Two Views on the Sons of Noah

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For those who take the early chapters of Genesis seriously as a history of the human race (albeit a not very detailed one), here are two different interpretations of the sons of Noah. 

The sons of Noah are listed in Genesis 9:18 – 19 as “Shem, Ham and Japheth.”   Though they are always listed in that order, this is not necessarily their birth order.  Genesis is focused with laser precision on redemptive history.  Thus, it foregrounds Shem, from whom the nation of Israel would later be descended.  We are given a lot more detail about Shem than about the tribes descended from the other brothers.  It’s possible that Ham was actually the oldest son.

It’s also worth noting that the Table of Nations (Genesis chapter 10) gives a list of the tribes known to be descended from each brother as of that writing.  This means that some tribes are listed who were later lost to history.  Others are mentioned but are not followed all the way to where they eventually settled centuries later.  When we are told where they lived, most of the locations are in and around the Ancient Near East, even for tribes that we know later ended up in Africa (for example Mizraim = Egypt and Cush = Ethiopia).  If we take the account of Babel as true (which my novels do), then the human race first clustered around the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and tried to build a centralized civilization.  Only later did they end up migrating to the ends of the earth.  So, for a time, you had the descendants of Shem, Ham, and Japheth living right on top of each other.

Here are the two theories.  I will spend more time on the second one, because it is the more novel and interesting one.

The Traditional Theory: Most of the World is Japhethite

This is the theory that I was taught when I studied Old Testament Backgrounds.  It has been the majority interpretation of the Table of Nations (which is, admittedly, hard to interpret).  On this view, Shem was the father of all the nations that traditionally speak Semitic languages: basically, the Hebrews and the inhabitants of the Arabian peninsula.  (Yes, Arabs and Jews are related.)   Ham was the father of all the nations of Africa, including the Egyptians, Ethiopians and all the subSaharan nations.  And Japheth was the father of the Indo-Europeans, East Asians, Pacific Islanders and (via the Land Bridge) the Native Americans. 

This view isn’t perfect, because no broad explanation of human distribution is perfect.  That said, it does make some intuitive sense.   This is the interpretation that I used when writing my novels, because it was the only one that I was aware of at the time.  So the family that my story follows are, in the novel, all descendants of Japheth.  One of them, Hur, has fair skin and hazel eyes, and his mother was blond.  The others all have straight dark hair and more or less East Asian features, in some cases shading towards Native American.  The books are set during a time that was pre-race.  People knew each other by their extended families.

I now kind of regret that I used this theory for my novels, because the one that is coming up is so much cooler.

Arthur C. Custance Says Most of the World is Hamite

Only after I was well committed to my series did I discover the web site of Arthur C. Custance, where you can read a wide selection of essays and booklets by him.  Here is his big theory.  Like many sweeping, alternative theories of history, it takes some getting used to, but seems to make more sense the longer you look at it, if you are willing to look at it.

Arthur C. Custance believes the Table of Nations should be interpreted as follows.  Shem was the father of the Semitic peoples, as above.  Japheth, whose name probably means “fair” in Hebrew, was the father of just the Indo-Europeans.  Ham was the father of everyone else: not just the African nations, but all the indigenous peoples of Asia, Polynesia, and the Americas.  Basically, anyone who doesn’t have a historical tradition of being descended from Shem or else a freakily white complexion like us Indo-Europeans.

The Gifts of the Peoples per Custance

Custance’s theory is not just about physical descent.  He also believes that each of these broad groupings of humanity have a gift to give the human race as a whole: some cultural feature that they are especially good at.  

For Semites, it’s spiritual insight.  Semitic groups have “gods that are gods of righteousness.”  The Hebrews, obviously, received the revelations of God and gave an up until then very oppressive world the gift of ethical monotheism.  The Arabs, also, have managed to found a monotheistic religion that is focused on righteousness and is a force to be reckoned with.  In both cases, their main cultural focus is religion to a much greater degree than in most cultures.

The Japhethites’ gift is intellect.  Their gods tend to be “gods of enlightenment.”  Japhethite peoples, according to Custance, as a culture are basically the absentminded professor type.  They excel at building elaborate intellectual systems of thought that may or may not have any connection to the real world.  So, the Greeks gave us philosophy, but their natural sciences consisted of speculating about ideal plants and animals rather than doing fieldwork.  The elaborate Hindu systems of philosophy were developed by the Aryans, an Indo-European group that invaded India from the North.  The Germanic peoples gave us Freud and Nietzsche.  (Thanks, guys.)

Japhethites, per Custance, are not, as a culture, good at practical matters.  That is the special gift of the Hamites.

Now, here is where it gets cool.  The Hamite gods tend to be “gods of power.”  What the Hamite peoples excel at is innovation in the multitude of practical disciplines that make life in this world possible.  This includes (to name just a few of them in alphabetical order),  administration, agriculture, architecture, arithmetic, arts and crafts, botany, city planning, mechanical engineering, medicine, metal smithing, mining, music, navigation, pottery, stoneworking, textiles, weapons innovations, and basically every other type of technology.

Custance argues that nearly every major urban civilization was founded by Hamites.  This includes Egypt, Sumer, Babylon, Assyria, ancient China, and the great cities of the Americas.  It also includes the urban civilization of India, which was developed by the dark-skinned Dravidians before India was taken over by the Aryans, at which point, argues Custance, technological innovation in India basically stopped.

Furthermore, on this view the Hamites were the first to colonize the world.  With their extreme practical survival skills, they made it all the way across Asia, the Americas, and Polynesia while the Semites were hanging out in the Middle East and the Indo-Europeans were still building kurgans on the plains of the Ukraine.  This explains why almost anywhere people have gone in recorded history, they find that there are already dark-skinned people living there (for example, Australia, Papua New Guinea, the Negritos of the Philippines, possibly the Etruscans in Italy, and the dark-haired, pre-Celtic inhabitants of Europe).   

Finally, Custance argues that beautiful things happen when the children of the sons of Shem, Ham, and Japheth get together.  Semitic spirituality plus Japhethite intellectualism results in theology.  Japhethite intellectualism plus Hamitic technical know-how gives us modern science.

The Picture is Complex

Now, I realize this is a broad brush.  Obviously, every nation has some kind of tech and some kind of religion (philosophical systems come later and Custance argues that they are the least important of the three).  And it’s not as though the nations of the earth have lived hermetically sealed lives.  There has been plenty of migration, intermarriage, and spread of ideas, even starting in very ancient times.  Custance’s idea is that when we trace the sources of ideas and innovations, we tend to find technological innovation coming from Ham, intellectual systems coming from Japheth, and spiritual insight coming from Shem. 

I need hardly say that none of these gifts is “the best.”  We need them all.

Custance also notes a pattern where Japhethite peoples tend to take over territory from Hamitic peoples and then adapt, benefit from, and often take credit for Hamite innovations and discoveries.  Clearly this has happened in modern times, but there are examples that come from well before the modern age of European colonialism, such as the Aryans taking over India and the Greeks getting elements of their civilization from Egypt and Ethiopia.  That said, because of the nature of the case there have necessarily also been many instances of Hamite peoples migrating into other Hamite peoples’ territory, such as the Austronesians migrating into the Philippines to find the Negritos already there. World history is complicated.

If you are intrigued by these ideas, I encourage you to visit Custance’s web site via one of the many links in this article.

If I had followed Custance’s theory when writing my books, Zillah and her children should have been Hamite, and Hur should not have been able to speak their language.  He could not have stayed with them or eventually married into their family.  So unfortunately, I can’t rewrite my entire series to follow Custance.  Bummer.

But here is a song about when all the children of Noah worship together.

12 thoughts on “Two Views on the Sons of Noah

  1. Benjamin Ledford

    I’m pretty skeptical of that sort of generalization. It seems like it’s too vague and ancient to really be disproved. Any examples that support the theory reinforce it but any counter-examples can be easily explained away.

    I think immediately of the Phoenicians and the Romans (Semitic and Indo-European, respectively), who each seem to be exemplars of what would be considered Hamite traits on this theory.

    And regarding the intellectual gifting, is that really a characteristic of Indo-European peoples, or are we really just talking about classical Greece? Same thing with the Semitic “gods of righteousness.” Is that a Semitic thing or a Jewish thing?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree, it might be too big to be proved or disproved. Also, it might take a broader and more detailed knowledge of history than anyone has. Yeats had a theory of history like that as well. That’s the problem with these sweeping theories of history.

      I doubt I’ll convince you, but here are my answers to your objections.

      First off, the Romans and Phoenicians both came rather late in history. Ground had already been broken in things like architecture, navigation, and indoor plumbing. Of course ideas get passed around and adapted. Also, Custance freely admits that many innovations were discovered multiple times independently, or discovered, lost, and then re-discovered later. His contention is that with independent discoveries, usually a Hamite people made the discovery first, sometimes thousands of years earlier, regardless of whether it was later adapted by other peoples or later discovered independently by them.

      For some people groups, we are not sure of their ethnic composition. I think the Phoenicians might fall into this category. They were Semitic speaking, but they might have been of Indo-European blood if they originated from the “Sea Peoples.” (As you know, they settled in northern Africa and became the ancestors of the Berbers, who are fair-skinned and sometimes have blue or green eyes.) The Philistines were another group that spoke a Semitic language but were basically Greek in blood and culture. Also, some people groups are mixes of two or even three sons of Noah. Custance thinks that the richest cultural flowerings happen when the different streams come together.

      Phoenician religion, on the other hand, seems to have been pretty much generic ANE centralized, bureaucratic, fertility paganism, which per Custance is basically Hamitic, coming through the likes of Nimrod and the Sumerians. If we are still giving Custance the benefit of the doubt, it would make complete sense that the Phoenicians would have adopted local ANE religion just as they adopted a Semitic language and, perhaps, preexisting Hamite technology. They appear to have been an enterprising, adaptable, cosmopolitan sort of people.

      The Romans, as an Indo-European people, gave us intellectual gifts in law and government. The Aryans also developed elaborate intellectual systems. And, though coming very late in history, the Europeans of the Dark and Middle Ages loved to take all that ancient philosophy and spiritual teaching and run with it intellectually.

      The thing about “gods of righteousness” is a fair point. I think it might be the weakest link in his argument. Obviously, every culture has some kind of moral law. But the world’s three great ethical monotheistic religions have come from Semitic peoples. There is no question that Islam (though it burst onto the scene very late) is powered by a very strong, well-defined, unbending conception of righteousness and purity, which is frankly what makes it so hard to argue with and so scary.


    2. Talking about Custance in-depth means I have to follow your blog! I do admire the way he thinks; he is able to pursue wild ideas which might be true, sift them carefully, but not get too carried away that he can’t step back and see their limitations. He helps me think better and more broadly in a healthy way. His “Seed of the Woman” was one of the most impressive achievements I’ve ever read, even if I don’t think every theory of his is correct. I’m. It even sure he thought every theory he had was right, but they were worth investigating. And he always had a clear focus on glorifying Christ and the gospel, which I deeply appreciate.


      1. I am glad you are following my blog, because we seem to have many common interests. Welcome.

        I have not read “Seed of the Woman,” though it’s available on Custance’s web site. It’s in my “need to get to it” pile.

        I agree with your general statements about his theories. That’s how I view this “sons of Noah” thing presented here … it might not be provable or 100% correct, but it is a useful thought tool. Applying it helps us notice things that we wouldn’t otherwise. For example, it wasn’t until I started reading Custance that I found out the Sumerians were probably black.

        Liked by 1 person

    3. Guzzi

      Phoenicians would actually be Hamitic n Romans Japhatic. Which if u follow Custance line of thinking is interesting because the Phoenicians were the master ship builders, the first world world travelers, the Romans would use Phoenician designed boats to later come to dominate the Mediterranean n rose to power after learning battle tactics from military genius’s like Hannibal.

      As for the second point on intellectual gifting, it’s characteristic of all japhethic peoples n the people they would come to dominate n influence like India, but sometimes more concentrated like in the Greeks .

      As for Semitics, the Jews, Arabs , they are both Semitic. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, all Semitic religions that have influenced a great majority of the Word, but here too Arabs n Jews unmistakablely highlight the Semitic trait for Spirituality.

      You should read Arthur Custance book, Noah’s three sons. I believe it gives a good sound n healthy world view on how to look at the whole of humanity, n gives us better tools to deal with our differences than present world views rooted in Darwinism.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Right.

        I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said here, except that possibly we don’t know the exact extraction of the Phoenicians, as in my comment to Ben. I agree with you that they could have been Hamitic. Or they could have had ancestors from more than one of Noah’s sons. Perhaps genetic/archaeological research has been done on this that I’m unaware of.

        I also don’t agree that we know for sure the Phoenicians were “the first world travelers,” since I think there’s evidence that mankind had explored the globe and developed seafaring technology well before recorded history started. However, they were definitely a very successful exploring/seagoing/trading/tech-developing-and-adapting people, and per Custance, those are indeed Hamitic gifts. And yes, Hannibal was a military genius.

        It surprises me that you don’t think I’ve read Custance’s book, since this post draws heavily on it and links back multiple times to different chapters in the online version. Maybe you didn’t read my post carefully, or maybe you only read the title and the comments section?


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  3. ahester1

    These are fascinating theories. I’d never heard of Custance or his ideas, thanks for presenting them here. I do have to say I’m glad you wrote the story the way you did, I like Hur!

    Liked by 1 person

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