Who’s Afraid of Canaan’s Curse?

Genesis 9:18–29 and the Challenge of Reparative Reading

in Biblical Interpretation
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The story of Noah’s curse of his grandson Canaan (Gen. 9:18–29) is especially well suited to an interpretive style Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has labeled “paranoid reading.” Oft exploited by those invested in xenophobia and racism, this passage appears to present an intrinsically identitarian plot that cannot be shaken off, either by historicizing or by other kinds of critical engagement. Indeed, historical critical analysis has tended to confirm rather than undermine the story’s determination to justify disinheritance on the basis of some vague form of sexual perversion. In her later work, however, Sedgwick began to call such paranoid readings into question, advocating a more open, descriptive, and anti-foundational approach to texts and histories. These “reparative reading” practices cede paranoia’s determination to be “in the know” to descriptive multiplicity and more limited acts of noticing. Inspired by Sedgwick’s insights, this essay considers the advantages of paranoid reading strategies, especially when it comes to this story, even as it acknowledges the serious limits of such readings, which have yet to succeed if the goal is to undermine the stickiness of sexualized and racialized blaming rooted in this difficult biblical text.

Who’s Afraid of Canaan’s Curse?

Genesis 9:18–29 and the Challenge of Reparative Reading

in Biblical Interpretation




Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick“Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You,” in Touching Feeling: Affect Pedagogy Performativity (Durham: Duke University Press 2003) pp. 123–52; and Sedgwick“Melanie Klein and the Difference Affect Makes” The Weather in Proust (ed. Jonathan Goldberg; Durham: Duke University Press 2011) pp. 123–43.


Eve Kosofsky SedgwickThe Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press1990). Also see Sedgwick “Gender Criticism” in Stephen Greenblatt and Giles Gunn (eds.) Redrawing the Boundaries: The Transformation of English and American Literary Studies (New York: MLA 1992) pp. 271–302; and Sedgwick Tendencies (Durham: Duke University Press 1993). I adopt the phrase “scouringly thorough” from Sedgwick herself though she applies it to the work of Judith Butler not to the Epistemology (“Paranoid Reading” p. 130).


Sedgwick“Paranoid Reading” p. 146.


Sedgwick“Cavafy, Proust, and Queer Little Gods,” The Weather in Proustp. 66.


T. M. Lemos“Shame and Mutilation of Enemies in the Hebrew Bible,” JBL 125 (2006) pp. 225–41 (234–35) and Geoffrey P. Miller The Ways of a King: Legal and Political Ideas in the Hebrew Bible (Journal of Ancient Judaism Supplements 7; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 2011) pp. 76–77. Howard Eilberg-Schwartz also finds the key to the story in Ham’s look. Shem and Japheth who cover Noah expressed respect and obedience as well as modesty whereas Ham who did take a glance at his father’s penis broke a taboo that no Israelite should ever even consider: glancing at the father’s/God’s phallus (God’s Phallus and Other Problems for Men and Monotheism [Boston: Beacon Press 1994] pp. 91–97).


Cynthia ChapmanThe Gendered Language of Warfare in the Israelite-Assyrian Encounter (HSM 62; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns2004) pp. 160–63. Also see Goldenberg “What Did Ham Do?” p. 259: “[T]he act of looking at another’s genitals may indeed have been a grievous crime” since as Ann Guinan’s study of Mesopotamian curses concludes “‘[to] be the object of a look makes one vulnerable and exposed’” (citing Guinan “Auguries of Hegemony: The Sex Omens of Mesopotamia” Gender and History 9 [1997] pp. 462–79 [466]).


Orlando PattersonSlavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press1982) p. 12. Goldenberg also draws a connection to Patterson’s work (“What Did Ham Do?” pp. 262–66).


W. Vogels“Cham découvre les limites de son père Noé (Gen 9,20–27),” Nouvelle Revue Théologie 109 (1987) pp. 561–65; Basset “Noah’s Nakedness” pp. 232–37; and Bergsma and Hahn “Noah’s Nakedness” pp. 34–39.


Susannah HeschelThe Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (Princeton: Princeton University Press2010) pp. 26–42; and “Race as Incarnational Theology: Affinities between German Protestantism and Racial Theory” in Laura Nasrallah and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (eds.) Prejudice and Christian Beginnings: Investigating Race Gender and Ethnicity in Early Christian Studies (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress 2009) pp. 211–34. Ann Laura Stoler’s work further underscores Heschel’s point; see her Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule (Berkeley: University of California Press 2002); “Tense and Tender Ties: The Politics of Comparison in North American History and (Post) Colonial Studies” Journal of American History 88 (2001) pp. 829–65; and Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (Princeton: Princeton University Press 2009).


Nadia Abu El-HajThe Genealogical Science: The Search for Jewish Origins and the Politics of Epistemology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press2012) p. 29. Also see Duana Fullwiley “The Biological Construction of Race: ‘Admixture’ Technology and the New Genetics Medicine” Social Studies of Science 38 (2008) pp. 695–735.


JohnsonMyth of Ham pp. 5–10. Also see Kidd Forging of Races pp. 250–52. The validity of the biblical account was assumed but the role of Ham’s curse in later historical and racial developments was subject to considerable debate.


Philip SchaffSlavery and the Bible: A Tract for the Times (Chambersburg, PA: M. Kieffer and Co1861) as cited and discussed by Johnson Myth of Ham pp. 39–40. Schaff has been viewed as a Northern moderate. On record for his opposition to slavery and his loyalty to the Union cause others extol him for his heroic attempts to intervene in that most evil of institutions. See George Shriver Philip Schaff: Christian Scholar and Ecumenical Prophet (Atlanta: Mercer University Press 1987).


Walter M. Patton“The Composite Character of Israel,” The Biblical World 20 (1902) pp. 432–40. Also see his Israel’s Account of the Beginnings Contained in Genesis I-XI (Bos­ton: The Pilgrim Press 1916).


Patton“Composite” p. 440.


Wayne Sibley TownerGenesis (Westminster Bible Companion; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press2001) p. 99.


Aaron“Early Rabbinic Exegesis” pp. 721–59 and David M. Goldenberg “A Case of Rabbinic Racism?” pp. 21–51. Also see Isaac “Genesis Judaism and the Sons of Ham” pp. 3–17.


Thomas F. GossettRace – The History of an Idea in America (Dallas, TX: Southern Methodist University Press1963) p. 5; Robert Graves and Raphael Patai Hebrew Myths: The Book of Genesis (London: Cassell and Company 1963) pp. 120–24; Edith R. Sanders “The Hamitic Hypothesis: Its Origin and Functions in Time Perspective” Journal of African History 10 (1969) pp. 521–32.


Aaron“Early Rabbinic Exegesis” p. 724.


Goldenberg“A Case of Rabbinic Racism” pp. 23–24 29 33.


Goldenberg“Case of Rabbinic Racism” pp. 32–33. He continues: “In Islam it was not Canaan who was enslaved but Black Africa…. The same mythic justification was then adopted from Islam by other societies in which the Black became the slave” (“Case of Rabbinic Racism” pp. 34–35); also see Whitford Curse of Hamp. 197.


Joan W. Scott“Fantasy Echo: History and the Construction of Identity,” Critical Inquiry 27 (2001) pp. 284–304 especially p. 287: “Depending on whether the words [‘fantasy echo’] are both taken as nouns or as an adjective and a noun the term signifies the repetition of something imagined or an imagined repetition…. Retrospective identifications after all are imagined repetitions and repetitions of imagined resemblances. The echo is a fantasy the fantasy an echo. The two are inextricably intertwined.”


Sedgwick“Paranoid Reading” p. 131.


Sara AhmedThe Cultural Politics of Emotion (New York: Routledge2004) p. 124.


StonePracticing Safer Texts p. 64.


Eilberg-SchwartzGod’s Phallus pp. 95–97.


JosephusAntiquities 1.141; Philo Questions and Answers on Genesis 2.71–77 and On Sobriety 7.32 (cf. Louis H. Feldman “Josephus’ Portrait of Noah and Its Parallels in Philo Pseudo-Philo’s Biblical Antiquities and Rabbinic Midrashim” Proceedings of the American Acad­emy for Jewish Research 55 [1988] pp. 31–57); Ambrose On Virgins 1.8.53; Augustine City of God 16.2; Ambrosiaster Commentaries on the Letters of Paul Philippians 2.7.2 1 Corinthians 7.22 Colossians 4.1 (cf. Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe Ambrosiaster’s Political Theology [Oxford Early Christian Studies; Oxford: Oxford University Press 2007] pp. 114–16).


Sedgwick“Melanie Klein” p. 135.


AhmedHappiness pp. 72–73.


Sedgwick“Paranoid Reading” pp. 126 127 130 135 and 144.


Sedgwick“Paranoid Reading” pp. 128–29.


Sedgwick“Paranoid Reading” p. 128.


Love“Truth and Consequences” p. 238.


Sedgwick“Melanie Klein” p. 137.


Sedgwick“Melanie Klein” pp. 137–38.


Sedgwick“Cavafy Proust and the Little Queer Gods” p. 66.

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