After the Flood, Noah prophesied on the future of Shem, Canaan (one of Ham’s sons), and Japheth (Genesis 9:25-27). Chapter 10 follows up with a list of peoples descended from each patriarch.
Ever since the age of exploration, European scholars have been tempted to associate these three lines of descent with three major “racial” groups: Asians, Africans, and Indo-Europeans (or Mongoloids, Negroids, and Caucasoids). For a few, the motivations were less than pure. The reasoning went along these lines:
- “Ham” means black.
- Africans are black-skinned.
- Therefore, Africans must be Hamites.
- Noah prophesied that the Hamites would be servants of servants.
- “Servant of servants” means “slave.”
- Therefore, Hamites would be slaves.
- Therefore (from 3 and 6), Africans would be slaves.
It was only a short step from here to conclude that Europeans had a God-given right to enslave and otherwise exploit the African peoples.
This only goes to show how a seemingly valid argument can be totally fallacious. It fails on factual grounds, specifically, the facts of the Bible. First, like many proper names, “Ham” has no obvious meaning. The Hebrew word may have something to do with warmth or heat, and is used poetically of Egypt (e.g., Psalm 78:51), but the word suggests nothing about skin color. Second, “servant of servants” may mean the greatest of servants or, more likely, a servant of other servants, but there is no proof for its meaning “slave.” Third, the people who made this sort of argument were seeking to defend exploitation and oppression of sub-Saharan Africans (e.g., South African apartheid and American slavery). However, of all Ham’s sons (Genesis 10:6), only Cush is associated with “Negroid” peoples—in this case, the Nubians of northeast Africa. Even then, we see that Cush became the father of Nimrod, who founded the non-African nations of Babel and Assyria (Genesis 10:10-11). Mizraim, another son, is the Hebrew name for Egypt (see Genesis 50:11), and from Canaan came the Canaanites. African nations may have come from Ham, but “Ham” does not mean “African.” Finally, the whole idea of reading slavery into this passage breaks down with a quick glance at history: both the Romans and Vikings enslaved fellow Europeans.
The range of Ham’s descendents gives us a good reason for rejecting any attempt to make the three sons of Noah match some arbitrary division of races. The point, of course, is that the Table of Nations served a theological purpose. Its audience had to know their place in God’s redemptive history. Those readers and listeners were the people who followed Moses out of Egypt. They needed to know why God blessed Shem and Japheth, and cursed Canaan. They needed to know that their God, Yahweh, was the God of their ancestor, Shem. And they needed to know that the Promised Land would belong to them, and not to the descendents of Canaan.
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