SHEM (shĕm, Heb. shēm, Gr. Sēm, name, fame). This second son of Noah and progenitor of the Semitic race was born ninety-eight years before the Flood (Gen.11.10). He lived six hundred years, outliving his descendants for nine generations (except for Eber and Abraham). In the racial prophecy that Noah made after the episode of his drunkenness (Gen.9.25-Gen.9.27), he mentioned “the Lord, the God of Shem.” The three great monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—all had Semitic origins. Noah added that Japheth’s descendants would “live in the tents of Shem,” indicating that the Aryan peoples to a large extent have derived their civilization from the Semites. In the “Table of the nations” (Gen.10.1-Gen.10.32) Shem had five sons, of whom Arphaxad (Gen.10.22) was clearly an individual and the others were peoples or progenitors of peoples: e.g., “Lud” refers to the Lydians in Asia Minor, “Elam” points to the Elamites who lived east of the Tigris River; “Aram” means Arameans or Syrians who lived in Syria and Mesopotamia, and “Asshur” is Assyria. Critics pointed out a century ago that “Asshur” is mentioned also in the Hamite list (Gen.10.11), but archaeologists have found Hamitic artifacts under Semitic ruins of Assyrian cities. Shem, Ham, and Japheth probably differed only as brothers do, but their descendants are quite distinct.

SHEM shĕm (שֵׁ֖ם; LXX Σημ, meaning uncertain; name, son, have been suggested.) Eldest son of Noah (Gen 5:32; 1 Chron 1:4; Luke 3:36).

Shem is the ancestor of the peoples known as the Semites, and in the classificatory sense, of those speaking Sem. languages. He and his wife were two of the eight persons who escaped from the Flood in the ark (Gen 7:13). Two years after leaving the ark, at the age of 100, he became the father of Arpachshad (11:10), in the line of descent of the Messiah (Luke 3:36). Other sons and daughters were born during his 600-year life.

The “Table of Nations” in Genesis 10 gives additional details concerning Shem’s descendants (vv. 21-31). Elam, Asshur, Arpachshad, Lud, and Aram are identified in the earlier Bible geographies as ancestral to the lands of Persia, Assyria, Chaldea, Lydia, and Syria, respectively. An uncertainty attached to Lud, as another Lud appears in connection with Egypt, but these later people are regarded as Hamitic. The classical writers, and some later scholars, as Delitzsch, prefer an identification of Arpachshad with an area in the Armenian foothills, NE of Assyria. 1 Chronicles 1:17 adds four additional sons of Shem—Uz, Hul, Gether, and Meshech although Genesis 10:23 identifies these as sons of Aram, and it may be that the Chronicles passage is simply referring to them in the general sense of descendants of Shem. In the development of the ethnic relationships of the family of Shem, it must be remembered that not all his descendants may have spoken Sem. languages and dialects. Hence the apparent discrepancies between the genealogical data of Genesis 10, and the historical affinities among the peoples of the Near E may be more imagined than real.

Samuel Kramer advanced the theory, actually not new, that the name šēm was derived from šumer, hence ancestral to the early population of southern Mesopotamia, but this had only limited acceptance. Historically, the earliest home of the Semites, or the families of the five sons of Shem, must have been in the foothills and valleys of Armenia. From this nuclear region, reconstruction of migrations indicates that their descendants moved outward in the various directions required by their settlement identifications. Arpachshad may have remained longest in the original settlement area, then worked his way southward along the eastern side of the Zagros range of mountains, finally to journey westward to the plain of Shinar (Gen 11:2). Childe uses archeological data to show that the Semites prob. had earlier contact with Egypt, and carried cultural affinities from there into Sumeria.


G. Childe, New Light on the Most Ancient East (1953), 147, 155, 167, 168; S. Kramer, Analecta Biblica XII (1959), 203, 204; G. Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (1964), 201-203.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(shem; Sem):

1. Position in Noah’s Family: His Name:

The eldest son of Noah, from whom the Jews, as well as the Semitic ("Shemitic") nations in general have descended. When giving the names of Noah’s three sons, Shem is always mentioned first (Ge 9:18; 10:1, etc.); and though "the elder" in "Shem the brother of Japheth the elder" (Ge 10:21 margin) is explained as referring to Shem, this is not the rendering of Onkelos. His five sons peopled the greater part of West Asia’s finest tracts, from Elam on the East to the Mediterranean on the West. Though generally regarded as meaning "dusky" (compare the Assyr-Babylonian samu--also Ham--possibly = "black," Japheth, "fair"), it is considered possible that Shem may be the usual Hebrew word for "name" (shem), given him because he was the firstborn--a parallel to the Assyr-Babylonian usage, in which "son," "name" (sumu) are synonyms (W. A. Inscriptions, V, plural 23, 11,29-32abc).

2. History, and the Nations Descended from Him:

Shem, who is called "the father of all the children of Eber," was born when Noah had attained the age of 500 years (Ge 5:32). Though married at the time of the Flood, Shem was then childless. Aided by Japheth, he covered the nakedness of their father, which Ham, the youngest brother, had revealed to them; but unlike the last, Shem and Japheth, in their filial piety, approached their father walking backward, in order not to look upon him. Two years after the Flood, Shem being then 100 years old, his son Arpachshad was born (Ge 11:10), and was followed by further sons and daughters during the remaining 500 years which preceded Shem’s death. Noah’s prophetic blessing, on awakening from his wine, may be regarded as having been fulfilled in his descendants, who occupied Syria (Aramaic), Palestine (Canaan), Chaldea (Arpachshad), Assyria (Asshur), part of Persia (Elam), and Arabia (Joktan). In the first three of these, as well as in Elam, Canaanites had settled (if not in the other districts mentioned), but Shemites ruled, at some time or other, over the Canaanites, and Canaan thus became "his servant" (Ge 9:25,26). The tablets found in Cappadocia seem to show that Shemites (Assyrians) had settled in that district also, but this was apparently an unimportant colony. Though designated sons of Shem, some of his descendants (e.g. the Elamites) did not speak a Semitic language, while other nationalities, not his descendants (e.g. the Canaanites), did.

See Ham; Japheth; TABLE OF NATIONS.

Additional Material

A city of Judah in the Negeb (Jos 15:26). If, as some think, identical with SHEBA (which see) of Jos 19:2, then the latter must have been inserted here from Jos 15:26. It is noticeable that the root letters (sh-m-`) were those from which Simeon is derived. Shema is probably identical with Jeshua (Ne 11:26). The place was clearly far South, and it may be Kh. Sa`wah, a ruin upon a prominent hilltop between Kh. `Attir and Khirbet el-Milch. There is a wall around the ruins, of large blocks of conglomerate flint (PEF, III, 409, Sh XXV).

Source 2


(1) A Reubenite (1Ch 5:8, Codex Vaticanus and Codex Alexandrinus Sama, Lucian, Semeei).

See Shimei.

(2) One of the heads of "fathers’ houses" in Aijalon, who put to flight the inhabitants of Gath (1Ch 8:13, Codex Vaticanus and Codex Alexandrinus Sama, Lucian, Samoa); in 1Ch 8:21 he is called "Shimei." The statement is very obscure and the whole incident is probably due to some marginal note.

(3) One of those who stood at Ezra’s right during the reading of the Law (Ne 8:4, Samaias). He is called "Sammus" in 1 Esdras 9:43.

Horace J. Wolf