Genesis 9:18–29 has been popularly understood to mean that Ham was cursed, and this understanding has often been used to justify the oppression of African people, the descendants of Ham. In this view, Ham offended his father, Noah, and because of this his descendants are also cursed, and Ham is presented as the father of African people. The text does give the impression that Ham was cursed, but a more careful reading of the passage reveals that this is not so. In fact, Canaan was the offender and the one cursed.
Two Versions of Noah’s Family
Confusion has arisen because Genesis is not a book in the modern sense, but an editorial synthesis of the different traditions of Noah’s family. The recognition of the composite nature of Genesis provides the key to the understanding of Genesis 9:18–29. As there are two versions of creation (Genesis 1:1–2:4a and 2:4b–25), and two genealogies of humankind before the flood (Genesis 4:17–26; 5:1–32), so there are two versions of Noah’s family. In Genesis 9, verses 18 and 19 represent one tradition; verses 20–27 embody another.
Verses 18–19 reflect the view that the (married) sons of Noah were Shem, Ham, and Japheth and that they were the ancestors of all the peoples of the biblical world. In 9:20–27, on the other hand, the (apparently unmarried) sons of Noah are Shem, Japheth, and Canaan. In this version of Noah’s sons, the one cursed is Canaan, and the purpose of these verses is to account for relations between Israelites, Canaanites, and Philistines in the land of Canaan. This tradition of Noah’s sons seems also to be reflected in Genesis 10:21 where Shem is referred to as the elder brother of Japheth.
The popular understanding of Genesis 9:18–29 is so confusing because the Hebrew text at an early stage of its transmission had been edited to harmonize the two traditions of Noah’s sons. This was done by adding the note in 9:18b with regard to Ham being the father of Canaan. The concern of 9:18–19 is to establish that Shem, Ham, and Japheth, and only these three, were the forebears of all the peoples of the biblical world. The note that explains Ham’s relationship to Canaan in 9:18b introduces a new and unrelated subject. And this note is made conspicuous as an addition by the absence of similar information about Shem and Japheth.
It is understandable that someone confronted by the two traditions of Noah’s family in Genesis 9:18–29 would attempt to harmonize them. The authority for the editorial addition in 9:18b is Genesis 10:6, where it is stated that Ham indeed was the father of Canaan. However, the author of these editorial notes overlooks the fact that in Genesis 9:24–25 Noah is the father of Canaan.
The recognition that there are two traditions of Noah’s sons in Genesis 9:18-29 opens the way to a correct interpretation of the passage. The only basis for identifying Ham as the offender is the note in 9:18b. When it is understood that this note was not a part of the original narrative but a later editorial addition to the text, the offender as well as the one cursed is Canaan. Ham was not the one cursed because in Genesis 9:1 God blessed Ham and his brothers. As Balaam could not curse Israel whom God had blessed (Numbers 22:12; 23:8), so Noah could not have cursed Ham, whom God had blessed. There is the additional awkwardness that Ham is consistently referred to as Noah’s middle son, but the one cursed is identified as Noah’s youngest son.
The Descendants of Noah
Genesis 10 contains a list of the descendants of Shem, Ham, and Japheth. If there were any negative thoughts and feelings toward Ham and his descendants, this passage, following immediately on Noah’s curse and blessing, would have been the place to express them. But no disparaging remark is made about anyone. Rather, all the descendants of Noah are listed as related to one another as brothers and sisters. The point of Genesis 10 is that humankind is conceived as a unity, and the diversity of peoples with “their own languages, tribes, and land” (vv. 5, 20, 31, CEV) is understood as the fulfillment of God’s command to Noah and his sons to be fruitful and to multiply, and to fill the earth (Genesis 9:1,7). As God inspected the creation in Genesis 1 and declared it to correspond exactly to divine intention—that it is good—so Genesis 10 implies that humankind in all its ethnic and racial manifestations corresponds to God’s intention and is good.
Abraham had no reservations about going to Egypt, the land of Ham (Psalms 78:51; 105:23, 27; 106:22) when there was a famine in Canaan (Genesis 12:10–20). Nor did Abraham and Sarah have any qualms about using Hagar, an Egyptian, as a surrogate mother so they could have an heir (Genesis 16). Moses was married to a Cushite (the Hebrew word for the peoples living south of Egypt whom the Greeks called Ethiopians, a word meaning literally, “burnt faces”), and while Miriam and Aaron spoke out against her, the context shows that they were really protesting Moses’ exclusive authority to speak for God (Numbers 12). Moses accepted instruction from his Cushite father-in-law, Jethro, in the administration of justice with the Israelites (Exodus 18:13–27). And, the prophet Amos likens Israel to the Ethiopians to make the point that the distant and different Ethiopians were just as near and dear to God as the covenant people (Amos 9:7, 8a).
No Basis for a Curse on Ham
However one reads Genesis 9:18–29, and it is clear that there is no basis for a curse on Ham in this passage. The curse is on Canaan, and it is because of behavior, not race. The passage is concerned with political relationships between the Israelites, the Canaanites, and the Philistines in Canaan in the 10th century B.C., not with Africans.
The consequences of the popular misunderstanding and abuse of Genesis 9:18–29 illustrate what a responsibility it is to rightly interpret Scripture. The erroneous idea that there is a curse on Ham and thus somehow on Africans is not the fault of the Bible. At the least, it is poor exegesis and reflects a lack of knowledge of biblical scholarship. Used in a racist sense, this erroneous idea is a reminder of the ingenuity and perversity with which humans find ways to justify their sins to themselves and to others.
The erroneous idea of a curse on Ham stands in violent conflict with the theological heartbeat of the Bible that we are all sons and daughters of God, that we are all related to one another as members of a family, that each of us, whatever our race, ethnicity, and nationality, is special and precious to God, and that we were created for companionship with God—and fellowship with one another.
This article is adapted from an article written by Dr. Gene Rice in the African American Jubilee Bible (American Bible Society 1999). Dr. Rice is a Professor of Old Testament Language and Literature at the Howard University School of Divinity in Washington. D.C.