Biblical Nations - Shem


Key Scripture: Genesis 10:21-31

Figures: Elam, Asshur, Arpachshad, Lud, Aram, Eber, Peleg, Joktan, and Abram

We have arrived at the first of Noah's three sons to be mentioned in the Bible, but the last to be listed in the "Table of Nations" found in Genesis 10.  It is likely because the writer of Genesis was a descendent of Israel who came from the family of Shem, as did many of the important empires that would impact the Middle East throughout the centuries.  From the names of his children and grandchildren, we can determine that the people groups known as the "Semites" filled much of the Arabian Peninsula, Fertile Crescent, and the regions to the south and east.  Obviously many families remained close to Mount Ararat, leading to the incident at the Tower of Babel, and some of Noah's grandchildren seem to have traveled closer to their cousins than their brothers, so the family of Shem has a measure of overlap with both the people of Ham and Japheth.

Shem is documented as being an older brother of Japheth and we do know that he joined Japheth in treating his father more honorably than Ham.  Just as Ham is said to have been the father of Canaan, Shem is also specifically tied to one of his descendants: Eber.  That is a curious connection, considering Eber was Shem's great-grandson and only one of the many individuals to have people groups and lands come from them.  It was from Eber, however, that Abram eventually came (you can easily make a connection between his name and the designation "Hebrew") which helps explain the author's decision to include him.  After this point in the Bible, however, the only time Shem is mentioned is during genealogical lists.

Each of Shem's sons is associated with a region that would become historically significant.  The first, Elam, carries the traditional name of the land of Persia (now Iran) - as late as Acts 2, Jews who were in Jerusalem for Pentecost during the first century AD are called Elamites.  Interestingly, it is likely that the Medes of the Persian Empire were descended from Japheth's son Madai, which may have prompted the adjusted designation.  Exactly how far east they traveled is the subject of conjecture and debate, as most early historians attributed the majority of the Far East to Shem, which modern studies favor the view that Japheth is the correct ancestor for the southeast Asians.  Asshur is the second son and is associated with the Assyrians, who eventually became a mighty empire and who also worshipped their ancestor who gave their kingdom its name.  The third son was Arpachshad, who was the grandfather of the aforementioned Eber but also counted the Chaldeans among his offspring.  Among his descendants were brothers Peleg, whose name indicates a division of the earth that was either geographic (perhaps the separation of land that caused the Red Sea to flood) or the linguistic schism at Babel, and Joktan, who was the father of most of the people groups in modern Arabia, Oman, and Yemen.  Some of his offspring may have also stretched north of the Persian Gulf and south of the Red Sea, the latter would have resulted in close contact with the families of Ham.  The next son, Lud, was the unusual member of the family as he apparently chose to travel west.  Providing the Lydians of western Turkey their name, this man's descendants settled in Sardis as their main city among the people of Japheth.  Finally, the last son is Aram, father of the Arameans and the land of Syria.  Interestingly, between the time of Babel and the rise of the Greek Empire, it was Aramaic that was the predominant international language, and Jesus himself is recorded speaking this common tongue on the cross: "Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani?"


  1. Very interesting. Each son seemed to have more and more detail and interesting facts associated with him.


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