What is the biblical account of Shem, Ham, and Japheth?Shem, Ham, and Japheth were the three sons of Noah who were saved in the ark from the flood and whose descendants are delineated in the Table of Nations. Their story is recorded in Genesis chapters 6 through 10. God promised Noah in Genesis 6:18, "But I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons' wives with you." So Noah's sons and their wives were spared from the flood when Noah "did all God commanded him" (Genesis 6:22).
After the flood subsided, God directed Noah, "Go out from the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons' wives with you" (Genesis 8:16). "And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth'" (Genesis 9:1). Here God echoed His command to Adam and Eve in Genesis 1:28, showing that this was a new beginning with much the same purpose as at the start of creation.
During the original creation account, God gave plants as food to humans (Genesis 1:29), but after the flood animals were also to be food for Noah's family (Genesis 9:3). God then warned Noah's family against murder (Genesis 9:6), which was the sin Adam's son Cain committed against his brother Abel (Genesis 4:8). Finally God repeated the command to "be fruitful and multiply" (Genesis 9:7) before establishing a covenant with Noah and his sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth (Genesis 9:8–17). In that covenant, God promised to never again destroy the earth by flood, and He set a rainbow in the sky as a sign of this promise.
The Bible then records an account of how the three sons of Noah treated their father. "Noah began to be a man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent" (Genesis 9:20–21). When Ham, the youngest son, "saw the nakedness of his father," he told his two brothers (Genesis 9:22). In this way, Ham showed great disrespect to his father by witnessing his vulnerability, refusing to help, and instead exposing that vulnerability to others, bringing shame upon his father. In contrast, when Shem and Japheth were alerted to the situation, they chose to enter the tent walking backwards with their faces turned away from their father and lay a garment over him so Noah's nakedness would no longer be exposed (Genesis 9:23).
When Noah awoke and realized what happened, he pronounced a curse over Canaan, Ham's youngest son, and blessings over Shem and Japheth and their descendants (Genesis 9:25–27). It is unclear why the curse was levied against Canaan; it is possible that Canaan was somehow involved in Ham's sin. The curse was that Canaan be "a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers" (Genesis 9:25), a statement then repeated in each of Ham's brothers' blessings for a total of three times. It is important to note that Noah pronounced those curses and blessings as an expression of his own desires for the future, in contrast to the curses God Himself pronounced after Adam and Eve's sin (Genesis 3:14–19) and after Cain killed Abel (Genesis 4:11–12).
Genesis 9:19 explains that Shem, Ham, and Japheth "these three were the sons of Noah and from these the people of the whole earth were dispersed." Genesis chapter 10 is known as the Table of Nations because it maps the origins of the different people groups the future Israelites would encounter. Shem's descendants included Israelites, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Elamites, Arameans, Moabites, Amorites, and Edomites. Japheth's descendants included Medes, Persians, Romans, Scythians, and Macedonians. Ham's descendants included Canaanites, Babylonians, Phoenicians, Cushites, and Egyptians.
Of course, over time, these people groups clashed and some landed in servitude to others. However, there is no obvious pattern where Ham's descendants end up as slaves any more often than Shem's or Japheth's descendants. For instance, the Israelites (Shem) were slaves in Egypt (Ham) for a time. The Israelites (Shem) then conquered the Canaanites (Ham). Later, the Babylonians (Ham) conquered the Israelites (Shem) only to subsequently be conquered by the Persians (Japheth). Slavery has long been part of the human experience. Noah's curse should not be used as an excuse for treating any people group more poorly than another. Conversely, the fact that "the people of the whole earth" descend from this one family should encourage readers to view all people as fellow brothers and sisters in this one family of humankind.
Genesis chapter 11 does show the tragic consequences of cultivating a rebellious or selfish spirit like Ham seemed to pass on to his descendants. His descendants are credited with the establishment of the notoriously sinful cities of Babel, Nineveh, Sodom, and Gomorrah. In fact, the inhabitants of Babel said "Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth" (Genesis 11:4). That desire not to disperse is in direct opposition to God's command to "fill the earth" (Genesis 9:1). Of course, their rebellious plan was thwarted when God confused their languages. "So the LORD dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city" (Genesis 11:8). Ultimately, God is sovereign and will only allow rebellion to continue for a certain time. When those people had to move away from the city and start over, they had a great opportunity to recognize their need for God's forgiveness, protection, and provision.
God's salvation is open to all people groups because He "is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance" (2 Peter 3:9). The Roman centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant was commended for having greater faith than anyone in Israel (Luke 7:9). Jesus also applauded the faith of the Syrophoenician woman who begged Him to free her daughter from an unclean spirit (Matthew 15:28). An Ethiopian eunuch baptized by Philip was likely the first person to bring the gospel to the continent of Africa (Acts 8:27–39). And Revelation assures us that "by [Jesus'] blood [He] ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation" (Revelation 5:9). Just as Noah and his sons were saved from the flood by coming into the ark, so too can anyone be saved by coming to Jesus in faith as He said, "come to me that you may have life" (John 5:40).
What is the Table of Nations in Genesis 10?
What does it mean to 'be fruitful and multiply' in Genesis?
What was the reason for the flood in the time of Noah?
What is the origin of the races of humanity?
What is the Tower of Babel? What happened there?
Truth about People in the Bible