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  • The Curse of Ham. Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam
  • Dean A. Miller
The Curse of Ham. Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. By David M. Goldenberg ( Princeton/Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2003. xv +448 pp. $30.00).

The core of and impetus for Goldenberg's deeply and massively researched book is that strange (and, as it turned out, portentous) entry in the Book of Genesis (Gen 9: 18-25) which describes how Noah and his three sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth, finally disembarked from the ark and were instructed to people the earth; how Noah raised grapes and made wine, and how he drank the wine and became drunk and passed out, how his three sons found him naked, but only Ham (the youngest son) peeked at the old man's nudity. When the patriarch learned of this he waxed wroth (not what the RSV says, incidentally)—and declared: "Cursed be Canaan, a slave of slaves shall he be to his brethren."

We immediately see some part of the exegetical problem: Ham commits the delict but it is his son (actually one of his sons), Canaan, who is cursed with the burden of servitude (what sort of primitive patriarchal prohibition declared that seeing a father's nakedness was punishable by this extreme—if indirect—penalty is not a topic Goldenberg takes up, though I suspect that there must be rabbinical comment on this situation of sexual taboo). Beyond the original biblical passage stretch millennia of commentary and interpretation, and this author's aim is specifically to trace the evolution of the idea—the perception—that the Curse of (or on) Ham was not simply servitude but, somehow, the blackness of Ham, so that slavery and a particular chromatism went together down the ages—extending directly to mid-19th century America, when pro-slavery advocates, armed with Scripture, could and did point to Genesis 9: 18-25 as the divine patent for black slavery, their righteous judgments formed just as biblical literalists' opinions are to this day: "God said it, I believe it, and that's an end to it."

Goldenberg plans his work on the history of a perception (or re-perception) along essentially uncomplicated lines: in four parts of the book he pursues (in Part One) the images of Blacks and Blackness in the sources describing biblical and postbiblical Judaism, with special attention to where Kush (possibly a black 'nation') was and who the Kushites may have been. Then (Part Two) "the Color of Skin" is examined through lenses such as the ideal color ascribed to female beauty, to ideal human health, or to the skin-color of a normative or 'proper' mankind; in all of these cases a 'median' chromatism is preferred. Part [End Page 831] Three (only ten pages long—the book has some odd topical arrangements to leaven its, predictable organization) gives us what we know of the brief history of black slaves in ancient Israel. Part Four combines history and exegesis, taking up the imputation of blackness to Ham, the puzzle of Canaan, the Curse of Ham (once again), another Curse (directed, more predictably perhaps, against Cain as the first murderer), and finally the description of physiognomy (specifically the physiognomy of the African black) as it is superadded to his color so as to excuse, or to announce, his permanent and eternal fitness for slave status.

The picture Professor Goldenberg draws (and fills in with exceptionally dense detail) is one I think we now could recognize. The biblical accounts contained in Torah (where the land of Kush and its people is a fairly frequent reference—Moses himself supposedly was married to a Kushite woman, for one intriguing example) reveal no more "racism" (but the same "ethnocentrism") that we would find elsewhere in the Mediterranean (the author cites the work of Frank Snowden and Lloyd Thompson with approval); Kush and its inhabitants were made, early on, signifiers or images of "otherness" but not necessarily either identified as black-skinned or as particularly threatening; sometimes Kush indeed is confused with Canaan (itself a confused geographical and ethnic concept), and eventually, for more confusion, the Greek "Ethiopian" was added...


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