The Curse of Ham: How Bad Scripture Interpretation Inspired Genocide

The killing started during Easter week in the spring of 1994. In just one hundred days, 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred. Entire families—men, women, and children—were butchered with machetes, cut down in front of their homes by people who were their neighbors, and murdered in the churches where they had worshiped alongside the people who became their killers.

One of the roots of the deadly tribalism that destroyed so many lives in Rwanda was the misinterpretation and misapplication of a Bible story—the story of the curse of Ham.

In Mirror to the Church: Resurrecting Faith after Genocide in Rwanda, Emmanuel Katongole documents the genocide, which was intimate, thorough, and involved the church. He wrestles with the painful reality that this tragedy unfolded in a country that was among the most evangelized in Africa. And though the political and social situation that erupted in genocide was complex, he suggests that one of the roots of the deadly tribalism that destroyed so many lives was the misinterpretation and misapplication of a Bible story—the story of the curse of Ham (Gen. 9:18–27).

How the Curse of Ham Played a Role in Dividing Rwanda

Genesis 9 recounts how God blessed Noah and his sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth after the flood, reiterating the blessing given in Eden to be fruitful, multiply, and populate the earth. Not long after, Noah planted a vineyard, overindulged in the fruit of his labor, got drunk, and “lay uncovered in his tent.” His son Ham, the father of Canaan, “saw the nakedness of his father,” and told his brothers, who respectfully covered their father. When Noah woke up from his stupor, he condemned Ham’s bad behavior, saying, “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers” (Gen. 9:25 ESV).

It’s surprising that a narrative such as this—so lean in detail—has, in some instances, been so consequential. But it has. Katongole explains how in the nineteenth century the curse of Ham was used by some to justify the enslavement of black Africans on the grounds that they were descendants of Ham. In Rwanda, the story had a particular application—it became the justification for giving privileged status to one indigenous group over another.

When German and Belgian colonialists came into contact with two local groups known as Hutu and Tutsi, they mistakenly believed they were different races. Katangole explains,

Along with their philosophy of history, Europeans brought to Africa the idea of race . . . Hutu and Tutsi existed in precolonial Rwanda as roles that determined people’s place in society. But Europeans ascribed biblical explanations to these roles, insisting that they could see in Tutsis’ physical features that they were descendants of Semites. The same ‘science’ that was used to justify slavery also measured nose width and calculated average height in order to demonstrate Tutsi superiority. What had been a fluid system of complex relations quickly turned into a set of simplistic racial categories that defined the Tutsi minority as superior and the Hutu majority as inferior.

These designations, then, became the backbone of a social and political system cultivated by Belgian colonialists that privileged Tutsis over Hutus. This was, as Katongole accurately notes, “European anthropology of the worst kind.” And as these imported tribal identities became entrenched over more than a century, resentment and hatred took root. Ultimately, the bitter fruit of genocide was the result.

What Can We Learn?

Katongole suggests that there are a number of lessons we can learn from the tragedy that unfolded in Rwanda. But I’d like to focus here on how we interpret Scripture and on what went wrong in this particular case.

First, we have to be careful not to read our own agendas into the biblical text.

The use of Genesis 9 to justify slavery and racial hierarchy grew from a particular strain of European anthropology, not from sound exegesis of the biblical text. Those who wanted to establish a biblical basis for racial superiority suggested that God had sanctioned the curse of Ham and, by extension, all those descended from him, relegating them to be slaves.

But in Genesis 9:18–29, one of the most notable elements is the silence of God. God did not curse Canaan, Ham’s son; Noah did. And it’s important to remember that Noah, too, was a guilty party in this story, set in motion by his own drunkenness. While it’s not clear that the curse of Ham was part of God’s design, it is obvious that all three sons came from the same father—they were not different races.

Rather than act as a foundation for racial superiority, this story serves to foreshadow the conflict that would later develop between Israel and Canaan. This is probably the reason that Noah’s curse wasn’t directed at Ham, the one who was at fault, but to his son, Canaan.

Second, understanding how a particular story fits within the wider arc of the gospel story is essential for reliable interpretation.

The context of a story—both within a particular book and within the Bible as a whole—should inform how we understand any given passage.

In Genesis, Ham is a recipient of God’s blessing in passages that both precede and follow the incident of his transgression. We should read Noah’s curse of Ham, then, in light of the fact that God clearly blessed all the sons of Noah, including Ham (Gen. 9:1–6). Looking forward, we may also anticipate God’s blessing of Abraham that will ultimately lead to blessing for “all the families of the earth” (Gen. 12:1–3 ESV).

Both these passages give context to Noah’s judgment of Ham’s disrespectful action, demonstrating that the ramifications of Ham’s sin against his father will not forever shape the destiny of his family line. This hope is made explicit in the prophecies of Isaiah, who foresaw a day when the descendants of Ham—Egypt and Assyria—would be reconciled to the family of Shem—Israel (Isa. 19:23–25).

This reconciliation finds its ultimate expression in the church in which there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile (Col. 3:11; Gal. 2:18; Gal. 3:28). Scripture culminates in an awe-inspiring vision of people from every tribe and nation worshiping the Lamb of God (Rev. 7:9–17). Keeping the vision of Revelation 5 in view rules out the mistaken idea that the Ham narrative justifies the subservience of one race or ethnic group to another.

Third, we can remember that our mission is not only proclaiming the gospel but also embodying it in an incarnational way.

Katongole suggests that whenever Christians are sent out to make disciples, “our mission is to be a new community that bears witness to the fact that in Christ there is a new identity. It is only by being such a unique people from ‘every tribe and language and people and nation’ (Rev. 5:9) that we can both name and resist the spells that would have us live as tribalized people.”

“Christian expression throughout the world has too easily allowed the blood of tribalism to flow deeper than the waters of baptism.”

Katongole helpfully exposes that tragic reality that “Christian expression throughout the world has too easily allowed the blood of tribalism to flow deeper than the waters of baptism.” In the wake of Rwanda, we must resist every manifestation of a resurgence of tribal division in our churches and in our mission.

Avoiding the Mistakes of the Past

Reading and interpreting the curse of Ham through a racial lens distorts the goodness of God’s revelation and the history of salvation that transcends race and ethnicity. In this case, an event that unfolded in Israel’s prehistory was ripped out of context and misappropriated in order to legitimize a racist social structure.

German and Dutch colonialists in Rwanda manipulated a Bible story to shape the culture of the country in a way that served their interests but that didn’t reflect the goodness of God or his intentions for human flourishing—a peace that heals social divisions. Even if there had been a reason to think that Hutus were descendants of Ham (which there was not), the use of the story to justify their subservience was based on a flawed interpretation.

The way the story of the curse of Ham was abused in Rwanda to create tribal identity that inflamed racial hatred is tragic. It is cautionary history. As we seek to understand the mistakes of the past, may we never be guilty of repeating them.

Eliza Thomas is an editor and writer who has worked with IMB for more than a decade. She lives with her family in Central Asia.