Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
(Heb. id., שֵׁ, name; Sept. [and New Test. Luke 3:39] Σήμ, Josephus Σήμας [Ant. 1, 4, 1]; Vulg. Sent), the son of Noah, born (Genesis 5:32) when his father had attained the age of 500 years. B.C. 2613. He was 98 years old, married, and childless, at the time of the flood. After it he, with his father, brothers, sisters-in-law, and wife, received the blessing of God (Genesis 9:1), and entered into the covenant. Two years afterwards he became the father of Arphaxad (Genesis 11:10), and other children were born to him subsequently. With the help of his brother Japheth he covered the nakedness of their father, which Canaan and Ham did not care to hide. In the prophecy of Noah which is connected with this incident (Genesis 9:25-27), the first blessing falls on Shem. He died at the age of 600 years. B.C. 2013.
Assuming that the years ascribed to the patriarchs in the present copies of the Hebrew Bible are correct, it appears that Methuselah, who in his first 243 years was contemporary with Adam, had still nearly 100 years of his long life to run after Shem was born. Again, when Shem died Abraham was 148 years old, and Isaac had been nine years married. There are, therefore, but two links — Methuselah and Shem — between Adam and Isaac. Thus the early records of the creation and the fall of man which came down to Isaac, would challenge (apart from their inspiration) the same confidence which is readily yielded to a tale that reaches the hearer through two well known persons between himself and the original chief actor in the events related. (See LONGEVITY). There is, indeed, no chronological improbability in that ancient Jewish tradition which brings Shem and Abraham into personal conference. (See MELCHIZEDEK).
The portion of the earth occupied by the descendants of Shem (Genesis 10:21-31) intersects the portions of Japheth and Ham, and stretches in an. uninterrupted line from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean. Beginning at its northwestern extremity, with Lydia (according to all ancient authorities, though doubted by Michaelis [see Gesenius, Thesaur. p. 745]), it includes Syria (Aram), Chaldaea (Arphaxad), parts of Assyria (Asshur), of Persia (Elam), and of the Arabian peninsula (Joktan) (See ETHNOLOGY); (See SHEMITIC LANGUAGES).
The servitude of Canaan under Shem, predicted by Noah (Genesis 9:26); was fulfilled primarily in the subjugation of the people if Palestine (Joshua 23:4; 2 Chronicles 8:7-8). It is doubtful whether, in Genesis 10:27, God. or Japheth is mentionied as the dweller in the tents of Shem. In the former sense the verse may refer to the special presence of God with the Jews, and to the descent of Christ from them; or, in the latter sense, to the occupation of Palestine and adjacent countries by the Romans, and, spiritually understood, to, the accession of the Gentiles to the Church of God (Ephesians 3:6). See Pfeifferi Opera, p. 40; Newton, On the Prophecies, Diss. 1.
Buttmann has conjectured (from the resemblance of ש ֵׁ with, שָׁמִיַ ) that Shem was the original of Saturn or Uranus (Abhandl. d. Berliner Akad. 1816; 1817, p. 150 sq.; Philos. Classe und im Mythol. 1, 221 sq.); but there is no good ground for such a fancy. Comparative Ages of Noah's Sons. In Genesis 10:21 occurs a statement on this point, but the original is unfortunately ambiguous: כָּלאּבְּנֵיאּעֹבֶר אֲחַי יֶפֶת הִגָּדוֹל׃וּלְשֵׁ םיֻלִּד גִּ םאּהוּא אֲבַ 8י . This may be rendered either, "And to Shem [there] was born also [to] him [a son], [the] father of all [the] sons of Eber, [the] brother of [the] elder Japheth, " or "[the] elder brother of Japheth." The English A.V. adopts the former rendering ("brother of Japheth the elder"), following the Sept. (ἀδελφῷΙ᾿άφεθ τοῦ μείζονος [Vat. and Alex.; Sin. is wanting]), Symmachus, the Targum of Onkelos (אֲחיּהַי דְיֶפֶת רִבָּא ), and the Masoretic accents (as given above); and this view is also taken by Rashi, Aben-Ezra, Luther, Junius, Piscator, Mercer, Montanus, Le Clerc, J. D. Michaelis, Mendelssohn, De Sola, Jervis, and other eminent Hebraists. The other rendering is adopted by the Samaritan Codex, the Latin Vulgate ("fratre Japheth majore"), the Peshito-Syriac, the Arabic of Saadias, and most modern commentators (Rosenmuller, Turner, Bush, Philippson, Kalisch, Conant, Lange, Tayler Lewis, Keil, Murphy, etc.). To our mind both the diplomatic and the linguistic arguments are conclusive for the common English rendering.
(I.) Chronological Considerations. — These may be briefly stated as follows:
1. Noah had a son born when he was himself 500 years old (Genesis 5:32). This must have been either his oldest or his youngest son, for it would be entirely nugatory to say that the middle one of his three sons was then born, unless that middle one were Shem himself.
2. The son then born was not Shem, for
a. In that case he would have been 99 years old at the beginning of the flood (Genesis 7:1; in Noah's 600th year, not when he was 600 years old), or 100 years old at its close (Genesis 8:13).
b. On the contrary, Shem was not 100 years old till two years after the flood (Genesis 11:10).
3. Nor was Ham the son there referred to, for
a. Shem himself, we have seen, was not born so early as when Noah was 500 years old.
b. Much less could Ham, who was younger than Shem (Genesis 9:24), have been, born so early.
4. It hence necessarily follows that Japheth was the son then born, and that he was the oldest of the three.
5. The three sons are not mentioned in the order of age, but of familiarity and importance to the Hebrews. Hence Ham, although the youngest, is named second. So likewise Arphaxad, although the first born (Genesis 11:10), is named third (Genesis 10:22). A precisely analogous case appears in the family of Terah (Genesis 11:26), where the second son, Abram, is named first, as being the most important, and the oldest, Haran, last, as having died early.
6. The efforts of commentators to evade the force of these considerations betray the weakness of their cause. They all proceed upon the unfounded assumption that the numbers in the texts above considered are merely vague statements ("round numbers"), and may therefore be neglected in an exact calculation. They especially dwell upon the fact that all three sons are assigned to the same year. (Noah's 500th), whereas that expression evidently refers to the oldest, or the heir, only, as the foregoing comparisons show; in any other sense the assertion would be irrelevant or absurd.
(II.) Grammatical Considerations.— On this point most later commentators and translators seem content to follow implicitly the views of Rosenmuller (Schol. ad loc.): "In this clause the word הִגָּדֹל ‘ the elder,' is ambiguous as to whether it should be joined with Japheth, thus indicating him as the senior, or with Shem. The former has seemed to many interpreters probable chiefly because, inasmuch as Noah is said to have begotten the first of his sons who survived the flood in the one hundredth year before the flood (Genesis 5:32), and Shem is said to have lived his one hundredth year two years after the flood (Genesis 11:10), therefore the latter could not have been the first born. But since it is not at all likely that Noah begot in one and the same year the three sons mentioned in Genesis 5:32, it is credible that in that passage round numbers only are named, as often occurs, and that the five hundredth year is set down in the same connection instead of the five hundred and second, as that in which Noah began to be a father. Hence it does not appear from this passage that Japheth was the oldest son. On the contrary, since in the preceding context the sons of Noah are six times mentioned in such order that Shem is set in the first place, Ham in the second, and Japheth in the third (Genesis 5:32; Genesis 6:10; Genesis 7:13; Genesis 9:16; Genesis 9:23; Genesis 10:1) — passages so clear as to admit of no doubt — it follows that in the present passage likewise the term ‘ the elder' is to be joined to אֲחי, ‘ the brother of, ' so as to make Shem the oldest. But there is also another grammatical reason.: If the writer in this place had wished to say that Japheth was the oldest son of Noah, he would doubtless have written בֶּןאּנוֹחִ הִגָּדֹל the older son of Noah; for הִגָּדֹל, ‘ the elder, ' thus placed nude, nowhere else occurs (with reference to a person's age), but is always joined either with] בֵּ, ‘ son, ' or with אָח, ‘ brother.' All this has been fully set forth by J.F. Schelling in his monograph entitled Ueber die Geburtsfolge der Sohne Noah, at the beginning of part 17 of his Repertorium Biblicoe et Orientalis Literaturoe." These points, however, are not well taken; for
1. It is not usual for the sacred writers to employ round numbers in chronological accounts. In this Cyclopoedia we have thoroughly examined every date in the Bible, and find no such instance. Each definite number is susceptible of explanation as being precisely correct, except a very few corruptions of the text. In this case, particularly, all the leading chronologers from Usher, Jackson, Hales, and Clinton down to Browne and the author of Palmoni — take the date as being exact. It is a superficial evasion of a difficulty to resort to this slur upon the accuracy of Scripture chronology.
2. The sacred writer might indeed have said, if he had chosen, "the brother of Japheth the elder son of Noah;" but this is a tedious and awkward phrase, and would have been just as ambiguous as the one he has employed, its sense entirely depending upon the interpunction.
3. גָּדֹל does occur in as "nude a form" as here in at least one passage (Ezekiel 21:14 [Hebrews 19]), as noticed below. It is true the adj. there does not refer to comparative age, but that makes no difference in the grammatical construction. The assertion that גָּדֹל does not occur (in the sense of age) without the addition of] ב or אח expressed is not true, as may be seen from Genesis 29:16; Genesis 44:2, and other instances where one of these nouns is merely implied, precisely as in the case before us. In fine, the adj. is not here "nude" or independent at all; it regularly belongs to the second noun, brother of the elder Japheth."
4. The argument from the order of the names is amply refuted (as above) by the analogous cases of Arphaxad (Genesis 11:22), Abraham (Genesis 11:27), and, indeed, almost every other patriarch. They were arranged in the order of proximity and importance to the Hebrews; Among the arguments on the other side we may note —
a. The chronological point is irrefragable, except by the evasion above noticed.
b. The position of the words, although ambiguous, certainly allows the construction of the Authorized Version. We append a few instances of the same adj. qualifying a noun after a construct:
Numbers 35:28, bis — מוּת הִכֹּהֵןהִגָּדֹל Joshua 20:6 — the same. Isaiah 36:13 — דַּבְרֵי הִמֶּלֶךְ הִגָּדֹל Ezekiel 47:9— דְּגִת הִיָּ םהִגָּדֹל Daniel 10:4. — יִד הִנָּהָר הִגָּדֹל Had the word יֶפֶת preceding the qualifying adj. in the passage in question not been a proper name; it would have taken the article, as in these instances, and thus all ambiguity would have been avoided. An instance strictly parallel is Ezekiel 21:14 [Heb. 19], הִגָּדֹל חֶרֶב חָלָל, where the adj., being masc. must belong to the second noun, though neither has the art. Others similar doubtless occur, if not with גָּדֹל or]קָט, yet with other adjectives.
c. Had the sacred writer intended the adj. in the passage in question to apply to the last noun, he could scarcely have, expressed his meaning in any other way than he has. On the other hand, had he meant it to refer to the former, he would undoubtedly have added מַמֶּנּוּ, as in Judges 1:13; Judges 3:9 (אֲחַי כָּלֵב הִקָּטֹןמַמֶּנּוּ ), which are the only strictly parallel cases of usage under that view (the adj. being קָטֶןֹ, however, instead of גָּדֹל ). Judges 9:5 (בֶּןאּיְרֻבִּעִל הִקָּטן ) is not a case in point, as there could be no ambiguity there.
d. The Masoretic accents are clearly for the old rendering. In all the above instances the adj. is connected by a conjunctive with the noun immediately preceding, and the first noun (though in the construct) is separated by a disjunctive. In cases of the other construction the reverse interpunction prevails invariably, so far as we have examined. The authority of the Masorites countervails that of all modern scholars, most of whom seem to have given the subject but a cursory examination. The criticism of Keil (Commentary on the Pentateuch, 1, 156, Clark's ed.) is particularly lame. Josephus (Ant. 1, 6, 4) calls "Shem the third son of Noah, " but elsewhere (1, 4, 1) he names them in a different order, that of relative familiarity ("Shem and Japheth and Ham"). As to the other ancient versions, as above noted, the Sept. (the translator of which in this part was a good Hebraist) refers the adj. to Japheth, although some printed editions have it otherwise, in order to correspond with the Vulg., which reflects the Jewish national pride. The Samaritan, Syriac, and Arabic of course follow the Vulgate but the Targum of Onkelos has "the brother of Japheth the great." Schelling, whom Rosenmuller (as above) refers to (Repertorium, etc. , 17, 8 sq.), thinks that the lists in Genesis only mean that Noah had passed his five hundredth year before he had any heir, since in any case the three sons could not have been all born in the same year, to which they are all equally assigned; and that therefore only the round number or approximate date is given" (p. 20).
e. The reason why the sacred writer adds the epithet "elder" brother to the name of Japheth, is precisely to prevent the inference that would otherwise naturally be drawn from the continual mention of Shem first in the lists elsewhere, that he was the oldest son; and to explain why the names are here inverted. In the present chapter, however, as usual in detailed genealogies (1 Chronicles 1:29 sq.; 1 Chronicles 2:1 sq., 1 Chronicles 2:42; 1 Chronicles 3:1 sq., etc.), the strict order of primogeniture is observed. Had Shem been the oldest, there seems to be no good reason why in this pedigree the same order should not have been observed as elsewhere. Rosenmuller's remark that this was done "in order that the transition from the lineage of Shemn to the history of Abraham might be more easy, " does not apply; for the next chapter begins with an account of the Tower of Babel, which is neither Abrahamic nor Shemitic history in particular, but rather Hamitic (see 1 Chronicles 3:10); so that this list of Shem's descendants is thrust in between two portions of Ham's history arbitrarily, unless for the sake of chronological order.
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McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Shem'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/s/shem.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.