As recently as May 2013, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association website had to answer this question: “Is it true that God cursed one of Noah’s sons, who became the founder of the Black race? My uncle is very prejudiced against people of other races, and he uses this to defend his position.” The question was referring to the wrongly named “curse of Ham” in Genesis 9:18-27. It shows the enduring legacy of how biblical misinterpretation can foster racism.
The “curse of Ham” was the most commonly used passage to justify white superiority and the enslavement of Black people. In Genesis 9, Noah became drunk and lay naked in his tent. Ham, one of Noah’s sons, “saw the nakedness of his father” and told his two brothers (Gen. 9:22). Noah, having realized what happened, pronounced the following curses and blessings: “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers. … Praise be to the LORD, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem. May God extend Japheth’s territory; may Japheth live in the tents of Shem, and may Canaan be the slave of Japheth” (Gen. 9:25-27). Because Genesis 10 lists Egypt and Put, which were in northern Africa, among the descendants of Ham, it was popularly argued that Black Africans are also Ham’s descendants. Thus the curse of slavery was believed also to apply to them. The Hebrew word “Ham” was also mistakenly thought to mean “black.”
Nineteenth-century Christians used this passage to justify white superiority and the enslavement of Black people. Even the influential Dutch Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper believed in the curse of Ham. Writing in Common Grace, Vol. 1 (Lexham Press), Kuyper noted Noah’s “full blessing for Shem, his partial blessing for Japheth, and his curse on Ham.” He saw Noah’s curse as the reason why “Ham’s descendants never could achieve significance.” The “curse of Ham” persisted well into the 20th century as the Scofield Reference Bible (1917), one of America’s most popular and influential study Bibles, further popularized it among Christians.
This “curse of Ham” interpretation is wrong for a number of reasons. First, the curse is not on Ham and his descendants, but on Ham’s son, Noah’s grandson Canaan. Thus, literally speaking, the curse applies only to Canaan and his descendants, not on Ham or his other sons of Cush, Egypt, and Put and their descendants. And the Canaanites who lived in the land of Canaan weren’t Black.
But why was the curse pronounced on Canaan in the first place when his father, Ham, was the guilty party? And why single out Canaan among Ham’s four sons? Why not Egypt, Cush, or Put? Genesis 9:25-27 is an etiological story, one that explains the cause of or reason for something. Canaan was the nation occupying the Promised Land prior to Israel’s conquest of it. That is why Canaan, not the other sons, was singled out. This curse theologically explained for the Israelites their subjugation of Canaan. Some scholars suggest that the Gibeonites’ enslavement in Joshua 9 fulfilled this curse. There is nothing here that connects the curse to Africans.
Second, it was a flawed human being—a drunken Noah—who pronounced the curse, not God. Is Noah’s curse on Canaan a prescription or a description? Is it recorded as a prescription for subjugating Canaanites in perpetuity, or is it a description to explain why the Canaanites did indeed face subjugation? Most Bible scholars believe that by the time Genesis had its final written form, Israel had already conquered Canaan. Hence, Noah’s curse on Canaan is an after-the-fact theological explanation.
Finally, Canaanites no longer exist today as a distinct ethnic group. Hence, even if we took Noah’s curse on Canaan literally, it is no longer relevant today.
Yet racial prejudice keeps perpetuating this false interpretation as divine sanction for racist attitudes. There are other biblical passages and injunctions used to justify racism, such as using the Old Testament prohibitions on mixed marriages to ban interracial marriages. But I want to turn now to how the Bible can instead foster anti-racism.
First, Jesus was a mixed-blood Savior, not a pure-blood Jew. Matthew’s genealogy of Christ (Matt. 1:1-17) interestingly highlights five women: Tamar, who seduced her father-in-law in order to carry on the line of Er (Gen. 38); Rahab the prostitute; Ruth the Moabite; Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba; and Mary, Jesus’ mother. Only Mary was definitively Jewish. Rahab was a Canaanite, and Tamar was possibly one too. Ruth was a Moabite, and Bathsheba, being the wife of Uriah the Hittite, was likely a Hittite herself—one of those cursed Canaanites. Yet all of them were ancestors of Jesus the Messiah! There is ethnic diversity in the bloodline of Jesus, symbolizing that he is truly the Savior of the world, of all ethnic groups, not just of Israel. This fact also undermines the use of the Bible to ban interracial marriages.
Second, as the Christian Reformed Church’s synodical report God’s Diverse and Unified Family (1996) explains, “reconciliation with God and reconciliation with one another are inseparable in God’s saving work” (p. 29). This is most clear in Ephesians 2:11-22. It shows that “God’s program of reconciliation is not simply vertical (reconciling believers, the world, and all things to himself) but also horizontal (reconciling Jew and Gentile, circumcised and uncircumcised)” (p. 19). Christ “has made the two (Jews and Gentiles) one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph. 2:14).
Spiritual reconciliation to God also means social reconciliation to each other, including ethnic and racial reconciliation. It’s a package deal, as it were. If the church’s “main thing” is to reconcile people to God, then it includes reconciling peoples to each other, including racial reconciliation. Doing anti-racist work is not deviating from the church’s main calling. It is part and parcel of keeping the main thing the main thing. “The church’s ministry of reconciliation is not just some human idea or political agenda but an integral part of God’s program of reconciliation” (God’s Diverse and Unified Family, p. 18).
This truth is reflected in Christ’s Great Commission: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). The word translated as “nations” in the original Greek is ethnos, from which we get the word “ethnic.” Jesus was commanding his 11 Jewish disciples to make disciples of other ethnicities and nations. The Great Commission was cross-cultural in its DNA. And given the Israelites’ history of isolation and even prejudice against Gentiles at the time, cross-cultural discipleship would have required some form of racial or ethnic reconciliation. At the very least, the disciples had to do some self-examination and repent of prejudicial attitudes. Peter, for example, needed to hear God’s voice three times in a vision before he would agree to minister to Gentiles (Acts 10).
This brief exploration does not exhaust the Bible’s vision for human unity in diversity. But let me end with the vision from Revelation 7:9, where a great multitude “from every nation, tribe, people and language” stand together to worship Christ. Our ethnic or cultural identities are not as important as our identity in Christ. But they are not erased or lost. Even in heaven, those cultural and ethnic differences will remain—but in service to God.