A common argument for American slavery during its long life was biblical: Noah cursed his son Ham (Gen 9.18-27), who is the ancestor of the African peoples (Gen 10.6-20), and the curse included the statement that “a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren” (Gen 9.25). So, says the exegete, while I don’t like slavery any more than you do, and it’s really too bad, yet this is what God has determined for these people, and we can’t fight it. Blacks are going to be the slaves of whites.
Or something along that line.
I should add here that the abolitionist movement in both the US and Britain was also peopled—and in fact instigated and led—by Christians, who read and believed their Bibles, and who pointed out, as I’m about to, that the above argument is a textbook example of lousy hermeneutics and thus nonsense.
Let us count the ways.
To begin with, it’s true that Noah’s son Ham incurred his father’s wrath for something he did while his father was sleeping off an apparently unanticipated episode of drunkenness (Gen 9.21-22). We’re not told clearly what angered Noah; all the passage says is that Ham “told his brothers” that their father was naked in his tent. The fact that the subsequent curse seems to be quite an overreaction to that simple act has led to lots of speculation about what really happened; some have suggested that since the phrase to “uncover [someone’s] nakedness” is later used as a euphemism for sexual activity (Lev 18.6-19; 20.11, 17-21; Ezk 16.36; 23.18), perhaps Ham took sexual advantage of his father’s incapacity, thereby committing rape, incest, and homosexuality all at the same time, and then humiliating his father by bragging about it.
Maybe. Maybe not. We don’t know, and we should say we don’t know.
But from this point, pretty much everything about the pro-slavery argument goes badly off the rails.
First, we don’t know that Ham was the ancestor of Black Africans. He’s identified as the father of Cush, which is commonly understood to be modern Sudan; Mizraim, which is almost certainly Egypt; Put, which is likely Libya; and Canaan, which is, well, Canaan. None of those regions involve sub-Saharan Africa, and the North Africans are generally more Arab-looking than “African”-looking.
Second, the slavery apologists seem never to notice that Ham himself was not cursed; Noah turned the curse on Ham’s son Canaan (Gen 9.25). Now, that’s a bit of an interpretational puzzle; some commentators speculate that Noah really, really wanted to hurt Ham and so cursed his (youngest?) son. Others speculate, with equally absent evidence, that Canaan might have been somehow involved in his father’s act. In the end, we don’t know why Canaan got the curse. But it’s interesting to note that of the four sons, the ones who apparently populated at least part of the African continent are precisely the ones not cursed.
Third, we really don’t know for sure that God intended to carry out Noah’s wishes. All that my confident belief in inerrancy requires is that the Bible accurately records Noah’s words. No context, narrow or broad, places divine endorsement on the prophecy, and while Noah is initially said to have “found grace in the eyes of the Lord” (Gen 6.8), and to be a recipient of God’s deliverance from universal judgment (Gen 6.13ff), and to be a New Testament example of faith (Heb 11.7), his words here do seem inexplicable in the little context we have. Not to mention that he was coming out of a drunken stupor.
In any case, he cursed the Canaanites. And we find, sure enough, that the Canaanites eventually experience God’s wrath and decree of extermination—not because Noah cursed them, but because they were intensely evil idolaters, sacrificing their living infants in fire to their imagined gods. Interestingly, God, who characterizes himself as longsuffering, patiently endured centuries of their violent misbehavior, giving them time to come to their senses; he tells Abraham that he couldn’t possess the Promised Land in his lifetime, “for the iniquity of the Amorites [a Canaanite tribe] is not yet full” (Gen 15.16).
So were blacks biblically cursed with a fate as slaves?
That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.