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Sons of Noah
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Sons of Noah

According to a literal interpretation of the Old Testament, all of humanity is descended from Noah through his three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Genesis 10 offers versions of the traditional genealogies of these 'sons of Noah'\ and their relationship to those various peoples and places that were familiar to the biblical authors.

Similarly, in Greek myth, Hellen, the son of Deucalion, the Greek Noah, and eponym of the Hellenes had three sons, named Dorus and Ĉolus, the ancestors of the Dorians and Ĉolians, and Xuthus, whose sons Achĉus and Ion, were the progenitors of the Achĉans and Ionians.

These genealogies, like the similar ones expressed in Greek myth and legend, should not be dismissed out of hand. For the times in which they were memorized and recited, they were presenting a structure for primitive efforts towards creating an ethnology that would express the degrees of alienness or relatedness the authors of such genealogies sensed among those neighboring peoples of whom they were aware. In the genealogies of the "Sons of Noah" sometimes a grain of historical fact can be discerned, as there may be a kernel of history buried in legend. Generally the most useful truths to be uncovered in these invented lists are in what they reveal of the cultural point-of-view of the legend-makers themselves.

Interesting comparisons may be made with the Welsh folk genealogies that trace their king-lines back to Troy.

Disputed Genealogies

These genealogies cover many of the ancient peoples who lived in the eastern Mediterranean Basin, including the Aegean islands, North Africa, Anatolia, the Near East, Persia, and the Caucasus. Nevertheless, while some of the eponymous ancestors of the peoples mentioned in these lists are easily identifiable (e.g. the grammatical plural Mizraim, which is identified with the people of Egypt is given the character of a single individual), the intended identities of others are subjects of dispute among scholars. In some instances, names reappear in different contexts, possibly reflecting different traditions among the Hebrew tribes. For example, Noah himself is given conflicting descent, equally a "son" of Cain or a "son" of Seth. "Dodanim" (10:4) (another grammatical plural) is listed as a son of Javan (possibly identified with the Ionians) the son of Japheth, yet "Dodanim" is also the plural form of Dedan (Genesis10:7), who appears as the son of Cush, who was the son of Ham. A similar problem occurs with Ashur, the legendary eponymous ancestor of the Assyrians, who appears in the Ham narrative (10:11) and also as a descendant of Shem (10:22). Also Aram the son of Shem not to be confused with the Aramean descendants of Kemuel (22:21) line. Further compounding the problem is the combination of peoples with places (e.g. Tarshish, or Tarsus), and personal names (e.g. Nimrod) in the groupings.

The biblical grouping into three "families" of nations in a primitive form of ethnology, which was shared by the Greeks and other peoples of antiquity, is not followed by any of the modern methods of classifying ethnicities by common origins, language, or other cultural components. Rather, it seems to reflect the attitudes of the ancient Hebrew authors of the Bible toward their neighbors. Those with whom the authors felt the closest affinity were grouped as descendants of Shem, those with whom there was the deepest animosity were grouped as sons of Ham (whose son Canaan was cursed by Noah), and the foreigners who were invading their shores from across the sea (Yavan) or from the East (Medes) were identified with Japheth. This latter identification is corroborated by Genesis 9:27, "God shall enlarge Japheth (literally: 'beautify Japheth'), and he shall dwell in the house of Shem." In Hebrew, this verse uses a pun on the name Japheth, which comes from the Semitic root Y-Ph-T and means beauty: the verse is apparently a reference to the cultural innovations that these newcomers brought to the region.

Today scholars are practically unanimous that the genealogy reflects the ethnic groupings and changing socio-political alliances of the time and places of the oral traditions, perhaps re-edited at the time of the text's final composition in the 7th century BCE, rather than any genuine history of human origins. A vocal minority of fundamentalists dissent from this view with the assertion that every word of Scripture is literally true.

Ezra and the High Priesthood

The importance of the genealogies (toledot. "generations") emphasized by Ezra's insistence on racial purity of the High Priest resulted in genealogical scrolls being kept in Jerusalam. They are mentioned by Josphus, and their loss in 70 A.D. was considered disastrous. A priest was required to demonstrate the purity of the pedigree of his prospective bride as far back as her great-great-grandfather and great-great-grandmother. In the case of marriage with a daughter of Levi or of Israel his scrutiny had to extend a degree further, perhaps a sign that more relaxed attitudes toward marrying non-Jews had prevailed in the northern kingdom. The Pharisees emphasized the nobility of learning as opposed to the priestly-caste nobility insisted upon by the Sadducees.

Traditionalist Interpretations

Traditional biblical exegetes attempted to translate these divisions into their contemporary geographical divisions of the ancient world, as new concepts, such as "continents" developed. Japheth was identified with Europe and the North, Shem was identified with Asia and the East, and Ham was identified with Africa. The traditional genealogies edited in the 6th century did not fit newer Hellenistic concepts like "Europe" or "Asia." While key identifiable members of these groupings could be found in the three regions, there was considerable overlap. Ham, for instance, was identified with Ethiopia (through his son Kush, which is a Semitic term for Ethiopia), but also with the Canaanites and even the Phoenicians through Sidon (10:15). Nevertheless, this classification survived until relatively recent times and is even the basis for some of the modern nomenclature used to describe the languages of the region: those languages related to Hebrew are conventionally called "Semitic", even though not all the peoples described as descendants of Shem spoke Semitic languages, while some of the other groups, such as the "Hamitic" Canaanites, did. Similarly, non-Semitic Afro-Asiatic languages (mainly spoken in North and East Africa) used to often be classified as "Hamitic," although more recent work argues that they do not form a single coherent subgroup.

Their Use as Justifications for Racism

The idea of three Biblical "races" continued to be taken seriously until the early 20th century, when most scholars conceded that they have no basis in historical fact. Only biblical fundamentalists still claim the word-for-word reality of Scripture.

Under the aegis of the Bible, this idea was also used as a justification for racial and ethnic categories that provoke divisions until today. Japheth, who was identified with Europe, came to represent beauty (see above) and eventually, cultural superiority. Canaan (the son of Ham), on the other hand, was cursed by Noah: "Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brothers" (9:25). With Ham identified as Africa, this line was later twisted to justify slavery though the line clearly indicated the Canaanites would be slaves even of the other Hamites— Kush, Phut and Mizraim.

Traditions Regarding the Order of Sons by Age

As for mutual relation among the three sons, the most common belief regards Shem as the eldest son, Ham as the second son, and Japheth as the youngest son. However this cannot be deduced from the Book of Genesis itself which only mentions that Noah began to have Japheph Ham and Shem 100 "years" before the flood and that Shem began to have children two years after the flood when he was 100 "years" old (meaning Shem was born three years after the first child Noah had at age 500). The Jewish tradition that Ham was the eldest dropped out of favour for reasons of racial prejudice. Some other beliefs, particular those of the LDS Church, regard Japheth as the eldest, with Shem and Ham being younger.

See also: Israelites, British Israelism, Evolution of Homo sapiens, B'nai Noach

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