THE CURSE OF HAM

The Curse of Ham examines the effects of the story told in Genesis 9:18-25 of how Noah cursed Ham`s son Canaan . Ham had looked upon his father Noah`s naked drunken body unlike his brothers Shem and Japheth who, when told of their father`s state by Ham, had respectfully covered him with a garment by approaching him backwards, faces averted. The Curse on Canaan was "Cursed be Canaan; a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers" This curse has attained great significance because it was tied to the creation myth. The bible says of the three brothers: "These three were the sons of Noah: and from these the whole earth was peopled." According to the genealogical lists in Genesis Hamís children were by and large the African contingent: Cush (the kingdom of Cush was the African empire below Egypt), Mizraim (Egypt) and Put who is thought to be the ancestor of the Nubians. The exception appears to be Canaan, whose descendants occupied Palestine and were driven out when the Jews returned from Egypt. David Goldenberg does not deal with this difference between Canaan and his brothers. Instead he studies how the midrashim of the Jews and the writings of the 1st millennium Christians and Moslems came to treat the curse as a curse on Ham, thus making all Hamís progeny the slaves of Shem and Japheth. The conclusion he comes to after many erudite examples of misinterpretations of the bible by 1st millennium scholars is that the bible itself was neither racist nor colour conscious in the racial sense, and that these characteristics crept into the biblical commentary of the Christian Roman empire and of Islam. They crept in so that the two empires could justify the taking of slaves from Africa. The later Jewish commentaries echoed the racist connotations of Hamís curse because of cultural interchange within the empires, but the Jews not having been imperialists themselves did not initiate them. That, crudely put , seems to be the argument of the book. It is the product of a Jewish American. It displays an Americanís animosity towards the imperialism of the old world, and it tries to pour oil on the troubled water between Jews and Blacks in America. He appears to be saying "Itís not our fault that this Curse of Ham has been used to justify enslaving you and treating you bad, itís the fault of the Christians and Moslems". It will not work, because, despite its snappy title , it will not be a book for general circulation. It is an incredibly dense piece of scholarship: Of its 448 pages 248 are taken up with footnotes, glossaries, appendices and three indexes. The mere two hundred pages of text are not a light read. He spends 138 pages setting the scene: describing the possible locations for Cush, possible spellings of Cush with c or k, attributes of cushites as seen in the bible, and then some chapters on the use of colour to describe femininity, class, health, and state of mind. A lot of semi relevant detail is presented to the reader through numerous exegetical examples commented on in the most unreadably academic English. We learn that pallor could be a sign of aristocracy, feminine charm, or illness, and that people in the bible could be black with anger. Then, at last! Chapter ten: "Was Ham Black?" . There is no point in reading this chapter if you want an answer to that question. For the uninitiated there are occasional glimpses to be got of the fairy tale world of 1st millennium exegetics . Wonderful little stories were invented quite freely to embellish and explain parts of the bible by Christian, Jew and Muslim and handed on as the truth. Goldenberg quotes many of these but sinks their charm in the sludge of his indigestible prose; for example: "What then can the hebrew term nimshekhah orlato mean in the text of Tanhuma? An aggadic passage dealing with Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylonia, might provide the answer. In this text it is claimed that Nebuchadnezzar would commit sodomy on those kings he captured. When he tried to sodomize Zedekiah, the last king of JudahÖ he ran into trouble for "nimshekhah orlato 300 cubits!" Shall we translate literally "his foreskin became extended 300 cubits"? While such a translation is possible, it is more likely that "foreskin" in this passage should be understood as a metonomy, standing for penis ." The opaqueness of the style of this book may not be due solely to the scholasticism of its author but also to the fact that it is a cover up. By concentrating on the fanciful commentaries made on it in the first millennium, Goldenberg is trying to obscure the fact that Genesis 9:18-25 is indeed a racist tract,. Canaan the only non black son of Ham was to be a slave of slaves to his brothers: i.e. his brothers already were slaves as well as being black. The author does not even consider this point, or the historical context in which this part of Genesis could have been created. Could it perhaps have been written after the Jews` escape from Egypt and previous to their conquest of Canaan? It would be understandable that at that point in time they would regard the Egyptians with distaste and the Canaanites with loathing.

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