Shem was one of the three sons of Noah, along with Japheth and Ham, who were born before the Flood and survived the Flood with their father on the ark (Genesis 5:32, 6:10). Shem was the middle son, with Japheth being the oldest and Ham being the youngest (Genesis 9:24).
The Bible first introduces Shem, along with his brothers, in Genesis 5:32: “After Noah was 500 years old, he became the father of Shem, Ham and Japheth.” We are not told anything else about Shem’s birth or early life. The next time we read about Shem is right before the Flood, when Genesis 6:10 states: “Noah had three sons: Shem, Ham and Japheth.”
Shem and his brothers helped Noah build the ark in preparation for the coming Flood (Genesis 6:14-22). Shem was around 98 years old when he entered the ark with his father Noah, his brothers, and their wives (Genesis 7:6-7, 7:11). Shem’s wife is not named in Scripture. They remained safely in the ark with the animals for around a year while God destroyed the earth by floodwaters because of mankind’s great wickedness (Genesis 6:5-7, 7:1-24).
After the Flood ended and Noah’s family and all the animals departed from the ark, God established a covenant with Noah, promising to never again destroy the earth with a flood. God also blessed Noah and his sons and told them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it” (Genesis 9:1). So Noah and his family began to repopulate the cleansed earth.
Noah became drunk from wine he had made and lay uncovered inside his tent. Ham saw his father’s nakedness but told his brothers outside. Shem and Japheth took a garment, walked in backwards so as not to see Noah’s nakedness themselves, and covered him (Genesis 9:20-23). When Noah awoke and realized what Ham had done, he cursed Ham’s son Canaan, saying he would be a servant to his brothers. But Noah blessed Shem and Japheth for respectfully covering him.
Genesis 9:26 states Noah’s blessing over Shem: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem!” And Canaan would be his servant. Though Shem was already blessed as a son of Noah, this special blessing elevated Shem’s standing. The phrase “the God of Shem” indicates a special relationship between Shem and the Lord.
After the Flood, Shem lived another 500 years, making his total age 600 years when he died, just like his father (Genesis 11:10-11). Shem stands out among his brothers because it is through his lineage that the Messiah would one day come.
Shem was an ancestor of Abram/Abraham, and thus an ancestor of the Jewish people. The genealogy from Shem to Abraham is given in Genesis 11:10-26, which concludes: “After Terah had lived 70 years, he became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran.” Abraham was a direct descendant of Eber in Shem’s line (Genesis 11:14-26).
In God’s promise to Abraham, the lineage of the Messiah was narrowed down even further. The Lord told Abraham: “And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:2-3). This shows the Messiah would come from Abraham’s line.
The blessing would continue through Abraham’s son Isaac, and then Jacob, who was the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. Later, the tribe of Judah would be identified as the tribe from which the King of Kings would come (Genesis 49:10). Many additional prophecies would point to the Messiah being born a descendant of David of the tribe of Judah. The New Testament confirms Jesus Christ as this long-awaited Messiah and Savior (Matthew 1).
So while the Bible does not record many details about Shem’s life and accomplishments, he is one of the most significant people in all of history. As a son of Noah, he helped preserve the human race from extinction. As an ancestor of Eber, Abraham, and David, he is in the holy line of the Messiah. And Shem lived to see about ten generations of his descendants (Genesis 11:10-26).
Here are some key lessons we can take from what we know about this great man of faith:
- Shem obeyed his father Noah and God by getting on the ark, even though no one had ever seen rain or a flood before.
- Shem worked diligently on building the massive ark, which saved his family and preserved the animals.
- Shem honored his father by covering Noah’s nakedness instead of looking with contempt like Ham did.
- Shem lived a long life after the Flood, blessed by God, and continued Noah’s legacy.
- Shem is an example of God’s faithfulness across generations and a link in the genealogy of Christ.
Shem’s distinguished place in biblical history is cemented by the many descendants named for him. The name Shem means name or renown, and his reputation lived on in his offspring:
- Eber – Eber was a great-grandson of Shem (Genesis 10:24) and the ancestor of the Hebrews, from which came the name “Hebrews.”
- Elam – Elam was one of Shem’s five sons born after the Flood (Genesis 10:22). His descendants settled east of Canaan and established the kingdom of the Elamites.
- Asshur – Asshur, another of Shem’s sons (Genesis 10:22), gave his name to the Assyrians who lived in Assyria.
- Arpachshad – Arpachshad was Shem’s third son listed in his genealogy, the father of Shelah (Genesis 10:22, 11:12).
- Aram – Aram was the father of Arameans mentioned in Genesis 10:23 and was an ancestor of Christ.
In examining the question “Who was Shem in the Bible?”, we have covered how he played a key role by obeying God and entering the ark to have his family spared from the Flood. We saw how Shem and Japheth showed proper respect to their father Noah. We followed the godly lineage from Shem to Abraham to David that led to the Messiah Jesus Christ. And we considered lessons from Shem’s life for our own walks of faith. Though little is written about him, Shem’s impact cannot be understated as a link in the covenant line and progenitor of the Shemitic people from whom came many biblical figures and ultimately the Savior of the world.
The genealogical lines from Noah’s three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, diverged into distinct people groups that populated various regions after the Flood and in the following generations (Genesis 10). But it was Shem who stood out as the ancestor of Abraham and the Semitic tribes. When looking for “Who was Shem in the Bible?”, the answer is that he was one of the most important people in all of Scripture and human history.