At age sixteen I was first told of the curse of Ham. A man a little older than me fleetingly tried to persuade me to join a right-wing militant organisation. His starting point was to try and persuade me from scripture that black African people were a cursed race descended from Noah’s son, Ham.
This was a startling conversation for me. I had been brought up reading my Bible but I was unaware of this curse. But having studied it now I am even further from being a recruit. Rather it has filled me with a deepening awareness of two things. First, I am increasingly aware of both the inclination of humans to turn everything to wickedness; and, secondly, of God’s awe-inspiring grace towards humans.
The Curse of Ham used for Wickedness
Here is the passage of Scripture in which the curse of Ham appears: “[Noah] drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned backward, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said, “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.” He also said, “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Shem; and let Canaan be his servant. May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem, and let Canaan be his servant”’ (Genesis 9:21-27).
I am increasingly aware of both the inclination of humans to turn everything to wickedness and of God’s awe-inspiring grace towards humans
So here is the infamous curse of Ham. This curse has played a part in the oppression of black African nations through the centuries. Most particularly this influence has been present in the Atlantic slave trade, in Nazi Germany and in Apartheid South Africa. However, there are two things we need to understand about this passage before we succumb to the grace-reducing misapplication of the curse of Ham.
Getting the Facts Straight
Scripture tells us that Noah had seventeen grandsons. And from their names we have a pretty good – if not perfect – idea which nations developed from which grandchildren. Four of those grandchildren were Ham’s four sons: Cush, Egypt, Put, and Canaan (Genesis 10:6). The Canaanites settled in the Middle East. They appear frequently in the Old Testament of the Bible. For the most part they have dissolved into other nations or died out. Egypt is even more obvious. For it is a nation that appears often in scripture and is still present today.
There is no record of a biblical curse put on the descendants of Cush or the nations of Africa
In biblical Hebrew, the name ‘Cush’ seems to mean ‘Ethiopian’ or ‘blackness’. Black African nations seemingly developed from the offspring of Cush. But that is exactly where the so-called curse of Ham is misapplied. The curse never fell on Ham or on Cush. For whatever reason, not truly given in the text, it fell on Canaan. In Genesis 9:25 Noah pours out his anger, ‘Cursed be Canaan!’ There is no record of a biblical curse put on the descendants of Cush or the nations of Africa.
Getting the Context Straight
But there is a broader context to this curse of Ham. All mankind is under a curse – whether we are offspring of Shem, Ham or Japheth. Adam and Eve, our original forebears, already disobeyed the Lord God when they ate of the forbidden fruit: “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17).
Just before the event known as the curse of Ham, God did wipe out all of mankind, except for Noah’s family, in a flood. God immediately issued a chilling warning to those who survived the flood: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (Genesis 9:6). God clearly harbours no illusions about the righteousness of mankind despite the awful punishment that he had just meted out! Even though God almost completely wiped out mankind in the flood, he had no doubt that they would sin again—and soon!
Whether you are of the line of Shem, Ham or Japeth there is no distinction; all fall short of the glory of God
The New Testament does not alter this message one bit. When quoting Psalm 14 Paul says, “there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22-23). Whether you are of the line of Shem, Ham or Japeth there is no distinction; all fall short of the glory of God.
Awe-Inspiring Grace instead of the Curse of Ham
And yet incomprehensibly God shows an unwavering commitment to the people of the earth. He chose not to wipe out the entire human race in the flood. He chose to reiterate his command to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 9:1), and he chose to make a covenant with Noah and his offspring (Genesis 9:9).
Nine generations later; God reaffirmed this covenant to Abraham: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). Centuries later Jesus instructed his followers to make “disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). Paul confirms this teaching; that this grace, despite our wickedness, is available to anyone from all nations in Jesus Christ: “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Romans 3:22).
The exhilarating, time-tested, awe-inspiring blessing of grace is available to all of us who believe in Jesus Christ
Whether you are a descendent of Shem, Ham or Japheth; whether you have a curse like the curse of Ham upon you or not; you live under the curse of death. Your ongoing inclination is to sin, to turn everything to wickedness.
But the exhilarating, time-tested, awe-inspiring blessing of grace is available to all of us who believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. There is now no curse that can separate us from the love of Christ and nothing in all of life that can beat the joy of this God-given grace.
There is now no curse that can separate us from the love of Christ and nothing in all of life that can beat the joy of this God-given grace