The Curse of Ham

The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

David M. Goldenberg
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7rm4x
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    The Curse of Ham
    Book Description:

    How old is prejudice against black people? Were the racist attitudes that fueled the Atlantic slave trade firmly in place 700 years before the European discovery of sub-Saharan Africa? In this groundbreaking book, David Goldenberg seeks to discover how dark-skinned peoples, especially black Africans, were portrayed in the Bible and by those who interpreted the Bible--Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Unprecedented in rigor and breadth, his investigation covers a 1,500-year period, from ancient Israel (around 800 B.C.E.) to the eighth century C.E., after the birth of Islam. By tracing the development of anti-Black sentiment during this time, Goldenberg uncovers views about race, color, and slavery that took shape over the centuries--most centrally, the belief that the biblical Ham and his descendants, the black Africans, had been cursed by God with eternal slavery.

    Goldenberg begins by examining a host of references to black Africans in biblical and postbiblical Jewish literature. From there he moves the inquiry from Black as an ethnic group to black as color, and early Jewish attitudes toward dark skin color. He goes on to ask when the black African first became identified as slave in the Near East, and, in a powerful culmination, discusses the resounding influence of this identification on Jewish, Christian, and Islamic thinking, noting each tradition's exegetical treatment of pertinent biblical passages.

    Authoritative, fluidly written, and situated at a richly illuminating nexus of images, attitudes, and history,The Curse of Hamis sure to have a profound and lasting impact on the perennial debate over the roots of racism and slavery, and on the study of early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2854-8
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-xviii)
  5. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-14)

    This biblical story has been the single greatest justification for Black slavery for more than a thousand years. It is a strange justification indeed, for there is no reference in it to Blacks at all. And yet just about everyone, especially in the antebellum American South, understood that in this story God meant to curse black Africans with eternal slavery, the so-called Curse of Ham. As one proslavery author wrote in 1838, “The blacks were originally designed to vassalage by the Patriarch Noah.”¹

    This book attempts to explain how and why this strange interpretation of the biblical text took hold....

  6. PART ONE IMAGES OF BLACKS
    • ONE BIBLICAL ISRAEL: THE LAND OF KUSH
      (pp. 17-25)

      How did the ancient Israelites view the black African? Our main body of evidence for ancient Israel is the Hebrew Bible. Although other evidence is also found, the Hebrew Bible is the main repository of information for ancient Israel, including its views of the black African. Indeed, the Bible refers to these people a number of times, which should not be surprising as they were part of the ancient Near East and played a role in its history. Of course, before we can say anything about biblical views of the black African, we must first know when the biblical text...

    • TWO BIBLICAL ISRAEL: THE PEOPLE OF KUSH
      (pp. 26-40)

      Now that we have determined when the Bible refers to Nubia/Kush, what the ancient Israelites knew about the land, and how they perceived it, we can begin our investigation into the biblical views of, and attitudes toward, the people of that land. Kushites are mentioned in a number of places in the Hebrew Bible, but we cannot, of course, restrict our investigation to the Bible. Ancient Israel’s attitudes and perceptions must be located within the larger ancient Near Eastern context, of which it was part. In addition, as we saw in the last chapter, Greco-Roman perceptions of the Black can...

    • THREE POSTBIBLICAL ISRAEL: BLACK AFRICA
      (pp. 41-45)

      Having examined how biblical Israel viewed black Africa and its people, we are ready to investigate the postbiblical period. As we did with the earlier material, we first look at the land and then the people. We saw that in the Hebrew Bible the name Kush referred to several different places. In trying to assess attitudes toward black Africans, our first task was to determine when “Kush” meant the African location. In postbiblical literature we have a similar problem. Here Kush almost always refers to black Africa but two other names—Afriqa (or Afriqi) and Barbaria—can refer to black...

    • FOUR POSTBIBLICAL ISRAEL: BLACK AFRICANS
      (pp. 46-76)

      Now that we have defined the various names for black Africa used in postbiblical Jewish literature, we are ready to look at the references to the people who lived in, or came from, this part of the world to see how they were perceived by the Jews of late antiquity. We saw that in the biblical period Kush played a role in the history of Israel and the ancient Near East, and that the Kushites were known to biblical Israel primarily as a militarily powerful people. There were also some Kushites who had assimilated into Israelite society such as Ebed-melech...

  7. PART TWO THE COLOR OF SKIN
    • FIVE THE COLOR OF WOMEN
      (pp. 79-92)

      One passage in the Bible does not speak of black Africans and yet is very important in any discussion of attitudes toward skin color: “I am black but beautiful” (Song of Songs 1:5). As the historian Harold Isaacs wrote forty years ago, “‘I am blackbutcomely,’ sang the Shulamite maiden to the daughters of Jerusalem and on thatbuthangs a whole great skein of our culture.”¹ As we shall see, although the passage is not about the black African, it is very definitely about aesthetic evaluations of skin color. More specifically, it concerns women’s skin color and perceptions...

    • SIX THE COLOR OF HEALTH
      (pp. 93-94)

      Other references to skin color in both biblical and postbiblical literature may also fall outside the parameters of our investigation, for they are not markers of a person’s natural complexion. These instances, rather, refer to transitory changes in the brightness or color of a person’s skin brought on by various physiological or psychological causes (such as our “pale with fright,” “red with shame,” “ashen with gloom,” etc.). Sometimes, however, positive or negative aesthetic judgments are made of these color changes, temporary though they may be, and it is therefore necessary to examine these cases to see whether they can provide...

    • SEVEN THE COLORS OF MANKIND
      (pp. 95-112)

      A rabbinic text commenting on the skin diseases mentioned in the Bible (Leviticus, chs. 13–14; Deut 24:8), states: “An intensely bright white spot [baheret] appears faint on the very light-skinned [germani], while a faint spot appears bright on the very dark-skinned [kushi]. Rabbi Ishmael said: ‘The Jews—may I be like an expiatory sacrifice for them [an expression of love]—are like the boxwood tree [eshkeroaʿ], neither black nor white, but in between.’”² This statement records a second-century (R. Ishmael) perception that the skin color of Jews is midway between black and white.³ More precisely it is light brown,...

    • EIGHT THE COLORED MEANING OF KUSHITE IN POSTBIBLICAL LITERATURE
      (pp. 113-128)

      Throughout the course of this study, we have seen that the dark color of the Kushite was noted and commented on, to one degree or another, by both Greco-Roman and Near Eastern writers from antiquity onward. It is, after all, the most noticeable feature of the Kushite in a lighter-skinned society. We recall one view that the biblical personal name Kush or Kushi may have even been given to non-Kushites because of their dark complexion.¹ Whether or not this opinion is correct for the biblical sources, it is certainly true for rabbinic literature. There, as we shall presently see, the...

  8. PART THREE HISTORY
    • NINE EVIDENCE FOR BLACK SLAVES IN ISRAEL
      (pp. 131-138)

      Were there black slaves in Israel in antiquity and late antiquity? If there were, did they constitute a minority or a majority of the slave population? Was there an implicit identity of the Black as slave? Do Jewish sources, specifically the threeshifḥah kushitparables, reflect this identity? In order to get a better handle on the historical picture in Israel at this time, let us first see what the situation was like in other countries of the Mediterranean basin and the Near East.

      There were black African slaves in ancient Greece and Rome, but amid the large numbers of...

  9. PART FOUR AT THE CROSSROADS OF HISTORY AND EXEGESIS
    • TEN WAS HAM BLACK?
      (pp. 141-156)

      For the humanities, philology is a fairly exact science. To be sure, people have forever been devising their own derivations of words and hanging all sorts of ideologies on their creations. But the development of language follows specific linguistic laws, the proper examination of which can lead to firm conclusions about the origin of words and, consequently, about the world represented by those words. In a wonderful parody of the loose etymology used by Jacob Bryant in 1807 to prove that Egyptians, Indians, Greeks, and Romans were descended from Kush, William Jones, the English jurist and philologist of the time,...

    • ELEVEN “HAM SINNED AND CANAAN WAS CURSED?!”
      (pp. 157-167)

      The biblical account of Noah’s drunkenness and his curse of slavery is very clear about who was cursed. Although it was Ham who behaved improperly toward his father, Noah, it was not Ham whom Noah cursed. Rather, Noah cursed Ham’s son Canaan. Why Canaan was cursed if it was Ham who sinned is a question that has been debated for well over the past two thousand years. Nevertheless, it was Canaan who was cursed. And yet, despite the Bible’s explicit statement, we find writers who claim that although the curse was pronounced against Canaan, it affected Ham and/or all of...

    • TWELVE THE CURSE OF HAM
      (pp. 168-177)

      The curse of ham is the assumed biblical justification for a curse of eternal slavery imposed on Black people, and Black people alone. Earlier we examined various Near Eastern curse-of-blackness etiologies accounting for the existence of dark-skinned people in a lighter-skinned world. We saw, too, that the Greeks had their own etiologies as well as an environmental explanation to account for the phenomenon of dark-skinned people. Other etiological explanations are found elsewhere.¹ What distinguishes the Curse of Ham from a curse of blackness is the link between dark skin and slavery. In this chapter I attempt to trace the development...

    • THIRTEEN THE CURSE OF CAIN
      (pp. 178-182)

      Ham is not the only biblical figure who was supposedly marked by a change of skin color. So was Cain, the son of Adam, according to some writers. Several authors in antebellum America refer to a then-current idea that Cain was smitten with dark skin as punishment for killing his brother, Abel. To some, this was the unspecified “mark” that God put on Cain “so that no one who found him would kill him” (Gen 4:15). David Walker, an African American writing in 1829, reflects this view common at the time when he says, “Some ignorant creatures hesitate not to...

    • FOURTEEN THE NEW WORLD ORDER: HUMANITY BY PHYSIOGNOMY
      (pp. 183-194)

      We have seen how the new historical circumstances, that is, the increasing identification of the Black as slave, brought in its wake reinterpretations of Scripture. Although only Canaan is cursed with slavery in the Bible, Ham, the father of colored people, shares that fate in the later interpretations. Peculiarities in the graphic representation of the Hebrew language also played a very significant role in these reinterpretations, for at least as early as the third century C.E. the name Ham was understood incorrectly to mean “black, dark.” The combination of these two factors—the historical and linguistic changes—built a massive...

  10. CONCLUSION JEWISH VIEWS OF BLACK AFRICANS AND THE DEVELOPMENT OF ANTI-BLACK SENTIMENT IN WESTERN THOUGHT
    (pp. 195-200)

    What were the images of black Africans in the ancient jewish perception? How did Jews in the biblical and postbiblical periods think about Blacks? What were the attitudes underlying these views? Was there an overriding color prejudice? Did early Jewish attitudes toward Blacks influence later Christian and Islamic views? How did postbiblical Jewish interpretation of Scripture influence Christian and Islamic exegesis in regard to the black African? This study has attempted to answer these questions. What follows is a summary of the findings.

    To biblical Israel, Kush was the land at the furthest southern reach of the earth, whose inhabitants...

  11. APPENDIX I WHEN IS A KUSHITE NOT A KUSHITE? CASES OF MISTAKEN IDENTITY
    (pp. 201-210)
  12. APPENDIX II KUSH/ETHIOPIA AND INDIA
    (pp. 211-212)
  13. NOTES
    (pp. 213-378)
  14. GLOSSARY OF SOURCES AND TERMS
    (pp. 379-394)
  15. SUBJECT INDEX
    (pp. 395-412)
  16. INDEX OF ANCIENT SOURCES
    (pp. 413-430)
  17. INDEX OF MODERN SCHOLARS
    (pp. 431-448)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 449-449)