Mark Noll

Book Notes

The story behind "the curse of Ham."

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David Whitford's learned book is, in effect, a detective story. The crime is not the ordinary Murder First, however, but an intellectual outrage that has aided and abetted criminal behavior lasting for centuries. The issue at hand is telegraphed by Whitford's title, which concerns the interpretation of Genesis 9:25. That text reads (in the King James Version), "Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren." The mystery is how "Canaan," the grandson of Noah whom the Table of Nations in Genesis 10 identifies as the ancestor of the middle eastern tribes, became "Ham," the son of Noah whose own sons included Cush and other offspring associated with the population of Africa—and in that form became a supposedly biblical justification for the enslavement of Africans.

"Canaan" became "Ham," according to Whitford, when fanciful mythmakers in the late medieval and early modern periods simply made up stories about ancient peoples that they then connected with the contemporary expansion of European empires into Africa. Until John Annius of Viterbo published in 1498 his popular Commentaries … on Works of Various Authors Discussing Antiquities, the most that classical Christian exegesis had done was to link the progeny of Ham with generic serfdom. Annius, however, wanted to justify claims of the pope for whom he worked to an ancient noble patrimony; in fabricating such a claim, Annius made up a whole history of the world in which Ham was identified with figures in Persian and Greek mythology notorious for their wild immoralities and in which a licentious Ham may have been exiled to Africa. Slavery strongly shaped interpretations of this passage when in the 16th and 17th centuries English Protestants first preached about Noah's curse against Ham and then annotated their Bible translations of Genesis 9:25 with commentary about Ham in connection with Africa and slavery. The clincher was a very popular "Self-Interpreting Bible" produced by John Brown of Scotland in 1778, which told readers of this verse that it referred to Africans who for centuries had been brutal savages doomed to perpetual slavery.

You do not have to look far today to find continuing efforts to apply the "curse of Ham" to Africans and use it as vindication for slavery. None of it is true. It has been made up out of whole cloth. It is a depressing tale from first to last. Whitford tells this tragic story very well.

Mark Noll is Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author most recently of The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith (InterVarsity Press).

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