it serves to identify cursed people. That black skin is the curse of Ham is a myth used to justify the enslavement of black people. This claim had little to do with real exegesis.[2] That black moral attributes can be explained by this text is utterly foolish. Genesis says nothing of the kind!

In context, the curse on Canaan probably points to the eventual Israelite conquest and rule of the Promised Land (Josh 9:23; 1 Kings 9:20–21). But is this just passing the buck? Such that the bible is not racist towards the Ethiopians and Egyptians, but to Canaanites? No. There is nothing in this text about the color of skin being the basis for judgment on Canaan. In Gen 15:15–21, we are told quite explicitly that the conquest of the promised land was an act of judgment because of their sins and not because of inherent racial    tendencies [3]

Furthermore, as the biblical story moves forward, it plainly looks to the salvation of all nations:

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth (Isaiah 25:6–8).

And now the LORD says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him…he says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:5–6)

 

Isaiah does not say, “but until the Second Coming black people will be slaves and lazy servants!” I chose texts from Isaiah because Isaiah is one of the most cited books in the New Testament. When the early Christians wanted to understand what God was doing in Christ, they did not look to the curse of Ham, they looked to the prophet who had a God-given vision of worldwide salvation. To claim that a misinterpretation of an obscure text from Genesis makes blacks second class citizens: (1) goes against a plain reading of Gen 9:20–26 in light of Gen 10:6 and the Canaanite conquest narrative; (2) goes against the Isaianic vision of the nations being gathered to worship the God of Israel as equals; (3) denies the universal lordship of Christ who has removed every curse.

Most importantly, at the center of the New Testament, we find two truths: (1) In Christ, we are all equal (Gal 3:26–29); (2) God is glorified in the worldwide and multicultural family that is being gathered around the Son (Rev 7:9). To claim otherwise is subchristian.

 

[1] Whitford, David M. “A Calvinist heritage to the ‘curse of Ham’: assessing the accuracy of a claim about racial subordination.” Church History And Religious Culture 90 (2010): 25-45.

[2] See also Rice, Gene. “Curse that never was, Genesis 9:18-27.” The Journal Of Religious Thought 29 (1972): 5-27; Yamauchi, Edwin M. “The curse of Ham.” Criswell Theological Review 6 (2009): 45-60. For a more basic review see http://www.epm.org/resources/2010/Jan/18/are-black-people-cursed-curse-ham/

[3] God warned Israel that if they sinned they too would be exiled from the land and put into slavery (Lev 18:24–28; Deut 30). Unfortunately, Israel did disobey and they too were exiled. See 2 Kings 25.

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