Black Ham: Ham and Race in the Old Testament

We have covered Cain and “blackness,” probably more than it deserves. In this post, I will run through a quick and dirty discussion of Ham and “blackness.”  This explanation has, hands down, no contest, dominated racial exegesis in European Biblical scholarship until the last 50+ years. While there is more–much more–to the Noachian story, if this blog post can help form even one well-framed discussion point for a Gospel Doctrine teacher, it is worth the time. The Gospel Doctrine Manual does not so much as mention Ham’s existence (like, anywhere). Since Ham is both in Genesis and Abraham (next week’s lesson), it’s best to be prepared.

My primary consideration here is, as always, what the text/context means; how that text has been used is another (and often, sociopolitical) matter. When ancient texts do not resonate with a person or cause them emotional harm, I maintain that rather than changing the meaning of the text, we can cut our personal Gordian Knot: choose not to believe them–to place in the same category as thousands of other ancient texts that we have deemed irrelevant to our lives. But before we choose not to believe them, we should follow David Bentley Hart’s advice:  “Make sure that [we] have a clear concept of what it is [we] claim not to believe.”

In Genesis 9, we read the following account:

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.

It is a rather weird story. So, Noah’s drunk (we Mormons are already off to a rough start). And Ham sees him. And Noah’s upset with Noah, so he curses him. And…now we have black people!

It’s not exactly a mythology that explains itself–and there is good reason for the ambiguity. Ancient stories passed down over 2,000 years tend to get a bit, well, muddled.

For the nineteenth-century world, arguing that the “curse of Ham” served as the go-to origin mythology for peoples of African descent is, frankly, a no brainer. All but the most radical, out-there white theologians believed it.  To be sure, some black theologians read the text differently; while Ham’s son, Cannan, was cursed to be the “servant of servants,” Canaan’s brother, Cush, founded Ethiopia–and labored under no such curse.  In the early 1840s, black author James W.C. Pennington accused believers in the curse as, at best, “mistaken in their game”; they must “discharge the Africans. . .and go get the Canaanites” (Mia Bay, The White Image, 51).

Bright as Pennington was, he did not have access to the philological literature today. Whence, then, came the association between “Ham” and African peoples?  I am drawing extensively from David Goldenberg’s The Curse of Ham–so much that it would be redundant to cite each of his claims. I recommend reading chpts. 9-12, if you would like to engage the totality of his arguments.

Meaning of Ham in the Tanak
We have no want for theories of the name’s meaning; commentaries teem with etymologies that suggest an origin in a West Semitic Sun God, a reference to the Semitic word, ham (“father-in-law”) to the Egyptian word, hm (“servant”).  In his review of explanations, William F. Albright observed: “Plausible etymologies are wanting.” David Goldenberg, after examining–and dismissing all of them–argues that our rendering of the name Ham has been outright wrong. The most commonly-used etymology related Ham to the Hebrew, hwm (“hot”; “black”). But, n the earliest Judeo-Christian texts, we have no evidence of Ham being identified as having “black” skin; Philo  Nor, for that matter, do we have evidence in any modern Mormon texts of Ham’s blackness.

How, then, did the text come to suggest Ham’s “blackness”?

First, there is the issue of sheer misreading. In engaging the text, it’s a rather simple error to conflate Ham’s sin with Canaan’s curse. Ham committed the sin, after all; should he not receive the honors of having the cursed name after him? Parley P. Pratt made this error, as did B.H. Roberts and Bruce R. McConkie. But whether one wants to identify it as the curse of Ham or the curse of Canaan does not engage the broader questions of these figures alleged associations with blackness.

Using the Septuagint (LXX), Goldenberg argues that rather than using a chet (ח–as inחמ) Ham comes from something like a glottal sound, similar to ayin (spelled as something like עמ). The LXX transliteration of the Hebrew offers hint about the original spelling of words; the text reveals that ח masked two consonants: one represented glottal sounds like ayin and the other represents an audible consonant like ח.  While the word the LXX transliterates Ham using the glottal sound, the word for “to be hot” uses ח.  Whatever Ham’s name comes from, it uses a letter distinct from the current text’s chet. 

Thus, Ham cannot mean “hot” or “black.” The closest we can come to an etymology, Goldenberg concludes, is through names in Southern Arabic, such as Hm bn Blm.  Its meaning has nothing to do with “blackness”: instead, it means: “to stink,” “to feel bad/be ill,” or “to go rotten.” Goldenberg surrenders further claims to authoritativeness: “At this stage of our knowledge, however, with the texts that have thus far come to light we can go no further.”

But the suggestion that Ham meant “black” was too appealing as an origin mythology. It explained a system already in place.  As early as the 3rd-century C.E., we have sound evidence of Arabian traders taking African slaves to their Canton trading base in China. No later than the 7th-century C.E./A.D. do we see the words B’Nai Ham (son of Ham) as a euphemism for “black African man.”  While evidence of “white slavery” exists in medieval Andalusia, this was not reflective of the East African-Arab trade relationships. By the 7th-century, Nubia had brokered a contract to supply Egypt with 350+ African slaves. While most slaves were not blacks, most blacks were slaves.  With a reasonable Biblical explanation in hand, commentators Jewish, Christian, and Muslim found the  Ham explanation to be simple, even if its relevance was oblique, at best.

Ham in LDS Restoration Scripture

Mormon texts do have something to say about Ham and Canaan, and those claims deserve unpacking.

First, Abraham 1:

(Author’s note: I am, for the sake of discussion, bracketing historicity questions; after all, most Mormon commentators have engaged these texts at face value. If we are to understand their applicability and reception history, getting bogged down in whether the text’s fundamental accuracy is correct distracts rather than illuminates the current discussion. Historicity can wait for another day).

In  Joseph Smith’s translation of Moses, we have a prophesy from Enoch:

And the Lord said unto me [Enoch]: Prophesy; and I prophesied, saying: Behold the people of Canaan, which are numerous, shall go forth in battle array against the people of Shum, and shall slay them that they shall utterly be destroyed; and the people of Canaan shall divide themselves in the land, and the land shall be barren and unfruitful, and none other people shall dwell there but the people of Canaan;

For behold, the Lord shall curse the land with much heat, and the barrenness thereof shall go forth forever; and there was a blackness came upon all the children of Canaan, that they were despised among all people.

12 And it came to pass that Enoch continued to call upon all the people, save it were the people of Canaan, to repent;

Joseph Smith accepted the Canaanite explanation/justification for African ancestry and enslavement.

The Book of Moses’s notion that Canaanites, not only Ham, were “black” can claim a tradition, a tradition well-understood by medieval times; Pseudo-Eupolemus (2nd century B.C.E) identifies Canaan as “the father of the Ethiopians” and his son, as Chum, who likely is Kush from the Biblical narrative.  While this deviates from the Biblical tradition, it is preserved by both Islamic and Eastern Orthodox sources (e.g. Nestorian Christian Ibn al-Taiyib and the Eastern Orthodox Cave of Treasures).

But Moses deviates from these accounts in an important way: the Canaanite “blackness” derives not from Ham’s sin but from the Lord “curs[ing] the land with much heat.”  Moreover, this “blackness” is distinct from Cain’s “blackness,” suggesting that this “blackness” does not refer to a particular lineage of people. The Moses text accords more exactly with the environmental explanations common to Aristotelain and more recently, 18th-century thought–and certainly in line with Pennington’s claims.

Joseph Smith’s translation of Abraham offers an extension of the Canaanite narrative:

21 Now this king of Egypt was a descendant from the loins of Ham, and was a partaker of the blood of the Canaanites by birth.

22 From this descent sprang all the Egyptians, and thus the blood of the Canaanites was preserved in the land.

23 The land of Egypt being first discovered by a woman, who was the daughter of Ham, and the daughter of Egyptus, which in the Chaldean signifies Egypt, which signifies that which is forbidden;

24 When this woman discovered the land it was under water, who afterward settled her sons in it; and thus, from Ham, sprang that race which preserved the curse in the land.

25 Now the first government of Egypt was established by Pharaoh, the eldest son of Egyptus, the daughter of Ham, and it was after the manner of the government of Ham, which was patriarchal.

26 Pharaoh, being a righteous man, established his kingdom and judged his people wisely and justly all his days, seeking earnestly to imitate that order established by the fathers in the first generations, in the days of the first patriarchal reign, even in the reign of Adam, and also of Noah, his father, who blessed him with the blessings of the earth, and with the blessings of wisdom, but cursed him as pertaining to the Priesthood.

There is no reference to skin color/African ancestry as a curse in this text–not for Ham and not for Caanaan. Nor is skin color even associated with “the blood of the Canaanites.”  While the Lord does claim that a “blackness” shall “come over” the Canaanites, even if that is determined to refer to skin color (and the text itself doesn’t do much for that argument), nothing in either Moses or Abraham attributes that skin color to a state of “cursedness.”  Hugh Nibley argues  that “there is no exclusive equation between Ham and Pharoah, or between Ham and the Egyptians, or between Egyptians and the blacks, or between any of the above and any particular curse” (Abraham in Egypt, 220). Nibley attributes the curse to Egyptus’s claim to authority through “matriarchal succession.”  Those who are seeking a scriptural explanation for Hamitic/Canaanite “African-ness” will need to go elsewhere.

I have not even begun to engage what feels like the weirdness of this story. And the Old Testament will get weirder. But the Old Testament is a foreign animal anyway; we don’t need to add ungrounded, undocumentable (and, incidentally, harmful) layers to it.

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