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Biblical curse imposed on Canaan

Noah damning Ham, a 19th-century painting by Ivan Stepanovitch Ksenofontov

In the Book of Genesis, the curse of Ham is described as a curse which was imposed upon Ham’s son Canaan by the patriarch Noah. It occurs in the context of Noah’s drunkenness and it is provoked by a shameful act which was perpetrated by Noah’s son Ham, who “saw the nakedness of his father”.[1][2] The exact nature of Ham’s transgression and the reason Noah cursed Canaan when Ham had sinned have been debated for over 2,000 years.[3]

The story’s original purpose may have been to justify the biblical subjection of the Canaanites to the Israelites,[4] but in later centuries, the narrative was interpreted by some Christians, Muslims and Jews as an explanation for black skin, as well as a justification for slavery of black people.[5] Similarly, some in the Latter Day Saint movement used the curse of Ham to prevent the ordination of black men to its priesthood.[6][7]

Nevertheless, most Christians, Muslims, and Jews now disagree with such interpretations, because in the biblical text, Ham himself is not cursed, and race or skin color is never mentioned.[8][disputed – discuss]

Biblical narrative[edit]

The concept of the curse of Ham finds its origins in Genesis 9:

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.
– Genesis 9:20–27, King James Version

The objective of the story may have been to justify the subject status of the Canaanites, the descendants of Ham, to the Israelites, the descendants of Shem.[4] The narrative of the curse is replete with difficulties.[9] It is uncertain what the precise nature of Ham’s offense is.[9] Verse 22 has been a subject of debate,[10] as to whether it should be taken literally, or as “a euphemism for some act of gross immorality”.[9] In verse 25, Noah refers to Shem and Japheth as the “brethren” of Canaan, whereas in verse 18 they are identified as his uncles. The Table of Nations presents Canaan and Mizraim (Egypt) among the sons of Ham (10:6). In the Psalms, Egypt is equated with Ham.[11][12]

The treatment of Japheth in verses 26–27 raises questions: Why is YHWH named as the God of Shem, but not of Japheth? What does it mean that God will “enlarge” Japheth? And why will Japheth “dwell in the tents of Shem”?[13] Further difficulties include Ham’s being referred to as “the youngest son”, when all other lists make him Noah’s second son.[9] Biblical scholar Nahum Sarna says that the biggest challenge of the narrative is why Canaan was cursed, rather than Ham,[9] and that the concealed details of the shameful incident bear the same reticence as Reuben’s sexual transgression.[11][14]

The narrative’s short five verses indicate that Canaan’s Hamite paternity must have had great significance to the narrator or redactor, according to Sarna, who adds, “The curse on Canaan, invoked in response to an act of moral depravity, is the first intimation of the theme of the corruption of the Canaanites, which is given as the justification for their being dispossessed of their land and for the transfer of that land to the descendants of Abraham.”[15]

Ham’s transgression[edit]

Scholars have debated the exact nature of Ham’s misdeed with many identifying it as either voyeurism, castration, paternal incest, or maternal incest.[16]: 26 


The majority of commentators, both ancient and modern, have felt that Ham’s seeing his father naked was not a sufficiently serious crime to explain the punishment that follows.[17] Nevertheless, Genesis 9:23, where Shem and Japheth cover Noah with a cloak while averting their eyes, suggests that the act of “seeing (Noah’s) nakedness” is to be taken literally,[18] and it has recently been pointed out that, in first millennium Babylonia, looking at another person’s genitals was indeed regarded as a serious matter.[17] Other ancient commentators suggested that Ham was guilty of more than what the Bible says. The 2nd century Targum Onqelos has Ham gossiping about his father’s drunken disgrace “in the street” (a reading which has a basis in the original Hebrew), so that being held up to public mockery was what had angered Noah; as the Cave of Treasures (late 6th – early 7th century) puts it, “Ham laughed at his father’s shame and did not cover it, but laughed about it and mocked.”[19]

Paternal incest[edit]

Ancient commentaries have also debated whether “seeing” someone’s nakedness meant to have sex with that person (e.g., Leviticus 20:17).[18] The same idea was raised by third-century rabbis, in the Babylonian Talmud (c. 500 AD), who argue that Ham either castrated his father, or sodomised him.[20] The same explanations are found in three Greek translations of the Bible, which replace the word “see” in verse 22 with another word denoting homosexual relations.[19] The castration theory has its modern counterpart in suggested parallels found in the castration of Uranus by Cronus[21] in Greek mythology and a Hittite myth of the supreme god Anu whose genitals were “bitten off by his rebel son and cup-bearer Kumarbi, who afterwards rejoiced and laughed … until Anu cursed him”.[22]

Maternal incest[edit]

Some modern scholars, such as Bergsma and Hahn,[16]: 34–39  have suggested that Ham engaged in intercourse with his mother, Noah’s wife. Support for this theory can be found in verses such as Leviticus 20:11: “And the man that lieth with his father’s wife hath uncovered his father’s nakedness”. According to this interpretation of the story, Canaan was the offspring of the illicit union between Ham and his mother, which accounts for the curse falling upon Canaan rather than Ham.

Disrespecting a religious festival[edit]

According to Devorah Dimant, the Book of Jubilees depicts Noah planting, harvesting, and drinking wine in accordance with the stipulations of the Torah such that Noah’s drunkenness appears less problematic and Ham’s offense appears more problematic than in Genesis. Dimant writes that the timing of Noah’s viniculture and the procedure of Noah’s sacrifice in Jubilees 7:1–6 match Second Temple Judaism interpretations of Leviticus 19:23–25 and Numbers 29:1–6.[23] Thus, Dimant claims “Jubilees alleviates any misgivings that may be provoked by the episode of Noah’s drunkenness. In this light, Ham’s offense constitutes an act of disrespect not only to his father, but also to the festival ordinances.”[24]

Castration and paternal incest[edit]

The medieval commentator Rashi (1040–1105), writes of Ham’s offence against Noah: “There are those of our rabbis who say he emasculated [or castrated סרסו] him, and there are those who say he had [homosexual רבעו] relations with him.”[25][26] Rashi cites Sanhedrin 70a, which adds that those who believe that Ham had homosexual relations with his father agree that he also emasculated him.[27] Rashi continues: “What did Ham see that he emasculated him? He said to his brothers: Adam the first man had two sons, yet one killed the other because of the inheritance of the world [Cain killed Abel over a dispute how to divide the world between them according to Genesis Rabbah 22:7], and our father has three sons yet he seeks still a fourth son.”[25][26]

Curse of Canaan[edit]

  • Genesis 9:25: “And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren”

It is noteworthy that the curse was made by Noah, not by God. Some biblical scholars claim that when a curse is made by a man, it could only have been effective if God supports it, unlike the curse of Ham and his descendants, which was not confirmed by God[28] or, at least, it is not mentioned in the Bible that he had confirmed it.

4Q252, a pesher (interpretation) on the Book of Genesis found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, explains that since Ham had already been blessed by God (Genesis 9:1), he could not now be cursed by Noah.[29] The 4Q252 scroll probably dates from the later half of the first century BC.[30] A century later, the Jewish historian Josephus argued that Noah refrained from cursing Ham because of his nearness of kin, and so cursed Ham’s son instead.[31]

A new alternative interpretation of 4Q181, which is a Dead Sea scroll of Genesis, parallels the Book of Jubilees, suggesting that Canaan was cursed because he defied Noah’s division of the land.[32][33]


The Book of Jubilees also recounts the incident between Ham and Noah, and Noah’s resulting curse against Canaan, in similar terms. Later, however, Jubilees explains further that Ham had allocated to Canaan a land west of the Nile (Jubilees 9:1), and all Noah’s sons agreed to invoke a curse on anyone who tries to seize land that was not allocated to them (Jubilees 9:14–15). But Canaan violated this agreement and instead chose to squat in the land delineated to Shem and his descendants, and so Canaan brought upon himself the full force of this second curse (Jubilees 10:29–35).[34]

Classical Judaism[edit]

Philo of Alexandria, a 1st-century BC Jewish philosopher, said that Ham and Canaan were equally guilty, if not of whatever had been done to Noah, then of other crimes, “for the two of them together had acted foolishly and wrongly and committed other sins.” Rabbi Eleazar decided that Canaan had in fact been the first to see Noah, and had then gone and told his father, who then told his brothers in the street; this, said Eleazar, “did not take to mind the commandment to honour one’s father.” Another interpretation was that Noah’s “youngest son” could not be Ham, who was the middle son: “for this reason they say that this youngest son was in fact Canaan.”[31]

According to Rashi, Ham castrated Noah and prevented him from having a fourth son; therefore, Noah cursed Ham’s own fourth son, Canaan.[25][26]

While the episode about Ham and his father Noah displays like a banner the actions of the fathers unto the shame of their sons, the codifiers of Jewish law assert that a Canaanite slave is obligated to perform certain mitzvot, just as Jewish women do, making him of a higher rank than ordinary gentiles when there is a question on whose life should be saved first.[35] Moreover, according to the Hebrew Bible (Exo. 21:26ff.), whenever a Canaanite slave is set free from his yoke by losing either a tooth or an eye, or one of twenty-four chief limbs in a man’s body that cannot be replaced, where the Torah says of him, “he shall set him free”, according to the exponents of Jewish law, the sense here is that the same emancipated slave becomes a “freeborn” (benei ḥorīn) and is received in the Jewish fold and is permitted to marry a daughter of Israel.[36] However, his emancipation must be followed by a written bill of manumission (sheṭar shiḥrūr) by the rabbinic court of Israel.[37] Hence: a Canaanite slave’s bondage was meant to elevate himself at a later juncture in life, although his Master in ordinary circumstances is under no constraints to set him free, unless he were physically and openly maimed.

The rules governing a Canaanite slave are used generically, and may apply to any non-Jew (gentile) held in bondage by an Israelite.[38]

According to Rashi, citing an earlier Talmudic source,[39] the heathen were never included in the sanction of possessing slaves as the children of Israel were permitted to do, for the Scripture says (Leviticus 25:44): “Of them you shall buy, etc.”, meaning, “Israel alone is permitted to buy from them [enslaved persons], but they are not permitted to buy [enslaved persons] from you, nor from one another.”[40]

Racism and slavery[edit]

In the past, some people claimed that the curse of Ham was a biblical justification for imposing slavery and racial discrimination towards black people, although this concept has been criticized for being an ideologically driven misconception.[41] Regarding this matter, the Christian leader Martin Luther King Jr. called such an attempt a “blasphemy” that “is against everything that the Christian religion stands for.”[42]

For Southern slave owners who were faced with the abolitionist movement to end slavery, the curse of Ham was one of the many grounds upon which Christian planters could formulate an ideological defense of slavery.[43] Even before slavery, in order to promote economic motivations within Europe associated with colonialism, the curse of Ham was used to shift the common Aristotelian belief that phenotypic differentiation among humans was a result of climatic difference, to a racialist perspective that phenotypic differentiation among the species was due to there being different racial types.[44] This often came as a result of European anxieties to avoid being sent to the colonies, as they were terrified of the high casualty rate of settlers due to disease and warfare. Thus, many of them formulated the idea that being sent south of the equator “blackened” them and thus made them inferior.[45]

In the 15th century, Dominican friar Annius of Viterbo invoked the Curse of Ham to explain the differences between Europeans and Africans in his writings. Annius, who frequently wrote of the “superiority of Christians over the Saracens”, claimed that due to the curse imposed upon black people, they would inevitably remain permanently subjugated by Arabs and other Muslims. He wrote that the fact that so many Africans had been enslaved by the heretical Muslims was supposed proof of their inferiority. Through these and other writings, European writers established a hitherto unheard of connection between Ham, Africa and slavery, which laid the ideological groundwork for justifying the transatlantic slave trade.[44][45]

The historian David Whitford writes of a “curse matrix” which was derived from the vagueness of Genesis 9 and interpreted by racialists to mean that it mattered not who was cursed or which specific group of people the curse originated with, all that mattering being that there was a vague reference to a generational curse that could be exploited by those seeking to justify their actions against black people, such as Southern slaveowners.[45]

Pro-slavery intellectuals were hard-pressed to find a justification for slavery and racism within Christian theology which taught the belief that all humans were descendants of Adam and they were therefore one race, possessed with equal salvation potential and deserving to be treated as kin.[44] The curse of Ham was used to drive a wedge in the mythology of a single human race, as elite intellectuals were able to convince people that the three sons of Noah represented the three sects of Man and their respective hierarchy of different fates. Leading intellectuals in the South, like Benjamin Morgan Palmer, claimed that white Europeans were descended from Japhet, who was prophesied to cultivate civilization and the powers of the intellect by Noah, but Africans, being the descendants of the cursed Ham, were destined to be possessed by a slavish nature which would be ruled by base appetites.[43]

Early Judaism and Islam[edit]

Noah curses Ham by Gustave Dore

While Genesis 9 never says that Ham was black, he became associated with black skin, through folk etymology deriving his name from a similar, but actually unconnected, word meaning “dark” or “brown”.[46] The next stage are certain fables according to ancient Jewish traditions. According to one legend preserved in the Babylonian Talmud, God cursed Ham because he broke a prohibition on sex aboard the ark and “was smitten in his skin”;[47] according to another, Noah cursed him because he castrated his father.[48]

Although the Talmud only refers to Ham, the version brought in a midrash goes on further to say “Ham, that Cush came from him” in reference to the blackness,[49] that the curse did not apply to all of Ham but only to his eldest son Cush, who migrated to sub-Sahara Africa.[50] Thus, two distinct traditions existed, one explaining dark skin as the result of a curse on Ham, the other explaining slavery by the separate curse on Canaan.[51]

Historically, other Muslim scholars such as Ahmad Baba al-Timbukti criticized the Curse of Ham narrative and they went on to criticize the association of black Africans with slaves.[58] Others, such as Ibn Kathir, more broadly criticised the Isra’iliyyat tradition, and avoided using such reports when explaining verses of the Quran.[59]

As for the Islamic tradition itself, in the Farewell Sermon, the Prophet Muhammad said: “O people, your Lord is one and your father [Adam] is one. There is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab, nor a non-Arab over an Arab; no superiority of a white person over a black person, nor superiority of a black person over a white person – except through mindfulness of God.”[60]

Medieval serfdom and “Pseudo-Berossus”[edit]

In medieval Christian exegesis, Ham’s sin was regarded as laughter (for mocking his father and doing nothing to rectify his condition).[61]

Elsewhere in Medieval Europe, the curse of Ham also became used as a justification for serfdom. Honorius Augustodunensis (c. 1100) was the first recorded to propose a caste system associating Ham with serfdom, writing that serfs were descended from Ham, nobles from Japheth, and free men from Shem. However, he also followed the interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:21 by Ambrosiaster (late 4th century), which held that as servants in the temporal world, these “Hamites” were likely to receive a far greater reward in the next world than would the Japhetic nobility.[62][63]

The idea that serfs were the descendants of Ham soon became widely promoted in Europe. An example is Dame Juliana Berners (c. 1388), who, in a treatise on hawks, claimed that the “churlish” descendants of Ham had settled in Europe, those of the temperate Shem in Africa, and those of the noble Japheth in Asia (a departure from normal arrangements, which placed Shem in Asia, Japheth in Europe, and Ham in Africa), because she considered Europe to be the “country of churls”, Asia of gentility, and Africa of temperance.[64] As serfdom waned in the late medieval era, the interpretation of serfs being descendants of Ham decreased as well.[65]

Ham also figured in an immensely influential work Commentaria super opera diversorum auctorum de antiquitatibus (Commentaries on the Works of Various Authors Discussing Antiquity). In 1498, Annius of Viterbo claimed to have translated records of Berossus, an ancient Babylonian priest and scholar; which are today usually considered an elaborate forgery. However, they gained great influence over Renaissance ways of thinking about population and migration, filling a historical gap following the biblical account of the flood.[66] According to this account, Ham studied the evil arts that had been practiced before the flood, and thus became known as “Cam Esenus” (Ham the Licentious), as well as the original Zoroaster and Saturn (Cronus).

He became jealous of Noah’s additional children born after the deluge, and began to view his father with enmity, and one day, when Noah lay drunk and naked in his tent, Ham saw him and sang a mocking incantation that rendered Noah temporarily sterile, as if castrated. This account contains several other parallels connecting Ham with Greek myths of the castration of Uranus by Cronus, as well as Italian legends of Saturn and/or Camesis ruling over the Golden Age and fighting the Titanomachy. Ham in this version also abandoned his wife who had been aboard the ark and had mothered the African peoples, and instead married his sister Rhea, daughter of Noah, producing a race of giants in Sicily.

American/European slavery, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries[edit]

The explanation that black Africans, as the “sons of Ham”, were cursed, possibly “blackened” by their sins, was sporadically advanced during the Middle Ages, but its acceptance became increasingly common during the slave trade of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.[67][68][69] The justification of slavery itself through the sins of Ham was well suited to the ideological interests of the elite; with the emergence of the slave trade, its racialized version justified the exploitation of African labour.

A Redenção de Cam (Redemption of Ham), by Galician-Brazilian painter Modesto Brocos, 1895, Museu Nacional de Belas Artes. The painting depicts a black grandmother, mulatta mother, white father and their quadroon child, hence three generations of racial hypergamy through whitening.

In the parts of Africa where Christianity flourished in its early days, while it was still illegal in Rome, this idea never took hold, and its interpretation of scripture was never adopted by the African Coptic Churches. A modern Amharic commentary on Genesis cites the nineteenth century theory and the earlier European theory which state that blacks were subjected to whites as a result of the curse of Ham, but it calls this belief a false teaching which is unsupported by the text of the Bible, it emphatically points out that Noah’s curse did not fall upon all of the descendants of Ham, instead, it only fell upon the descendants of Canaan, and it asserts that the curse was fulfilled when Canaan was occupied by Semites (Israel) and Japhetites. The commentary further notes that Canaanites ceased to exist as a political force after the Third Punic War (149 BC), and as a result, their current descendants are unknown and they are also scattered among all peoples.[70]

The Anglo-Irish scientist Robert Boyle – a seventeenth-century polymath who was also a theologian and a devout Christian – refuted the idea that blackness was caused by the curse of Ham, in his book Experiments and Considerations Touching Colours (1664).[71][72] There, Boyle explains that the curse of Ham as an explanation for the complexion of coloured people was but a misinterpretation that was embraced by “vulgar writers”, travelers, critics, and also “men of note” of his time.[73] In his work, he challenges that vision, explaining:

And not only we do not find expressed in the Scripture, that the Curse meant by Noah to Cham, was the Blackness of his Posterity, but we do find plainly enough there that the Curse was quite another thing, namely that he should be a Servant of Servants, that is by an Ebraism, a very Abject Servant to his Brethren, which accordingly did in part come to pass, when the Israelites of the posterity of Sem, subdued the Canaanites, that descended from Cham, and kept them in great Subjection. Nor is it evident that Blackness is a Curse, for Navigators tell us of Black Nations, who think so much otherwise of their own condition, that they paint the Devil White. Nor is Blackness inconsistent with Beauty, which even to our European Eyes consists not so much in Colour, as an Advantageous Stature, a Comely Symmetry of the parts of the Body, and Good Features in the Face. So that I see not why Blackness should be thought such a Curse to the Negroes… [author’s italics and capitalization]

A number of other scholars also support the claim that the racialized version of the curse of Ham was devised at that time because it suited the ideological and economic interests of the European elite and the slave traders who wanted to justify their exploitation of African laborers.[74] While Robinson (2007) claims that such a version was non-existent before, historian David Brion Davis also argues that contrary to the claims of many reputable historians, neither the Talmud nor any early post-biblical Jewish writing relates blackness of the skin to a curse whatsoever.[75]


In what is now Ethiopia, the Abyssinian Church justified slavery with its version of the Curse of Ham.[76]

Latter Day Saint movement[edit]

In 1835, Joseph Smith, the founder of the Latter Day Saint movement, published a work which was titled the Book of Abraham. It explicitly states that an Egyptian king who is referred to by the name of Pharaoh was a descendant of Ham and the Canaanites,[77] who were black,[78] that Noah had cursed his lineage so they did not have the right to the priesthood,[79] and that all Egyptians descended from him.[80]

It was later considered scripture by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church). This passage is the only one which is found in any Mormon scripture that bars a particular lineage of people from holding the priesthood, and, while nothing in the Book of Abraham explicitly states that Noah’s curse was the same curse which is mentioned in the Bible or that the Egyptians were related to other black Africans,[81] it later became the foundation of church policy with regard to the priesthood ban.[6] The 2002 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual points to Abraham 1:21–27 as the reason why black men were not given the priesthood until 1978.[7]

In 1836, Smith taught that the curse of Ham came from God, and it stated that blacks were cursed with servitude.[82] He warned those who tried to interfere with slavery that God could do his own work.[83][84] However, in contrast to this, in 1835 Smith published a revelation received in 1833 in which the Lord states, referring to slavery, “it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another”.[85] Smith started expressing more anti-slavery positions starting in 1842.[86]: 18 [87]: 18–19  In 1844, when Smith ran for president of the United States in the wake of widespread opposition to Mormon settlement in Illinois, he advocated for the abolition of slavery by the year 1850.

After Smith’s death, Brigham Young, the next leader of the LDS Church, maintained that black Africans were under the curse of Ham and he also maintained that those who tried to abolish slavery were going against the decrees of God, although the day would come when the curse would be nullified through the saving powers of Jesus Christ.[88] In addition, based on his interpretation of the Book of Abraham, Young believed that, as a result of this curse, negroes were banned from the Mormon priesthood.[89]

In 1978, LDS Church president Spencer W. Kimball said that he received a revelation that extended the priesthood to all worthy male members of the church without regard to race or color.[90] In 2013, the LDS Church denounced the curse of Ham explanation for the withholding of the priesthood from black Africans.[91]

See also[edit]




External links[edit]

Views on slavery
Religious texts