Who’s Afraid of Canaan’s Curse?


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


In: Biblical Interpretation
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  • 1 Boston University, USA


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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.


  • 5

    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.

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  • 6

    Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, The Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990). 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).

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  • 11

    Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading,” p. 146.

  • 12

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

  • 23

    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).

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  • 24

    Cynthia Chapman, The Gendered Language of Warfare in the Israelite-Assyrian Encounter (HSM 62; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2004), 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]).

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  • 28

    Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), p. 12. Goldenberg also draws a connection to Patterson’s work (“What Did Ham Do?” pp. 262–66).

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  • 33

    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.

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  • 37

    Gunkel, Genesis, p. 81.

  • 38

    Susannah Heschel, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 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).

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  • 39

    Nadia Abu El-Haj, The Genealogical Science: The Search for Jewish Origins and the Politics of Epistemology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 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.

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  • 40

    Johnson, Myth 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.

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  • 41

    Philip Schaff, Slavery and the Bible: A Tract for the Times (Chambersburg, PA: M. Kieffer and Co, 1861), 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).

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  • 42

    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).

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  • 43

    Patton, “Composite,” p. 440.

  • 46

    Wayne Sibley Towner, Genesis (Westminster Bible Companion; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), p. 99.

  • 49

    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.

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  • 50

    Thomas F. Gossett, Race – The History of an Idea in America (Dallas, TX: Southern Methodist University Press, 1963), 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.

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  • 51

    Aaron, “Early Rabbinic Exegesis,” p. 724.

  • 52

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

  • 55

    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 Ham,p. 197.

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  • 58

    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.”

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  • 60

    Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading,” p. 131.

  • 61

    Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (New York: Routledge, 2004), p. 124.

  • 62

    Stone, Practicing Safer Texts, p. 64.

  • 63

    Eilberg-Schwartz, God’s Phallus, pp. 95–97.

  • 65

    Josephus, Antiquities 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).

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  • 67

    Sedgwick, “Melanie Klein,” p. 135.

  • 70

    Ahmed, Happiness, pp. 72–73.

  • 71

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

  • 72

    Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading,” pp. 128–29.

  • 73

    Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading,” p. 128.

  • 74

    Love, “Truth and Consequences,” p. 238.

  • 78

    Sedgwick, “Melanie Klein,” p. 137.

  • 79

    Sedgwick, “Melanie Klein,” pp. 137–38.

  • 80

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

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