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

By Shavit, Yaacov | Shofar, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

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


Shavit, Yaacov, Shofar


The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity and Islam, by David M. Goldenberg. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2003. 448 pp. $35.00.

The biblical verse, "Cursed be Canaan; a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers" (Genesis 9:25), has had a long, tortuous career with disastrous results. The original intent of the verse was probably to grant legitimacy to the conquest of the land of Canaan and the settlement there of the tribes of Israel, as well as to the holding of non-Israelite-"Canaanite"-slaves by the Jewish people. Consequently, it ignored the fact that the Canaanites were a "Semitic," not a Hamitic people. The word "Canaanite" was identified with a slave, and in the Middle Ages that was the name given to the sklavs by the Jews. Hence, the universal aspect of biblical and post-biblical Judaism did not apply to the institution of slavery.

Later interpretation - Jewish, Christian, and Muslim-dealt with the question of how Ham's progeny, the inhabitants of Africa, became black-skinned; and from the fifteenth century, the curse was transferred from Canaan to his father Ham and linked to the attitude towards the black man as inferior and primitive, thus becoming an accepted theological justification for the slave trade and slavery. This process was helped along by the identification of Ham with "Black Africans." The result was the view that the black man's slavery is part of the divine order. In this way, the biblical verse, as well as several midrashim on it, became in the eyes of both the advocates of slavery and its victims the source of the horrible crime of enslaving the black man. Not only a justification, but a source and cause!

I believe I would not be wrong in saying that it was not mere intellectual curiosity, but rather a desire to explore the roots of this myth and to refute it, that motivated the author to embark on this journey of scholarly research, so rich in detail and so impressive in its erudition (and its notes and references), in which he traces the various transformations of the names Cush and Ham as well as the representations of blacks in biblical and rabbinic literature. He does all this while including a discussion of the images of the black man in classical literature, as well as in Christian and Muslim literature.

There can be no disagreement about the Bible's attitude towards the black man. In fact, the Bible shows no interest in ethnography or physiognomy. The Cushim, or Kushites, mentioned in it-whether they were the Aethiops of Greek literature, or Nubians, whose presence in Canaan was known as far back as the time of Amarna, or (which is less probable) "blacks" (the Nigri of Roman literature) from sub-Saharan Africa, or tribes living in the Arabian peninsula or Sinai-are not mentioned with a negative connotation, and certainly not in the context of slavery. At the same time, the Bible and post-biblical Judaism accepted slavery as a self-evident institution.

There were probably black slaves from Africa in Jewish households in the Second Temple period or in the time of the Talmud, but Jews did not need a theological legitimation for this situation, and the discussions in the post-biblical literature about the fate of Ham were intended to reconcile contradictions in the biblical story. Josephus, for example, tried (Jewish Antiquities, 1:8, 131-132) to explain why no harm was caused to Ham's son Kush, but only to Canaan. The midrashic literature, on the other hand, which identified Ham with "black," attempted to explain why only one of Noah's sons became black. In any event, the writers of that literature did not deal with the ethnographic or social reality of their time, but only with hermeneutic debates, the fruit of their imagination. Hence, regardless of what interpretation is given to that group of midrashim which reflects the representation and image of the black man in the rabbinical literature and the medieval biblical interpretation, there is no doubt that in this literature any explicit link between the negative image of the black man as ugly and bestial and the institution of slavery, which is a result of the biblical curse on Canaan, is totally marginal. …

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