Ham, Noah's Son
by John Thomas Lowe
Ham, Noah's Son
Scholars believe Ham is the youngest of Noah's three sons. Ham asks his brothers to help cover Noah when drunk and naked.
According to the Table of Nations in the Book of Genesis, Ham was the second son of Noah and the father of Cush, Mizoram, Phut, and Canaan. Flavius Josephus and others interpret Ham's descendants as having populated Africa and adjoining parts of Asia.
Curse of Ham
The Curse of Ham is described in the Book of Genesis as imposed by the patriarch Noah upon Ham's son Canaan. It occurs in the context of Noah's drunkenness and is provoked by a shameful act committed by Noah's son Ham, who "saw the nakedness of his father." The exact nature of Ham's transgression and the reason Noah cursed Canaan when Ham had sinned has been debated for over 2,000 years.
The story's original purpose may have been to justify the subjection of the Canaanites to the Israelites. However, in later centuries, the narrative was interpreted by some as an explanation for black skin and added a justification for the slavery of black people. Similarly, the Latter Day Saint movement used the Curse of Ham to prevent the ordination of black men to its priesthood.
Nevertheless, most Christians, Muslims, and Jews now disagree with such interpretations because Ham himself is not cursed in the biblical text, and race or skin color is never mentioned.
The concept of the Curse of Ham finds its origins in Genesis 9:
20 And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard:
21 And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; 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; 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.
– Genesis 9:20–27, KJV
The story's objective may have been to justify the impact of the Canaanites, the descendants of Ham, to the Israelites, the descendants of Shem. The narrative of the Curse is full of difficulties. It is uncertain what the precise nature of Ham's offense is. Verse 22 has been a subject of debate whether it should be taken literally or as "a euphemism for some act of gross immorality. In verse 25, Noah refers to Shem and Japheth as the "brethren" of Canaan, whereas in verse 18, they are identified as his uncles. The Table of Nations presents Canaan and Mizraim (Egypt) among the sons of Ham (10:6). In the Psalms, Egypt is equated with Ham.
The treatment of Japheth in verses 26–27 raises questions: Why is YHWH named as the God of Shem, but not of Japheth? What does it mean that God will "enlarge" Japheth? Moreover, why will Japheth "dwell in the tents of Shem"? Further difficulties include Ham's being referred to as "the youngest son" when all other lists make him Noah's second son. Biblical scholar Nahum Sarna says that the biggest challenge of the narrative is why Canaan was cursed rather than Ham and that the concealed details of the shameful incident bear the same discretion as Reuben's sexual transgression.
The narrative's eight verses indicate that Canaan's Hamite paternity must have had great significance to the narrator or rewriter, according to Sarna, who adds, "The curse on Canaan, invoked in response to an act of moral depravity, is the first intimation of the theme of the corruption of the Canaanites, which is given as the justification for their being dispossessed of their land and for the transfer of that land to the descendants of Abraham."
Seeing Noah's nakedness
The majority of commentators, both ancient and modern, felt that Ham's seeing his father naked was not a sufficiently serious crime to account for the punishment. Nevertheless, Genesis 9:23, where Shem and Japheth cover Noah with a cloak while averting their eyes, suggests that "seeing (Noah's) nakedness" is to be taken literally. It has recently been pointed out that, in the first millennium Babylonia, looking at another person's genitals was indeed regarded as a serious matter.
Other ancient commentators suggested that Ham was guilty of more than the Bible says. The 2nd century Targum Onqelos has Ham gossiping about his father's drunken disgrace "in the street" (a reading which has a basis in the original Hebrew) so that being held up to public mockery was what had angered Noah; as the Cave of Treasures (late 6th – early 7th century) puts it, "Ham laughed at his father's shame and did not cover it, but laughed about it and mocked."
Ancient commentaries have also debated whether "seeing" someone's nakedness meant to have sex with that person (Leviticus 20:17). The same idea was raised by third-century rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud (about 500 AD), who argue that Ham castrated his father or sodomized him. The same explanations are found in three Greek translations of the Bible, which replace the word "see" in verse 22 with another word denoting homosexual relations. The castration theory has its modern counterpart in suggested parallels found in the castration of Uranus by Cronus in Greek mythology and a Hittite myth of the supreme God Anu whose genitals were "bitten off by his rebel son and cup-bearer Kumarbi, who afterward rejoiced and laughed ... until Anu cursed him."
Some modern scholars, such as Bergsma and Hahn, have suggested that Ham engaged in intercourse with his mother, Noah's wife. Support for this theory can be found in verses such as Leviticus 20:11: "And the man that lieth with his father's wife hath uncovered his father's nakedness." According to this interpretation of the story, Canaan was the offspring of the illicit union between Ham and his mother, which accounts for the Curse falling upon Canaan rather than Ham.
The seriousness of Ham's Curse is compounded by the significance of God's covenant to "never again bring a flood on the earth." Noah builds a sacrificial altar "to atone for the land in response to this covenant." Noah's practice and ceremonial functions parallel the festival of Shavuot as if it were a prototype to the celebration of the giving of the Torah. His priestly functions also emulate being "first priest" by Halakhah as taught in the Qumranic works. By turning the drinking of the wine into a religious ceremony, Jubilees alleviates any misgivings that the episode of Noah's drunkenness may provoke. Thus, Ham's offense would constitute an act of disrespect to his father and the festival ordinances. It is noteworthy that the Curse was made by Noah, not by God.
Some biblical scholars claim that when a man makes a curse, it could only have been effective if God supports it, unlike the Curse of Ham and his descendants, which was not confirmed by God or, at least, it is not mentioned in the Bible that he had confirmed it.
Book of Jubilees
The "Book of Jubilees," sometimes called Lesser Genesis, is an ancient Jewish religious work of 50 chapters, considered canonical by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jews), where it is known as the Book of Division. Jubilees is considered one of the pseudepigrapha (meaning false writings) by Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant Churches. It is also not considered canonical within Judaism outside of Beta Israel.
The Book of Jubilees also recounts the incident between Ham and Noah, and Noah's resulting Curse against Canaan, in similar terms. Later, however, Jubilees explains further that Noah had allocated Canaan a land west of the Nile along with his brothers, but that he violated this agreement and instead chose to squat (live illegitimately) in the land allocated to Shem (and later Abraham), and so rightly deserved the Curse of slavery.
The Curse of Slavery
While Genesis 9 never says that Ham was black, he became associated with black skin through folk etymology, deriving his name from a similar, unconnected word meaning "dark" or "brown."
Although the Talmud refers only to Ham, the version brought in a midrash ("textual interpretation," or "study") goes on further to say that Cush came from Ham about the blackness, that the Curse did not apply to all of Ham but only to his eldest son Cush, who migrated to sub-Sahara Africa. Thus, two distinct traditions existed, one explaining dark skin as the result of a curse on Ham, the other explaining slavery by the separate Curse on Canaan.
The concepts were introduced into Islam during the Arab expansion of the 7th century due to the cross-pollination of Jewish and Christian parables and theology into Islam. Some medieval Muslim writers – including Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari, Ibn Khaldun, and even the later Book of the Zanj – asserted the view that old biblical texts describe the effects of Noah's Curse on Ham's descendants as being related with blackness, slavery, and a requirement not to let the hair grow past the ears. The account of the drunkenness of Noah and Curse of Ham are not present within the text of the Quran, the Islamic holy book, as it is not consistent with Islamic teachings since Noah is a prophet, and prophets do not drink alcohol. Islam holds prophets of God in very high esteem, and some Muslims suggest the prophets are infallible.
Historically, other Muslim scholars such as Ahmad Baba al-Timbukti criticized the Curse of Ham narrative and criticized the association of black Africans with enslaved people.