Biblical Abuse and Black Slavery

nhpr.org

Before leaving Genesis, I want to highlight something that happens in its 9th chapter, after the tale of the Flood. There was no rest for old Noah, clearly a man of many talents. Not only did he build a huge boat, and successfully look after a vast menagerie of birds and beasts, but we’re told that “he was the first man to plant a vineyard“. He also knew how to turn his grapes into wine, and ‘Chateau Noah evidently packed a full bodied punch. Like countless millions in the centuries to come, “he became drunk” – so much so that he “took off his clothes, and lay naked in his tent.” There’s some strong stuff in the Hebrew Bible, in more ways than one.

A strange incident follows in which one of Noah’s sons, Ham, “saw that his father was naked“, and drew the attention of his brothers to this unseemly fact. Holding a robe between them, “they walked backwards into the tent and covered their father .. so as not to see him naked.” When Noah sobered up, and discovered what had happened, he said, “A curse on Canaan. He will be a slave to his brothers“. This is all rather odd, to say the least.

If Ham, with no ill intention, had paid his father a visit and made an unexpected discovery, what had he done wrong? Was it wrong to go and tell his brothers? Should he himself have picked up a robe and done the necessary? In any case, none of this seems to merit a curse of ongoing slavery. On top of that, why is it not Ham who is cursed? Why does his son Canaan get dumped on? Perhaps it’s this final question that gives us a key to the mystery.

The writers/editors of Genesis constructed genealogies to suggest the origins of surrounding nations. Many of these were Israel’s enemies, and so they turn out to have originated from questionable ancestors! According to the biblical stories, the Israelites defeated and dispossessed the original inhabitants of Canaan. The Hebrew Bible takes slavery for granted, and plentiful contemporary evidence shows that conquered peoples were routinely enslaved. If that had happened to the Canaanites, it was simply a following through of that curse levelled, not against Ham, but conveniently against his son, Canaan!

Let’s now jump forward to the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries, and to the bible-believing plantation owners of African slaves. They pointed out that in Genesis 10:6, the descendants of Ham were located in Africa – in “Cush (Ethiopia), Mizraim (Egypt) and Put (Lybia) and, without doubt, they would also have migrated southwards! The curse of slavery, again conveniently, included all black Africans.

The slave owners identified themselves with Noah who, having planted the first vineyard, was also the first plantation owner! An 1835 pro-slavery tract states that, “Each planter in fact is a Patriarch – his position compels him to be a ruler in his household“. As the household ruler, the slave owner was justified in oppressing and ill treating his slaves. The fact that Ham “went out” and told his brothers about his father’s drunken nakedness – that he ‘had made it public’ – had broken the commandment to “honour his father”. If, as the commandment said, the honouring of parents merited “long life”, then obviously dishonouring them merited death. It was clear then to these owners, that slavery was a much more merciful punishment. Their slaves ought to have been duly grateful !

I would hope it’s obvious to any current reader, that these arguments are specious, contrived, self-serving and lacking in any ethical or other foundation. They’re a potent example of what the idea that the Bible is “the authoritative, inspired, (and even) infallible Word of God” can lead to. In the wrong hands, at susceptible times and locations in history, it can be cynically and dictatorially used to serve the selfish ends of the powerful, and to justify and condone, attitudes and behaviour that otherwise would cry out to be condemned and rejected.  

Thankfully, it is the case that there were bible-believers included in the forefront of the abolitionist movement. Very often, they were con-conformists from within, or un-connected to, traditional or established churches. Long may there continue to be lots of such non-conformists, and may the day soon come when self-serving and dogmatic claims about divine authority, inspiration and infallibility, are finally and universally consigned to history’s dustbin.

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