The Bible pictured above, displayed at the ‘Museum of the Bible’ in Washington D.C., was used to educate slaves. Cut out of it, were passages which might encourage rebellion – “There is no difference between .. slaves and free people .. you are all one in union with Christ Jesus”. (Gal. 3:28). Other passages, not surprisingly, were left in – “Slaves, obey your human masters with fear and trembling, and do it .. as though you were serving Christ”. (Eph. 6:5). This Bible is a sad and shameful relic.
In Genesis 9, Noah planted a vineyard, drank too much wine, and keeled over, naked, in his tent. His son Ham, seeing him in this drunken déshabillé, went to tell his two brothers, who walked backwards into the tent and suitably covered their father. When Noah sobered up, he said, “A curse on Canaan! He will be a slave to his brothers”. It may seem odd that this curse fell on Ham’s son, Canaan, but at the time Genesis was put together, the Canaanites were the enemies of God who’d deserved enslavement and extermination so that Israel could, without guilt, occupy the Land of Canaan. This is religious tribalism at its worst!
The owners of African slaves in the American South, took note of the ‘information’ (Gen. 10), that the sons of Ham were the ‘progenitors’, not only of the inhabitants of Canaan, but also of Ethiopia, Egypt and Libya – all countries in North Africa – and, of course, the ‘contagion’ of that cursed ancestry would have spread southwards! The slave owners saw themselves as ‘descendants’ of Noah. Being “the first man to plant a vineyard”, he was the first plantation owner – their ‘patron saint’ perhaps! A pro-slavery tract from 1835 says, “The Slave Institution in the South increases her tendency to dignify the family. Each planter in fact is a Patriarch – his position compels him to be a ruler in his household” (*) and his ‘household’ would have included his slaves.
Noah’s drunkenness was considered to be a minor occurrence that shouldn’t have had attention drawn to it. Ham ought, at once, to have decently covered his father but, instead, went to share the news with his brothers. In doing so, he’d broken the commandment to “honour your father .. so that your days may be long”. By implication, breakers of this commandment should, as a punishment, have their days shortened. For these African descendants of Ham and Canaan, slavery was therefore a merciful alternative to the worse punishment of death, which was their ‘inherited’ desert . What on earth did they have to complain about? They should have been properly and suitably grateful.
What clearer example can there be of how Biblical passages can be bent and twisted to support the otherwise insupportable? There is, of course, other Biblical material, such as the Exodus story, which was an inspiration for plantation slaves, and for Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and for others who managed to find biblical justification for opposing slavery. The fact remains, however, that the Bible is a man-made, inevitably flawed, varied collection of ancient, tribal documents which, for all its redeeming features, can carry no unique, or special, decisive authority in relation to any matter whatsoever in our 21st century world which, culturally, is ‘light-years’ distant from theirs.
Like all ancient documents, its contents demand thorough historical and literary scrutiny. Its diversity of often conflicting standards and values has to be sifted to separate the wheat from the chaff, and that ‘wheat’, to carry persuasive weight, must be supported by empirical and other relevant, contemporary evidence. No longer can the phrase, “the Bible says”, have the force it once possessed. If the Bible is the most sold, it’s probably also the the least fully read and properly understood of all books. It invites cherry-pickers to choose whatever suits their prejudices, while blithely ignoring the inevitable inconsistencies and contradictions. It can still indeed be, at times, an inspirational guide, but it can also be a source of ill-informed, prejudiced negativity, which does it no favours whatsoever.
(*) “The Curse of Ham across Time”, Michael D. Coogan, “Introduction to the Old Testament”, Oxford.