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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., 88.00

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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 Canaan is the recipient of Noah's malediction. Sometimes Noah hurls the curse because he feels he has been mocked, and sometimes the curse is attributed to sexual misconduct. Indeed, by the time of the Reformation, Haynes shows, many Christian theologians had concluded that the curse was the result of a sexual transgression (according to one theory, Ham had raped his mother).

At the same time, the curse became strongly associated with Africa. "Although Hamites had long been linked with southern regions of the inhabited world," Haynes notes, "Ham himself was rarely racialized before Europeans explored West Africa in the fifteenth century." With the beginnings of European involvement in the slave trade, Noah's curse began to be reinterpreted. While Haynes acknowledges that "the fateful conjunction of slavery and race in Western readings of Noah's prophecy" cannot be precisely dated, he writes that "by the early colonial period a racialized version of Noah's curse had arrived in America," founded on the conviction that Africans were the descendants of Ham.

Haynes' central argument is that Genesis 9 must be seen as working within the Southern mind as a text about honor and only honor. Of all the interpretations of Noah's curse available in Christian theology by the mid-19th century, Haynes contends that Southern divines settled on the one in which Noah invoked the curse because Ham had "mocked" Noah or "laughed at" him, thus dishonoring him as the family's patriarch.

Nowhere in the biblical record does Ham or Canaan explicitly make fun of Noah, but this interpretive motif had a long history, appearing in the midrashic tradition before the time of Christ and given currency by Philo of Alexandria and Josephus. Why did it assume such importance in Southern eyes? To an honor-bound society, as Haynes explains, the sin worthy of the curse of slavery was disrespect to the paterfamilias. Reinforcing this approach to the curse was the image of Nimrod, the grandson of the cursed Ham. Nimrod, who is best known as the builder of the Tower of Babel, was viewed as one who mocked God by attempting to build a tower that could reach into heaven. Haynes insightfully sees Nimrod, who was often depicted as dark-skinned, as a model for the "uppity slave" whose self-image is an affront to the master. The result of Nimrod's impudence is a curse on all of humanity: to punish the tower's builders, God fractures human communication into numerous languages.

For Southerners, Haynes argues, the lessons of Ham and Nimrod were clear: disrespect for one's superiors created social disorder and deserved punishment, even in the form of slavery. Just as Adam and Eve's primal rebellion against God meant that humanity ever after would labor under the curse of Original Sin, so Ham's sin condemned his descendants to slavery. Noah's curse was an appropriate punishment for promoting dishonor and disorder: "The obsession with Negro rebellion that made laughter a compelling theme among proslavery advocates also gave rise to a variety of depictions of Ham that accentuated his disorderly character."

Haynes' reading of the curse as what he calls an "honor" text is convincing, especially within the larger historiography of the South as an honor-bound society. What is not persuasive, however, is Haynes' repeated insistence that Genesis 9 be read as an honor text to the exclusion of all other interpretations. Haynes himself documents a long tradition of interpreting the curse as the result of sexual impropriety, only to conclude that Southerners were either unaware of or unpersuaded by these interpretations. Even if they believed that Noah or Ham were guilty of sexual misconduct, Haynes argues, Southerners were concerned only with insolent children. Given that notions of honor and beliefs about sexual propriety are often closely linked, Haynes' insistence that Southerners were worried about honor but not about sexual mores deprives his argument of an important nuance. One could, for instance, consider the connections between "honor" and "order" and characterizations of black slave sexuality or the prevalence of sexual liaisons between white masters and slaves.

Haynes' analysis in this central section of the book is also narrow in that it focuses largely on one man: the Reverend Benjamin Morgan Palmer (1818-1902) of New Orleans. To be sure, the Presbyterian Palmer was an enormously influential figure. He loomed large in Southern society by the time of the Civil War, and not only among Protestants; his post-Civil War career as a pastor, writer, and editor was also illustrious. Haynes sees Palmer's sermons and other writings as representative of the South and draws on the works of other Southern ministers and educators for reinforcement. For the 20th century, Haynes relies on a variety of primary and secondary sources to take the pulse of Southern Christianity.

Haynes' final chapters take up what he calls "counterreadings" of the text, from the early rabbinical tradition to the present. In that spirit, he offers his own revisionist reading, based on René Girard's theory of "mimetic rivalry," scapegoating, and collective violence in which "disorder is transferred from the community to the victim." Seen thus, Noah becomes the articulator of a limited and perhaps even unjustified curse that is the product of his own human frailty, not the righteous invocation of divine wrath.

In offering a new interpretive lens, Haynes speaks mainly to an audience of practicing Christians trying to make sense of a troubling text with an even more troubling history. And in turning our eyes toward the "victim," Haynes reminds us yet again that biblical interpretation always occurs within a cultural context that has a profound yet often unacknowledged influence.

Laura L. Mitchell works for the Luther Institute in Washington, D.C., and is writing a book about the role of religion in the coming of the Civil War.

1. Thomas V. Peterson, Ham and Japheth in America: The Mythic World of Whites in the Antebellum South (American Theological Library Association, 1978).

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