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Plowing through History from the Aleph to the Tav

Topics Definition of Hebrew Names


By Jeff A. Benner

We are not given much history of Shem or what type of person he was but his name does provide us with a clue. Unlike our names, a Hebrew's name was a word with meaning. This meaning was a reflection of the person himself and his character. The Hebrew word shem is most often translated as "name" and the name of Shem in English is Name.

The word shem means much more than just a name. A related word in Hebrew is the word neshemah meaning "breath". In the Hebrew mind the breath is much more than the exchange of air in the lungs but was the seat of one’s character. The word shem." is also used in the manner as seen in the passage below where the word "fame" is the Hebrew shem.

For he was wiser than all other men, wiser than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, Calcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol; and his fame was in all the nations round about. (1 Kings 4:31 RSV)

This is similar to our desire to "have a good name". This has nothing to do the actual name but the character of the one with the name.

As Shem's name means character we can conclude that he was a man of character and this is what we see in the one story about him. Shem and his brother Japheth (yaphet) go backwards into the tent of his father with a robe to cover the nakedness of his father after it had been exposed by Ham. It should also be noted that "the uncovered nakedness of the father" is not the nakedness of the father but is an idiom for sexual relations with the mother as mentioned in Leviticus 18:8.

You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father's wife; it is your father's nakedness.

It had always bothered me that Ham was the one who uncovered the nakedness of his father, but it was his son Canaan that was cursed for it. That is until I discovered that Canaan was the product of the union between Ham and his mother. This demonstrates how a simple reading of the text does not always reveal what the text is actually stating.

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