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The relevant narrative occurs in the Book of Genesis and concerns Noah's drunkenness and the accompanying shameful act perpetrated by his son Ham the father of Canaan (Gen. 9:20–27). The controversies raised by this story regarding the nature of Ham's transgression, and the question of why Noah cursed Canaan when Ham had sinned, have been debated for over two thousand years. The story's original objective was to justify the subjection of the Canaanites to the Israelites, but in later centuries, the narrative was interpreted by some Jews, Christians and Muslims as a curse of, and an explanation for, black skin, as well as slavery. Nevertheless, most Christian denominations strongly disagree with such interpretations due to the fact that in the biblical text, Ham himself is not cursed and race or skin color is never mentioned.
The concept of the Curse of Ham finds its origins in the Genesis narrative of Gen. 9:20–27:
Ham, along with his father and brothers, blessed by God
Genesis 9:1 And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.
Canaan cursed by Noah
Genesis 9:20 And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard:
21 And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent.
22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without.
23 And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness.
24 ¶ And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him.
25 And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.
26 And he said, Blessed be the LORD God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.
27 God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.
Keil and Delitzsch (1885) suggested that the curse was a prophecy of the history of the tribes descending from Canaan, while Robert Alter holds that the overall objective of the story is to justify the subject status of the Canaanites, the descendants of Ham, to the Israelites, the descendants of Shem. However, according to Nahum Sarna, the narrative of the curse upon Canaan is replete with difficulties. It is uncertain what the precise nature of Ham's offense is. Verse 22 has been a subject of debate, as to whether it should be taken literally, or as a euphemism for gross immorality. In verse 25, Noah names Shem and Japheth as the "brethren" (the New Living Translation reads "relatives") of Canaan, seven verses after indicating that they were Canaan's uncles. The Table of Nations presents Canaan and Mizraim (Egypt) among the sons of Ham (10:6). In the Psalms, Egypt is equated with Ham. The treatment of Japheth in verses 26–27 raises questions: Why is YHWH named as the God of Shem, but not of Japheth? What does it mean that God will "enlarge" Japheth? And why will Japheth "dwell in the tents of "Shem"? Further difficulties include Ham's being referred to as "the youngest son", when all other lists make him Noah's second son. Per Sarna, the biggest challenge of the narrative is why Canaan was cursed, rather than Ham, and the concealed details of the shameful incident bear the same reticence of Reuben's sexual transgression.
The narrative's short five verses give indication that Canaan's Hamite paternity must have had great significance to the narrator or redactor, according to Sarna, who adds: "The curse on Canaan, invoked in response to an act of moral depravity, is the first intimation of the theme of the corruption of the Canaanites, which is given as the justification for their being dispossessed of their land and for the transfer of that land to the descendants of Abraham."
The majority of commentators, both ancient and modern, have felt that Ham's seeing his father naked was not a sufficiently serious crime to explain the punishment that follows. Nevertheless, Genesis 9:23, in which Shem and Japheth cover Noah with a cloak while averting their eyes, suggests that the words are to be taken literally, and it has recently been pointed out that in 1st millennium Babylonia, looking at another person's genitals was indeed regarded as a serious matter.
Other ancient commentators suggested that Ham was guilty of more than what the Bible says. The Targum Onqelos (an Aramaic translation of the Bible dating from the first few centuries AD) and several other sources had Ham gossiping about his father's drunken disgrace "in the street" (a reading which has a basis in the original Hebrew), so that being held up to public mockery was what had angered Noah; as the Cave of Treasures (4th century) puts it, "Ham laughed at his father's shame and did not cover it, but laughed aloud and mocked."
Ancient commentaries have also debated that "seeing" someone's nakedness meant to have sex with that person (e.g. Leviticus 20:17). The same idea was raised by 3rd-century rabbis, in the Babylonian Talmud (c. 500 AD), who argue that Ham either castrated his father, or sodomised him. The same explanations are found in three Greek translations of the Bible, which replace the word "see" in verse 22 with another word denoting homosexual relations. The castration theory has its modern counterpart in suggested parallels found in the castration of Uranus by Cronus and a Hittite myth of the supreme god Anu whose genitals were "bitten off by his rebel son and cup-bearer Kumarbi, who afterwards rejoiced and laughed ... until Anu cursed him".
Modern scholars have suggested that to "uncover the nakedness" of a man means to have sex with that man's wife (e.g. Leviticus 20:11). If Ham had sex with his mother, and Canaan was the product of this forbidden union, it could explain why the curse falls on his son; the weakness, however, is that Genesis 9:21 has Ham "seeing" his father's nakedness, not "uncovering" it.
In the Book of Jubilees, the seriousness of Ham's curse is compounded by the cultic significance of God's covenant to "never again bring a flood on the earth". In response to this covenant, Noah builds a sacrificial altar "to atone for the land".[Jub. 6:1–3] Noah’s practice and ceremonial functions parallel the festival of Shavuot as if it were a prototype to the celebration of the giving of the Torah. His "priestly" functions also emulate being "first priest" in accordance with halakhah as taught in the Qumranic works. By turning the drinking of the wine into a religious ceremony, Jubilees alleviates any misgivings that may be provoked by the episode of Noah’s drunkenness. Thus, Ham’s offense would constitute an act of disrespect not only to his father, but also to the festival ordinances.
The medieval commentary of Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki 1040-1105), who cites older sources from Judaism's Oral Torah, which is relied upon by traditional Judaic scholarship as the most basic commentary to the present time, provides an introductory explanation. (Genesis 9:22-27):
It is noteworthy that the curse was made by Noah, not by God. Some biblical scholars claim that when a curse is made by a man, it could only have been effective if God supports it, unlike the curse of Ham and his descendants, which was not confirmed by God or, at least, it is not mentioned in the Bible that he had confirmed it.
4Q252, a pesher (interpretation) on the Book of Genesis found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, explains that since Ham had already been blessed by God (Genesis 9:1), he could not now be cursed by Noah. The 4Q252 scroll probably dates from the latter half of the first century BC. A century later, the Jewish historian Josephus argued that Noah refrained from cursing Ham because of his nearness of kin, and so cursed Ham's son instead.
A new alternate interpretation of a Dead Sea scroll 4Q181 which is a Genesis scroll parallels the Book of Jubilees, suggesting that Canaan was cursed because he defied Noah’s division of the land.  
The Book of Jubilees also recounts the incident between Ham and Noah, and Noah's resulting curse against Canaan, in similar terms. Later, however, Jubilees explains further that Noah had allocated Canaan a land west of the Nile along with his brothers, but that he violated this agreement and instead chose to squat in the land delineated to Shem (and later Abraham), and so rightly deserved the curse of slavery.
Philo of Alexandria, a 1st-century BC Jewish philosopher, said that Ham and Canaan were equally guilty, if not of whatever had been done to Noah, then of other crimes, "for the two of them together had acted foolishly and wrongly and committed other sins." Rabbi Eleazar decided that Canaan had in fact been the first to see Noah, and had then gone and told his father, who then told his brothers in the street; this, said Eleazar, "did not take to mind the commandment to honour one's father." Another interpretation was that Noah's "youngest son" could not be Ham, who was the middle son: "for this reason they say that this youngest son was in fact Canaan."
Genesis 9:25: Cursed (ארור) is Canaan: Noah said to Ham: "You caused me that I should not father a fourth son, another one to serve me. May your fourth son [Canaan was Ham's fourth son, see Genesis 10:6] be cursed by serving the offspring of these greater ones [of Shem and Japheth]... What did Ham see that he emasculated him? He said to his brothers Adam the first man had only two sons (Cain and Abel) yet one killed the other because of the inheritance of the world [Cain killed Abel over a dispute how to divide the world between them according to Genesis Rabbah 22:7] and our father has three sons yet he seeks still a fourth son."
Genesis 9:26: ...Blessed is יהוה the God of Shem: "Who is destined to keep His promise to [Shem's] offspring to give them the Land of Canaan" and he shall be: "Canaan shall be to them as a servant to pay tribute."
Genesis 9:27: and Canaan shall be a slave to them.: "Even after the children of Shem will be exiled slaves will be sold to them from the Children of Canaan." [Rashi explaining why the curse is repeated.]
In the past, some people have claimed the "curse of Ham" as a biblical justification for imposing slavery or racism on Black people, although this concept is essentially an ideologically driven misnomer. Regarding this matter, the Christian leader Martin Luther King Jr. called such attempt "a blasphemy" that "is against everything that the Christian religion stands for."
While Genesis 9 never says that Ham was black, he became associated with black skin, through folk-etymology deriving his name from a similar, but actually unconnected, word meaning "dark" or "brown". The next stage, are certain fables according to ancient Jewish traditions. According to one legend preserved in the Babylonian Talmud, God cursed Ham because he broke a prohibition on sex aboard the ark and was "was smitten in his skin"; according to another, Noah cursed him because he castrated his father. Although the Talmud refers only to Ham, the version brought in the Medrash goes on further to say "Ham, that Cush came from him" in reference to the blackness, that the curse did not apply to all of Ham but only to his eldest son Cush, Cush being a sub-Saharan African. Thus two distinct traditions existed, one explaining dark skin as the result of a curse on Ham, the other explaining slavery by the separate curse on Canaan.
The two concepts may have become merged in the 7th century by some Muslim writers, the product of a culture with a long history of enslaving black Africans; the origin and persistence of the "Curse of Ham", in which Ham, blackness and slavery became a single curse, was thus the result of Islam's need for a justifying myth. Many mediaeval Muslim authorities including Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari, Ibn Khaldun, and even the later Book of the Zanj all asserted the view that the effects of Noah's curse on Ham's descendants included blackness, slavery, and a requirement not to let the hair grow past the ears. This is despite the fact that the account of the drunkenness of Noah is not included in the Qur'an. Islam holds that prophets of God are infallible.
However, an independent interpretation of the curse being imposed on all of the descendants of Ham persisted in Judaism, especially since the other children of Ham were situated in the African continent, i.e. Mizraim fathered the Egyptians, Cush the Cushites, and Phut the Libyans.
In medieval Christian exegesis, Ham's sin was regarded as laughter (for mocking his father and doing nothing to rectify his condition).
Elsewhere in Medieval Europe, the "Curse of Ham" also became used as a justification for serfdom. Honorius Augustodunensis (c. 1100) was the first recorded to propose a caste system associating Ham with serfdom, writing that serfs were descended from Ham, nobles from Japheth, and free men from Shem. However, he also followed the interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:21 by Ambrosiaster (late 4th century), which held that as servants in the temporal world, these "Hamites" were likely to receive a far greater reward in the next world than would the Japhetic nobility.
The idea that serfs were the descendants of Ham soon became widely promoted in Europe. An example is Dame Juliana Berners (c. 1388), who, in a treatise on hawks, claimed that the "churlish" descendants of Ham had settled in Europe, those of the temperate Shem in Africa, and those of the noble Japheth in Asia – a departure from normal arrangements, which placed Shem in Asia, Japheth in Europe and Ham in Africa – because she considered Europe to be the "country of churls", Asia of gentility, and Africa of temperance. As serfdom waned in the late medieval era, the interpretation of serfs being descendants of Ham decreased as well.
Ham also figured in an immensely influential work called Commentaria super opera diversorum auctorum de antiquitatibus. In 1498, Annius of Viterbo claimed to have translated records of Berossus, an ancient Babylonian priest and scholar; which are today usually considered an elaborate forgery. However, they gained great influence over Renaissance ways of thinking about population and migration, filling a historical gap following the biblical account of the flood. According to this account, Ham studied the evil arts that had been practiced before the flood, and thus became known as "Cam Esenus" (Ham the Licentious), as well as the original Zoroaster and Saturn (Cronus). He became jealous of Noah's additional children born after the deluge, and began to view his father with enmity, and one day, when Noah lay drunk and naked in his tent, Ham saw him and sang a mocking incantation that rendered Noah temporarily sterile, as if castrated. This account contains several other parallels connecting Ham with Greek myths of the castration of Uranus by Cronus, as well as Italian legends of Saturn and/or Camesis ruling over the Golden Age and fighting the Titanomachy. Ham in this version also abandoned his wife who had been aboard the ark and had mothered the African peoples, and instead married his sister Rhea, daughter of Noah, producing a race of giants in Sicily.
The explanation that black Africans, as the "sons of Ham", were cursed, possibly "blackened" by their sins, was advanced only sporadically during the Middle Ages, but it became increasingly common during the slave trade of the 18th and 19th centuries. The justification of slavery itself through the sins of Ham was well suited to the ideological interests of the elite; with the emergence of the slave trade, its racialized version justified the exploitation of African labour.
In the parts of Africa where Christianity flourished in the early days, while it was still illegal in Rome, this idea never took hold, and its interpretation of scripture was never adopted by the African Coptic Churches. A modern Amharic commentary on Genesis notes the 19th century and earlier European theory that blacks were subject to whites as a result of the "curse of Ham", but calls this a false teaching unsupported by the text of the Bible, emphatically pointing out that Noah's curse fell not upon all descendants of Ham, but only on the descendants of Canaan, and asserting that it was fulfilled when Canaan was occupied by both Semites (Israel) and Japhetites (ancient Philistines). The commentary further notes that Canaanites ceased to exist politically after the Third Punic War (149 BC), and that their current descendants are thus unknown and scattered among all peoples.
Robert Boyle, a 17th-century scientist who also was a theologian and a devout Christian, refuted the idea that blackness was a Curse of Ham, in his book Experiments and Considerations Touching Colours (1664). There Boyle explains that the Curse of Ham used as an explanation of the complexion of coloured people was but a misinterpretation embraced by "vulgar writers", travelers, critics and also "men of note" of his time. In his work, he challenges that vision explaining:
And not only we do not find expressed in the Scripture, that the Curse meant by Noah to Cham, was the Blackness of his Posterity, but we do find plainly enough there that the Curse was quite another thing, namely that he should be a Servant of Servants, that is by an Ebraism, a very Abject Servant to his Brethren, which accordingly did in part come to pass, when the Israelites of the posterity of Sem, subdued the Canaanites, that descended from Cham, and kept them in great Subjection. Nor is it evident that Blackness is a Curse, for Navigators tell us of Black Nations, who think so much otherwise of their own condition, that they paint the Devil White. Nor is Blackness inconsistent with Beauty, which even to our European Eyes consists not so much in Colour, as an Advantageous Stature, a Comely Symmetry of the parts of the Body, and Good Features in the Face. So that I see not why Blackness should be thought such a Curse to the Negroes...—Robert Boyle (author's italics and capitalization)
A number of other scholars also support the claim that the racialized version of the Curse of Ham was devised at that time because it suited ideological and economical interests of the European elite and slave traders who wanted to justify exploitation of African labour. While Robinson (2007) claims that such version was non-existent before, historian David Brion Davis argues, as well, that contrary to the claims of many reputable historians, neither the Talmud nor any early post-biblical Jewish writing relates blackness of the skin to a curse whatsoever.
After the death of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Latter Day Saint movement, leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) taught that Black Africans were under the curse of Ham, although the day would come when the curse would be nullified through the saving powers of Jesus Christ. In addition, based on his interpretation of the Book of Abraham, Brigham Young believed that as a result of this curse Negroes were banned from the Mormon Priesthood. In 1978 then LDS president Spencer W. Kimball said he received a revelation that extended the Priesthood to all worthy male members of the LDS Church.