What was the worst misuse of the Bible in history?

What was the worst misuse of the Bible in history? January 25, 2019


Across the ages, what passage in the Bible was the subject of the most heinous misinterpretation and application?


Without doubt, the answer is Genesis 9:18-27. The use of those verses as biblical support for black slavery was “devastating, and patently false,” says David M. Goldenberg, who wrote the important studies “The Curse of Ham” (2005) and “Black and Slave” (2017).  Black History Month is an appropriate season to contemplate a perverse biblical claim long perpetrated by various Christians, Jews and, from a different tradition, Muslims.

This Genesis passage, aptly called “obscure” and “enigmatic” by scholars, records a sordid incident in primeval times. After surviving the great Flood, Noah planted grapes and then (possibly by mistake) became drunk with wine. As Noah lay uncovered in a stupor, his son Ham “saw the nakedness of his father” and reported this to his brothers Shem and Japheth, who then took care to cover Noah without looking upon his naked body.

When Noah awoke and learned what had happened, he cursed Ham’s son Canaan, saying “a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers.” So this was not a “curse of Ham” so often spoken of, but upon Noah’s grandson Canaan. We are not told that God cursed Canaan, only that Noah did so. Noah then asked God to bless his sons Shem and Japheth while omitting Ham, but God had previously blessed all three brothers equally (Genesis 9:1).

“The Bible says nothing about skin color in the story of Noah,” Goldenberg observes, and others agree. Analysts differ on the geography and ethnicity that might be indicated in the genealogy that follows in Genesis chapter 10 but do agree on one obvious point. The Bible identified Canaan as the ancestor of the Canaanites, Israel’s pagan rivals. The family line in Genesis 11:10-31 designated another of Noah’s sons, Shem, as the ancestor of Abraham and thus the Israelites, as he was also to be of Ishmael and the Arabs.

There’s a strong consensus that the slavery curse referred to Canaan’s eventual submission to Israel  (whether a prophecy about the future or, in the liberal view, a polemic against Canaan that was written later). Evangelical exegete Meredith Kline added the important point that the curse “does not apply to all members of the ethnic groups represented by the individual.” Instead of racial divisions, Orthodox Judaism’s Pentateuch & Haftorahs commentary says this passage as a whole teaches “the unity of the human race,” and so does the Catholic Study Bible.

Ham was guilty of disrespecting a parent, an important breach of biblical propriety. But  it’s a mystery why viewing a father’s nakedness and not covering him would be grounds for a curse with such a harsh punishment as servitude.  G. Gunther Plaut and Nahum Sarna noted the longstanding Jewish tradition that the succinct narrative omitted detail on some abominable deed such as sexual molestation or incest or, as a rabbi in the Talmud suggested, castration. To Plaut, the “ancient Israelites doubtlessly understood” that the Bible implied something on this order.

One reason for a sexual interpretation is the telltale phrases “saw the nakedness” and “covered the nakedness” of Noah. This is terminology the sexual commandments of Leviticus 18 employ to define incest. As Plaut commented, Genesis was depicting the Canaanites as descendants of “deviates” who were renowned for sexual perversion, which  “has nothing to do with race.”

In a recent wrinkle, three Israeli scholars reported that a Dead Sea Scrolls text renders Genesis 9:27 as “land of Shem” rather than the customary “tent of Shem.” They think that suggests Canaan was cursed for defying Noah’s division of the lands.

Another question is why Noah hurled the curse at grandson Canaan rather than Ham, who committed the offense. The Bible does not say. Scholars have proposed that God could not revoke the prior blessing given to Ham along with his two brothers. Or, given the power of ancient family bonds and reputation, Ham was in fact cursed — in the behavior and reputation of his accursed son.

Or, though the Bible doesn’t say so, did Canaan accompany father Ham in gazing at Noah and not bothering  to cover him? Or might Canaan have participated in a supposed deed the biblical writer deemed too unspeakable to name? Or this: Noah “knew what his youngest son had done to him,” so yet another theory contends that “youngest son” meant the youngest offspring involved, namely grandson Canaan, was guilty of the deed.

Canaan aside, it was Ham’s son Cush who was identified with black Africa (for example, “Cushite” and “Ethiopian” were used interchangeably in texts of Jeremiah 13:23). If Cush was the ancestor or symbol of  black Africans, he was neither cursed nor subservient.

In light of all the above, why did humiliation toward the black race emerge in tandem with justification for slavery? Here’s a mere sketch of the complex history examined by Goldenberg and others.  Early Christian writers speculated on the origin of the black race but did not regard Africans or black slaves as descendants of Ham. But in ancient Mideast culture, slavery came to be associated with black Africans. Over the centuries black skin was linked with the supposed “curse of Ham” by Christian, Jewish and Muslim writers.

In later commercial history, slave proprietors exploited such racial mythology to prop up support for the economy of chattel slavery. The belief that black skin was a divine curse, Goldenberg writes, “justified and helped to keep in place a system of brutal enslavement of millions of black African people over centuries.”

Such thinking persisted in modern times, and not just among western and Muslim backers of slavery. For instance, Latter-day Saints scripture (see Moses 7:8) was interpreted as a racial curse on Canaan and (without defining this as the reason) all prophets barred those of African descent from most church posts from the 1850s till 1978. Southern Baptist missionary Eliza Thomas writes that a black Tutsi minority employed the Ham myth to claim racial superiority over a Hutu majority, a factor behind the slaughter of 800,000 in Rwanda’s 1994 civil war.

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