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In Genesis 9:27, when Noah says:

God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. [KJV]

Is the Hebrew definitive on who "he" is that shall dwell in the tents of Shem?

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It is as definitive as a pronoun can be. While two antecedents are plausible (God or Japheth), there are two primary indicators that "he" refers to Japheth.

The first indicator is the context. Noah is making a statement about his sons and their relations to one another, most specifically of how Canaan will be serving "his brethren" (v.25). This service gets reiterated and clarified first for Shem (v.26), then for Japheth (v.27), who are each the subject of "his" in the "his servant." The clarification relates to what "brethren" are referred to in v.25 (since Ham was the actual brother of Shem/Japheth; Canaan is the nephew of each). So contextually:

  1. the "his" pronouns refer to a relative of Canaan's (Shem/Japheth)
  2. the context is Noah's ordering of relations of those brethren involved in the preceding incident of vv.20-24 (Shem, Japheth, and Ham via his son Canaan).

The second indicator is grammatical. Typically, a pronoun refers to the last mentioned antecedent. In the Hebrew, Japheth is mentioned just prior to the "he" of the "he shall dwell." Unless context clearly indicated only some other antecedent would fit logically, then the nearest antecedent would be the more "definitive" reference.

Taking both points together, Japheth is the intended "he."

  • There is no pronoun deployed in the Hebrew text of the verse. The "he" is due to the 3rd P masculine declension of the verb. Therefore, your ad hoc rule "Typically, a pronoun refers to the last mentioned antecedent" cannot be fulfilled in Hebrew because a verb is always declined with gender. BTW, what did you mean by "antecedent"? This is not English grammar. – Cynthia Avishegnath Jul 24 '17 at 4:57
  • @CynthiaAvishegnath While Hebrew has explicit pronouns, the 3PM declension has a "built in" pronoun when no clear subject is given. The rule of finding an antecedent still applies when lacking a named subject, as here, because the "he" still (typically) refers to the most recent mention; and yes, that assumes that noun has matching gender, as the gender can limit what is a viable antecedent option. But in this case, both God and Japheth are masculine, so the gender of the verb does not help isolate the proper antecedent. – ScottS Jul 24 '17 at 12:51
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Exactly. Who does the "he" refer to in Genesis 9:27? You have opened up a Pandora's box. Actually, there the Hebrew text of this verse does not even explicitly use any pronoun. The subject "he" is inferred from the declension of the verb.

According to Rashi,

  • While G'd enlarges/extends Yafeth, He is to dwell among Shem, and Canaan to be in servitude to them. He has His shekhinah שכינה in Israel - due to the word ישכן yishkhon, he-to-have-abode )

Further non-trivia

There is yet more mystery to the verse than what you read in English. The name Yafeth/Yefeth {יָפֶת/יֶפֶת} itself has double upon double meanings.

Does his name derive from Hebrew {יפה} for "beauty"? Or does it derive from Aramaic {פתה} for "extend"?

Let's presume the root is Aramaic {פתה}. Then the dispute would be, does {יפת} mean

  1. he (Japheth) shall extend

Or

  1. May He (G'd) extend

??

The verse in Hebrew text itself begins with a play on the word {יפת}. Whoever the author or Author, he/He seems to be deliberately teasing on the word {יפת}.

יפת אלהים ליפת - yafth Elohim l'yefeth

has the following possible combinatorials

  1. G'd he-grants-beauty to he-is-beautiful
  2. G'd he-grants-beauty to whom He-shall-extend
  3. G'd he-extends he-is-beautiful
  4. G'd he-extends whom He-shall-extend.

First, I need to explain my style of biblical Hebrew comprehension. Anyone familiar with my frequent ridiculing the inversive-vav/consecutive-wav theory, this is one of the extremely too many instances where that ridiculous theory breaks down. A theory that seeks to reconcile semitic/akkadian waw/wav from a european grammatical perspective.

In truth, the vav/waw plays no part in tense of a phrase, except being a conjunctive-separator of phrases and temporal anchor. In many non-European languages, like austronesia languages, the conjunctive-separator acts as a sequential-temporal-anchor, such that the time reference of a phrase is sequentially anchored from the previous phrase. That is why they don't need tenses. Why should biblical-Hebrew or Akkadian be different, to warrant the invention of an unnatural grammatical theory to satiate the perspectives of European linguists?

Therefore, biblical Hebrew verbs have no tenses, and only two states

  • stative = stating the action
  • non-finite. Non-finite is a very versatile state, which is used to show either
    • exhortation
    • intent
    • implied infinitive
    • subjunctive

Subjunctive itself is a very wide class of actions, among which is to signify wish/hope, hypothesis, generalization of past/future.

יַפְתְּ אֱלֹהִים לְיֶפֶת וְיִשְׁכֹּן בְּאָהֳלֵי שֵׁם וִיהִי כְנַעַן עֶבֶד לָמוֹ

If we accept the grammatical niqud/vowelization of the masoret

  1. יַפְתְּ אֱלֹהִים לְיֶפֶת
    • G'd extends Yefeth
    • יַפְתְּ
      • 3rd P masc stative
      • he-extends
    • יַפְתְּ אֱלֹהִים
      • he-extends-G'd
      • G'd extends
  2. וְיִשְׁכֹּן בְּאָֽהֳלֵי שֵׁם

    • and to-have-he-abode in tents of Shem
    • וְיִשְׁכֹּן
      • 3rd P masc non-finite passive adverbial
      • and be-he-aboded (i.e., have-abode)
  3. וִיהִי כְנַעַן עֶבֶד לָמוֹ

    • and Canaan be-he servitude to-them
    • וִיהִי
      • and he-to-be
    • יהִי כְנַעַן
      • and he-to-be-Canaan
      • and Canaan to-be

Why do I accept Rashi's?

I look at 3rd segment of the verse.

  • וִיהִי כְנַעַן עֶבֶד לָמוֹ
    • and Canaan he-to-be servitude to-them

Imagine, hypothetically, without the {כְנַעַן Canaan} in the verse, the continuity logic would be

  • G'd extends Yafeth, and to-have=He dwelling among Shem, and to-be-He servitude to them.
  • the mentioning of Canaan in the last segments removes the continuity from the 3rd segment.

I see the continuity,

  • וייקץ נח מיינו וידע את אשר עשה לו בנו הקטן
    • and Noah he-to-awake from his wine and realizes-he what his young son did to him
  • ויאמר ארור כנען עבד עבדים יהיה לאחיו
    • and says-he accursed Canaan serf of serfs be-he to his-brothers
  • ויאמר ברוך יי אלהי שם ויהי כנען עבד למו
    • and he says blessed Hashem G'd of Shem and Canaan be-he servitude to them.
  • יפת אלהים ליפת וישכן באהלי שם ויהי כנען עבד למו
    • G'd extends-He for Yafeth, and to-have-He-abode in tents of Shem, and Canaan be-he servitude to them.

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