Noah's oldest son, as the order implies (Genesis 5:32; Genesis 6:10; Genesis 7:13; Genesis 9:18; Genesis 10:1; 1 Chronicles 1:4). (See HAM.) Usually named first, but in Genesis 10:21 last, because from that point forward Scripture traces the history of his descendants. Translated "the elder brother of Japheth," as Arabic, Syriac, and Vulgate. If "Japheth the elder" had been meant Hebrew idiom would have added "son," "the elder son of Noah." His descendants dwelt chiefly in western Asia, Shem of the Asiatic Japhethites, in an uninterrupted line from the Mediterranean to the mountains of Luristan and the Indian Ocean, Lydia, Israel, Syria (Aram), Chaldaea (Arphaxad), Assyria (Asshur), Persia (Elam), northern and central Arabia (Joktan). Shem means in Hebrew name, and may have been a designation subsequently given him as the one of note or great name among Noah's sons; as Ham, the settler in the warm regions of Africa; Japheth, the one whose descendants spread most abroad (Genesis 9:18-27).
Noah's words after Shem's dutifulness in covering his father's shame, in filial reverence, with Japheth (compare the blessing, Exodus 20:12), "blessed be Jehovah, the God of Shem, and Canaan shall be his servant," not only bless God for putting the pious feeling into his heart, but prophesy that Jehovah should be especially the God of Shem, which was fulfilled in choosing Abraham and Israel his descendants as God's peculiar people. "Japheth shall dwell in the tents of Shem," fulfilled in part now, more fully hereafter (Isaiah 60:3; Isaiah 60:5; Ephesians 3:6). All the Japhetic nations almost are believers in the God of Shem, even the Aryan races in Asia are tending toward Christianity. Others less probably (as Genesis 9:27 refers to Japheth's future rather than Shem's), "God shall dwell in the tents of Shem" (compare John 1:14, the Son of God "tented (eskeenosen) among us".) The Hamitic Babel tower builders perhaps sneered at the religion of Shem the father of the faithful, the worshipper of "Jehovah God of Shem."
"Go to, let us build us a city and tower ... let us make us a name" (shem). Noah had reached 500 (in round numbers, strictly 502) years before the birth of his first son, Shem. When Shem was 98 and Noah 600 the flood came; two years later Shem the heir of the blessing (Genesis 9:18-27) begat Arphaxad (Genesis 5:32; Genesis 7:6; Genesis 11:10). He died at 600. Methuselah and Shem were the two links between Adam and Isaac, so that the record of creation and man's fall came to Isaac on the testimony of the original chief actor, transmitted by only two intervening links. SEMITIC or SHEMITIC LANGUAGES. Ethnologists, from the facts of language, divide the Semitic into five main branches, the Aramaean, the Hebrew, the Phoenician, the Assyrian or Assyro Babylonian, and the Arabian. Scripture in Shem's genealogy notices four out of the five: Asshur for the Assyrian, Aram for the Syrian or Aramaean, Eber for the Hebrew, and Joktan for the pure Arabic.
Moses omits the Phoenicians, as they had not in his time yet made the movement which first brought them into notice, namely, from the shores of the Persian gulf to those of the Mediterranean (Herodotus i. 1). Moses adds to the Semitic races the Elamites and Ludites, concerning which ethnology says nothing. The Japhetic and Hamitic races are geographically contiguous; the Japhetic spread over the northern regions, Greece, Thrace, Scythia, Asia Minor, Armenia, Media; the Hamitic over all the southern and south western regions, N. Africa, Egypt, Nubia, Ethiopia, southern and south eastern Arabia and Babylonia; the Semitic are located in one region, namely, the central one intermediate between the Japhetic on the N. and the Hamitic upon the S. The intermediate position of the Shemites brought them in contact with the Japhetic races in Cappadocia, and on the other hand with the Hamitic in Israel, in the Yemen (Arabia Felix), in Babylonia and Elymais. The harmony between Genesis 10 and ethnology strikingly confirms Scripture.
The Scythic (Hamitic) race at a remote period overspread Europe, Asia, and Africa (Genesis 10:18; Genesis 10:20); the Semitic and. Aryan races subsequently occupied the places respectively assigned them by Providence in Canaan and elsewhere; but the Semitics were probably (as the Semitic Melchizedek exemplifies) in Canaan originally, and the Hamite Canaanites acquired their language. The dead languages of the Semitic are Ethiopic and Himyaritic (inscriptions), both related to Arabic dialects; Hebrew, Samaritan, Carthaginian Phoenician (inscriptions); Chaldee, Syriac, Assyrian (cuneiform inscriptions). (See PHOENICIAN; HEBREW.) Letters probably passed from the Egyptians to the Hebrew, who under divine guiding improved them (Exodus 24:4; Exodus 31:18; Leviticus 19:28; Numbers 5:23). The names of the letters, 'Aleph (? ) (an "ox"), Gimel (? ) (a "camel"), Lamed[h] (? ) (an "ox-goad"), Tet[h] (? ) (a "snake"), suit a nomadic people as the Hebrew, rather than a seafaring people as the Phoenicians; these therefore received letters from the Hebrew, not vice versa.
Triliteral or bi-syllabic stems or roots are a distinctive mark of Semitic languages. The Indo-Germanic have monosyllabic roots. The Arabic is now the richest of the Semitic languages; but Hebrew possesses in the bud all the contrivances which, if they had been duly developed, would have made it a rival of the present Arabic. The Aramaic has endured longer than Hebrew; but it is poor lexically and grammatically, needing frequent periphrases and particles in aid, and wanting in flexibility and harmony. Semitic lacks the Japhetic power of creating compound words, also the delicate shades and gradations of meaning observable in the latter class of languages. divine wisdom shows itself in choosing as the vehicle for the Old Testament revelation a language so solid, self contained, immovable, and reflective as Hebrew. The Aramaic was too coarse and vague, the Arabic too earthy. When the New Testament revelation for all mankind was to be given, a different vehicle with more flexibility and variety was needed. By that time the Japhetic had ripened fully, and Greek was the tongue so happily chosen for expressing with its wonderful variety, flexibility, and logical power the fully developed doctrines of the gospel.