Suffering not sanctioned by scripture

The Curse of Ham
April 30, 2004

Desmond Tutu is relieved to find that suppression, slavery and segregation of black people is not endorsed in the Bible.

In this masterly book, David Goldenberg has sought to uncover why a particular story in the book of Genesis that describes Noah cursing Canaan, the son of Ham, metamorphosed into the story of the cursing of Ham; and how this latter development, which is not to be found in the original biblical account, became the justification for the enslavement of blacks for more than 1,000 years. It has done so despite the glaring fact that blacks do not feature at all in the original Bible story. Goldenberg parades an impressive, indeed an almost breathtaking, array of sources spanning a period from c. 800BC, that is to say, from the time of ancient Israel, to the 8th century AD, after the birth of Islam. His book will be a valuable resource for scholars.

With scrupulously meticulous and erudite scholarship, Goldenberg examines a plethora of source material and is a competent and assured guide through this labyrinth. He produces enough evidence to support his thesis that during the biblical and post-biblical periods until the advent of Islam, colour and race were of no particular significance, and especially that there is no indication during this period that blacks were regarded negatively at all. If anything, the opposite might have been the case since there are texts that describe the Ethiopians, a generic term for black people, as tall, handsome and not to be trifled with in warfare.

Goldenberg shows too that what might have seemed to be texts that were disparaging of blacks are nothing of the sort. For instance, Miriam and Aaron remonstrate with Moses for having married a Ku****e woman, which might have meant no more than a Midianite woman. But even if it did refer to a dark-skinned person, Miriam is punished with a skin disease because she was opposed to her brother's marrying a foreigner, not a dark-skinned woman per se. Had skin colour been at issue, and particularly had there been disapproval of Moses' marrying such a person, then, Goldenberg argues convincingly, it is unlikely that later writers would have recorded the story without declaring their disapprobation that Moses, the Israelite leader par excellence, had married a black woman.

Goldenberg shows to my satisfaction that the text in the book of Amos that might have seemed to be disparaging of blacks, in which God asks the rhetorical question whether an Israelite is better than a Ku****e, in no way exhibits divine disfavour to the Ku****es. They were believed to inhabit the farthest borders of the known world, the southernmost tip as it were, and the text points to the Catholicity of God's hegemony: that his concern is one that embraces the entire known globe, or in other words, that the Israelites had not in fact cornered the divine market. The text was intended as a rebuke to a narrow, chauvinistic particularism in favour of an all-encompassing catholicity; that God's writ was one that ran everywhere even in the remotest parts as then known. This is why an Ethiopian in the New Testament becomes the first convert to Christianity.

It dramatises the Catholic extent of the new faith.

In general, Goldenberg warns exegetes and others against seeing the past in terms of the present, imagining that what is the case now is what obtained in the past. Thus the passage in Jeremiah about the Ethiopian/Ku****e's inability to change his skin as the leopard cannot change its spots, is not meant to disparage the Ku****e. It seeks to underscore immutability not ethnicity, by suggesting that just as these two could not change, so also was it impossible for Israel to change her sinful nature.

Goldenberg points out that the scriptures record that the father of the prophet Zephaniah was a Ku****e with no sense of outrage, reporting almost matter-of-factly that an Israelite prophet had African ancestry, without need to comment further, as if such a fact were hardly out of the ordinary.

In addition, there is the story of Ebedmelech, the Ethiopian, who rescued the prophet Jeremiah and who was appropriately rewarded by God for his good deed. This eunuch is described approvingly without any denigration of his ethnicity whatsoever.

With all this weight of evidence in favour of a non-discriminatory biblical attitude to blacks or black Africans, and in the face of what the scriptures say, why should it have been that the text in Genesis was appropriated to buttress and justify the enslavement of black people in the manner that it was? This is the intriguing question that Goldenberg seeks to answer. The results of his painstakingly thorough research provide what I think is a convincing reply, to which I will return in a moment.

But first, one is surprised that human beings can be so obtuse and obdurate disregarding facts that stare them in the face. In South Africa, apartheid was given alleged biblical justification by the white Dutch Reformed Church, which used the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis XI. It is an exegesis that is perverse in the extreme that can interpret the divine punishment for human pride, the scattering of the peoples and their inability to comprehend one another, as seen in this text, as representing the will of God for humankind; that we are condemned to an existence of alienation and separation. Especially as nearly everyone with any credibility as a New Testament scholar points to the story of the first Christian Pentecost (the feast of ingathering) as a reversal of the Tower of Babel experience. But I suppose it is a case of "do not confuse me with the facts". It is odd, too, to think that many have pointed out that the curse of Canaan is consistent with the view that a sedentary agricultural way of life was deprecated for Israel since it exposed her to the blandishments of pagan religion, unlike her former life as a wandering people. So there is already a bias against Cain as a farmer, while Abel the sheep farmer is favoured. The curse is in fact a condemnation of Canaanite viniculture with its allurements to Israel. That is why the Rechabites, who refused to live in the settled cities, were applauded as much as they were, and we can have Hosea idealise Israel's desert sojourn as one where she was as a loving and faithful bride.

All this was of no consequence to those who wanted Ham cursed. Goldenberg has something of a mnemonic in which he holds up four factors as accounting for the extraordinary evolution of the curse of Ham. The four words all begin with "e": explanation, error, etymology and environment. All four worked more or less simultaneously. Regarding explanation, Philo asserted that Ham sinned passively while Canaan did so actively, and so Philo justified the curse that punished sinners; while others argued that although Ham was not cursed, he was undoubtedly affected by Canaan's curse.

Regarding error, it is possible that many writers were simply wrong in saying Ham was cursed - it was easy for them, indeed natural and logical, to think that since Ham sinned, he must be punished. Then there was the etymology, which was mistaken, that related Ham to "black". The environment factor refers to the environment in which black was identified with slave, and slavery then spawned the curse of Ham.

I am relieved to find that there is no rational or scriptural basis for something as irrational as this curse of Ham. It is bad enough that so much suffering inflicted on black people is thoroughly immoral and totally unbiblical. Can you imagine what it would have been like, had it all been sanctioned by scripture?

Most Revd Desmond Tutu was formerly archbishop of Capetown and metropolitan of Southern Africa.

The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

Author - David M. Goldenberg
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Pages - 449
Price - £22.95
ISBN - 0 691 11465 X

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