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Bible Encyclopedias
Biblical Ethnology

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

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The view of race-relationship expressed in the Bible. It is customary to designate the tenth chapter of Genesis as the oldest ethnological division of mankind. Earlier than this, however, the Egyptians, as known from their pictorial representations, distinguished between four principal types (races) of mankind; viz., the brown Egyptians, the negroes (in the south), the light-complexioned Libyans (in the west), and the light-brown Asiatics (in the east). These races were distinguished from one another also by their hair-dressing and their costume.

Ethnology in Genesis.

It is natural that as soon as a people has a history and has, through intercourse with other nations, become conscious of its individuality, it should reflect whether it be related to these nations. In the earliest times the Hebrews occupied themselves with such questions. A great part of the tales of primeval and patriarchal history recorded in Genesis is ethnological in its bearing; that is, these stories were given to elucidate the question of interracial relationship. Therefore the more clearly the people of Israel became conscious of their independent position among the nations, the livelier became their interest in Israel's special position among the nations, and in the questions regarding the origin of neighboring peoples. The consciousness of an especial relation to God must necessarily have reacted to strengthen the conviction that their position among the nations must be a very distinguished one when regarded also in the light of descent.

In order to understand what is narrated in these accounts of Genesis and of other sources, regarding the relation of the several nations and tribes to Israel, it is necessary to consider for a moment the form in which these statements are always made. The relations between the peoples are invariably represented in the form of genealogical tables showing the descent from remote progenitors. The Edomites and the Israelites are the most closely related. This is expressed in the form of a statement that Esau and Jacob, the progenitors of the two peoples, are brothers. The genealogical tables of the nations, in Genesis 10, reveal at a glance that a great number of the names are not used to designate persons, but peoples, and even whole lands; as, for instance, Cush, Mizraim, Asshur, Aram, etc. The relations between these persons must therefore be understood as explaining the relations between the peoples in question.

Early Attempts at Ethnology.

This mode of representing the international relation is by no means, however, based upon a poetic personification of the tribes. The Hebrew writer does not interpret such a form of expression figuratively; on the contrary, it is based by him upon a definite conception regarding the origin of nations, a conception which assumes that the tribes and peoples are in reality a development of the family, and may thus be traced to one progenitor. By means of marriages and births the family grows to the clan, and the clan to the tribe; this again ramifies into various tribes, which, under certain conditions, unite to form a people, as in the case of the twelve tribes of Israel; or they may separate, as did Moab and Ammon, constituting two distinct tribes. This theory, again, goes back to the view shared by all Semites, according to which blood-relationship alone can constitute a strong and permanent bond in a group of people, and impose binding obligations.

The ancient form of genealogy is well adapted for the representation not only of purely ethnological, but also of ethnographical, geographical, and historical relations. In this regard antiquity makes no close discrimination. When, for example, one nation is to be characterized as more powerful than another, the former is represented as a first-born son, the other as a younger brother; or the former is the son of a favorite wife, the other the son of a concubine. Esau is a hunter; Jacob, a herdsman, a distinction serving to characterize the respective peoples. Similarly, geographical proximity converts Sidon and Heth into sons of Canaan.

Based on Sympathies and Antipathies.

The interest of antiquity was naturally directed more closely to the neighboring nations with which Israel, from the beginning, cultivated close relations. To Ammon, Moab, Edom, and the Arabian tribes, Israel felt closely related; hence, Edom (Esau) is the brother of Jacob; Ishmael, the brother of Isaac; and Ammon and Moab are sons of Abraham's nephew, Lot. Their relationship to the Arameans is also close: Jacob's wives are daughters of the Aramean Laban. The reverse, however, is true of the inhabitants of the land west of the Jordan, the Canaanites, with whom Israel will have nothing in common; for which reason, according to the old accounts of Noah, these tribes are held to belong to an entirely different branch of the human family. This is comprehensible in view of the mutual hatred growing out of the historical situation, the conflicts for the land, and other opposing elements. The conception, however, can not endure before modern investigation. It has been shown beyond a doubt that the Canaanites, both as regards language and descent, were very closely related to the Hebrews, and that they are to be classed, not among the Hamites, but among the Semites.

With the extension of the political horizon of the Israelites, and the continual absorption of new peoples, these ethnological views were inevitably extended. Based upon the ancient accounts of the patriarchs, a theory gradually developed, assuming a homogeneity and relation between the several peoples; and it is this theory which has been perpetuated in Genesis 10, the so-called genealogy of the nations. In connection with the accounts of Noah (Genesis 9:18 et seq.), the whole race of man, which is descended from his sons, is divided into three great classes: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. In the original narrative of Noah the three sons are named Shem, Canaan (not Ham), and Japheth. The reason for this division into three sons, or three races, is not known. The Egyptians, as already stated, distinguished four races; nor can a parallel to the Hebrew classification be found among the Babylonians. According to Winckler, the ternary division is probably associated with the great importance attached to the figure "3" in the old system of cosmography (compare Stade, "Geschichte Israels," 2:275 et seq.). Others (e.g., Stade, ib. 1:109 et seq.), basing their assumption upon the above statement that Ham was originally called "Canaan," believe that a purely Palestinian triad was meant, consisting of the Hebrews, Philistines, and Canaanites (Shem, Japheth, and Ham), and that this triad was afterward extended to include all mankind. The most recent commentary by Gunkel declares that the ternary division indicates the conditions of a very ancient pre-Israelitish period, when Canaan, in the widest sense of the name—that is, the land between the Taurus and Egypt—was subjugated from the east by nomad Semitic tribes, while at the same time the Hittite migrations brought down Japheth from the north to spread over the land of Canaan. But this is uncertain; and no definite reason has hitherto been assigned for the tripartite ethnological division.

The scope of this genealogical table of the nations is, of course, narrow from the modern point of view. The nations mentioned in it are the peoples known to the Israelites, either through actual contact or by report, and grouped principally about the Mediterranean in Asia Minor and eastern Palestine. In the ethnological phraseology of the present they would be classed among the Caucasian nations. Even from the standpoint of the Israelites, the ethnological list given in Genesis has no claim to completeness, inasmuch as not only the negroes, who were undoubtedly known to the Israelites of a later period, but also the Persians are omitted from it. As the last-mentioned people were well known to the post-exilicJews, their omission from the genealogical table is perhaps to be explained by the fact that they were not numbered among those ancient nations whose origin dates from the Flood.

As regards the division of the individual peoples into these three great classes, the considerations of complexion, linguistic differences, historical conditions, etc., obtaining at the present day were certainly not determinative at that time. Indeed, it appears that the fundamental distinction was purely geographical. To the Japhetic race belonged the peoples of the northern zone, of Asia Minor, and of the islands and coastlands of the northern Mediterranean. The Semites dwelt in the middle zone, and included the Hebrews and the nations to the east of Palestine. The nations in the south were the sons of Ham, who lived in northern Africa and southern Arabia, and who, as represented by the ancients, constituted a homogeneous people. There is only one exception to this genealogical arrangement: Canaan with his sons, the Phenicians, Hittites, and others, dwelt in the middle zone, but were considered as belonging to Ham. The reasons for this have been given above.

For details bearing on the foregoing explanation of the genealogical tables, see the commentaries on Genesis, particularly those of Dillmann. For the other data, compare the articles on Ham. Japheth, RACES OF THE OLD TESTAMENT, and SHEM.

I. Be.
Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Biblical Ethnology'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​b/biblical-ethnology.html. 1901.
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