Trayf or Consequences

Simone Brentana’s take on the oft-depicted tale.

As I prepare for the third and final year of my Master of Divinity program at Boston University, I’ll be throwing some shorter papers from previous years that I particularly enjoyed researching and writing onto the blog. This one was written for my first year Hebrew Bible class back in 2018. The full title was: “Trayf or Consequences: Re-Reading the ‘Curse of Ham‘”.

At the 2018 Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas, Texas, the Assembly passed a resolution “Renouncing The Doctrine Of The ‘Curse Of Ham’ As A Justification For Racism.” (1) While certainly heartening on the one hand, that such a resolution could be an urgent matter of business for the largest Protestant denomination in the United States in 2018 is not only a terrible testament to the intractability of white supremacy in the US, but of the durability of interpretations of the Hamitic Myth in legitimizing it in certain religious circles. Perhaps best known to Americans as a common 19th century Biblical defense of slavery (2) , the story not only resonates in white supremacist circles with deep connections to Christian denominations, but in conservative religious circles where interpretations emphasize the often vividly imagined sexual crimes of Canaan that justify violence against the LGBTQ community.

While contemporary evangelical readings have begun to acknowledge the wrong of past appropriations of the passage, simply condemning these applications is hardly an adequate response, leaving as it does the potential for future harm in place. Indeed, assigning heirs to an ancient curse still seems to be the point of much evangelical exegesis on the passage, despite the fact that all the tools for a more enlightened reading are readily available. It is clear that if evangelicals wish to overcome the persistent urge “to invoke God’s holy name in unholy acts of demeaning, dishonoring, and dehumanizing certain people who bear His image,” (3) they must not only abandon the racist interpretation of the Hamitic Myth, but the method and modes of interpretation that yielded it and still promote violence against vulnerable communities.

The story is brief, breezy even. Were it not for the taint of the recent history of its misappropriation, its nuances would surely delight us. If, as the father of form criticism Hermann Gunkel has suggested, the Genesis stories can only be properly understood in the context of oral tradition, which is necessarily performative (Gunkel presents us with the wonderful image of tellers of tales, “wandering from tribe to tribe, from land to land, and also from religion to religion” [4] ), then it is not hard to see the entertainment appeal of this biblical sketch, in all its (quite literally) sprawling humanity. Transposed to our time, it could easily be played for sitcom laughs with the expert comedic stylings of a Jerry Seinfeld or Larry David.

The scene opens with Noah, who has recently discovered wine (not just for himself, but for all of humanity – cheers!), drunk and sprawled out naked on the floor of his tent. If anyone deserves a bender, it’s poor Noah. God has asked a lot of him and he has faithfully complied. And at 600, he’s clearly earned a little R&R. As he sleeps it off, his adult (though “elderly” would be more strictly accurate) son Ham stumbles in, eyes wide with surprise at the scene before him. Cue the laugh track. Now, remember: Noah & Sons have spent a lot of time in close quarters together, among a lot of barnyard animals, some behaving badly. Some Talmudic sources have Ham behaving badly on the ark as well, (5) and who could blame him? So naturally, rather than cover the old man, he fetches his brothers to have a laugh. That may seem unabashed, but, again, remember: no one had ever seen anyone passed-out drunk before. Ever. Had they had Sharpies back in Creation Days, it is almost certain Noah would have awakened with a coarsely drawn graffito on his forehead. Of course he would curse Ham, and whoever else was within arm’s reach, upon waking!

An unorthodox reading? Perhaps. It is not, however, any further from the original than some of the highly speculative, vividly imagined readings, like that of evangelical theologian O. Palmer Robertson, which we will briefly examine below, used to justify and rationalize violence against persons and peoples perceived as deserving punishment for one reason or another by those for whom ancient curses between mythic characters still have currency, and those who believe they have “cracked the code” of this one.

And the code, for these commentators, is in the cracks. When Noah recovers from his stupor, Gen 9:24 tells us: “he knew what his youngest son had done to him.” Meanwhile, we can only guess. And guessing has been an exegetical parlor game ever since. While there is little evidence that any racial bias as we would understand it attached to the myth until modern times, (6) biblical busybodies down the ages have attributed all manner of sexual deviance to Ham, from voyeurism (7) to incest (all conceivable varieties) (8 ), even castration. (9) This was mostly rabbinical fun and games until the Middle Ages, when Christians jumped into the fray. (10) But the preoccupations of rabbinic tradition were altogether distinct from those of Christian exegetes. As David Aaron explains:

Ideological consistency with regard to Ham’s sons, or any other issue for that matter, was never the problem of the midrashic writers.… The sages delighted in exegetical intricacy, they sought meaning by creating meaning, but they did not endeavor to write pragmatic theology, history, or scientific etiology. (11)

“Ockham’s razor,” he concludes, “does not obtain here.” (12)

As the Southern Baptist Convention’s resolution suggests, it is modern Christians who have tended to fixate on the “sin of Ham” in order to justify Noah’s curse and identify its modern heirs. The “Curse of Ham” as a racist, homophobic passage in the popular imagination is a Christian invention. If the tale itself is “a kind of Frankenstein creation,” (13) as David Whitford has called it, it is Christians who have reanimated and made a monster of it.

This is not to say that there is no curse in the original tale. The curse is severe: Ham’s son Canaan is condemned to be a servant — and not just a servant, but a “servant of servants” — to Ham’s brothers. While the passage says nothing of the color of Ham’s or Canaan’s skin or the exact nature of Ham’s or Canaan’s sin, from which we can reasonably assume neither of which is a necessary element, the emphatic reminders that Canaan is the son of Ham in Genesis 9:18 and 22 and the P-source Table of Nations in Genesis 10, provide clues that an ethnological etiology was a foremost concern for redactors. As Gunkel reminds us: “it is perfectly evident” we are dealing with tribes here. (14) Problems arise, as Aaron cautions, when one “reads the text as if it were an account of individuals, rather than reading it as an etiology.” (15)

Just as there is no evidence of any intention in the text to render a racial curse, the lack of explicitness regarding sexual acts was likely intentional. There was no need to make them explicit. Early Israelites hearing the tale knew what “Canaan” connoted, just as Sox fans today know all that is implied by “Yankees.”

[T]he Torah repeatedly identifies “the otherness” of Canaanites, Moabites and other local peoples, by referring to their sexual abominations. The offenses will include whoring, intercourse while in states of impurity and incest. Since assimilation (i.e., intermarriage) with Canaanites and other indigenous groups provides a great challenge to the religious establishment of both biblical and rabbinic times, the extension of Ham’s sexual abominations to his son Canaan must be understood in part as a strategy against the breakdown of endogamy. (16)

Reading the text in its historical and cultural context, and not as a sitcom script, yields rich insights into the layers of meaning encoded in its characters. But this approach is clearly counter to the purpose of many Christian evangelical commentators, for whom the original context — “the shadowy old-covenant perspective,” in Robertson’s phrase — is always superseded by “the reality of the new-covenant fulfillment.” (17) Without any regard or call for context, the plot of the tale can certainly seem shadowy, fragmented and full of holes. And unfortunately, as Mark Twain once observed, “to a man all things are possible but one–he cannot have a hole in the seat of his breeches and keep his fingers out of it.” (18) The perceived holes in the plot of the story of Ham have become an obsession for evangelical exegetes and the gaps in the tale have been filled with all manner of fantasy. The passage has become, in effect, an exegetical Rorschach Test.

For New Covenant advocates, the ethnographic etiology of the Genesis tales takes a back seat to the narrative of personal salvation. In his exegesis on the “Curse of Ham” theologian O. Palmer Robertson asks,

[D]o the words of Noah anticipate from a secularistic perspective the ways in which certain peoples and nationalities will relate to one another across the centuries? Or, rather, do these prophetic words outline the parameters for participation in the redemptive program that God has designed for delivering people from the curse of sin? (19)

This is a rhetorical question, as it turns out, and there is much to celebrate in the rejection, on the one hand, of entrenched racial and ethnic ideologies. Robertson indicates that the color of Canaan’s skin is no longer a critical question for Evangelicals, and this is welcome news. The critical question of Genesis 9:20-27 now, he says, is “what was the sin of Ham?” (20)

In hermeneutics as in life, the questions we ask determine the answers we get, and the question “what was the sin of Ham?” that is central to many weaponized modern readings of Genesis 9:20-27 reduces the myth from an “ethnological etiology concerned with the theology of culture and history” (21) to a police procedural, an Old Testament Law & Order SVU, where the point of the story is to I.D. a modern perp of a sex crime and ensure that he or she is apprehended and punished. Talk about a cold case. This one predates the last Ice Age.

So, what was the sin of Ham? When given the choice of a number of salacious alternatives, Robertson chooses a “most grievous one”: Ham must have “discovered his father in a state of drunkenness and apparently initiated a homosexual relationship with him.” (22) The “relationship” it seems, was not the romantic “I saw you across a crowded room” kind, alas, and was apparently very short-lived. How do we know this? “It seems very unlikely that Noah would have had any remembrance of a mere look from his son while he was in a state of drunkenness,” Robertson reasons, going on to wonder aloud why Ham’s brothers Shem and Japheth would “act in deference to the extreme by walking backward in a darkened tent to cover the nakedness of their father? Undoubtedly on some occasions during the years they had lived with their father they would have seen him in the nude.” (As you do.) “Why then did they act with such extreme modesty?” (23)

These questions, which read less like hermeneutics than the whispered gossip of church ladies huddled in the narthex before the Sunday service (you can almost hear someone hiss “sodomy!” to pearl-clutching gasps), are also rhetorical. Robertson builds his case through escalating insinuations, as if speaking of a coworker or distant cousin who has turned up on the 6 o’clock news for some unspeakable crime. Like his peers at the Southern Baptist Convention, while he has sought, again hearteningly, to repudiate the Hamitic Myth as a justification for racism and slavery, he has left “the curse” itself usefully intact, as a future possibility, not from “the shadowy old-covenant perspective,” but “the reality of the new-covenant fulfillment,” in light of which

[A]ll those nations, peoples and individuals who manifest the same unrepentant spirit demonstrated during the four hundred years of God’s patience toward the Canaanite inhabitants of Palestine shall receive the same kind of curse that fell on the inhabitants of the land in the days of Joshua. Total subjugation to divine judgment is inevitable for those who do not find their hope in the covenant Lord, the God of Shem. (24)

As an ethnographic etiology with roots deep in oral traditions, Genesis 9:20-27, though not without its problems, provides the reader with a layered, nuanced and complete narrative. It is part of an epic poetic tradition, the spirit of which, as Gunkel reminds us, has resonated for millennia, as “one of the most brilliant achievements of the people of Israel.” (25) This also presents formidable challenges, to which the theologian is sympathetic. “A child, indeed, unable to distinguish between reality and poetry, loses something when it is told that its dearest stories are ‘not true.’ But “the modern theologian,” Gunkel gently chides, “should be further developed.” (26) It is useful advice for those who seek a deeper reading, based on what is present in the text, that is truer to the spirit of the word.


1 Southern Baptist Convention. “On Renouncing The Doctrine Of The ‘Curse Of Ham’ As A Justification For Racism, Dallas, TX – 2018.” Resolution 2287.

2 For an overview, see L. Richard Bradley. “The Curse of Canaan and the American Negro” in Concordia Theological Monthly, 42 no. 2 Feb 1971. 100-110.

3 Southern Baptist Convention, Resolution 2287.

4 Hermann Gunkel. The Legends of Genesis. The Open Court, Chicago, 1901. 88.

5 David H. Aaron. “Early Rabbinic Exegesis on Noah’s Son Ham and the So-Called ‘Hamitic Myth’” in Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 63, No. 4 (Winter, 1995). 739-740.

6 Aaron, 739.

7 John S. Bergsma, et al. “Noah’s nakedness and the curse on Canaan (Genesis 9:20-27)” in Journal of Biblical Literature, 124 no 1 Spr 2005. 26-27.

8 Bergsma, 28-39.

9 Bergsma, 27-28.

10 Aaron, 751.

11 Aaron, 744.

12 Aaron, 744.

13 David M. Whitford. The Curse of Ham in the Early Modern Era: The Bible and the Justifications for Slavery. Ashgate, 2009. 15-16.

14 Gunkel, 20.

15 Aaron, 732.

16 Aaron, 741.

17 O. Palmer Robertson. “Current Critical Questions Concerning the ‘Curse of Ham’ (Gen 9:20- 27)” in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 41 no 2 Jun 1998. 188.

18 Mark Twain. Letter to William Dean Howells, 27 June 1878.

19 Robertson, 182.

20 Robertson, 178.

21 Gene Rice. “The Curse That Never Was (Genesis 9:18-27)” in The Journal of Religious Thought, 29 No. 1 Spr-Sum 1972, 13.

22 Robertson, 179.

23 Robertson, 180.

24 Robertson, 188.

25 Gunkel, 95.

26 Gunkel, 11-12.

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