Sons of Noah

From Academic Kids

The sons of Noah are named in Genesis 10 as Shem, Ham, and Japheth. According to a literal interpretation of the Old Testament, all of humanity is descended from Noah, his wife, Noah's three sons, and their wives. The Genealogies of Genesis list the ancestors and descendants of this family, and in some cases, give the ages when they had a child and when they died, sometimes even including information about what they did, what happened during their lifetime, or what cities they founded. The sons of Noah appear again in genealogies in I Chronicles 1, and in Luke 3:23-38, which tracks the genealogy of Jesus back through David, Abraham, Shem, and Adam, to God.


The Genealogies and their reputed nations

Main Article: Genealogies of Genesis

According to Genesis 10, the present population of the world was descended from Noah's three sons. Until the mid 19th century, this was taken as historical fact (see External links). They are still taken as historical by Orthodox Jews, Muslims, and some Christians.

Modern scholarship, apart from that undertaken by devout believers, rejects the traditional view of historicity, and holds instead that the genealogy reflects an etiological myth explaining the relations between the ethnic groups of the ancient Near East, perhaps re-edited at the time of the text's final composition in the 7th century BC.

In the Biblical historicist view, the listed children of Ham, Shem, and Japheth correspond to various historic nations and people groups.

  • Elam, son of Shem. The Elamites called themselves the Haltamti and had an Empire in what is now Khuzistan (capital Susa).
  • Asshur, son of Shem. The Assyrians traced themselves to the god-ancestor Ashshur and the city he founded by that name on the Tigris.
  • Aram, son of Shem. The Arameans were known in earliest times as Aram-Naharaim, or Hurrians, and were centered on the Balikh river in Mesopotamia (modern Syria).
  • Arphaxad, son of Shem. He or his immediate descendants are credited in Jewish tradition with founding the city of Ur of the Chaldees on the south bank of the Euphrates, as well as being the ancestor of the Hebrews and the Arabs.
  • Cush, son of Ham. The Empire of Kush to the south of Egypt is known from early times, but this name has also been associated by some with the Kassites who inhabited the Zagros area of Mesopotamia.
  • Mizraim, son of Ham. Mizraim is a name for Egypt and literally means "The Two Lands".
  • Phut, son of Ham. Ancient authorities are fairly universal in identifying Phut with the Libyans (Lebu), earliest neighbours of Egypt to the West. (Although more recent theories have tried to connect Phut with Punt or Phoenicia.)
  • Canaan, son of Ham. This is known to be the name of a nation and people who settled the Eastern shore of the Mediterranean in what is now called Israel or Palestine.

The following names are associated with entities whose earliest attestation is recorded somewhat later in history.

  • Lud, son of Shem. Most ancient authorities assign this name to the Lydians of Eastern Anatolia (Luddu in Assyrian insciptions from ca. 700 BC.)
  • Gomer, son of Japheth. Usually identified with the migratory Gimirru (Cimmerians) of Assyrian inscriptions, attested from about 720 BC)
  • Madai, son of Japheth. The Medes of Northwest Iran first appear in Assyrian inscriptions as Amadai in about 844 BC.
  • Javan, son of Japheth. This name is said to be connected with that of the Aegean state of Ionia, first appearing in records ca. 700 BC.
  • Tubal, son of Japheth. This is usually taken as referring to the Tabali, an Anatolian tribe first mentioned in history as appearing on the ashes of the Hittite Empire. (ca. 1200-800 BC). There are independent traditions that the Tabali became ancestors not only of the Iberians of the Caucasus (modern Georgians), but also of the Iberians of Spain (modern Basques).
  • Meshech, son of Japheth. He is regarded as the eponym of the Mushki tribe of Anatolia who, like the Tabali, emerged from the ruins of the Hittites ca. 1200 BC. The Mushki are also considered one of the ancestors of the Georgians, but also became connected with the Sea Peoples who roved the Meditteranean Sea.
  • Tiras, son of Japheth. This name is usually connected with that of Thrace, an ancient nation in what is now Bulgaria, first appearing in written records in around 700 BC.

The remaining of the 16 listed grandsons of Noah, Magog, has not been definitively linked to the name of any historical entity, although some have proposed relatively dubious connections, such as Moscow.

Theories regarding racial classifications

Shem is called the father of the Semites, including Israelites and Arabs, because the genealogy explicitly tracks descent through Abraham to Isaac (father of the Israelites) and to Ishmael (father of the Arabs). Today, traditionalist Hebrews still trace their lineage through Shem, Eber (which become Heber, or Hebrew), Abraham, and Isaac. Arab Muslims trace their lineage through Shem, Eber, Abraham, and Ishmael. The two groups dispute, however, whether Isaac or Ishmael was the legitimate son of Abraham.

Generally speaking, historicists believe Japheth was the father of the European races, because Genesis 10:5 describes the sons of Japheth as occupying the "Isles of the Gentiles" - perhaps the islands of Greece) - and because of the names of the nations or tribes believed to have been established by his children (see above).

Ham is believed to be the father of the Negroid peoples, because the lands of Cush and Mizraim (Egypt) are in Africa. The Islamic Yoruba of West Africa, among others, still trace their lineage through Ham.

There is some dispute over the descent of the Asiatic peoples. Some interpret them as descended from Shem or Ham; others from Japheth; others from a later blending of races. The genealogy is not clear on this point.

Traditions Regarding the Order of Sons by Age

As for order of birth of the three sons, the usual traditional belief (appearing in much ancient extra-biblical and rabbinic literature, including the Book of Jubilees) is that Shem is the eldest son, Ham the second son, and Japheth the youngest. However, this cannot be deduced from the Book of Genesis itself, since it only mentions that Noah began to have Japheth, Ham, and Shem 100 "years" before the flood (in 2470 BC according to some proposed bible chronologies), and that Shem began to have children two years after the flood when he was 100 "years" old, meaning Shem was born two years after the first child Noah had at age 500, when Noah was 502 years of age (2468 BC?); and since Ham appears to be referred to as the “youngest son” (Gen. 9:24), Japheth would logically be the first son born to Noah, when he was 500 years of age. A passage in Genesis 10:21 is translated by some as “Japheth the oldest,” while other translators understand the Hebrew text here to refer to Shem as “the elder brother of Japheth.” The time of Ham’s birth is not stated in Genesis.

One Jewish tradition that Ham was the eldest later dropped out of favour, for reasons of racial prejudice. Some other beliefs regard Japheth as the eldest, with Shem and Ham being younger.

Relevant verses found in Genesis:

  • Genesis 5:23: "And Noah got to be five hundred years old. After that Noah became father to Shem, Ham and Ja´pheth."
  • Genesis 7:6: "And Noah was six hundred years old when the deluge of waters occurred on the earth."
  • Genesis 9:24: "Finally Noah awoke from his wine and got to know what his youngest son had done to him."
  • Genesis 10:21: "And to Shem, the forefather of all the sons of E´ber, the brother of Ja´pheth the oldest, there was also progeny born."
  • Genesis 11:10: "Shem was a hundred years old when he became father to Ar·pach´shad two years after the deluge."

Wives aboard the Ark

Although the book of Genesis tells us next to nothing about the four women aboard the Ark, who had witnessed the days before the Flood, there exist substantial extra-biblical traditions regarding these women and their names.

According to ancient traditions, the wives of Shem, Ham and Japheth enjoyed fantastically long lifespans, living for centuries, while speaking prophecy to each generation they saw come and go. They were reputed to be known as Sibyls, original authors of the corpus of texts known to the Mediterranean world as the Sibylline Oracles, sacred to the Greeks and Romans. Other Sibyls were thought to have followed in their stead, adding to the Oracles.

In the Book of Jubilees, the names of the wives of Shem, Ham and Japheth are supplied as follows:

  • Wife of Shem - Sedeqetelebab
  • Wife of Ham - Ne'elatama'uk or Na'eltama'uk
  • Wife of Japheth - 'Adataneses

It adds that the three sons after some years struck out in different directions from the original camp near Mt. Ararat and founded three villages bearing the names of these three mothers of the human race.

The later Christian writer St. Hippolytus (d. 235 AD) recounted an ancient tradition of their names according to Syriac Targum, that was similar, although apparently switching the names of Shem's and Ham's wives. He wrote: The names of the wives of the sons of Noah are these: the name of the wife of Sem, Nahalath Mahnuk; and the name of the wife of Cham, Zedkat Nabu; and the name of the wife of Japheth, Arathka.

John Gill (1697-1771) wrote in his Bible commentary of an Arabic tradition "that the name of Shem's wife was Zalbeth, or, as other copies, Zalith or Salit; that the name of Ham's Nahalath; and of Japheth's Aresisia."

According to the Sybilline Oracles, one of the Sibyls had a name similar to Zalbeth: the "Babylonian Sibyl", Sambethe, who, 900 years after the Deluge, moved to Greece and began the Oracles. The writing attributed to her also alludes to names of her family who lived before the flood - father Gnostis, mother Circe, and sister Isis.

According to Berosus (writing ca. 280 BC), the sons' wives were called Pandora, Noela, and Noegla.

Irish folklore is rich in traditions and legends it has preserved regarding the three sons and their wives. Here the wives are usually named Olla, Olliva, and Ollivani (or variations thereof), names evidently derived from the Anglo-Saxon Codex Junius (ca. 700 AD), a Bible paraphrase written in the fashion of Germanic sagas, and often attributed to the poet Caedmon.

Hungarian folklore has similar tales about Japheth and his wife called Eneh, attributing this information to the "Chronicles of Sigilbert, Bishop of Antioch."


  • Hall, Jonathan, Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity Cambridge U.Press, 1997.
  • Malkin, Irad, editor, Ancient Perceptions of Greek Ethnicity in series Center for Hellenic Studies Colloquia, 5. Harvard University Press, 2001. Reviewed by Margaret C. Miller in Bryn Mawr Classical Review, 2002 (
  • Driver, S. R., The Book of Genesis, Westminister Commentaries, 3rd edition, London, UK, Methuen, 1904.
  • Kautzsch, E.F.: quoted by James Orr, "The Early Narratives of Genesis," in The Fundamentals, Vol. 1, Los Angeles, CA, Biola Press, 1917.
  • Dillmann, A., Genesis: Critically and Exegetically Expounded, Vol. 1, Edinburgh, UK, T. and T. Clark, 1897, 314.
  • Custance, Arthur C., The Roots of the Nations.[1] (

See also

External links


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