The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; Noah's Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery

Book Review
Reviewer: Stirling Adams
Categories: Book Reviews
Journal: 44:1

DAVID M. GOLDENBERG. The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.

STEPHEN R. HAYNES. Noah's Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Two recent books explore how the Genesis account of Noah cursing his grandson Canaan came to be used as a primary justification for enslaving black Africans. In doing so, the books add to the understanding of how this and other biblical stories were previously viewed within Mormonism as support for race-based classifications. Genesis tells of Ham finding his father Noah drunk and uncovered in his tent. Ham informs his brothers Shem and Japheth. They, walking backward so as not to see their father's nakedness, cover Noah with a garment. After Noah awakes from his drunkenness, he curses—not Ham, and not himself—but Ham's son Canaan by pronouncing: "Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren" (see Genesis 9:20–27). There is no reference to dark skin, to any skin color, or to Africa, and Noah does not say the curse applies to Canaan's descendants. Yet this story, as it was amplified and changed in extrabiblical interpretations, became the ideological cornerstone used to justify the slavery of black Africans thousands of years afterwards.

David Goldenberg is a Jewish studies scholar and has been editor of the Jewish Quarterly Review, President of Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate Learning, and Associate Director of the Annenberg Research Institute for Judaic and Near Eastern Studies. In The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Goldenberg seeks to answer how and when the Genesis story became a "curse of Ham" condemning black Africans to slavery.