Spiritual Meaning of
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THE GENERATIONS OF SHEM, HAM AND JAPHETH
The sons of Noah were the distinct religious branches of the Ancient Church. Think of Noah, not as an individual, but as the Ancient or Spiritual Church, and there will be no difficulty attending this spiritual interpretation. The name Noah stands for the remnant, left in the Most Ancient Church, in all of whom the Lord commenced a different process of regeneration - a regeneration which consisted in the forming of a new will in their intellectual parts. Shem, Ham and Japheth denote not only the three cardinal principles of the Ancient Church, but the different classes of people who accepted them and by loyalty to them propagated them among mankind.
We may find an illustration of this in the history of the Christian Church. That church, as early as the second century, was called the Catholic Church. It was so called because to the early Fathers the word catholic expressed the true conception of Christianity as the universal religion, differing from the ethnic or race religions in this: that it brought to the world a religion for all sorts and conditions of men. But, after the first general council in 325 A. D., the original Catholic Church began to depart from the faith once delivered unto the saints, and branched out into three parts, which church history calls the Roman, the Greek and the Anglican Catholic Churches. The Roman, Greek and Anglican Churches are the three sons of the original Christian Catholic Church. Each distinct branch retained something of the parent church, but each departed in many particulars from the original church.
So it was of the sons of Noah. Shem was the branch that received and accentuated the doctrine of charity. Ham was the branch of the church that received in a special way the doctrine that revealed the laws of the Divine truth. Japheth was the branch of the church that received and laid especial stress upon the doctrine of obedience. Starting out, in this way, these three branches of the Noetic Church began to propagate the special things they stood for. As they did this, there arose among their members many and various opinions concerning the principles for which they stood, especially as to the methods of propagating them.
Thus the descendants of Shem, Ham and Japheth are not to be understood as individuals but as forms of belief, and their names as indicating the people who embraced them. This is all clear enough if we keep in mind the doctrine that we are reading about the spiritual history of the church and not about the natural population of the world.
The number which descended from the three sons of Noah is seventy. This number is very significant, for, like sewn, it stands for what is full and complete. We get from it, spiritually understood, the idea of the full development of the principles derived from the three cardinal teachings of the Ancient Church. One thing, however, we must keep in mind - the Noetic Church was in the process of decline. The descendants of Shem, Ham and Japheth - the beliefs that were originated and propagated in these branches of the Noetic Church, were getting farther and farther away from the original deposit of the true faith - the church in its three branches was going on to its judgment and end. The number seventy - the number of the descendants of the three sons - stands for this consummation and end.
Thus it is not the origin of the inhabitants of the lands, but the origin and character of the religious doctrine and ritual which prevailed among men in those ancient times that this record deals with.
Here we meet with a remarkable statement. After the descendants of Japheth are enumerated, it is said: "By these were the isles of the Gentiles divided in their lands." Here we see that Gentiles - that is, people outside of the church - were already in existence - showing in the very letter of the story that the record is not treating of the natural history of man. The lands were already full of inhabitants, but as the teaching of the Ancient Church, in its three great branches, was brought to them, they were divided in their lands - distinguished in their lands by the several notions of religion which began to prevail among them. Think of this same thing as realized in the propagation of Christianity. The first Christian Church was organized in Jerusalem and was under the pastoral care of St. James. From it as a center, Christianity was planted in the Holy Land. Missionaries went forth proclaiming its doctrine; and they begat, as spiritual sons, all the nations of western Europe. They were not the colonizers of those countries, but they were the ones who converted their inhabitants. Europe became Christian; but each nation has been distinguished by some peculiar feature of Christianity. The people were divided in their lands. So of this Noetic Church, the various nations that were influenced by the doctrines of the Ancient Church - the distinct forms of religious life that were developed among them - are what is meant by the Gentiles being divided in their lands. The respective receivers of the various doctrines of the Ancient Church in course of time separated and propagated their opinions; and the names of their religious characteristics were fixed upon the nations that received them.
One may ask how so many nations could have been so distinctly characterized by religion; but we have had the same thing in the history of Christianity and Mohammedanism. Stanley, in his History of the Eastern Church, gives the description of a whole family of national churches springing frbm and being related to the original Greek Church.
So the Divine purpose in the list of names of nations descended from Shem, Ham and Japheth is to express the origin and character of the various religious sentiments which sprang out of the three families of doctrine which grew up in the Noetic Church, and which, in the allegory, are called Shem, Ham and Japheth. The purpose was also to indicate the propagations of those varieties of doctrine and worship among the nations and their adoption of the names by which those religious teachings were expressed. We have the same thing today. Rome, from its religion, is called Papal. The Papal nations are they among whom the Romish religion is established. Turkey is called Mohammedan; and Islamism, or the Islam nations, are they among whom the religion of Mohamed is established. But the early Christian missionaries did not originate the inhabitants of Italy; nor did Mohamed originate the inhabitants of Turkey. But the Christian missionaries gave a religion to Italy, and Mohamed gave a religion to Turkey; and in accepting the religion they adopted the name. We can see from this how various were the forms of religious belief and worship in the Ancient Church; and each of these beliefs was adopted by certain numbers of individuals, who, as a family, a house, or a nation, was called by the name of the special religious doctrine that they accepted.
Thus we have three lines: The nations descended from Shem stand for the peoples who accepted the doctrines concerning goodness of life, which they derived from those of the Ancient Church who were in spiritual and internal worship. These doctrines gave a distinct character to the people that accepted them. They took the name of the doctrine; so that the nations descended from Shem are the people whose religious characteristics may be traced back to the distinctive religious teaching in the Ancient Church that was personified under the name Shem. The true evidence of Shemitic origin was their religious characteristics and not their descent from an individual called Shem.
The sons of Ham stand for doctrines which were derived from those in the Ancient Church, among whom there had prevailed a corrupt form of internal worship. They also stand for the nation by which the knowledge of such doctrines were received. Thus the sons of Ham denote the doctrines and the people who placed the knowledge of religion, and especially the mere ritual of the church, above the principles of the church and the life of charity. The nations that embraced these doctrines were called by the name which was given to that doctrine in the Ancient Church. It is the spiritual generation of these doctrines and not nations that is told us in the allegory.
Those who are described as the sons of Japheth stand for doctrines that were evolved from those in the Ancient Church who, in the beginning, held true views of external worship and for the communities and nations that adopted them. When we contemplate a nation, we think of it as one. There is a national character, and this national character gives a peculiar quality to the religion that prevails in it. But the inward quality of religion differs, because of its inward reception into different minds in the nation. So all the nations said to be descended from Japheth symbolize the different inward reception of the doctrines that were evolved from the original teaching in the Ancient Church which was personified by the name Japheth.
Thus it is of the descent and propagation of religious doctrines and forms of worship that is told us in the story of the generations of the three sons of Noah.