Current Critical Questions Concerning The “Curse Of Ham” (Gen 9:20-27) -- By: O. Palmer Robertson

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 41:2 (Jun 1998)
Article: Current Critical Questions Concerning The “Curse Of Ham” (Gen 9:20-27)
Author: O. Palmer Robertson


Current Critical Questions
Concerning The “Curse Of Ham” (Gen 9:20-27)

O. Palmer Robertson*

* Palmer Robertson is professor of Old Testament at Knox Theological Seminary, 5554 North Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale, FL 33308, and professor of theology at African Bible College, Box 1028, Lilongwe, Malawi.

More than a hundred years ago John Buchan, the prolific Scottish novelist, put the following words into the mouth of one of his youthful characters: “The Bible says that the children of Ham were to be our servants. If I were the minister I wouldn’t let [that black man] into the pulpit. I wouldn’t let him farther than the Sabbath school.”1

It might be assumed that social advancements in the twentieth century have put to rest this rather twisted way of reading Scripture. But ample testimony continues to confirm a readiness to interpret Gen 9:20–27 in a way that denigrates the black man. It has been reported that part of the defense’s argument in a recent murder trial depended on an appeal to this passage. On a broader scale, Ethiopian Christians have reported that the Communists who dominated their country for a number of years based one of their anti-Christian propaganda arguments on this passage from Scripture. Why should the Ethiopians have any sympathies for the Bible, since Christians teach that Africans are an inferior race as a consequence of the curse of Ham? Clearly a reexamination of the so-called “curse of Ham” as found in the book of Genesis is needed.

The setting for this linking incident in the narrative is simply presented (Gen 9:18–19). After reporting the confirmation of God’s covenant with Noah by the sign of the rainbow, the narrative names Shem, Ham and Japheth as the sons of Noah. These three sons presumably will be the heirs of the covenantal blessing of preservation. But a special point is made of the fact that Ham is the father of Canaan (v. 18b). Then it is noted that the three sons of Noah will be the source of all other inhabitants of this world that are to be scattered across the earth. These seemingly innocuous transitional remarks set the stage for the long-term future of the nations of the world.2

Both coming judgments and blessings are implied in these transitional verses. Noah’s seed shall multiply and fill the earth, but they also shall be scattered in disharmony (cf. 11:9).

The prophetic wo...

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