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Sons of Noah

According to a literal interpretation of the Bible, all of humanity is descended from Noah through his three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. In Genesis 10, the Bible describes the genealogies of these sons and their relationship to the various peoples and places familiar to the biblical authors.

These genealogies cover many of the ancient peoples who lived in the Mediterranean Basin, including the Greek islands, North Africa, Turkey, 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. Mizraim, which is identified with Egypt), others are subject of dispute among scholars. In some instances, names repeat themselves in different listings. Dodanim (10:4) is listed as a son of Javan (possibly identified with the Ionians[?]) the son of Japheth and could be a reference to the inhabitants of the Dodecanese Islands[?], it is also the plural form of Dedan (10:7), 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 as a descendant of Shem (10:22). Further compounding the problem is the combination of peoples, places (e.g. Tarshish, or Tarsus), and personal names (e.g. Nimrod) in the groupings.

The biblical grouping into three "families" of nations, while convenient, is not based on 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 Ham (who 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.

In classical times, biblical exegetes attempted to translate these divisions into the contemporary geographical divisions of the ancient world. Japheth was identified with Europe, Shem was identified with Asia, and Ham was identified with North Africa. This was, however, problematic. 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 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.

The idea of three Biblical "races" continued to be taken seriously until the 19th century, when all scholars but biblical fundamentalists conceded that they have no basis in historical fact.

Under the aegis of the Bible, this idea was also used as a justification for racial and ethnic divisiveness that persists until today. Japheth, who was identified with Europe, came to represent beauty (see above) and eventually, cultural superiority. Ham, on the other hand, was cursed by Noah: "Cursed be Canaan [son of Ham]; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren" (9:25). With Ham identified as Africa, this was later used to justify slavery.

Today, however, scholars are practically unanimous that the genealogy reflects the ethnic groupings and changing socio-political alliances of the time of the text's composition rather than any genuine history of human origins.

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

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