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SEMITES (sĕm'īts). The term Semite is derived from Noah’s son Shem (Gen.9.18-Gen.9.19; Gen.10.21-Gen.10.31) and is used to identify a diverse group of ancient peoples whose languages are related, belonging to the Semitic family of languages. It is not certain that since these Semitic peoples spoke related languages, they themselves were related in blood. But since it is impossible now to gain a more accurate knowledge of the relationship of ancient peoples, this obvious connection in language is of some use.

The world of the Semites, in ancient historical times, was the Fertile Crescent, the green land that begins in southern Babylonia in the east and includes Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine, ending at the border of Egypt in the west. It is hemmed in by mountains, seas, and deserts. Strangely enough, one of the latter, the great Arabian desert, appears to have been the original homeland of the Semites. From earliest times there have been irruptions from this desert into the Fertile Crescent, bringing new strength to the Semitic civilizations. We can name some of the principal invasions: the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Arameans, the Nabateans, and the Arabs. The last of these, under Muhammad’s leadership, brought a new religion and later a great empire to a large part of the Asia-Africa-Europe continent.

The principal Semitic peoples of ancient times were:

I. The Akkadians. The Babylonians and Assyrians who lived in Mesopotamia spoke a common language. From c. 2350 b.c. to 538 these gifted, vigorous people dominated Mesopotamia. Several times they produced empires that ruled the ancient world. Their Akkadian language, written on clay by means of cuneiform signs, was for more than a millennium the lingua franca of the world of that time. The cities of Ur, Babylon, and Nineveh and rulers such as Sargon I, Shalmaneser III and V, Sennacherib, Hammurabi the law codifier (who though an Amorite ruled a Babylonian Empire), and Ashurbanipal the library builder testify to the greatness of the Akkadian civilization.

II. The Arameans. Principally traders and catalysts of culture rather than its creators, the Aramean-speaking people lived in Syria from c. 1700 b.c. to the time of Christ, though their political power ceased some centuries earlier. Damascus, Aleppo, Hama, and Zobah were their cities. Their language supplanted Akkadian as the world language and was adopted by the Jews after their return from exile. It became the language of much of the Talmud, and half of the Book of Daniel was written in Aramaic. It was through the Aramaic language that the Semitic civilization was given to the Greeks and Romans. Syriac (a form of Aramaic) was an important language in the early church. Today there are still a few Aramaic-speaking islands of culture in the Middle East.

III. The Canaanites. This term is used to designate a number of peoples who lived in southern Syria (including Palestine) in ancient times. Even the Hebrews can be considered a Canaanite group. Although we still know very little about the Canaanites before the coming of the Hebrews, the recent finds at Ugarit are shedding light on their culture. The Edomites, Ammonites, and Moabites were Canaanites. It appears that the Canaanites invented the alphabet. The Hebrews seem to have borrowed the Canaanite language and culture and made it their own. The Phoenicians were a Canaanite people who took to the sea and became the first people to dominate the Mediterranean and make it their common highway (1200-400 b.c.).

IV. The Arabs. Little is known about the inhabitants of Arabia prior to Muhammad. The great contributions of the Arabs after the coming of Islam lie beyond the scope of this work.

V. The Ethiopians. Across the Red Sea from southern Arabia, the Ethiopians had a flourishing Semitic civilization from 500 b.c. to the time of Mohammed.——JBG

SEMITES. The term “Semite” was used by Johann Gottfried Eichhorn in 1787, in his Introduction to the Old Testament (second ed. 1:15) where he applied it to the peoples whose habitat is Ethiopia, Arabia, Palestine, Phoenicia, Syria, and the countries of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. The term was apparently first used by A. L. Schlözer in 1781 to designate the descendants of Shem in the lists of Genesis 10:21ff. The descendants of Shem, however, do not correspond entirely to the Sem.-speaking peoples. Elam e.g., which is included in Genesis 10:22, was not a Sem. speaking people, while the Canaanites, including the Sidonians, who were Sem., are given in Genesis 10:15 among the descendants of Ham. It should be noted, however, that there are certain similarities between Egyp. (Hamitic) and Sem. languages. Perhaps there was a very primitive Semitic-Hamitic community in the vicinity of Arabia and Egypt. Such facts indicate that the table of nations in Genesis 10 was not entirely ethnological, but at least partly geographical.

The original home of the Semites is not known, although various theories have been suggested. At the dawn of civilization traces of Sem. languages are found throughout the Fertile Crescent. Today the term Sem. is primarily applied to the various people associated with the Sem. languages. The Sem. family, therefore, includes most of the inhabitants of Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Arabia, and a high percentage of Turkey, Lebanon, and N Africa. The Sem. influence has reached England and the United States largely through Jews; the Arabs have greatly influenced Africa, and at one time, southern Europe.

The chief Sem. languages are E Sem. (Babylonian-Assyrian), NW Sem. (Aramaic dialects; Canaanite dialects such as Hebrew, Phoenician, Moabite, Ugaritic), and S Sem. (Arabic and Ethiopian dialects). All these languages are written from right to left except Akkadian and Ethiopic, the two languages which first indicated the vowels. Ugaritic, although a Canaanite dialect, is written in cuneiform script; therefore, like Akkad., it is written from left to right. The Sem. languages have many grammatical features and words in common.

Although all Semites were at one time polytheistic, it was they who gave birth to the three great monotheistic religions of the world: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.


S. Moscati, Ancient Semitic Civilizations (1957); An Introduction to the Comparative Grammar of the Semitic Languages (1964).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

sem’-its, sem-it’-ik,

1. Biblical References

2. The Five Sons of Shem

3. Original Home of the Semites

4. Confusion with Other Races

5. Reliability of Genesis 10

6. Semitic Languages

7. Semitic Religion

(1) Its Peculiar Theism

(2) Personality of God

(3) Its View of Nature

(4) The Moral Being of God


1. Biblical References:

2. The Five Sons of Shem:

The sons of Shem are given as Elam, Assbur, Arpachshad, Lud and Aram (Ge 10:22). All except the third have been readily identified, Elam as the historic nation in the highlands East of the Tigris, between Media and Persia; Asshur as the Assyrians; Lud as the Lydians of Asia Minor; and Aram as the Syrians both East and West of the Euphrates. The greatest uncertainty is in the identification of Arpachshad, the most prolific ancestor of the Semites, especially of those of Biblical and more recent importance. From him descended the Hebrews and the Arab tribes, probably also some East African colonies (Ge 10:24-30; 11:12-26). The form of his name ’arpakhshadh) has given endless trouble to ethnographers. McCurdy divides into two words, Arpach or Arpath, unidentified, and kesedh, the singular of kasdim, i.e. the Chaldeans; Schrader also holds to the Chaldean interpretation, and the Chaldeans themselves traced their descent from Arpachshad (Josephus, Ant, I, vi, 4); it has been suggested also to interpret as the "border of the Chaldeans" (BDB; Dillmann, in the place cited.). But the historic, ordinary and most satisfactory identification is with Arrapachitis, Northeast of Assyria at the headwaters of the Upper Zab in the Armenian highlands (so Ptolemy, classical geographers, Gesenius, Delitzsch). Delitzsch calls attention to the Armenian termination shadh (Commentary on Genesis, in the place cited.).

3. Original Home of the Semites:

If we accept, then, this identification of Arpachshad as the most northeasterly of the five Semitic families (Ge 10:22), we are still faced by the problem of the primitive home and racial origin of the Semites. Various theories of course have been proposed; fancy and surmise have ranged from Africa to Central Asia.

(1) The most common, almost generally accepted, theory places their beginnings in Arabia because of the conservative and primitive Semitic of the Arabic language, the desert characteristics of the various branches of the race, and the historic movements of Semitic tribes northward and westward from Arabia. But this theory does not account for some of the most significant facts: e.g. that the Semitic developments of Arabia are the last, not the first, in time, as must have been the case if Arabia was the cradle of the race. This theory does not explain the Semitic origin of the Elamites, except by denial; much less does it account for the location of Arpachshad still farther north. It is not difficult to understand a racial movement from the mountains of the Northeast into the lowlands of the South and West. But how primitive Arabs could have migrated uphill, as it were, to settle in the Median and Armenian hills is a much more difficult proposition.

(2) We must return to the historic and the more natural location of the ancient Semitic home on the hillsides and in the fertile valleys of Armenia. Thence the eldest branch migrated in prehistoric times southward to become historic Elam; Lud moved westward into Asia Minor; Asshur found his way down the Tigris to become the sturdy pastoral people of the middle Mesopotamian plateau until the invasion of the Babylonian colonists and civilization; Aram found a home in Upper Mesopotamia; while Arpachshad, remaining longer in the original home, gave his name to at least a part of it. There in the fertile valleys among the high hills the ancient Semites developed their distinctively tribal life, emphasizing the beauty and close relationship of Nature, the sacredness of the family, the moral obligation, and faith in a personal God of whom they thought as a member of the tribe or friend of the family. The confinement of the mountain valleys is just as adequate an explanation of the Semitic traits as the isolation of the oasis. So from the purer life of their highland home, where had been developed the distinctive and virile elements which were to impress the Semitic faith on the history of mankind, increasing multitudes of Semites poured over the mountain barriers into the broader levels of the plains. As their own-mountain springs and torrents sought a way to the sea down the Tigris and Euphrates beds, so the Semitic tribes followed the same natural ways into their future homes: Elam, Babylonia, Assyria, Mesopotamia, Arabia, Palestine. Those who settled Arabia sent further migrations into Africa, as well as rebounding into the desert west of the Euphrates, Syria and Palestine. Thus Western Asia became the arena of Semitic life, whose influences also reached Egypt and, through Phoenicia, the far-away West-Mediterranean.

4. Confusion with Other Races:

While we may properly call Western and Southwestern Asia the home of the Semitic peoples, there still remains the difficulty of separating them definitely from the other races among whom they lived. The historic Babylonians, e.g., were Semites; yet they dispossessed an earlier non-Semitic people, and were themselves frequently invaded by other races, such as the Hittites, and even the Egyptians. It is not certain therefore which gods, customs, laws, etc., of the Babylonians were Semites, and not adopted from those whom they superseded.

Assyria was racially purely Semitic, but her laws, customs, literature, and many of her gods were acquired from Babylonia; to such an extent was this true that we are indebted to the library of the Assyrian Ashurbanipal for much that we know of Babylonian religion, literature and history. In Syria also the same mixed conditions prevailed, for through Syria by the fords of the Euphrates lay the highway of the nations, and Hittite and Mitannian at times shared the land with her, and left their influence. Possibly in Arabia Semitic blood ran purest, but even in Arabia there were tribes from other races; and the table of the nations in Ge divides that land among the descendants of both Ham and Shem (see Table of Nations). Last of all, in Palestine, from the very beginning of its historic period, we find an intermingling and confusion of races and religions such as no other Semitic center presents. A Hamitic people gave one of its common names to the country--Canaan, while the pagan and late-coming Philistine gave the most used name--Palestine. The archaic remains of Horite, Avite and Hivite are being uncovered by exploration; these races survived in places, no doubt, long after the Semitic invasion, contributing their quota to the customs and religious practices of the land. The Hittite also was in the land, holdling outposts from his northern empire, even in the extreme south of Palestine. If the blue eyes and fair complexions of the Amorites pictured on Egyptian monuments are true representations, we may believe that the gigantic Aryans of the North had their portion also in Palestine

5. Reliability of Genesis 10:

It is customary now in Biblical ethnology to disregard the classification of Genesis 10, and to group all the nations of Palestine as Semitic, especially the Canaanite and the Phoenician along with the Hebrew. McCurdy in the Standard BD treats the various gods and religious customs of Palestine as though they were all Semitic, although uniformly these are represented in the Old Testament as perversions and enormities of alien races which the Hebrews were commanded to extirpate. The adoption of them would be, and was, inimical to their own ancestral faith. Because the Hebrews took over eventually the language of the Phoenician, appropriated his art and conveniences, did traffic in his ships, and in Ahab’s reign adopted his Baal and Astarte, we are not warranted at all in rushing to the conclusion that the Phoenicians represented a primitive Semitic type. Racial identification by linguistic argument is always precarious, as history clearly shows. One might as well say that Latin and the gospel were Saxon. There are indications that the customs and even the early language of the Hebrews were different from those of the people whom they subdued and dispossessed. Such is the consistent tradition of their race, the Bible always emphasizing the irreconcilable difference between their ancestral faith and the practices of the people of Canaan. We may conclude that the reasons for disregarding the classification of Ge with reference to the Semites and neighboring races are not final. Out from that fruitful womb of nations, the Caucasus, the Semites, one branch of the C Caucasian peoples, went southwestward--as their cousins the Hamites went earlier toward the South and as their younger relatives, the Aryans, were to go northward and westward--with marked racial traits and a pronounced religious development, to play a leading part in the life of man.

6. Semitic Languages:

The phrase Semitic Languages is used of a group of languages which have marked features in common, which also set them off from other languages. But we must avoid the unnecessary inference that nations using the same or kindred languages are of the same ancestry. There are other explanations of linguistic affinity than racial, as the Indians of Mexico may speak Spanish, and the Germans of Milwaukee may speak English. So also neighboring or intermingled nations may just as naturally have used branches of the Semitic language stock. However, it is true that the nations which were truly Semitic used languages which are strikingly akin. These have been grouped as

(1) Eastern Sere, including Babylonian and Assyrian;

(2) Northern, including Syriac and Aramaic;

(3) Western, including Canaanite, or Phoenician, and Hebrew, and

(4) Southern, including Arabic, Sabean and Ethiopic (compare Geden, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, 14-28).

The distinctive features of this family of languages are

(1) the tri-literal root,

(2) the consonantal writing, vowel indications being unnecessary so long as the language was spoken,

(3) the meager use of moods and tenses in verbal inflection, every action being graphically viewed as belonging to one of two stages in time: completed or incomplete,

(4) the paucity of parts of speech, verb and noun covering nearly all the relations of words,

(5) the frequent use of internal change in the inflection of words, e.g. the doubling of a consonant or the change of a vowel, and

(6) the use of certain letters, called "serviles," as prefixes or suffixes in inflection; these are parts of pronouns or the worn-down residua of nouns and particles. The manner of writing was not uniform in these languages, Babylonian and Assyrian being ideographic and syllabic, and written from left to right, while Aramaic, Hebrew and Arabic were alphabetic and written from right to left.

The primitive forms and inflections of the group are best preserved in the Arabic by reason of the conservatism of the desert peoples, and in the Assyrian by the sudden destruction of that empire and the burial of the records of that language in a comparatively pure state, to be brought back to light by 19th-century exploration. All the characteristics given above are clearly manifest in the Hebrew of the Old Testament.

7. Semitic Religion:

In the study of Semitic Religion there are two tendencies toward error:

(1) the Western pragmatical and unsympathetic overtaxing of oriental Nature-symbols and vividly imaginative speech. Because the Semite used the figure of the rock (De 32:4,18,30) in describing God, or poetically conceived of the storm-cloud as Yahweh’s chariot (Ps 104:3), we must not be led into believing that his religion was a savage animism, or that Yahweh of Israel was only the Zeus of the Greeks. How should an imaginative child of Nature speak of the unseen Spiritual Power, except in the richest analogies of Nature?

(2) The second error is the tendency to treat the accretions acquired by contact with other nations as of the essence of Semitic religion, e.g. the golden calf following the Egyptian bondage, and the sexual abominations of the Canaanite Baal and Astarte.

The primitive and distinctive beliefs of the Semitic peoples lie still in great uncertainty because of the long association with other peoples, whose practices they readily took over, and because of the lack of records of the primitive periods of Semitic development, their origin and dispersion among the nations being prehistoric. Our sources of information are the Babylonian and Assyrian tablets and monuments, the Egyptian inscriptions, Phoenician history, Arabian traditions and inscriptions, and principally the Old Testament Scriptures. We can never know perhaps how much the pure Semitism ofBabylonians and Assyrians was diverted and corrupted by the developed civilization which they invaded and appropriated; Egypt was only indirectly affected by Semitic life; Semitic development in Arabia was the latest in all the group, besides which the monuments and reste of Arabian antiquity which have come down to us are comparatively few; and the Phoenician development was corrupted by the sensuality of the ancient Canaanitish cults, while the Bible of the Hebrews emphatically differentiated from the unwholesome religions of Palestine their own faith, which was ancestral, revealed and pure. Was that Bible faith the primitive Semitic cult? At least we must take the Hebrew tradition at its face value, finding in it the prominent features of an ancestral faith, preserved through one branch of the Semitic group. We are met frequently in these Hebrew records by the claim that the religion they present is not a new development, nor a thing apart from the origin of their race, but rather the preservation of an ancient worship, Abraham, Moses and the prophets appearing not as originators, but reformers, or revivers, who sought to keep their people true to an inherited religion. Its elemental features are the following:

(1) Its Peculiar Theism:

It was pronouncedly theistic; not that other religions do not affirm a god; but theism of the Semites was such as to give their religion a unique place among all others. To say the least, it had the germ of monotheism or the tendency toward monotheism, if we have not sufficient evidence to affirm its monotheism, and to rate the later polytheistic representations of Babylonia and Assyria as local perversions. If the old view that Semitic religion was essentially monotheistic be incapable of proof, it is true that the necessary development of their concept of God must ultimately arrive at monotheism. This came to verification in Abram the Hebrew, Jesus the Messiah (Joh 4:21-24) and Mohammed the false prophet. A city-state exclusively, a nation predominantly, worshipped one god, often through some Nature-symbol, as sun or star or element. With the coming of world-conquest, intercourse and vision, the one god of the city or the chief god of the nation became universalized. The ignorant and materialistic Hebrew might localize the God of Israel in a city or on a hilltop; but to the spiritual mind of Amos or in the universal vision of Isaiah He was Yahweh, Lord of all the earth.

(2) Personality of God:

Closely related to this high conception of Deity was the apparently contradictory but really potent idea of the Deity as a personality. The Semite did not grossly materialize his God as did the savage, nor vainly abstract and etherealize Him and so eliminate Him from the experience of man as did the Greek; but to him God universal was also God personal and intimate. The Hebrew ran the risk of conditioning the spirituality of God in order to maintain His real personality. Possibly this has been the most potent element in Semitic religion; God was not far from every one of them. He came into the closest relations as father or friend. He was the companion of king and priest. The affairs of the nation were under His immediate care; He went to war with armies, was a partner in harvest rejoicings; the home was His abode. This conception of Deity carried with it the necessary implication of revelation (Am 3:8). The office, message and power of the Hebrew prophet were also the logical consequence of knowing God as a Person.

(3) Its View of Nature:

Its peculiar view of Nature was another feature of Semitic religion. God was everywhere and always present in Nature; consequently its symbolism was the natural and ready expression of His nature and presence. Simile, parable and Nature-marvels cover the pages and tablets of their records. Unfortunately this poetic conception of Nature quickly enough afforded a ready path in which wayward feet and carnal minds might travel toward Nature-worship with all of its formalism and its degrading excesses. This feature of Semitic religion offers an interesting commentary on their philosophy. With them the doctrine of Second Causes received no emphasis; God worked directly in Nature, which became to them therefore the continuous arena of signs and marvels. The thunder was His voice, the sunshine reflected the light of His countenance, the winds were His messengers. And so through this imaginative view of the world the Semite dwelt in an enchanted realm of the miraculous.

(4) The Moral Being of God:

The Semite believed in a God who is a moral being. Such a faith in the nature of it was certain to influence profoundly their own moral development, making for them a racial character which has been distinctive and persistent through the changes of millenniums. By it also they have impressed other nations and religions, with which they have had contact. The Code of Hammurabi is an expression of the moral issues of theism. The Law and the Prophets of Israel arose out of the conviction of God’s righteousness and of the moral order of His universe (Ex 19:5,6; Isa 1:16-20). The Decalogue is a confession of faith in the unseen God; the Law of Holiness (Le 17-26) is equally a moral code.

While these elements are not absent altogether from other ancient religions, they are pronouncedly characteristic of the Semitic to the extent that they have given to it its permanent form, its large development, and its primacy among the religions of the human race. To know God, to hear His eternal tread in Nature, to clothe Him with light as with a garment, to establish His throne in righteousness, to perceive that holiness is the all-pervading atmosphere of His presence--such convictions were bound to affect the life and progress of a rate, and to consecrate them as a nation of priests for all mankind.


For discussion of the details of Semitic peoples and religions reference must be made to the particular articles, such as ARPACHSHAD; EBER; ABRAHAM; HAMMURABI; ASSYRIA; BABYLONIA; BAAL; ASHTORETH; ASHERITES; MOLOCH; CHEMOSH; CHIUN; ISRAEL, RELIGION OF etc. The literature on the subject is vast, interesting and far from conclusive. Few of the Bible Dictionaries have articles on this particular subject; reference should be made to those in the Standard and in the HDB, volume both by McCurdy; "Semites" in Catholic Encyclopedia skims the surface; articles in International Eric are good. In Old Testament Theologies, Davidson, pp. 249-52; Schultz, chapter iii of volume I; Riehm, Alttestamentliche Theologie; Delitzsch, Psychology of the Old Testament. For language see Wright’s Comparative Grammar of Semitic Languages. For history and religion: Maspero’s three volumes; McCurdy, HPM; Hommel. Ancient Hebrew Tradition, and Semitic Volker u. Sprache; Jastrow, Comparative Semitic Religion; Friedr. Delitzsch, Babel u. Bibel; W. R. Smith, Religion of the Semites.