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Noah's Curse : The Biblical Justification of American Slavery (Religion in America Series)
Noah's Curse : The Biblical Justification of American Slavery (Religion in America Series)
Stephen R. Haynes
Oxford University Press, 2002
322 pp., $59.00

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Laura L. Mitchell


Original Sin

Slavery and the biblical curse of Ham.

In Noah's Curse, Stephen Haynes provides an in-depth look at how the oft-cited biblical "curse of Ham" or "curse of Canaan" was used in the American South to defend the enslavement of people of African descent. That Scripture was used in this way is not news, but Haynes deepens our understanding of this telling episode in the tangled history of biblical interpretation, responding to the challenge posed by some scholars—most notably Eugene Genovese—who contend that the role of the curse in proslavery thought has been exaggerated. Moreover, Haynes shows how the curse was also employed to justify the displacement of Native Americans and, more recently, to attack the Civil Rights movement.

In Genesis 9:20-27, Noah's youngest son, Ham, "the father of Canaan," sees his father drunk and asleep in his tent. Ham tells his older brothers, Shem and Japheth, about their father's state, and these two brothers cover Noah's "nakedness" without looking directly at him. When Noah awakes from his stupor and realizes "what his youngest son had done to him," Noah utters the famous curse: "Cursed be Canaan, lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers." In contrast, Ham's older brothers receive a blessing for their discretion.

These verses have been the source of centuries of debate. What exactly did Ham observe that infuriated Noah? And if Noah were angry with Ham, why did he curse Ham's son Canaan rather than Ham himself? What was the nature and extent of Noah's curse? Was only Canaan to be a slave, or did the curse extend to perpetuity?

The last major work to tackle Genesis 9 was Thomas Peterson's Ham and Japheth in America: The Mythic World of Whites in the Antebellum South. Haynes builds on Peterson's valuable study. In the early chapters of Noah's Curse, he surveys a wide variety of Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish responses to the text from a more than 500-year period and shows how extrabiblical assumptions have shaped interpretations of the text. Sometimes Ham receives the curse; sometimes ...

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