Why is it that so many Christians did not stand up against slavery and why do some even to this day still struggle with racism? I grew up in the North and in Japan so racism wasn't something I had really seen a whole lot of out in the open growing up. It wasn't until my family moved to Oklahoma and then when I went to Bible college in the South that I ran into it unashamedly taught. The tension between black and white Christians has grieved my heart and I wondered how we got here.
As I mentioned in my last article on race and the Gospel which can be found here, slavery was justified in Antebellum America using the bible. The passage most used to promote this heresy was Genesis 9:18-27:
And the sons of Noah, that went forth of the ark, were Shem, and Ham, and Japheth: and Ham is the father of Canaan. 19 These are the three sons of Noah: and of them was the whole earth overspread. 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.
According to proponents of this theory black people were descendants of Ham who was cursed by God for uncovering the nakedness of Noah when he was drunk. I guess magically, Ham just turned black to them because all of Noah's sons would have looked pretty similar. After settling down, according to this theory, Ham's descendants all settled in Africa. There are a lot of misunderstandings and purposeful twisting of this text to arrive at this conclusion. Let me say from the start these people were not honestly seeking to know what the Bible had to say about the issue of racism; they were seeking justification for their cultural sin. Nevertheless, lets take apart this argument piece by piece.
The argument often began with a false definition for the name of Ham. When you look into the meaning of the name Ham in the Bible, you will come up with the following definition in most lexicons: hot, warm or black; however, if you do a word study of its uses in Hebrew, you will come up with meanings such as hot, burning in anger, father-in-law, or to surround or protect. The word black was added to most definitions because of its similarity to an Egyptian word for Black referencing the black dirt of the Nile region. Color is not included in any of the uses of the Hebrew root and its derivatives. Most tried to tie the two meanings together with the idea of being burnt in the sun.
There is scholarly evidence that the original usage of the name Ham is of ambiguous origins and may not mean any of these things at all. David Goldenberg argues in his book The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam that this understanding of the word is inaccurate. For a more complete take on this discussion check out Chapter 10 of his book or for a brief synopsis, you can listen to an interview he did on NPR here.
Misreading the text
The biggest argument against the "Curse of Ham" theory is that it is a blatant misreading of the text. Notice vs 25: "Cursed be Canaan." Who was cursed? It wasn't Ham though he was involved in the sin. It was Canaan. Now Ham had four sons: Cush, Mizraim, Phut, and Canaan. The Cushites are generally accepted as being the ancestors of the Ethiopia; Mizraim was another name for Egypt; Phut refers to Libya and Canaan refers to the Canaanites who settled in the Middle East. It can be argued that most of Ham's descendants did settle in Egypt, but it does not necessarily follow that they were all black. At the very least the Cushites and the Canaanites most likely were not black.
Ultimately, it is important to realize the curse was placed on Canaan. We do not know all the reasons why Canaan was cursed and Ham was not. Jewish theologians have come up with several interpretations including Canaan being tacitly observing, committing incest with Noah, and or mutilating Noah in his drunken stupor. The text does not say. One thing is clear, only one specific child was cursed by Noah: Canaan.
Where did the Canaanites live and what happened to them? The Canaanites were the inhabitants of the Jordan River valley and more specifically the southern hills. They lived in the land of Israel before Israel settled there. God had given this land and commanded the Jews to eliminate all the Canaanites from the land and for the most part they were successful but because of compromise some small pockets of Canaanites still existed. Now this much is clear, any Canaanites who exists today is not black African, but of Middle Eastern descent. The curse was not placed on black people and their descendants.
I am grateful that while I was in Bible college, I got to hear Ken Ham preach a conference in North Carolina. The message he brought that night was on how God had created of "One blood" all the nations of the earth. He spent the time working through this curse of Ham foolishness and explained what the bible actually says.
As believer's we must take a stand against heresies that make other human's of lesser value to God or push us to avoid evangelism and relationship with those people. Unfortunately, influential men of the past such as W.A. Criswell were big proponents of this foolishness. Now anyone who knows me knows that I don't normally name names because I believe that most of the time the arguments we get into are over extra biblical topics; but, this is an issue of false doctrine and a stand needs to be taken. I pray that God will begin to open the eyes of believers everywhere to the sin of racism.