18 ¶ And the sons of Noah, that went forth of the ark, were Shem, and Ham, and Japheth: and Ham is the father of Canaan.
20 And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard:
21 And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent.
22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without.
23 And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness.
24 And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him.
25 And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.
26 And he said, Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.
27 God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.
These verses have perhaps had more negative and divisive effect on God’s children than anything in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. The interpretation of Genesis 9:18-27 since the perhaps 4th century c.e. has justified some of the most pernicious evils in the history of humankind, including the enslavement, segregation, and marginalization of persons of African descent. Although Latter-day Saints did not invent the racial ideologies supported by these verses, we have added our own chapter to their troubled history.
I get the sense that when most Mormons think about why blacks couldn’t hold the priesthood from 1847 to 1978, they point to the curse uttered upon Cain in Genesis 4 as the ban’s biblical foundation. I suspect that if we asked a random selection of ordinary Mormons, the Curse of Ham would not be among the reasons mentioned. My guess is that that is due to the fact that most Mormons have no idea where in the bible the curse of Ham is located, and those that do, have no clue what it means or why it should be applied to black Africans. Our fellow Saints are not alone in their confusion. Interpreters in Christian, Jewish, and Muslim circles have offered several possible explanations over the last two millennia, but there is little consensus. The primary problem with racial ideologies based on Noah’s curse on Canaan is that no where in the text is skin color referenced. There’s also the issue of why Canaan was cursed, when it was Ham who had sinned. For that matter, what exactly did Ham do to invoke so much rage from his father?
The issue comes down to how someone interprets the meaning of Ham seeing Noah’s nakedness, why that would be such a terrible offense, and why Canaan, and not Ham, was cursed with slavery. According to scholars John Sietze Bergsma and Scott Walker Hahn, the most popular explanations for the curse over the centuries include voyerism, castration, and paternal incest. The voyerism hypothesis has been appealing because it only requires a literal reading of the text and does not venture into the realm of speculation. But it does little to explain why the punishment matches the crime, or why Noah did not curse Ham, who committed the offense, instead relegating Ham’s son Canaan to a lifetime of slavery to Shem and Japheth. The castration argument would explain the gravity crime and of the punishment, but there is very little evidence to suggest that seeing your “father’s nakedness” was a euphemism for castration. Paternal incest would also suggest the reasons for the curse’s harshness, and “father’s nakedness” is referred to in Leviticus 18:7-8 to refer to some type of sexual assault, but even this theory does not cover the whole ground in a satisfactory manner.
Bergsma and Hahn propose a fourth option, maternal incest, an idea that they did not invent themselves but for whatever reason has not attracted widespread support. They argue that maternal incest makes the most sense given the limited evidence. For one, Lev. 18:7-8, which is cited to support paternal incest, equates “father’s nakedness” with the intercourse with the father’s wife:
7 The nakedness of thy father, or the nakedness of thy mother, shalt thou not uncover: she is thy mother; thou shalt not uncover her nakedness.
8 The nakedness of thy father’s wife shalt thou not uncover: it is thy father’s nakedness. (the NRSV is even more explicit, translating v. 7 as “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father, which is the nakedness of your mother”; see also Lev. 18:14, 16; 20:11, 20, 21, for other references to a man’s nakedness meaning his wife’s nakedness)
Maternal incest was so vilified in the ancient world because it threatened the patriarchal structure of a family or clan, which would suggest that Ham was attempting to usurp power in his family. It would explain why the text mentions Ham telling his brothers what he had done. There are several examples of sons seeking to replace their fathers by claiming their wife or wives in the Bible and in the ancient Near East (but there are no examples of paternal incest as a means to seize power). Bergsma and Hahn also offer other smaller pieces of evidence for their argument, but this is the crux.
Perhaps the most interesting part of their theory is that it explains why Noah cursed Canaan and not Ham. If Canaan was the offspring, not of Ham’s own wife, but of his father’s wife, that would explain Noah’s wrath. It would also suggest a possible explanation for the specific references in vv. 18 and 22, which both specifically note that Ham is the father of Canaan, while neglecting to mention Ham’s other children or the offspring of Japheth or Shem. Perhaps the author of Gen. 9 is seeking not only to explain the origins of the curse on Canaan, but also how Canaan came to be in the first place.
How Canaan and his descendants, the Canaanites, came to be associated with black Africa is perhaps best saved for another post. For now, it’s sufficient to note that most biblical scholars would argue that Gen. 9 should be read as a polemic against the Canaanites whom according to the biblical narrative the Isrealites displaced in ancient Palestine, not as a statement about the origins of black Africans. Lev. 18:3 even suggests that from the Israelite point of view, the Canaanites had been guilty of, among other sexual sins, maternal incest.
So how does all this apply to Mormons and our history? I think that understanding that Gen. 9 was not initially intended as a racist justification for the marginalization and subjugation of blacks helps us to take a step closer to not only understanding the racial worldview of the early Saints, but also in fully repudiating the Curse of Ham/Canaan in the folklore that still circulates among good intentioned, if ignorant, Latter-day Saints who perpetuate these ideas.
I welcome all comments, but let’s try to keep this within the framework set up in the post. I especially welcome comments from anyone familiar enough with the scholarship in the Hebrew Bible to tell us how Bergsma and Hahn’s ideas have been received, and, if they have been challenged, how so.
 Jewish Studies scholar David M. Goldenberg in his 2003 work The Curse of Ham traces the earliest implicit connection between Canaan as the ancestor of dark races and slavery to a 4th century Eastern Christian text, the Book of Treasures, which in turn influenced Islamic justifications for the conquest and enslavement of Africans after the 7th century conquest of northern Africa. From there, the interpretation of the curse of Canaan being a black skin and slavery spread to Christian and Jewish circles, and took a preeminent position in European and American justifications for their own brand of chattel slavery in early modern and modern times. For a ‘nacle discussion of Goldenberg and other recent works, see Stirling’s 2007 BCC post and comments.
 John Sietze Bergsma and Scott Walker Hahn, “Noah’s Nakedness and the Curse on Canaan,” Journal of Biblical Literature 124, no. 1 (Spring 2005): 25-40. Bergsma and Hahn indicate that F.W. Bassett was the first to propose the maternal incest hypothesis in “Noah’s Nakedness and the Curse of Canaan: A Case of Incest?” VT 21 (1971): 232–37, but that Bassett did not present all the available evidence.
 See Claus Westerman, Genesis 1-11: A Commentary, 490-91.
 The JST does offer some interpretive difficulties. JST 9:26 states that “Canaan shall be his [Shem] servant and a veil of darkness shall cover him, that he shall be known among all men.” The meaning of “veil of darkness” is unclear. It does not need to be read in terms of race or skin color. Goldenberg and others have shown that ancient Jews were not anti-black, and there are several positive references to black Africans in the Hebrew Bible. Jews however did use blackness/whiteness as a non-racial metaphor for wickedness/righteousness. I’d be interested to know if any research has been done to see if that phrase has any counterparts in the ancient world. Another interpretive option would be to see the reference as Joseph Smith’s language and culture bleeding into the inspired text. The phrase appears at least two other times in restoration scriptures (D&C 38:8 and Moses 7:61). The D&C verse may or may not refer to the veil being over people, but Moses is clearly applying the veil to nature. Alma 19:6 refers to Lamoni having a “dark veil of unbelief.” A quick search on google books turns up several 19th century references to “veil of darkness.” Adam Clarke’s commentary on the bible (p. 339, vol. 2, 1831 edition), which we know JS and other early Mormons did use, as Matt B. and Sam Brown’s forthcoming publications will show, uses the phrase in a gloss on 2 Corinthians 3:12-15:
Seeing then that we have such hope, we use great plainness of speech: And not as Moses, which put a vail over his face, that he children of Israel could not stedfastly look to the end of that which is abolished: But their minds were blinded: for until this day remaineth the same vail untaken away in the reading gof the old testament; which vail is done away in Christ. But even unto this day, when Moses is read, the vail is upon their heart. Nevertheless when it shall turn to the Lord, the vail shall be taken away.
Clarke comments on v. 14 that
by resting in the letter, shutting their eyes to the light that was granted to them, they contracted a hardness or stupidity of heart. And the veil that was on the face of Moses, which prevented the glory of his face from shining out, may be considered as emblematic of the veil of darkness and ignorance that is on their hearts; and which hinders the glory of the Gospel from shining in.
Whether the other restoration scriptures or 19th century commentators like Clarke are using the phrase in the same manner as the JST is open to debate, and more research into 19th century uses will likely tell us more, but we can say that the phrase in these examples is not used in a racial manner.
Many thanks to Dustin N., an LDS student studying the Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University, for his help in locating quality biblical scholarship.