The Curse of Ham: Capsule of Ancient History

by Robert Brow   (web site -

This article originally appeared in Christianity Today [October 26, 1973], pp. 8-10.

(This article offered a model to explain the Table of Nations in Genesis 10. At the time it was published there were still some who used the curse of Ham as an argument for apartheid. It is included in this Model Theology web site to illustrate the importance of working at the model which the biblical writers may have had in mind when they first wrote. It would be wise to do this before we jump into explanations based on totally different historical assumptions.)

 "Cursed by Canaan; a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers. Blessed by the LORD my God be Shem; and let Canaan be his slave. God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his slave" (Genesis 9:25-27)

 That the curse of Ham cannot be applied to black people is easily shown from the text itself. What is usually missed is the astonishing unfolding of world history that the words of this oracle refer to.

 To interpret the oracle we will need to understand the logic of the Table of Nations given in Genesis 10 which is the next chapter. Scholars have generally assumed that this outline of racial origins is ignorant guesswork based on the geographical locations of the peoples that surrounded Israel many centuries after Abraham.

 In his Introduction to the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 1969), R.K.Harrison boldly claimed that "the Table of Nations is unquestionably of ancient origin" (p.559). He argued that the source of Genesis 10:2-11:10a is a typical cuneiform tablet, probably belonging to Shem's own family history, "written either from personal knowledge or from other reliable sources" (p.548). He also points out that the biblical interest in exactly kept genealogies is not unique. "The excavations at Mari have shown the extent to which genealogical tables were treasured in antiquity as a means of establishing pedigree" (p. 547).

 According to Genesis 10 the known world was populated after the flood by races descended from the three sons of Noah. Since the Medes (Madai) and Greeks (Javan) are clearly identified, Genesis 10:2-5 obviously refers to the Indo-European nations. Scholars have shown that the Nordic and Germanic tribes of Europe, the Romans and Greeks, the early Iranians of Persia, and the Aryan tribes that invaded India about 1800 B.C. spoke a group of languages so closely related in both grammar and vocabulary that they must come from a common original. So let us try out the biblical nomenclature and call these languages "Japhethite."

 Next we have a Hamitic group of nations (Gen. 10:6-20). Ham had four sons named Cush, Egypt (Mizraim), Put and Canaan. the eldest son, Cush, had a son called Nimrod, who established "Babel, Erech, and Accad, all of them in the land of Shinar." Now the difficulty is that the people of this area spoke Akkadian, which was unfortunately called a Semitic language, as were Hebrew and Arabic.

 Beginning with A.L.Schlozer (1781) scholars assumed that since Abraham was a Shemite, and he spoke Hebrew, Hebrew should be called a Semitic language. Then Arabic, Akkadian, Phoenician, Canaanite, and Moabite were also found to be of this group, so they too were called Semitic languages.

 This error of terminology makes it impossible to make sense of the many biblical references to Canaanites, children of Ham, and children of Shem. To use the biblical terminology we should distinguish between Abraham's race or genealogy, which was Shemitic, and his spoken language, Hebrew, which was "the language of Canaan" (Isaiah 19:18). In a moment I will argue that Abraham's ancestral language was Sumerian, that he spoke Akkadian before leaving Ur, and so found it easy to understand Canaanite, another Hamitic (wrongly called Semitic) tongue as he moved into the western part of the Fertile Crescent.

 Now if scholars had taken the Table of Nations seriously, they would have looked for four closely related groups of Hamitic languages. There were the sons of Cush, who spoke Akkadian, the sons of Mizraim, who spoke Egyptian, the sons of Put, who spoke various North African dialects, and the sons of Canaan, who spoke Canaanite and Phoenician.

 The Table of Nations also suggests that the Casluhim were the ancestors of the Philistines and Minoans (Caphtorim) of Crete (see Deuteronomy 2:23, Jeremiah 47:4, Amos 9:7), and all these people were descended by genealogy from an Egyptian ancestry (Mizraim).

 Having despised the biblical terminology, scholars had to put in many years of painstaking work to discover that the Akkadian language of of Babylon was related to Canaaanite and Phoenician (usually called West Semitic instead of Hamitic). Then it was found that Egyptian had structural similarity to both Canaanite and various African languages like Galla, Somali, and Berber (Alan Gardiner, Egyptian Grammar, 1950, p.2).

 In 1962 Cyrus H. Gordon proposed that Linear A, which was probably the language of the Minoan civilization of Crete, was related to Canaanite and Phoenician (Christianity Today, March 15, 1963, pp. 3-8). Cyrus Gordon also argued that the Minoans arrived suddenly about 1800 B.C. with a fully developed civilization from Egypt (Ugarit and Minoan Crete, 1966, p.29).

 (Note added in 1996 to the 1973 article : This invasion would have resulted in the Middle Minoan pottery. But this would have been preceded by a previous Lybian immigration as suggested by Robert Graves, Greek Myths I, 1960. R.K.Harrison reported that Middle Minoan pottery was found at Ras Shamra, Hazor, and Abydos and Memphis, Introduction to the O.T., 1969, p.312)

 Taken together these discoveries suggest a confirmation of the Egyptian group of nations in Genesis 10:13 and their relationship to their Canaanite cousins in Genesis 10:15-20. Evidently the writer of the Table of Nations cuneiform tablet 4000 years ago had first-hand knowledge of these genealogical connections.

 What then was the original language of Abraham? We have seen that the Bible is quite clear that he was not a Hamite, though he spoke one or more of the Hamitic (wrongly called Semitic) languages. We know that his father came from Ur (Genesis 11:31), and it is certain that Sumerian was spoken in that city during the Neo-Sumerian empire (2100-1960 B.C.). Sumerian was still spoken in people's homes after 1960 B.C., but it was already being replaced by Akkadian for trade and official purposes throughout the Babylonian empire. Rather like Latin in the Middle Ages, Sumerian continued to be used for another thousand years for magical purposes, astronomy, and law.

 Now in view of the tremendous importance of the Sumerian people and language, it seems incredible that the Table of Nations in Genesis 10 would totally ignore the people and language of Abraham's birthplace. If Abraham was in fact a Sumerian, this problem would be dissolved. So let us try out this model.

 The truly Shemetic races, descended from Shem, are stated to be: Elam, Asshur, Arphachshad, Lud, and Aram (Genesis 10:22). Since Abraham was descended from Shem's third son, Arphachshad, our model would suggest that the Arphachshadites spoke Sumerian in the area of Ur. What of the other four Shemitic racial groups?

 We do know that there was a race of Elamites, which the Table of Nations identifies as descended from Shem's elder son. The Sumerians and Elamites were neighbors and often fought against each other, and from about 2000 B.C. kings with Elamite names often reigned in Ur. Furthermore scholars have established that Sumerian and Elamite are both agglutinative languages, and both are quite distinct from the Indo-European and Hamitic (wrongly called Semitic) groups of languages. That two languages are agglutinative does not prove that they have a common root, but at least it shows that a family connection is possible.

 Scholars have so far very little historical or religious Elamite literature to work on, and there are many problems in other agglutinative languages such as Hurrian and Urartian. W.F.Albright and T.O. Lamdon suggested that Elamite is related through the ancient Brahui language of Pakistan to the Dravidian languages of South India ("The Evidence of Language," Cambridge Ancient History, vol.1 Part 1, 1970, p. 154). Excavations on the island of Bahrein (known as Ur-Nanshe in Sumerian) and in other coastal areas of the Persian Gulf have established many trade connections between the Indus-Valley civilization of India and the Sumerians in Ur (see Geoffrey Bibby, Looking for Dilmun, New York, 1970).

 The Table of Nations then tells us that the original Assyrians (Asshur) and Arameans (Aram) were descended from the same truly Shemitic family. Since both of these peoples later wrote in languages akin to Akkadian, we would have to assume that their original Sumerian and/or Elamite type of language was swamped by the Babylonians. Although archaeologists have so far ignored this clue, they would be wise to take the Table of Nations seriously, and at least consider this original genealogical explanation. Even Amos, a thousand years later, still knew that the Arameans originally came from Kir (Amos 9:7), and Isaiah links Kir with Elam (Isaiah 22:6). Another son of Shem was Lud, who might be the ancestor of the ancient kings of Lydia in Asia Minor.

 As can be seen from a Bible atlas, we should imagine the sons of Shem stretching at one time from Asia Minor, throught the mountains to the north of the Tigris, to Sumerian Ur, the Persian Gulf, and across into North India. If these people were all viewed as belonging to one language group, of which only Elamite remained as a spoken language, we can understand the significance of the famous inscriptions of Darius and Xerxes. These were written in three languages, Old Persian representing the Japhethites, Elamite for the Shemites, and Akkadian from the Hamitic (wrongly called Semitic) group of languages.

 If Abraham was a Shemite by genealogy who spoke Sumerian as his family language in Ur, we can picture the situation after the Neo- Sumerian civilization had ended in 1960 B.C. Already Terah and his sons would be speaking and certainly writing Akkadian, and looking west to Babylon and beyond. We can understand why the family settled among the Arameans of Haran, since these were blood- brothers who probably still spoke their ancestral language but were already being assimilated into Hamitic (usually called Semitic) culture.

 Abraham himself pushed on south by God's command into Canaanite territory. The language would be no great problem to him, since it was closely related to the Akkadian dialects of the Babylonian empire. There were obvious temptations for Abraham and his children to merge with the Hamitic population. Ishmael's mother and wife were both Egyptian. But Abraham insisted that his servant travel 400 miles back to Haran to find a Shemitic wife for Isaac. And in the next generation, whereas Esau contented himself with two local girls, Jacob went and served fourteen years for Leah and Rachel from his own race.

 All this and much else becomes clear if we stick to the biblical model and call Abraham a Shemite, and avoid the misleading term Semitic for the Akkadian and Canaanite peoples among whom he lived.

 Now armed with the exact terminology of the Table of Nations, we can grasp the trremendous significance of the curse of Ham with which this study began. The curse is precisely limited to the descendants of Ham's fourth son, Canaan. The children of Canaan included Amorites, Girgashites, Jebusites, etc. of the promised land, plus the Sidonians who where the Canaanites of Phoenicia (Genesis 10:15-19). Our text refers to three different movements that disastrously affected this whole group of Canaanite nations.

 The first sentence in the curse of Ham tells us that the descendants of Canaan were to be enslaved by brother Hamites. "Cursed be Canaan; a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers." This in fact kept happening over a period of a thousand years. By the fifteenth century B.C. Canaanite states were under the domination of Egypt. From 841 B.C. for the next two centuries the Canaanites of Phoenicia were repeatedly enslaved by Akkadian kings from the area of Assyria. Later, as prophesied by both Jeremiah and Ezekiel, the Phoenicians came under the Akkadians from Babylonia.

 Secondly, in our text we are told that the Canaanites were to be enslaved by the desendants of Shem. "Blessed by the LORD my God be Shem; and let Canaan be his slave." This was fulfilled when Abraham's descendants, who had kept their Shemitic genealogical identity (though they spoke a Hamitic dialect), multiplied in Egypt and came back to defeat Og and Sihon, Amorite kings of Transjordan, and then overcame the Canaanite tribes west of the Jordan under Joshua.

 In the third part of Noah's prophecy it is stated that the Canaanites were later to be enslaved by Japhethites, or Indo-Europeans. "God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his slave." This took place when the people of Tyre and Sidon, who were the only Canaanites who still retained a national identity, were subjugated by Greeks under Alexander the Great. That still left the expatriate Canaanites of the Phoenician colonies, who fought so valiantly against the Japhethite Romans in the Punic wars. The destruction of Carthage in 146 B.C. would then mark the completion of the curse of Ham on the Canaanites who had ceased to be a nation by New Testament times.

 Whatever we think of such an astonishing prophecy, it obviously has nothing to do with the Black people of today. Whether the races of central Africa were descended from Mizraim, or from Put, or from some other genealogical strain, they are definitely not classed as Canaanites, who alone were under Noah's curse of of Ham.

 Finally we note that in the third section of the prophecy Japhethites are to be "enlarged," and they will occupy Shemitic territory. By about 1800 B.C. invading Indo-Europeans had taken over Asia Minor and overthrown the ancient Shemitic kingdom of Lydia. The great Hittite empire of Asia Minor (not to be confused with the Canaanite Khitti of Genesis 15:20, Exodus 3:8, 13:15, etc.) was Indo-European, and it ruled over large areas of what had been Shemitic territory. Later the Japhethite Medes and Persians occupied the territory of the Shemitic Elamites.

 If the Indus-Valley civilization of Pakistan was racially the same as the Sumerians, then they would also have been Shemites who were made into low class people by invading Japhethite Aryans about 1800 B.C. The very rich and difficult Tamil language of South India might eventually turn out to be our closest example of the Sumerian language spoken by Abraham in Ur of the Chaldees. And by a strange quirk of history the language of the cursed Canaanites was adopted as both for the language of the Old Testament and the language of modern Israel.

 In any case, according to Noah's prophecy the movement of Japhethite peoples into "the tents of Shem" was taking place on a massive scale in the Old Testament period. Eventually, of course, the children of Japheth "enlarged" into Europe and across into South and North America. We do not have to approve what they did to kill off and enslave the previous inhabitants to marvel at the ancient prophecy.

 The so-called curse of Ham should be retrieved from crankish misuse by racists. It is in fact a capsule prophecy that sums up in a few words vast movements of ancient history. Many Old Testament scholars have dismissed Genesis 9 and 10 as garbled myths that cannot be taken seriously. By grasping the genealogical model of the original writer, we should question their too easy assumptions.

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