Thursday, October 26, 2006

וּבְנֵי חָם: כּוּשׁ וּמִצְרַיִם וּפוּט וּכְנָעַן

The story of Noahh, his Box, and the Dissolving is followed by a 'Table of Nations' — a geneology of the ethnic groups and nations of the ancient world in the Ancient Near East, associating them with each other according to ethnic, geographic, and political principles.

As the Academic Tanakh commentary ‘Olam Hatanakh says,
The inhabitants of the various lands were distinguished from each other by their physical characteristics, the look of their faces and their clothing, and it is easy to identify them in artistic creations from the ancient period, especially since in many cases the characterizations of the different nations were schematized.
(translated from Hebrew)
In other words, the different phenotypes and cultural artifacts (including clothing) typical of the various peoples were recognizeable enough to be preserved clearly in pictorial representations.

For example, here we have an Egyptian fresco from the grave of Seti I (‑13th c.), presenting some different types of people familiar to the inhabitants of Ancient Egypt.

On the left we have the Egyptians themselves — מצרים as we call them — and on the right we have some of our Canaanite neighbors (כנען).

Both Mitzrayim and Kena‘an are described by the Torah as "sons" of Hham, Noahh's son who saw him naked and went out to tell his brothers. So they don't seem to look so different... the Egyptians look a bit darker than the Canaanites, but not so much, right?

Now we have another part of the fresco, representing on the left כוש — a.k.a. Nubia or Ethiopia — and on the right some Lybians with ostrich feathers on their heads, who we know as פוט.

Uh oh! These Kush people are so dark... and the Put people are so light! How could they both be descendents of Hham, along with Kena‘an and Mitzrayim?! Very simply, because the Table of Nations isn't biological. These four nations, ethnic groups, or regions were connected by geographic and political ties, not by blood.

And that whole "Hham was cursed with Blackness" nonsense? Hham was never cursed. Kena‘an was cursed. And they looked just like us.


Blogger Kylopod said...

I posed this question on DB's blog, but I'll do it again here: how do you deal with the "traditional" idea that all human beings, black, white, and polka-dot, are descended from a man who lived supposedly just 4,000 years ago?

10/26/2006 7:40 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

Yeah those crazy polka dot Put people :-P

I pretty much just... don't.

I read the Premordial Narratives of Bereishit "mashalogically".

10/26/2006 7:47 PM  
Anonymous sister miryam said...

How do we know Lybia is Put?

10/26/2006 10:13 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

P(h)ut on Wikipedia

10/26/2006 10:24 PM  
Blogger Neil Harris said...

Very insightful. Thanks!

10/26/2006 11:27 PM  
Blogger Ari Kinsberg said...

intersting post. to think that there are some in the jewish community who seriously justify their racism on account of "the curse of ham."

10/27/2006 12:27 AM  
Blogger Sabzi Aash said...

Interesting idea - do you have a source for saying that the genealogies given are only supposed to represent geographic or political ties? And if that's the case, what's the point of presenting them biologically?

10/27/2006 9:10 AM  
Blogger Elie said...

My view is that racial diversity was created at the same time as language and geographic diversity, namely as God's response to the Tower of Babel episode. I like this theory because it doesn't require believing in any "extra" miracles that aren't already written in the Torah. Just somewhat expanding the scope of a miracle that's already documented. See here for more.

Perhaps animal species diversity was expanded then as well? That would explain how two of every type of animal fit on the tevah, though a box that size wouldn't even fit two of every type of beetle that exists today.

10/27/2006 10:25 AM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...


You're welcome! Thanks for commenting!


I'm long past being surprised, unfortunately. But it still churns up my stomach every time.


Here's a quote from Da‘at Miqra’ (Bereishit p.274):
Every "child" mentioned in this parasha — from the children of Sheim, Hham, and Yefet, and their grandchildren (except Nimrod) — is used as an expression for a "nation" or "family/tribe" ... And most of the names of the "children" are also used as the names of the lands they lived in. And we also need to note, that there are among the "children" mentioned in plural form, and there are those mentioned as adjectives.
I think it's described this way because this is how it would have been comprehensible to Beney Yisra’eil. Especially considering how wide the definition of the word בן was (and still is!) in Hebrew.


Interesting theory! I commented on it at your post.

10/27/2006 11:48 AM  
Anonymous sister miryam said...

Are the Kena'anites wearing Tsitsis?

10/27/2006 3:21 PM  
Blogger The back of the hill said...


Great term.

Dovbear would probably argue that Ibn Ezra did so also. XGH would say that there is no evidence whatsoever for a mshalogical interpretation, wherefore it's all the same weight as Mormonism (not that there's anything wrong with that).

It's like any point illustrated by an anecdote - the point is the point, not the anecdote.

Which, of course, is absolute kofertude.

10/27/2006 5:04 PM  
Blogger Sabzi Aash said...

When you say "this is how it would have been comprehensible to Beney Yisra’eil" do you mean that this is the only/best way, or just that even put in these terms, it would have been comprehensible? If the former - there are surely other, clearer ways of indicating alliances etc. in Hebrew. I don't think you meant that. If the latter then - isn't the most obvious way to comprehend it as a family tree? I think that's how everyone normally does understand it. You only gave a different interpretation because of outside conflicts.

All that Da'at miqra seems to address is the idea of using the founder of a nation to refer to the nation itself or the location. That's not much of a chidush - it makes sense logically because individuals give rise to nations after all; and we see it in other places, e.g. Yisrael can refer to a person, nation, or place.

I don't see how that supports that kinship terminology can be used indicate inter-national political or geographical relationships. The word בן is certainly flexible, but it has limits. Where else has it been used quite like this? And besides that word, the text uses אב, יָלַד, יֻלַד - this would be more an elaborate metaphor than a figure of speech.

Also, political alliances are more horizontal than vertical, no? I mean, you can have nations X, Y, Z be allies, and you might think to call them brothers. If you wanted to call them sons though, who would you name as the father? There could be some supranational name, like 'The Axis Powers' or 'The EU,' but how could you keep that up for three, four, five, six generations? Does the EU have a father, or a grandfather? If you're right about what the Torah is describing, I wouldn't know how to interpret it.

Or maybe the vertical relationships should be viewed horizontally too, so that Cush's 'sons' would only be allies of Cush (and each other?), named this way to show that they're not included in Cush's alliance with Mitzrayim, Put, and Canaan?

For a geographical interpretation, maybe Ham is the Levantine/African region, and his four sons are subregions, and their sons are sub-subregions ... or cities ... or neighboring regions? Would this have been clearer to ancient B'nei Yisrael than to modern ones?

Actually - the geographical interpretation is more problematic, because there are already several overt references to geography within these verses. It would be downright deceptive to swtich from geo. terminology to kinship when it's really still talking about geography.

10/28/2006 3:29 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

I'm not saying that it was the best way, but it was one way; and if one point of the account is to show the familial relationship of the human race, it's probably a better way than saying "Egypt has a close trading relationship with Nubia, and has also been ruling Canaan for a while."

I think the clincher of Da‘at Miqra’s comment is pointing out that some of the "individuals" named are in plural and/or adjectival form. So for instance, if i said "China gave birth to America", it's completely possible that China and America are two individuals. However, if i say that "China gave birth to the Americans", that's expressing something more than an individual.

Also, notice in the beginning of Shofetim, where the *tribes* of Yehuda and Shim‘on are refered to as individuals, even "brothers", when it is clear that Yehuda and Shim‘on themselves have been dead for a long time.

Remember that most political relationships have been inequal; so while Mitzrayim is the "brother" of Kena‘an, they were the *overlords* of Kena‘an.

Some of the relationships are clearly regional; for instance the various nations and tribes descended from Kush who inhabited the southern Red Sea area (Ethiopia and Yemen). Some of whom (Hhavila, for instance) are actually also listed among the descdents of Sheim.

10/28/2006 8:01 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...


very likely. i remember reading somewhere the idea that having tzitzit or gedilim on your clothing was a mark of high status, which would make sense if these are Canaanite noblemen visiting the imperial seat in Egypt.

The Back:

i think XGH came up with the term "mashalogy" back in his pre-angsty GH days.

10/29/2006 11:04 AM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

Rabbi Dr. J H Hertz, Chief Rabbi of the British Empire's introduction to pereq 10:

This chapter traces the nations of the earth to the sons of Noah. The principal races and peoples known to the Israelites are arranged as if they were different branches of one great family. Thus, all the nations are represented as having sprung from the same ancestry. All men are therefore brothers. This sublime coneption of the Unity of the Human Race logically follows from the belief in the Unity of God, and like it, forms one of the cornerstones of Judaism...

Comment on our pasuq, 10:6 —

Canaan. ...According to this verse, Mizraim and Canaan were 'brothers'; i.e. Palestine and Egypt were provinces of the same Empire. This was the case only in the time of the Nineteenth Dynasty, the age of Moses...

10/29/2006 11:09 AM  
Blogger thanbo said...

The pale Libyans/Puttites, could they be Sea Peoples, like the Philistines? In which case they're from Yavan of Yefet, rather than actual native Puttites, who might have been displaced, like the Philistines displaced the Phoenicians along the Canaanite coast.

10/30/2006 10:37 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...


this fresco dates to just before the first recorded Sea Peoples invasion, from what i can tell from a quick Wikipedia search.

The Sea Peoples looked like this

10/30/2006 10:59 PM  
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