I was a new believer when I heard a pastor explain Genesis 9:20–27.
He explained that Noah, after his exodus from the ark, planted a vineyard. After an evening of drinking, Noah passed out naked. When his son Ham discovered his disrobed dad, he invited his brothers, Shem and Japheth, to look. They refused and covered their father’s nakedness:
When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said, “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.” (Gen. 9:24–25)
Ham had sinned against righteous Noah, the pastor explained, so God cursed his son Canaan and his descendants by destining them to perpetual servitude (Gen. 9:25–27). Just as Cain had a mark on him (Gen. 4:15), so the Hebrew meaning of Ham’s name was “dark or black”—hence the mark on the cursed dark-skinned peoples of Africa. They were destined to continual subjugation, which is evident throughout history.
I never heard about this “curse of Ham” again—until I became a pastor.
Four Observations from Genesis 9
Before we go further, though, notice four things from Genesis 9:20–27.
1. Noah blessed Shem and Japheth.
A driving theme in Genesis is the promised seed of woman who will crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15). The author traces the seed from Adam to Abel to Seth to Noah and here through Shem, who turns out to be the great-grandfather of Abraham (Gen. 11:10–26).
2. Not all of Ham’s sons were cursed.
Ham had four sons: Cush, Egypt, Put, and Canaan, but only Canaan was cursed (Gen. 9:25–27; 10:6–20). The Canaanites’ abundant wickedness proved the curse was warranted. As a result, they were enslaved by a coalition of eastern kings (Gen. 14), by the Israelites during the conquest (Josh. 9:27; Judg. 1), and by Solomon during his reign as king (1 Kings 9:20–21).
3. The curse on Ham’s son wasn’t about skin color.
Noah’s curse of Canaan was due to his sinful conduct, not his skin color. Though most of Ham’s sons and the cities they built (Babel, Nineveh, Sodom, Gomorrah) were marked by idolatry and immorality, Canaan was uniquely evil and defiled the land (cf. Lev. 18). The Canaanites were cursed because they were evil-hearted, not because they were dark-skinned. In fact, recent scholarship has shown that “the name Ham is not related to the Hebrew or to any Semitic word meaning ‘dark’ [or] ‘black.’”
4. Ham wasn’t cursed.
Perhaps most glaringly, there is no curse of Ham in Genesis 9 or anywhere else in the Bible. Canaan, not Ham, was cursed by Noah. This means that the “biblical” doctrine used to justify the enslavement of dark-skinned peoples is completely fabricated and has no exegetical warrant.
Satan is a master of Scripture-twisting (Matt. 4:1–11). He is the deceiver behind false teachers who serve his purposes by “disguising themselves as . . . as servants of righteousness” (2 Cor. 11:13–15). Given both its lack of exegetical warrant and its evil fruit, “the curse of Ham” interpretation can only be described as a “doctrine of demons” (1 Tim. 4:1–3).
The curse of Ham is a form of the prosperity gospel that provides theological justification for pride, greed, racism, and partiality.
While belief in Ham’s curse can be traced to early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, its popularity grew exponentially in America prior to 1865. The curse served as a prooftext for pro-slavery preachers, enabling them to make heavenly sounding justifications for the hellish enslavement of dark-skinned image-bearers.
Baptist pastor and Southern Seminary trustee Iveson L. Brookes (1785–1868) taught that “Negro Slavery is an institution of heaven and intended for the mutual benefit of master and slave, as proved by the Bible. . . . God himself . . . authorized Noah to doom the posterity of Ham.”
Patrick Mell (1814–1888), the fourth president of the Southern Baptist Convention, proposed: “From Ham were descended the nations that occupied the land of Canaan and those that now constitute the African or Negro race. Their inheritance, according to prophecy, has been and will continue to be slavery . . . [and] so long as we have the Bible . . . we expect to maintain it.”
Satan is a master of Scripture-twisting.
Sadly, quotes like these were commonplace across denominations in the 1800s. And though slavery was abolished in 1865, echoes of this false doctrine continued to reverberate throughout America’s culture and churches. Prominent pastors used it to support segregation, and its sentiments fuel modern-day white supremacist theology. Just recently I had to take down racist posters promoting these lies near our church building.
Three Lessons from the Curse of Ham
Merely condemning a false teaching isn’t sufficient; we must consider how to avoid succumbing to similar traps. Here are three ways.
1. Beware of twisting Scripture to justify your sinful desires.
False teachings are attractive because some love what they promise. The curse of Ham is a form of the prosperity gospel that provides theological justification for pride, greed, racism, and partiality. Loving their sin, its proponents raised the volume on their Genesis 9:20–27 interpretation while muting texts condemning man-stealing (Ex. 21:16; 1 Tim. 1:10) and commanding love for neighbor (Luke 10:25–37). Hopefully you despise this error, but where are you temptable?
Are there sins you wish God affirmed? Beware, Satan has a doctrine for you. Is there a political philosophy that resonates with you? Beware, Satan has a doctrine for you. Do you live in poverty and long to be prosperous? Beware, Satan has a doctrine for you.
Beware, Satan has a doctrine for you.
If the “curse of Ham” teaches us anything, it’s that we must remain humbly tethered to Scripture in the context of a godly community. While no ethnic or social group has an advantage when it comes to proper exegesis, it’s helpful to have a diverse community when studying and applying the Scriptures. The Devil knows this, and does all he can to hinder it.
2. Labor against this error’s lasting effects.
False teaching always comes at another’s expense. The “curse of Ham” not only fueled the slave trade and the church’s blood-handed involvement—it has also poisoned generations with racist thinking. The perception of black people as ignorant, immoral, and deserving of subjugation by the “godly race” has long infected our country and its churches.
I grew up holding some of those prejudices. I assumed that my smart, safe, black friends were the exception. After becoming a Christian, I was told most black churches were theologically suspect, and I assumed it was true. But God has been merciful to me, and in recent years I’ve grown to see and repent of my own ungodly prejudices. I’ve seen many others do the same.
False teaching always comes at another’s expense.
Though the way forward for the church isn’t easy or clear, we must continue to put the remaining residue of the Hamitic doctrine to death. Here are a few basic steps:
- Read historical accounts of the doctrine’s fruit (e.g., My Bondage and My Freedom by Frederick Douglass).
- Ensure your theological library includes authors like Francis Grimke, Charles Octavius Boothe, Frederick Douglass, Lemuel Haynes, Conrad Mbewe, Thabiti Anyabwile, Voddie Baucham, and the African American Hymnal.
- Strive to cultivate diverse friendships.
- Partner with minority pastors for gospel causes.
- Recommend minority candidates who add to your staff’s gifting and share your leadership vision.
Satan continues to scheme, so we must journey together humbly and prayerfully to avoid his snares.
3. Be hopeful in Jesus
Jesus is the One to whom both the oppressed and oppressor must answer (Eph. 6:5). He became a curse to deliver us from the curse of sin and its effects (Gal. 3:13). He rose for the salvation of sinners from every tribe, tongue, and nation and unifies them as his multiethnic bride (Rom. 4:25; Eph. 2:11–22; Rev. 7:9). Because of this, we can have much hope as we lean on him together and boldly proclaim his gospel until he returns.
The gospel damns the curse of Ham and confirms the hope that Christ will soon return to deliver us from sin, once and for all.