Biblical Justification for Slavery: Interpreting the Curse of Ham
The biblical story of Genesis 9:20-27 has always left more readers confused than informed. Like the story of Job and many Old Testament stories, this passage is recklessly prone to personal interpretations. The danger being that it can be adapted into a weapon for the pursuit of selfish courses. It is terribly shameful to think that it might be true that man has applied the Bible more to justify evil than to promote salvation.
According to the story, Noah got himself overdrunk that he went to bed stark naked. In his unsightly state, his second son, Ham, saw him and for some ignoble reason, Ham’s best instinct was to tell his brothers, Shem and Japheth, about their drunk and naked father. Unlike Ham, Shem and Japheth covered Noah’s nakedness without looking at it. When Noah awoke from his drunken sleep, he was greatly displeased to learn of what Ham did. In his rage, he cursed Canaan, Ham’s son, to be a slave to Shem and Japheth.
The Bible didn’t say why Noah drunk himself senseless. It also didn’t say how Noah learned of Ham’s stupidity. Yet, the most troubling part of this story is why he cursed Canaan and not Ham? Is it possible that Noah was still drunk when he laid the curse wrongly on his grandson? Many accounts have tried to give historical reasons for cursing Canaan instead of Ham, but it is difficult to tell which of these accounts is true.
The story of Noah and his sons is one that struggles to make sense. This makes it a story with the potential that man could forge into a tool to serve his purpose. So, it happened that during the era of massive slave trade in the US, man found a task for this story.
The slaveholders claimed this passage of the Bible was a justification that slavery was biblical and shouldn’t be frowned upon. Despite that the story made no mention of the skin color of Noah’s children, these slaveholders claimed that the black race descended from Ham, and like Canaan, to come from Ham is to be a slave. Some slaveholders removed Canaan entirely from the story and bestowed the curse on Ham whom they claimed was the progenitor of the black race.
It was important to the slaveholders to prove that slavery was biblical because most of them had Christianity as their religion. In their desire to endorse slavery as a morally accepted industry, they kept editing and reediting the story of Noah and his sons to justify their trade on human wares. This justification was necessary to massage whatever was left of their conscience, and what better way to accomplish this than to ensure that their trade was backed by the Word of God?
I was only a boy when I first witnessed how far man can go to justify a vice he is unwilling to give up. My grandfather received many Jehovah Witnesses when I was young and the story of the wedding at Cana in John 2:1-11 was his favorite Bible chapter. He never entered any church till the day he died, yet it surprised me that he was always keen to receive these uninvited guests, particularly the one we came to know as, Persistent Peter.
After his wife’s funeral, my grandfather moved a rocking chair to a corner of our tiny living room where he does nothing but drink and nap. It is from this corner of the room that he would throw a warm welcome at the Jehovah Witnesses.
Each time Persistent Peter visited, my grandfather would put his always half-empty bottle of Johnny Walker on the table, then he would tell me to get a second shot for the guest. The Jehovah Witness always refused the offer every time. My grandfather would smile at him, throw a shot of the drink down his leathery throat and recline on his chair rocking back and forth with the smile still perching on his face. After a while, he would ask Persistent Peter to read him the story about Jesus turning water into wine.
I don’t remember much from my grandfather’s lengthy arguments with Peter, but I do remember that in all the years he visited, he failed to convince my grandfather that Jesus wasn’t an alcoholic.
While on his hospital bed fighting pancreatic cancer, Persistent Peter still visited for one last time to pray for his dying friend. The next morning, my grandfather closed his eyes in a sleep from which I knew he wouldn’t wake. When his body was taken away, I found something under the pillow. A half-empty bottle of Johnny Walker! On the label, he had written his last words, “Made in Cana.”
Like the slaveholders, my grandfather had found a Bible story he could interpret to justify his alcoholism, and not even the threat of death by his harmful habit was enough to make him give it up. He died drunk and his soul was probably high on his judgement day. Like Noah cursing the wrong person, I wonder how coherently my drunk grandfather’s soul accounted for his life.
I cannot say if the black race descended from Ham, but I can say that my grandfather and the slaveholders all descended from Noah. They overdrink but don’t want to be caught sleeping naked. When they wake with heads clanging with hangover, they curse the wrong person, and to justify such irrationality, they say, “It is in the Bible. The wine was made in Cana.”