International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: Japheth

Japheth

ja'-feth (yepheth; yapheth; Iapheth):

1. Etymologies of Japheth:

This name, in Gen. 9:27, seems to be explained by the phrase "may God make wide (yapht, the American Standard Revised Version "enlarge") for Japheth," where yapht and Japheth are represented by the same consonants, but with different vowel-points. The root of yapht is pathach, "to make wide." This etymology, however, is not universally accepted, as the word-play is so obvious, and the association of Japheth with Shem ("dark") and Ham ("black") suggests a name on similar lines--either gentilic, or descriptive of race. Japheth has therefore been explained as meaning "fair," from yaphah, the non-Sem and non-Hamitic races known to the Jews being all more or less whiteskinned. The Targum of Onkelos agrees with the English Versions of the Bible, but that of Jonathan has "God shall beautify Japheth," as though from yaphah.

2. His Descendants:

The immediate descendants of Japheth were seven in number, and are represented by the nations designated Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Mesech, and Tiras; or, roughly, the Armenians, Lydians, Medes, Greeks, Tibarenians, and Moschians, the last, Tiras, remaining still obscure. The sons of Gomer (Ashkenaz, Riphath and Togarmah) were all settled in the West Asian tract; while the sons of Javan (Elisah, Tarshish, Kittim and Dodanim or Rodanim) occupied the Mediterranean coast and the adjacent islands.

3. His Place among the Sons of Noah:

In Gen. 9:27, as in other passages, Japheth occupies the 3rd place in the enumeration of the sons of Noah, but he is really regarded as the 2nd son, Ham being the youngest. In the genealogical table, however (Gen. 10:1 ff.), the descendants of Japheth are given first, and those of Shem last, in order to set forth Semitic affinities at greater length. Though this would seem to indicate that the fair races were the least known to the Jews, it implies that the latter were well disposed toward them, for Japheth was (ultimately) to dwell in the tents of Shem, and therefore to take part in Shem's spiritual privileges.

4. Japheth and Iapetos: It seems unlikely that the Greek giant-hero, Iapetos, father of Prometheus, who was regarded by the Greeks as the father of the human race, has any connection with the Hebrew Japheth. The original of the Hebrew record probably belongs to a date too early to admit borrowing from the Greek, and if the name had been borrowed by the Greeks from the Hebrews, a nearer form might be expected.

T. G. Pinches

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