BMCR 2004.02.53

The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

, The curse of Ham : race and slavery in early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Jews, Christians, and Muslims from the ancient to the modern world. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003. xv, 448 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.. ISBN 069111465X. $35.00.

Biblical evidence on black Africans bears an implicit paradox: not much evidence exists, but the little that there is — notably the infamous “Curse of Ham,” a phrase from a passage in Genesis (9:18-25) that neither uses the Hebrew word for black (Kushi) nor curses Ham — has exercised enormous influence on the history of slavery in a western world whose three major religions view themselves as grounded in the text of the Old Testament. David M. Goldenberg’s book is thus of widest interest as the history of the exegesis of this biblical passage over the 1500 years from ca. 800 B.C.E. to 700 C.E. Goldenberg, a scholar of Jewish history and past associate director of The Annenberg Research Institute for Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, credits the inspiration for this book to his colleague Bernard Lewis, who while writing his own Race and Slavery in the Middle East consulted him on Jewish texts (x). The result is a work which should stand alongside Frank Snowden’s Blacks in Antiquity (1970), for Goldenberg has produced what may well become the definitive study of race and slavery in Old Testament texts and their postbiblical exegesis. In a work particularly valuable for its comprehensiveness and philology, Goldenberg’s research is monumental; the writing is clear as a bell; the arguments are not only cogent, but honest. Indeed, the book, to my knowledge, has no parallel in the scholarly literature and fills a real void.1 To top it off, the tone of the book is not only lucid and unpolemical, it is modest. Modest!? When last did I read an author admitting (187) “When I first dealt with the text I was not sure”? In short, this is a wonderful book and I hope that it finds many readers.

In his discussion of methodology, Goldenberg states that he set out to apply the comprehensiveness of Frank Snowden’s work to the Jewish world (8-9), while also incorporating the methodological nuance of Lloyd Thompson’s Romans and Blacks (1989), particularly the theory of the “somatic norm,” i.e., “ethnocentric reaction to strange and unfamiliar appearance,” a concept raised earlier by Snowden but more fully integrated into Thompson’s work. In fact, G’s introductory discussion of methodology makes clear that, during the decades since Snowden and Thompson wrote, a lot of methodological water has passed under the dam. G is well acquainted with the many methodological pitfalls in a work of this type, but, rara avis, seems to have been able not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. He reserves any direct discussion of racism for his last chapter, avoiding the quagmire of defining racism in favor of the simpler question of perceptions of black Africans in ancient Judaism. He preserves the comprehensiveness and positivism of Snowden and Snowden’s era, but he is clear, open, and judicious about the many methodological problems inherent in his topic and makes sensible decisions on methodology after stating the problems as clearly and fully as anyone could wish.

Goldenberg’s interdisciplinary coverage of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is certainly very contemporary, but, more important, critical to the success of his project. Not only do all three faiths share a belief in the Old Testament as a sacred text, but they share a common early history in the socio-cultural context of the ancient Mediterranean basin. To unravel the development of exegetical traditions of any one of these faiths requires an ear schooled to pick up the dynamic interplay and looping back of themes between all three. G has proven himself well up to the task of presenting biblical exegesis as a stream flowing freely over a Greco-Roman substrate and cutting across denominational lines. Although I am not in a position to judge the quality of the author’s control of Islamic scholarship, I would be surprised to learn that it fell short of his magisterial control of the classical, Jewish, and early Christian sources. In a typical example of the work’s broad reach, G’s discussion (69) of the tannaitic Rabbi Hillel’s (ca. 20 B.C.E.) characterization of Africans as “broad footed” (quoted in the Babylonian Talmud [ Shabbat 31A] and Avot de Rabbi Natan [a 15 and b 29]) invokes comparative material from inter alia an Egyptian stele on the Nubian campaign of Psammetichus II in 593 BCE, classical Greek and Roman sources (Herodotus, Diodorus Siculus, Strabo, Seneca, the Vergilian Appendix), 11th century Jewish exegesis and Arabic literary and scientific writing, contemporary scholarship (Frank Snowden), and literature (Maya Angelou), all enriched by notes packed with additional information and citations.2

Yet along with its contemporary interdisciplinary focus, this book has a refreshingly “old fashioned” air about it. What I mean is that the reader can easily distinguish between evidence and theory. A colleague of mine recently remarked that a truly good work of scholarship allows one to refute its arguments without having to go elsewhere for the necessary ammunition. G’s work meets this standard and as such is a model of scholarly research and presentation. The evidence, such as it is, is all there in a book that deserves close study for its notes alone (165 pages of notes to 211 pages of text). The often highly technical scholarship on every ancient source is deftly summarized and discussed with fullness, clarity, and integrity. Only then does the author lay out his own interpretation, which is invariably judicious and generally persuasive. Indeed, no small added value of G’s work is that in the process of learning about race and slavery in early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, readers will also learn a great deal about the history of biblical exegesis from antiquity on. Of particular use for readers unfamiliar with the conventions of Jewish scholarship will be the author’s introductory discussion of Jewish sources and technical terminology (12-14) together with his list of abbreviations of biblical, rabbinic, and secondary literature (xi-xv). His exceptionally useful “Glossary of Sources and Terms” (379-393) will be appreciated both by neophytes and the more experienced.

G’s book is structured like a good seminar: Introduction, Four Parts, Conclusion, and two appendices (the first on misreadings or scribal errors, the second on the confusion between Kush/Ethiopia and India). Part One contains four short, readable chapters arranged in chronological order. These interrogate biblical and postbiblical texts with questions of definition (what word is to be taken as referring to black Africa?) and content (what is the perception of black Africans?). The Bible usually but not always uses the term Kush/Kushites to indicate the land and inhabitants of Nubia/Ethiopia and the south/western side of Arabian peninsula. Postbiblical Jewsih literature reserves the term Kush almost exclusively for an African locale but also adds two new terms adopted from Hellenistic sources: Africa and Barbaria. Both biblical and postbiblical sources share with classical sources a common perception of Kush as the outer limit of the southern end of the world.3 A vexed passage in Isaiah 18 (1-2, cf. 7), the Bible’s most detailed description of black Africans, describes the people of Kush as fierce warriors, perhaps reflecting the contemporary Nubian conquest and rule of Egypt. Postbiblical Jewish sources emphasize additional themes in common with classical sources: contradictory images of Ethiopians as hypercivilized or barbaric as a result of their habitation at the ends of the earth; and a new emphasis, especially prominent in patristic exegesis, on the color symbolism of the white/black contrast as a metaphor for purity/sin or good/evil, often in the context of baptism and probably best known from Origen’s allegorization of Song of Songs 1:5 (“I am black but/and beautiful”). Was the symbolism racist? In G’s view, the world view created was obviously detrimental for blacks, but not specifically racist.

Part One of the book offers a nicely proportional mix of citations and close readings. G chooses the “right”, i.e. “philologically challenging” and/or historically charged passages for his own very full but always clear exegesis, e.g., an illuminating discussion of Moses’ Kushite wife (Numbers 12:1); the black maiden in Song 1:5; the linguistic problems of Isaiah 18:1-2. The relatively few biblical passages, which will be revisited in many different contexts in later chapters, are the prooftexts for all subsequent exegesis. And so in exposition as learned as it is lucid, G takes his time to reach the “Pshat” (the unadorned meaning of the biblical text) in so far as it can be recovered.

Part Two covers general attitudes toward skin color in four short chapters (5-8). Like their classical, Christian, and Islamic counterparts, biblical and rabbinic sources consider light skin a mark of feminine beauty. Of particular interest is G’s discussion (90) of the etymology of “houri” (= white ones, from a Semitic root meaning white), the term for the beautiful virgins who, according to the Koran, are the reward for the faithful in Paradise. Also intriguing is this chapter’s aside on the possibly transcultural nature of the male preference for lighter skinned women (90-92). A second very brief chapter explores the use of a color scale as an index of health. It is only in Chapter 7, “The Colors of Mankind”, that I got the answer (to my mind, somewhat buried) to a question that had been nagging at me since I opened the book. What color did the ancient Jews think that they were? Answer: like just about everyone else in antiquity, the right color, of course, which in the Mediterranean context would be someplace midway between too light and too dark. Etiological myths explaining the darker skin color of Ethiopians, Indians, Egyptians, etc. show a clear preference for this Mediterranean somatic norm. These narratives appear in Samaritan, Christian, Islamic and Jewish sources from the third century on, often as exegesis on Genesis 9:18-25. This section’s final chapter (“The Colored Meaning of Kushite”) examines the many passages in classical rabbinic literature in which the term “Kushi” can refer only to dark color without any specific reference to Ethiopian ethnicity or locale. As in the case of the classical term “Aithiops,” the rabbis use the term to indicate a color darker than their own somatic norm, and darker skin, accordingly, appears as an indicator of inferior social status.

Part Three consists of one brief chapter (9) on the very meager historical evidence for the presence of black slaves in ancient Israel. G’s suggestion is that, as in ancient Greece and Rome although on a much smaller scale, black Africans were a minority among the slave population, but were readily identified as slaves because of their noticeable somatic distinction.

Part Four, “At The Crossroads of History and Exegesis”, brings us to the heart of this book, with five chapters (10-14) on the exegetical history of selected biblical texts presented earlier in Part One. Chapter 10 takes up the vexed etymology of the biblical word Ham, for on this word hangs centuries of justification for the enslavement of black Africans as biblically ordained. Through a very thorough, often highly technical linguistic analysis, G administers a telling blow to traditional derivations of the name Ham from a semantic field of heat, darkness, or blackness, and demonstrates that these all turn on a misunderstanding of ancient Hebrew linguistics that can be traced back to no earlier than the first century. Contrary to the assumptions of Islamic, Christian, and Jewish exegesis, G argues persuasively that the biblical name Ham bears no relationship at all to the notion of blackness and as of now is of unknown etymology. Chapter 11, “Ham Sinned and Canaan Was Cursed”, explores the question of why, despite the Bible’s explicit statement, various biblical exegetes from the second century on insist that the curse affected not just Canaan but Ham and/or all of Ham’s children. It comes as no surprise to learn that growing insistence on the chimerical curse coincides with increasing numbers of black Africans taken as slaves, first in the Islamic East, then in the Christian West, and most perniciously in America. According to G, from the seventh century on the theme is common in Near Eastern sources (Arabic Muslim and Christian Syriac), surfacing in Western (Christian) writers in the fifteenth century and appearing in Jewish sources from the Islamic world a century earlier than in Jewish sources from the Christian west (fourteenth/ fifteenth century). Another peculiar exegetical elaboration (American, but with earlier European roots) is the notion of a curse of Cain, as recorded by Phyllis Wheatley (1773) in her verse: “Remember Christians, Negroes black as Cain/May be refined and joined the angelic train” (quoted, 178). According to this narrative, Cain became the ancestor of black Africans who were destined for enslavement in fulfillment of his curse for the crime of fratricide. G’s Chapter 13, “The Curse of Cain”, argues that the roots of this tradition must go back to Syriac Christian interpretations. These misunderstood rabbinic exegesis to Genesis 4:5, “And Cain was greatly saddened [or distressed] and his face fell,” and introduced the idea of Cain’s permanent change of skin color (180). Finally, Chapter 14 (“The New World Order”) offers a detailed philological analysis of a Jewish commentary to Genesis 9:22-23, the medieval text of Midrash Tanhuma, Noah 13 (on dating see 192 and Glossary 390), demonstrating that the passage encodes the then prevailing Arabic-Islamic division of the world’s peoples by physiognomic markers including but not limited to color.

There are no stunning revelations in this book. (Although the material on the etymology of Ham in Chapter Ten was a revelation to me, and may be to others.) There is, after all, not that much evidence and most of it has been processed piecemeal many times. Ultimately, like Snowden and Thompson on the classical world, Goldenberg concludes that the ancient Jewish world was not racist in the modern sense of hierarchy, ideology, or social structure determined by biological difference. We live in a far different world from the ancient Mediterranean, and race and color have acquired cultural baggage that needs to be shed when assessing the ancient evidence. What is important about Goldenberg’s book is the fullness, the integrity, and the philological sophistication with which both the biblical texts and centuries of postbiblical exegesis and scholarship have been clarified, organized, and cogently presented for a wide audience. In a topic as fraught with polemic as this one is, this itself is a stunning contribution.


1. I have not seen another new work on the same topic: Abraham Melamed, The Image of the Black in Jewish Culture (London 2003), characterized by Goldenberg (214, n. 14) as riddled with “the author’s misreadings and misunderstandings of the [Jewish] primary sources.” Cf. Goldenberg’s review of this work in JQR 93 (2003) 557-79.)

2. Note 174 to this page contains one of the book’s few typographical errors. Another is the misprint of note 53 for 83 on page 90. A third error, inexplicably, appears in Princeton University Press’s page count (408?) in its marketing blurb. On the positive side, the press is to be congratulated for its choice of a beautiful cover illustration, an illumination from the Alba Bible of Genesis 9:18-25.

3. To G’s compendious array of references on this theme might be added Jean-Pierre Vernant, “Food in the Countries of the Sun,” 164-69 in The Cuisine of Sacrifice Among the Greeks, edited by Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant, translated by Paula Wissing (University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London, 1989) on the utopian view of the Ethiopians (cf. G. n.117, p.258), and James Redfield’s “Herodotus as a Tourist” ( CP 80 [1985] 97-118) on Greek ethnography. Because G’s book has three indices (Subject, Ancient Sources, Modern Scholars) in lieu of a bibliography, readers must rely on its index of modern scholars to track down full citations; some valuable sources run the risk of burial in the very dense endnotes.