Rhodes College, in Memphis, Tennessee, rebuilt after the Civil War by the renowned New Orleans preacher Benjamin Palmer (1818- 1902), is the academic home of Stephen Haynes. It is likely also the inspiration for his literary exploration of the biblical roots of the justification for American slavery and segregation of Americans of color in the post-Civil War period. It is easy to forget that behavior flows not only from the high ground of people’s personal experience and values but also from the prejudices that they have been taught. These prejudices take on added authority when they are affirmed as the word and will of God. The Judeo-Christian tradition’s major textual source is the Bible. Haynes demonstrates how the biblical text of Genesis has been used for centuries to support the subjugation, separation, and oppression of nonwhite peoples. In the United States, particularly, an insidious but systematic appropriation has been made of the text to justify and to promote first the keeping of slaves before the Civil War and the support of segregation thereafter. Noah’s Curse documents the historical and exegetical context for this justification and offers some thoughts about an antidote to this religiously based racism.
The book is divided into four parts. The first section gives the reader background into the biblical texts that chronicle the origins of Noah’s curse, as described in Genesis 9, as well as a short survey of relevant commentaries dating from the early church until the last century. Noah, postdiluvian progenitor of the “second first family” of the human race, begets three sons—daughters are rarely of concern to the biblical authors. Two of the sons are characterized as upstanding and dutiful; the third, Ham, is considered the black sheep—in more ways than one—of the nascent human family. It is he who comes upon his father in a drunken stupor and laughs at the naked old man. In contrast, the other brothers avert their eyes from their father’s embarrassing condition and together cover him with a garment. Noah awakes and, comprehending his youngest son’s actions, condemns “Canaan” to be slave to his brothers. While it is this peculiar event that appears to provoke the curse and initiates centuries of negative commentary and characterization of Noah’s third son, the exact nature of Ham’s serious lapse and why the curse is laid not on him but on his progeny, Canaan, remains unclear from examination of both the biblical text and its subsequent exegesis. Some commentators have seen the account of Ham’s viewing his father naked and drunk as an elliptical reference to sexual activity between father and son, but this interpretation is not universal. What is clear, however, is that from early times the snickering son and his descendants are to bear a curse based on what he did. The progeny, sons of Canaan, Ham’s descendants, eventually become identified with later people of color, particularly those brought from Africa and sold as slaves in the United States.
In another passage, Ham’s grandson Nimrod is likewise singled out for approbation for his part in the construction of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 10). This story recounts the spread of evil through human attempts to reach God by building a high tower. The work is thwarted, however, when the builders find themselves unable to understand each other’s language. Nimrod is described as a primary figure in this enterprise, a “mighty hunter before the Lord,” whose architectural ambitions provided the impetus for this grievous rebellion against God. Gradually, and over centuries of exegesis, his image as well as his skin color became darkened. His heritage and his own nefarious actions have evolved into a picture of an evil giant, rebellious and proud, a figure clothed in the raiment of bigotry.
These relatively minor characters from the mythical religious history of humankind’s relationship with God have become the stars in a drama meant to give legitimacy to the practices of slavery in the American South. Haynes, clearly at home in the field of biblical exegesis, condenses a vast corpus of fairly difficult material from early Christian writers, rabbinic sources, and other representative commentaries of the relevant passages of Genesis. The reader gets a comprehensive but not overwhelming picture of the evolution of thinking in the matter. Someone familiar with the field will find the section interesting and fairly easy going. Novices will be not discouraged, however, as...
(The entire section is 1835 words.)