It occurred to me after posting my last entry that there can be a lot of confusion surrounding the names of people and places in the Bible. It doesn’t help that the history of Israel is hard to follow as it is. To add to that, it gets even more complicated when you take into account that the Bible was not written with historical accuracy in mind. And if you’re reading the Hebrew Scriptures you might wonder who or what they’re talking about. What is Israel? What is Judah? Who are the Hebrews, and who are the Israelites? Is there even a difference?
To unravel these questions, I thought I’d write a series of posts about stories of origin. So first, let’s begin with a fancy schmancy word to impress your friends: etiology. An etiology is “a narrative that explains the origin of a custom, ritual, geographical feature, name, or other phenomenon.” The Hebrew Scriptures are full of these little stories explaining why things are the way they are. Consider how the Adam & Even narrative explains why serpents crawl on their bellies, or how the Noah story gives an explanation for rainbows. These passages, of course, have much more theological significance than mere snakes or rainbows. Yet woven into the deeper narratives are these mythical interpretations of the natural world.
Some biblical etiologies are about the origins of peoples. Just as we try to categorize and classify the human race in our day – and I’m not saying that’s an admirable thing – so did our ancient ancestors. Some things never change apparently. For the biblical authors, this was usually done through genealogies and etiologies. The men who are mentioned in these infancy narratives and lists of fathers and sons frequently represent people of a geographical region, language group, nation, or city. So let’s take a look at a handful of these obscure men from the Bible to see how they were identified with various groups of people.
Shem, Ham, and Japheth (Gn 9:18 - 10:32)
Do you know where the term “Semitic” comes from? It is actually not a synonym for “Jewish.” The term encompasses a much broader range of peoples, and it derives from the name Shem. Each of Noah’s three sons – Shem, Ham, and Japheth – is identified as a patriarch for one of the three major linguistic and ethnic regions that concerned the biblical authors. The descendants of Shem are identified with Syria, Mesopotamia and the Arabian Peninsula. Ham and his descendants are associated with northeast Africa and regions under Egyptian influence (as the land of Canaan had once been). And Japheth and his descendants are linked with modern-day Turkey and the eastern Mediterranean.
|This map is courtesy of Corey Baugher's website www.knowingthebible.net. I do not have rights to claim this map as my own.|
For the record, the term “Semitic” nowadays is used more to refer to a particular language family that includes Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, and Akkadian – just as, say, the word “Romance” is applied to Latin-based languages, such as Spanish, French, Italian, and Romanian.
There is one interesting thing to note about Ham. The biblical authors and compilers tended to tell the ancestral stories of their national adversaries in rather unflattering ways. Oftentimes the patriarch is involved in some kind of sexual taboo and/or gets cursed. The story of Ham, the ancestor of the Canaanites, tells of how he “saw his father’s nakedness” - a possible sexual euphemism - when Noah was drunk off wine. Noah then curses Ham’s son:
“Cursed be Canaan!
The lowest of slaves
shall he be to his brothers.”
He also said:
“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem!
Let Canaan be his slave.
May God expand Japheth,
and may he dwell among the tents of Shem;
and let Canaan be his slave.” (Gn 9:25-27)
In Scripture, the ancient Israelites took possession of the land of Canaan after the Exodus. If nothing else, this story should give you some indication of how they felt about the Canaanites.
Eber (Gn 11:10-26)
Eber is a little-known name in Scripture, but an important one. Eber is the great-grandson of Shem and one of the ancestors of Abraham. It is from him that the name Hebrew derives. You can see the similarities in the Hebrew language: עבר (Eber); עברי (Hebrew). But the term Hebrew can be a confusing one. Today it is used as the name of a language, but not of an ethnicity. And it wasn’t used too frequently to speak of the Israelite people in the Old Testament either. Michael Coogan points out two contexts in which the term Hebrew was used in the OT. “First, it refers to Israelites or their ancestors living as resident aliens in another jurisdiction… The other context is for slaves, probably fellow Israelites.” So when the Israelites were living in Egypt, they were known as Hebrews, but the term was not properly applicable once they left. In any case, it seems like Hebrew would have been too generic of a term for the Israelites, since Eber was about eight generations removed from their namesake, Jacob/Israel.
Coogan also adds some clarification to the way the term Hebrew was used in the New Testament. Occasionally it was applied to the common language of Palestine, which was actually Aramaic. As such, it was sometimes used to distinguish the Aramaic-speaking Jews of Palestine from the Greek-speaking Jews dispersed throughout other parts of the Greco-Roman world.
Moab and Ammon (Gn 19:30-38)
The last patriarchs I want to go over in this post are the eponymous ancestors of two of Israel’s national enemies. As with Ham, the father of Canaan, the biblical authors weave in a sexual deviance into the origin story of Moab and Ammon.
After the destruction of Sodom & Gomorrah, Lot, the nephew of Abraham, settled in a cave in the hill country… far away from other people apparently. Well, after witnessing the calamity that fell upon two populous cities, he probably didn’t want to be around too many folks. It was just Lot and his two daughters. His wife was turned into a pillar of salt for looking back – you know, ‘cause that’s the sort of thing that happens in the OT – and the men who were going to marry his daughters did not escape. So what are two single girls desperate for offspring to do? Having children was very important in those days, especially for women.
They decided to get Lot very drunk and sleep with him. Somehow he never noticed a thing, which means they must have gotten him really drunk. In any case, they both succeeded in bearing children. The first gave birth to Moab, which, according to the passage, is a play on the Hebrew word meaning “from my father.” The second gave birth to Ammon, for the words “son of my kin” and “Ammonites” sound very similar in Hebrew.
Even though these and other etiological narratives were at times used as backhanded slaps to ridicule their enemies, by linking their rivals’ lineages with that of their own the Israelites acknowledged a profound interconnectedness that transcended the conflicts that arose among them. Moab and Ammon were kin to the Israelite patriarch, Abraham. Even in the book of Deuteronomy the Lord stipulates to the Israelites that, unlike the land of Canaan, they are not to try to take away the land he gave to the Moabites and Ammonites. The Israelites may have had contempt for these people, but they were still part of the family.
My reading recommendations this week are the genealogies and stories of origin regarding the patriarchs above in bold. You can click the passage references beside their names for links on Biblegateway.com. These might be spiritually dry readings, but as you go through them consider that we are all part of the one human family. We are all children of God, and thus all interconnected. Read these passages, and pray for people across the world, in the most obscure places and in the most difficult situations. Pray for the nations we are at war with, and give kind consideration to the cultures we struggle to understand. We are all sisters and brothers to one another, so let us pray that a spirit of unity and solidarity may reign in all of our hearts.
Until next time,
Peace and all good!
 Michal D. Coogan, The Old Testament: A historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 562.
 Stephen L. Harris and Robert L. Platzner, The Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2003), G-39.
 Coogan, 86.