Sunday, August 15, 2010

Three Sons, Three Priesthood Generations

Though he lived to be 950 years old, the scriptures only record three of Noah's children by name. "And Noah was four hundred and fifty years old, and begat Japheth; and forty-two years afterward he begat Shem of her who was the mother of Japheth, and when he was five hundred years old he begat Ham" (Moses 8:12). From these three sons would come the peoples known in scripture as the Gentiles, the Israelites, and the people of Egypt and Africa.

It appears that each of these sons were righteous before the flood. "And Noah and his sons hearkened unto the Lord, and gave heed, and they were called the sons of God... And thus Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord; for Noah was a just man, and perfect in his generation; and he walked with God, as did also his three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth" (Moses 8:13, 27).

When it comes to the priesthood, the descendants of Shem, Ham and Japheth were each given a time and a dispensation in which they could be ordained with the priesthood power. The timing of these ordinations appears to be based in part upon the actions of these three sons of Noah, though the scripture is more clear in the cases of Ham and Shem and less clear when it comes to Japheth.

Japheth was the oldest son, yet he is often mentioned last when the sons of Noah are listed together. In a not altogether uncommon scenario, the birthright blessings and the priesthood authority passed over Japheth's descendants to Shem, who, like Nephi or Joseph, carries the spiritual torch for the family and the people of God in his time. Nothing negative is ever mentioned about Japheth, however. Japheth's descendants, the Gentiles, were allowed to be ordained to the priesthood following the resurrection of Christ (see Acts 1-2).

As mentioned, Shem was the spiritual leader of his generation. Jewish tradition holds that Shem was also known as 'Melchizedek', the great high priest to whom Abraham paid tithes. The validity of that tradition is not certifiable, but among the supporting evidences is the presiding authority common to both (for more evidences, look here). The descendants of Shem, Israelites including Peleg, Abraham, Moses, Christ and Peter were the only people considered worthy for the priesthood from the time of Shem until after the death of Christ. Including Joseph Smith in our own dispensation, descendants of Shem have had access to the priesthood in all dispensations of time since the days of Noah's ark.

Ham is the youngest son of Noah mentioned in the scriptures. His descendants, the people of Africa, were unable to hold the priesthood until the modern age because of two curses pronounced upon and preserved by Ham.

The first curse upon the seed of Ham was initially pronounced upon Adam's son, Cain (Genesis 4:11-15). This curse was not pronounced upon Ham, but it was passed to the descendants of Ham when he married Egytus, a decendant of Cain. Abraham later commented that "thus, from Ham, sprang the race which preserved the curse in the land" (Abraham 1:21-24).

A second curse was pronounced upon Ham's descendants after a curious incident in Genesis 9:20-27. In these verses, the Bible outlines a drunken Noah passed out in his tent. Ham sees the nakedness of his father and reports it to his brothers, who cover their father's nakedness without looking. When Noah awakes, he curses his youngest son's posterity while blessing the posterity of the older two.

Hugh Nibley provided the following insight into those verses about Noah's nakedness: "Incidentally the story of the stolen garment as told by the rabbis, including the great Eleazer, calls for an entirely different rendering of the strange story in Genesis [9] from the version in our King James Bible. They seemed to think that the 'erwath of Genesis [9:22] did not mean 'nakedness' at all, but should be given its primary root meaning of 'skin covering.' Read thus, we are to understand that Ham took the garment of his father while he was sleeping and showed it to his brethren, Shem and Japheth, who took a pattern or copy of it or else a woven garment like it which they put upon their own shoulders, returning the skin garment to their father. Upon awaking, Noah recognized the priesthood of the two sons but cursed the son who tried to rob him of his garment" (Lehi in the Desert and the World of the Jaredites, p. 162; see also Old Testament Student Manual, p. 57).

We subsequently read of two of Ham's descendants going on to prominent leadership positions in their respective societies. Nimrod, the mighty hunter, claimed to have the priesthood by virtue of the fact that he owned the garment of Adam stolen from Noah. Nimrod conquered many people and eventually founded a place called Babel, where the people built a tower to reach the heavens. Most of us know how that turned out, but suffice it to say the priesthood was not among the people of Nimrod.

Ham also had a righteous grandson named Pharaoh. "Pharaoh, being a righteous man, established his kingdom and judged his people wisely and justly all his days, seeking earnestly to imitate that order established by the fathers in the first generations... and also of Noah, his father, who blessed him with the blessings of the earth, and with the blessings of wisdom, but cursed him as pertaining to the Priesthood" (Abraham 1:26).

Ham's descendants were allowed to hold the priesthood for the first time beginning in 1978. The First Presidency of the Church announced at that time that "the long-promised day has come when every faithful, worthy man in the Church may receive the holy priesthood, with power to exercise its divine authority, and enjoy with his loved ones every blessing that flows therefrom... without regard for race or color" (Declaration II, September 30, 1978).

Noah's three sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth, each fathered large nations which covered the Earth. To each people was also given a time to hold the priesthood: Shem's descendants held it throughout scripture; Japheth's descendants received the priesthood again after the resurrection of Christ; the descendants of Ham received the priesthood just 32 years ago. Each time the priesthood has been extended, it has been done so at the Lord's direction. He knows the timing and directs all things.

To some degree, however, the priesthood has been extended or withheld based upon the choices of Shem, Ham and Japheth. Their legacy has clearly affected hundreds of generations. As we see the profound variation in blessings based upon the actions of these three brothers, it is worthwhile to also consider our own legacy. What are we doing today that will affect future generations? Will our legacy be a blessing or a curse to those who follow us? If our legacy is not what we would want it to be, what can we do today to bring our lives and teachings more in line with the teachings and gospel of Jesus Christ?

If we do all we can to bring our lives in line with the will of Christ, the legacy we leave to our children will surely be one of testimony and righteousness. Then we will find that we have more that just the authority of the priesthood, but the power of the priesthood as well. May that be our goal.

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