Noah’s Curse on Canaan Redux: How Ham Got to Africa

By April 15, 2010

In September of last year, I blogged about recent biblical scholarship that attempts to unlock the riddles presented by Genesis 9, which describes Noah’s curse upon his grandson, Canaan. Based on the work of John Sietze Bersgma and Scott Walker Hahn, I argued that the text implies that Noah’s son, Ham, committed maternal incest, and that Noah cursed Canaan (possibly the offspring of Ham and his mother) with servitude to Noah’s other sons, Shem and Japheth. Whether this reading is correct or not, the tools of modern scholarship may never reveal with certainty, but it is clear that Genesis 9 does not refer to race nor does it cast Canaan (or Ham) as the progenitor of black Africans. How then did Canaan, or Ham for that matter, come to be associated with Africa, and why did the passage ultimately become one of the primary biblical justifications used by Southern slaveholders to justify the peculiar institution prior to the Civil War?

The answer lies not in Genesis 9 but in the history of the chapter’s interpretation. Although the verses do not mention black Africa, other places in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament do, leading later interpreters to read Africa into the description of Noah’s curse. For example, the Table of Nations in Genesis 10, which most modern readers skim over since it seems to be just boring genealogical data, relates that Ham had four sons, three of whom later allegedly fathered peoples in Africa. First, Cush (translated in Greek as Ethiopia) apparently settled in what was Nubia or present day Sudan. Second, Mizraim is the Hebrew word for Egypt. Third, Put, rendered elsewhere in the Bible as Libya, likely refers to an area west of Egypt. And finally Canaan, which we know was on the land bridge between Africa and Asia, and later granted to Abraham. However, like most biblical texts, the Table of Nations was composed much later than the events it describes, and its divisions therefore should be seen more as ideological constructs than as historical descriptions. As Nahum M. Sarna concludes, ?racial characteristics, physical types, or the color of skin play no role in the categorizing. Nor is language a guidleline. . . .Clearly, geographic proximity, ethnic affiliations, sociopolitical and economic relationships, as well as historical and even literary considerations, were the varied factors that controlled inclusion in the Table.?[1] He continues that ?the principal Hamite components [of the Table] formed the Egyptian Empire during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Dynasties (ca. 1552-ca. 1200 B.C.E.),? which perhaps provides a clue as to when the Table was put together.[2] The important point is that, despite what later commentators saw, the Table is neutral concerning race or skin color. As for other references to black Africans in the Bible, scholars contend that none of them need be read as negative portrayals of blacks, and most of them represent Africa and Africans positively.[3]

Once we get into the post-biblical rabbinical writings, however, the reception history gets a bit murkier, and scholars are deeply divided as to how to read these writings. American historian Winthrop Jordan’s 1968 Bancroft Award-winning White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812, which has influenced generations of scholars of race relations, argued that the rabbis read Genesis 9 as Noah cursing Canaan with dark skin, which in turn influenced later Christian interpreters.[4] Jordan, however, was not a biblical scholar, making his conclusions suspect, a point made amply clear by Jewish scholar David M. Goldenberg in a 1997 essay. Goldenberg contended that Jordan and others had manipulated academic tools and exploited rabbinical sources to promote their own ?baseless and false? theories.[5] Goldenberg later produced his own tour de force exposition, The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which argued that while some rabbinical writings may allude to skin color when discussing Noah’s curse, the references are vague and that there is no dominant interpretation among the rabbis concerning the passage. Rather, Goldenberg concluded that explicitly racist readings of Genesis 9 did not appear until the 7th century Islamic conquest and subjugation of Northern Africa, and from Islam spread to Judaism and Christianity. Goldenberg also traced the process by which texts gradually extended the curse from Canaan to Ham in order to include his more obvious African sons (Cush, Mizraim, and Put) under the curse.[6]

While Goldenberg’s work has done a great deal to illuminate the history of interpretation for Genesis 9, his study effectively ends after the Islamic conquest of Africa, thereby leaving part of Jordan’s argument in place, that medieval Christians borrowed earlier interpretations which were in turn used during the early modern period to justify the African slave trade. Stacy Davis’s 2008 study, This Strange Story: Jewish and Christian Interpretation of the Curse of Canaan from Antiquity to 1865, provided the first in-depth examination of Genesis 9’s history of scholarly interpretation from rabbinical writings through the end of the American Civil War. While agreeing with Goldenberg concerning the vagueness of the rabbis’ few references to Ham/Canaan and skin color, Davis contended that in the end, those references ultimately do not matter. Simply put, Winthrop’s assumption that Christian scholars during the Middle Ages adopted Jewish racial readings of Genesis 9 is not supported by the evidence. While medieval Christians read and adopted many rabbinical interpretations, no scholars incorporated the Jewish readings into their own expositions of Genesis 9. Rather, Christian scholars equated Canaan and his descendants not with black Africans, but with Jews and heretics. Furthermore, Davis argued that the proslavery divines in the United States show no indication of being aware of either rabbinical writings or medieval Christian writers. In the end, she concluded that proslavery advocates developed their own readings of Genesis 9, and they alone should bear the blame for their justifications of chattel slavery.[7]

Davis establishes her general points. However, as I argue in a forthcoming review of the work in the FARMS Review, there are hints that some rabbinical interpretations do appear in early popular American sources (including Mormon sources), suggesting that her reliance on scholarly writings could prove too narrow. More research is needed to flesh out how the interpretations could have survived in more popular sources. As for the Mormons, it’s clear that Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and others accepted the common nineteenth-century view that American blacks were descendants of Ham and Canaan (and Cain, which has received far less scholarly attention). Although Lester Bush, Newell Bringhurst, and others have attempted to place Mormonism within the broader history of interpretation of Genesis 9, they have barely scratched the surface and more work needs to be done in light of the recent works by Goldenberg, Davis, Stephen Haynes, and others.[8] In doing so, however, we should avoid the temptation to pass the blame onto American Protestants for our own use and abuse of such interpretations.


[1] Naham M. Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 68.

[2] Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary, 72.

[3] See David M. Goldenberg, The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 17-40.

[4] Winthrop D. Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968), 18.

[5] See David Goldenberg, ?The Curse of Ham: A Case of Rabbinic Racism?? in Struggles in the Promised Land: Towards a History of Black-Jewish Relations in the United States, ed. Jack Salzman and Cornel West (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 21-52.

[6] Goldenberg, The Curse of Ham.

[7] Stacy Davis, This Strange Story: Jewish and Christian Interpretation of the Curse of Canaan from Antiquity to 1965 (Lanham: University Press of America, 2008).

[8] Stephen R. Haynes, Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Race


  1. David,

    I think you need to add the work of Benjamin Braude into the mix of scholars working this topic. He argues that the association between Ham and African ancestry existed in the early modern world, but that it became an accepted religious truth only after the creation of chattel slavery. He also examines the role of Islamic ideas of slavery and his book should be dropping fairly soon. For a taste: Braude, Benjamin. ?The Sons of Noah and the Construction of Ethnic and Geographical Identities in the Medieval and Early Modern Periods,? in The William and Mary Quarterly 54, no. 1 (Jan., 1997): 103-142.

    Comment by Joel — April 15, 2010 @ 7:05 am

  2. This is great stuff, David. Thanks.

    we should avoid the temptation to pass the blame onto American Protestants for our own use and abuse of such interpretations.

    Do you make this point in your forthcoming review?

    And thanks for that reference, Joel. I’m gonna check that out.

    Comment by Christopher — April 15, 2010 @ 7:52 am

  3. Thanks, Joel. I forgot to mention Braude, but he’s doing good work as well. Good to hear his book is due out soon.

    Comment by David G. — April 15, 2010 @ 7:56 am

  4. This is excellent, David. I’m not exceptionally well in this field, so I really appreciate the overview; you’re doing great work.

    Comment by Ben — April 15, 2010 @ 9:35 am

  5. Thanks. I’m very interested in this subject, so I appreciate this precis. I’ll look forward to your FARMS Review essay with interest.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — April 15, 2010 @ 10:47 am

  6. Chris, I don’t make the point directly.

    Thanks, Ben and Kevin.

    Comment by David G. — April 15, 2010 @ 10:50 am

  7. Thanks for this enlightening post. You have done a significant amount of legwork on the curse of Ham (including your previous posts) that I have wanted to do for years, but hadn’t ever found the time. I’m very grateful for scholarship like yours. Keep it up!

    Comment by Jeremy — April 15, 2010 @ 11:04 am

  8. I look forward to reading your review, David. Keep up the great work.

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 15, 2010 @ 11:20 am

  9. Maybe i should ask this question at another site like, but I have always been curious about the story in Genesis about Noah’s embarrasing, naked, drunken stupor. could you please tell me about the source of the notion that Canaan was the product of an incestual relationship?

    Comment by steve g — April 15, 2010 @ 12:39 pm

  10. steve g, please follow the link I provided in the first sentence, where I explain that argument in more detail.

    Thanks, Jeremy and J.

    Comment by David G. — April 15, 2010 @ 12:43 pm

  11. oh, that link


    Comment by steve g — April 15, 2010 @ 1:17 pm

  12. Never commented here before, and I know I’m coming way late to this particular discussion. Probably no one will even read what I write.

    Just a quick note, though: I know little about this historiography or even 19C America. But I have done some research on Europeans in West Africa in the 17C (I’m writing my dissertation at the moment), and I’ve come across a number of explicit links between Ham, blackness, and Africa in Dutch writings. Whoever made the point above about these beliefs existing in early modern Europe is, I think, correct. They did not just pop up among 19C American slave holders.

    Comment by Danny N. — April 23, 2010 @ 9:28 am

  13. Thanks, Danny. Perhaps I should clarify Davis’ argument. She’s looking only at scholarly exegetical writings in Europe and in the US, and trying to trace specific rabbinical interpretations of Gen. 9. She argues that there is no evidence that these specific racialized readings were transferred from Jewish to Christian traditions, although there are indications that early and medievial Christians were reading rabbinical and later Jewish writings. In fact, Christian authors don’t seem to want to see race in their exegeses of Gen. 9 at all. She acknowledges that early modern popular writings do identify Africans with Ham/Canaan, which she surmises come from Euro-Islamic interactions, but she contends that these writings lack any of the rabbinical interpretations. Does that make sense? She’s really interested in just one subsection of sources within a wider discursive sea, which is why I suggest in the initial post that more work on popular sources will likely open things up a bit more.

    Comment by David G. — April 23, 2010 @ 10:14 am

  14. Got it. And the original confusion was probably not in your post but in my sloppy reading of it. Thanks for the clarification!

    Forgot to note, too, that Dutch writers were already linking servility with Ham, blackness, and Africa in the 17C. Makes sense, since they were just starting to get involved in the slave trade.

    Comment by Danny N. — April 24, 2010 @ 11:09 am

  15. Thanks, Danny. Your expertise is welcome here. I’d love to hear more about your dissertation.

    Comment by David G. — April 24, 2010 @ 1:04 pm

  16. […] featured no shortage of posts on the Curse of Ham. At the risk of leaving some out, I?ll mention these two posts by David G. of JI with a link to this post by Stirling of BCC, all of which take note of important […]

    Pingback by Faith-Promoting Rumor » The Latest on the Curse of Ham — June 15, 2010 @ 12:34 am


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