‘The Curse of Ham’ (Genesis 9:18-27), or the curse placed by Noah on Ham’s son, and his grandson, Canaan, is one of troubling consequence.
The Biblical tale has been widely used since the 17th century in the Western world to justify black slavery and racism.
Over time, the belief grew that the Biblical Ham and his descendants, black Africans, had been cursed with eternal slavery.
Christian slavers used this passage to justify their horrid trade, giving it a Biblical validation. Since then, it has been used to defend all manner of racism from the withholding of civil rights to apartheid.
However, David M Goldenberg demonstrated in his groundbreaking study, The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, there is no mention in earlier sources of Ham’s descendants’ blackness.
As Martin Luther King famously told a religious gathering: “I understand there are those among you who try to justify segregation on the basis of the Bible. They argue the Negro is inferior by nature because of Noah’s curse upon the children of Ham. Oh my friends, this is blasphemy.”
Israel will eventually enter the land of Canaan, and the Torah might offer here a justification of the conquest: the land can be taken from a people with evil behaviour. As Martin Luther King pointed out, using Bible to justify iniquity is at the least a blasphemy.
Another troubling aspect of this verse is that the curse was placed on the son, Canaan, rather than the father. The Dead Sea Scrolls offer a commentary: since Ham had already been blessed by God (Genesis 9:1), the curse could only fall on his son.
Liberal Judaism heeds the lessons regarding the principles of equality for all and that children are never to be held responsible for the actions of their parents.
René Pfertzel is rabbi at Kingston Liberal Synagogue