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.