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Who was Shem in the Bible?

Shem is one of the three sons of Noah, his brothers being Ham and Japheth. They all, along with their wives, were rescued from the great flood (Genesis 8:16–18). Because Shem's name is consistently listed first, it is possible that he was the oldest of Noah's three sons, or it may be simply that he was considered the most important of the three because he became the founding ancestor of the Israelite people.

After the flood, God made a covenant with Noah, his sons (including Shem), and their descendants to never again destroy the earth by flood (Genesis 9:11–17). The rainbow is the sign of that promise. God also instructed them to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth (Genesis 9:1, 7), echoing His command to Adam and Eve in Genesis 1:28. God further instructed them not to take human life (Genesis 9:5–6) like Cain did in Genesis 4:8. God would require a reckoning for taking the lifeblood of a human. But God did give humanity permission to eat animals as food (Genesis 9:3).

As Noah set out to obey God's commands, he planted a vineyard to provide for a growing family (Genesis 9:20). Unfortunately, he became drunk on his own wine and ended up naked within his tent (Genesis 9:21). When Ham saw his father in this shameful state, he refused to help in any way but instead told his brothers (Genesis 9:22). Shem and Japheth quickly jumped into action and held a cloak between them, entered the tent backwards with their faces turned away, and covered their father's nakedness (Genesis 9:23). When Noah awoke, he pronounced blessings over Shem and Japheth and a curse over Ham's son Canaan (Genesis 9:24–27).

Genesis then records a genealogy of Noah's sons. Shem's descendants are counted ten generations down to Abram (later Abraham) whom God called out to father a nation, the Israelites (Genesis 11:10–26; 12:1–3). However, other people groups who trace their lineage to Shem include the Chaldeans, Assyrians, Elamites, Arameans, Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, and Arabs. In fact, Shem's name is the origin of the term Semitic, and his descendant, Eber, is where the word Hebrew originates. Of course, since Shem is an ancestor to Abram (Abraham), and Jesus, the Messiah, is a descendant of Abram, Shem is also listed in the genealogy tracing the lineage of Jesus in Luke 3:36.

The story of Shem can teach us about our need for salvation. Just as Shem needed God to rescue him from the flood, so too do we need God to rescue us from the power and consequences of sin in our lives (Romans 7:23–24). Just as Shem covered his father's nakedness and shame with a cloak, so too can Jesus Christ's blood cover our sin, unrighteousness, and shame (Romans 5:19; Philippians 3:9). In Shem's story we see part of God's plan for humanity unfold. God set aside a people through whom He would demonstrate His holiness to the world and through whom He would send the Messiah. God told Abraham, "in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Genesis 12:3). Jesus, God incarnate, was born into the family of Shem. His offer of salvation is available to all people. Every human alive today has descended from Noah, who descended from Adam. Of Adam and Jesus, Romans 5:17 explains, "For if, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man [Adam], much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ." In Jesus, we can become children of God (John 1:12–13). What a glorious salvation (Ephesians 2:1–10)!


Related Truth:

Who was Noah in the Bible?

What is the biblical account of Shem, Ham, and Japheth?

What is the biblical account of Abraham?

What is the origin of the races of humanity?

What is the Table of Nations in Genesis 10?


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