When the great flood that inundated the world began, eight people entered the ark: Noah and his wife, Na’ama, and their three sons and three daughters-in-law. Because Noah and Na’ama had no other children, Shem, Ham and Yaphet basically inherited the world. Based on the names of their children and grandchildren and the later nations that emerged with those same names, tradition is able to divide up the continents in which they settled.

Yaphet, the eldest, is the ancestor of the European nations. Among his descendants are Yavan, (Yavan is the Hebrew term for Greece) and Ashkenaz (the name the Talmud associates with the area now known as Germany).

Ham, the second son, is the ancestor of the Africans (this fact, along with “the curse of Ham” in Genesis 9:25 was put to much ill-use during the era of American slavery). Among his sons are Cush (Ethiopia) and Mitzrayim (Egypt).

Shem, the youngest son, is the ancestor of the Mesapotamians. His descendants include Ashur (Assyria) and Aram (Arameans). The Torah particularly notes that Shem was “the father of all the children of Ever,” and Ever was the great (x4)-grandfather of Abraham.

The midrash attributes to Shem a far more significant role in the world than being merely the ancestor of Abraham. Like all of those born before the flood, Shem lived many hundreds of years and maintained a relationship with God throughout his life. Numerous midrashim relate how the patriarchs traveled great lengths to study God’s teachings with Shem. His relationship with the Divine was similar to that of Noah–while Shem served God, and readily taught those who came to learn from him, he did not bring God to the people as Abraham did.

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