The Curse of Ham—A New Reading in the Dead Sea Scrolls

Bible and archaeology news
Noah Wiener • 06/07/2013 


“Cursed be Canaan; lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.”
He [Noah] also said, “Blessed by the LORD my God be Shem;
    "and let Canaan be his slave.
    "May God make space for Japheth,
    "and let him live in the tents of Shem;
    "and let Canaan be his slave.”
– Genesis 9:25-27

The harshness of the curse of Ham, his son Canaan and their descendants has been a source of scholarly debate for millennia. A new reading of the Dead Sea Scroll 4Q180-4Q181* provides a fresh perspective on Canaan’s transgression.

In December 2012, the Israel Antiquities Authority, in collaboration with Google, launched The Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library, a new website that allows visitors to view and search high-resolution images of the complete Dead Sea Scrolls archive online. Using the high-resolution digital images of the Dead Sea Scrolls, researchers Elisha Qimron, Hanan Ariel and Alexey Yudisky recognized that a unique usage of the word for God in a Genesis scroll, in conjunction with the word for tent, may be interpreted to mean the “land of Shem,” rather than the “tent of Shem,” according to a recent article published in Haaretz. This reading, which parallels the Apocryphal Book of Jubilees, suggests that Canaan defied Noah’s division of the land. According to this alternate Biblical tradition, the exile known as the curse of Ham would be punishment for more than Ham’s seeing “the nakedness of his father” (Genesis 9:22).