Monday, October 31, 2005

The Curse of Ham

If I had to choose, my least favorite verses in all of Torah would have to be the ones in this week's sedra about Canaan being cursed - not because of what they actually say, but because of how they are gleefully misrepresented and misapplied.

Noah, first of all, did not curse his son, in the sense of causing misfortune to befall his own offspring. Rather, writes Samson Rephael Hirsh, Noah simply announced that Canaam was doomed. With the words Arur Canaan Noah told us what he saw. He didn't cast a spell, or offer a prayer, or work any sort of charm. His utterance was merely the biblical equivlent of telling your child "Son, you'll never amount to anything."

Next, is the horrible institution this mistake has been used to serve. In the verse, Noah decrees that Canaan will be slave to Shem and Yefes, and this decree has been used for thousands of years by Jews, Christians and Muslims to justify black slavery. Odd, when you realize that Noah and his family are not described in racial terms. Support for the idea that Canaan turned black is found in the midrash (Breishis Rabba on 9:25) and in the Me'am Lo'ez, where insult is added to injury with the teaching that the black man is not just dark-skinned, thick-lipped, and kinky-haired --- but also red eyed and unalterably immoral, all because of the curse.

Happily, there's help. Almost 1000 years ago(!) the Ibn Ezra warned against those who imagine that slavey and blackness are biblicaly linked. In his commentary to Genesis 9:24, he writes: "There are those who think that the black people (Cushim) are slaves because of Noah's curse. But they have forgotten that the very first king in the Torah after the Flood was from Cush," ie: black. (This was Nimrod)

The Ibn Ezra's point seems clear: Black slavery (and one might presume black skin, too) has nothing to do with Noah's curse. The very first king after the curse was from Cush; if the curse had any weight this would have been impossible. The Cushites would not have produced an globally-respected king.

The IE could have made the same argument by pointing out that Canaan --the one specifically cursed in the text-- is the only one of Ham's four children who is not the forefather of dark-skinned people, nor is he thought to be the forefather of Africans. Kush is west central Africa, Mizraim is Egypt and Put is Libya. Canaan, however, is not in Africa, but between the Jordan River and the Mediterranian Sea where people are more olive-colored than black. So the idea that Noah's curse made Canaan's skin turn black -and black Africans into slaves - appears to be defeated by the text itself.

Finally, we'd do well to remember that the only Biblical curse that specifically mentions a change in skin color is in 2 Kings 5:20-27 where Elisha punishes Gehazi - by giving him white skin.