The sons of Noah who came out of the ark were Shem, Ham and Japheth. (Ham was the father of Canaan.) These were the three sons of Noah, and from them came the people who were scattered over the whole earth. Noah, a man of the soil, proceeded to plant a vineyard. When he drank some of its wine, he became drunk and lay uncovered inside his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father naked and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it across their shoulders; then they walked in backward and covered their father’s naked body. Their faces were turned the other way so that they would not see their father naked. When Noah awoke from his wine and found out what his youngest son had done to him, he said, “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.” He also said, “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.” After the flood Noah lived 350 years. 29 Noah lived a total of 950 years, and then he died.
The recent production of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale has been an international success. Atwood posits a fascist regime only valuing women for their fertility. LGBT people are referred to as “gender traitors” and black people referred to as “Children of Ham”. That reference comes from this confusing passage.
The story is an attempt to explain Canaanites origins and was written to justify their subjugation by Israel.
We’re not sure what is meant by Ham seeing his father naked especially as when Noah comes round he is appalled at what Ham has done to him. It might be as simple as the shame in seeing one’s father naked but it might also be Biblical code for some form of sexual assault (see Leviticus 20:17).
Then we have the horror of how the story has been used over time. Noah condemns Canaan, not Ham, to slavery. Ancient commentators began to depict Ham as black. Linking the curse on Canaan to slavery became a Biblical proof text to justify slavery.
Sadly there are many Biblical texts that support slavery – that shouldn’t surprise us given the prevalance of slavery in the ancient world. As late as the 19th Century, however, Christians were using this text to justify the enslavement of black people. Other Christians, including many Congregationalists, were involved in the abolition movement. At same time as the Congregational Union of Scotland was opposing slavery one of its ministers founded the Congregational Church in Stewarton; he was a man made wealthy from the slave trade.
We have to be careful when using the Bible in our ethical decision making and be aware of how texts have been used to oppress and condemn as well liberate and enliven. We need to confront our own mixed history around slavery and racism; the recent exposure of Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, as a sexual predator makes us realise we can all be capable of heroic sanctity and dreadful sin.
Lord, help us to understand the Scriptures, to see how they’ve been used, and to commit ourselves to always taking the side of the oppressed, using your words to liberate, Amen.
The Rev’d Andy Braunston is minister of Stewarton URC in East Ayrshire.