Ham son of Noah

©  Jordan White Enterprises

November 10, 1999


            There is a passage of Scripture, found in Genesis 9:  20-29 which describes an incident concerning the patriarch Noah, the same man who built the famous ark.  It seems that after the flood, this Noah built himself a vineyard, grew some grapes, made wine, drank the wine and became unpleasantly drunk.  Exactly what was going on when his son Ham (the text adds that he was "the father of Canaan") walked in on him is not completely clear, but it wasn't good.  In any case, Ham ran out to tell his two brothers, Shem and Japheth, that their father was up to something weird.   So the two other brothers ran and got some kind of robe and, turning backwards so they would not witness Noah's disgrace, threw the clothing over their father.  When Noah came to his senses, he was very ticked off with Ham.  It is hard to understand why he was mad at Ham, since Noah was the one lying around scandalously unclad.  Perhaps Ham had snickered about the situation or in some other way showed disrespect (well-earned disrespect, some of us might be tempted to say) toward the old man.  At any rate, Noah felt compelled to curse his son and his descendants.  These are his exact words, as recorded in the book of Genesis:


            " 'Cursed be Canaan;

            A servant of servants

            He shall be to his brothers.'

            He also said,

              'Blessed be the Lord,

              The God of Shem;

              And let Canaan be his servant.

              May God enlarge Japheth,

              And let him dwell in the tents of Shem;

              And let Canaan be his servant.' "  (Genesis 9: 25-27)


            Although this story is a relatively obscure portion of Scripture, it was widely quoted and expounded upon in the first half of the nineteenth century.  Why?  Because, as usual, persons who had very little respect for the truth were doing their typical Biblical-interpretation-as rationalization-for-my-crummy-behavior routine.  I can only imagine how tired the Almighty must be of this habit that mankind seems to have.  You see, the name "Ham" means "swarthy" or "dark", and according to our friends of one hundred and fifty years ago or so, that meant that he was the father, or ancestor, of the black ("Negro") race.  Therefore, since Ham received the curse of having to be servant to his brothers, it naturally applied to all his "descendants" as well, meaning that it is okay to hold human beings as slaves since the Bible said it was supposed to happen that way.


            Before you laugh your head off at this stupid and exploitative use of Scripture, realize that many Christians are using another Old Testament passage in pretty much the identical way.  The similarities are amazing, so it is not surprising that the result is the same:  it ends up with a group of people being "doomed" to a subservient role to another, simply because a passage of Scripture is interpreted as showing one group as "winner" (i.e. Shem and Japheth) and another group as the "loser", (i.e. Ham). 


            The passage of Scripture I am referring to is also found in Genesis, this time in chapter 17, and, by coincidence, also concerns another of the patriarchs, Abram (Abraham).  It seems that this man had an out-of-wedlock son by his wife's handmaiden who was called "Ishmael."  Now, this was a problem.  You see, God had promised Abram that He would make a covenant with him and his descendants, that He would be their God, and that he would give to them the land of Abram's sojournings (ironically enough, called "Canaan"), for an "everlasting possession".  It appears that when Abram went ahead on his own and came up with Ishmael, he foiled God's real plan, which was to give Abram and Sarai, his wife, a legitimate son in their old age. 


            What a predicament!  Abram really goofed this one up!  Obviously, God had to think fast to figure something out to make way for Isaac, the legitimate heir of the promise and get rid of that nasty interloper, Ishmael.


            So what God figured out was that Ishmael would be banished to the desert, and would become the ancestor of the Arabs.  It makes sense, doesn't it?  After all, the Arabs are a desert people.


            That meant that Isaac, even though he was considerably younger than Ishmael, could take his rightful place as inheritor of the promise, meaning, of course, that he became the ancestor of the Jewish people.


            Evidently, however, there was one problem God could not solve (He couldn't think of everything, could He?) and that is that these two groups of people, the Arabs and the Jews, would be eternally locked in a struggle over that same parcel of land, mostly because the Arabs are too stubborn to realize that God really meant was that it was for Isaac ( meaning the Jews), and if they weren't a bunch of heathens they would have figured that out by now and vacated the lands so that the rightful heirs can reestablish the Kingdom of Israel, ushering in the final Kingdom of Heaven and so on and so forth.


            Okay, now you can laugh.


            We're all quite willing to be amused by the silliness of using Scripture to prove that the black race is doomed to be the slaves of the white race, simply because a humiliated and distraught father lost his temper and said some things to his son that he probably didn't even mean.  And we're probably also willing to admit that even though Ham's name means "swarthy", that it is a stretch to say that African people can unerringly trace their lineage to this man.  My sister has dark hair and brown eyes, and I am light-haired and have green eyes, but her kids aren't any darker than mine.  If anything, they are fairer.  Human genetics just don't work that way!


            But what about that other story?  This isn't about a father mouthing off.  This is God speaking.


            Right, and so is all the rest of the Bible, "God speaking."  God's will isn't sidetracked by the actions of a human.  It goes straight on.  That is what is meant by "sovereign".


            God's plan, you see, included  the existence of Ishmael. 


            Through the existence of Ishmael, we see the true beauty of God's gracious and loving heart toward all of mankind.


            God showed love and compassion for the young man and his mother after Sarah heartlessly tossed her loyal maid and her boy out into the desert, where they easily could have died.  God showed them a well of water (which Arab tradition calls the spring of ZamZam) and promised to make a great nation of Ishmael. 


            You see, God does not have to have any set of circumstances to have His will occur.  He made that clear when He asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah.  Abraham understood that even if Isaac died, God's promises would still come true.


            How is that possible?   

Because, as Abraham no doubt understood, God's kingdom is a spiritual one, open to all who will believe.


            God doesn't need to have a group of people called the Jews, or Christians, or anything else to accomplish His will.  His kingdom will come about regardless. He includes us because He chooses to do so.  His kingdom is not of this earth.  How wonderful that God loves us enough to unfold to us this beautiful story of one man's faith, not his lack thereof.  


             As John the Baptist said to the self-righteous Pharisees and Sadducees, Jewish leaders of his time,


            "You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Therefore bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham for our father';  for I say to you, that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham." (Matt. 3: 7-9)


            Kind of gives the whole thing a new perspective, doesn't it?




            (All Bible passages quoted from New American Standard.)



Addendum on the story of Ishmael and Isaac:


            It is interesting to note that the two brothers at one point in their lives (possibly they were even of similar age at the time), found themselves in peril of death.  Ishmael's crisis occurred when he and his mother Hagar were banished to the desert by Sarah and ran out of water.  God graciously provided them with water from a well, saving both their lives.  The Bible goes on to say that God was "with the lad, and he grew."


            In Isaac's case, his crisis came when God commanded his father, Abraham, to take him to Mount Moriah and offer the boy as a burnt offering.  Abraham had gotten as far as having prepared the altar and laid the tied-up Isaac on top of the wood, and was just lifting up his knife to kill him, when God intervened, graciously providing a ram for the sacrifice instead of Isaac.


            What makes this so interesting?  Well, it is not just the fact that the stories both point out the infinite love and grace of God.  If that weren't enough, both of the means of salvation, the water in Ishmael's case and the ram in Isaac's case, are metaphors used in the New Testament to denote the saving power of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Jesus referred to Himself as the provider of living water (John 4:10) and went on (vs. 14) to say that this living water would become in the person" a well of water springing up to eternal life. "   Also in the New Testament, Jesus was referred to as the "Lamb of God" (John 1: 29) "who takes away the sin of the world."


            I believe that what God is trying to show us is that it does not matter whether we are legitimate sons of Abraham or illegitimate sons of Abraham.  In fact, it does not matter whether or not we are sons of Abraham at all.  The point is, whoever we are, our only hope of life and salvation comes through the most gracious provision God ever gave: the gift of His Son, Jesus Christ.


            Look again at the bold-face quote above, the words of John the Baptist (Matt. 3:7-9).  John was sternly warning the hypocritical Jewish leaders of his time to stop claiming kinship with God through their connection to Abraham.  John told them in no uncertain terms that it simply did not matter!  What did he tell them that they must do to receive salvation from their own death sentence?  "Bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance." 


            In Mark 1:15, Jesus is quoted as saying, "...repent and believe the gospel."


            The Kingdom of God and His blessing are thus graciously provided for all who will repent and accept the true gospel, which is faith in Jesus Christ, our Savior, our Living Water, our Lamb of God without blemish.