Living in the tents of Shem.

Noah drunk in tent

Noah’s words to his sons

Noah drunk in tent
Noah drunk in tent

In Parshah Noach, (Gen 9:24ff), we read the words of Noah to his three sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth, after Ham has ridiculed his father for lying drunk and naked in his tent.

When he wakes and discovers what has happened, Noah says: “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.”
He also said, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem; and let Canaan be his servant. May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem, and let Canaan be his servant.”

Now this passage raises more questions than you could poke a stick at, but I really only want to deal with a couple of them now.
The main question I want to focus on arises from Noah’s words to his third son. “May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem”. So what question does this statement create? In the ESV translation quoted, it is quite obvious – Japheth will live in the tents of Shem. But in the Hebrew, it is not so clear.
The text reads : יַפְתְּ אֱלֹהִים לְיֶפֶת, וְיִשְׁכֹּן בְּאָהֳלֵי-שֵׁם and a word by word translation would read “Enlarge God Japheth and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem.”

This makes little sense until we realise that the subject of a clause is usually the first word after the verb, in this case “Elohim”, or God. So the verse begins “May God enlarge Japheth”. But the next verb “vayischon” (“he will dwell”) has no subject following it, so the question is, who is Noah talking about?
Is Noah saying “May God enlarge Japheth and God will dwell in the tents of Shem”, or is it as the English translation reads “May God enlarge Japheth and he (Japheth) will dwell in the tents of Shem”?
Rashi, representing the mainstream Jewish rabbinical tradition, interprets this verse as “May He cause His Presence to rest in Israel.” He points out that the the presence of God has always followed the Jewish people (the descendants of Shem) and not the gentile descendants of Japheth, so it follows that it must mean that God will dwell in Israel’s tents.

But this is an argument from a fairly narrow historical viewpoint, and not necessarily in line with the wider text.
I believe that this statement does indeed mean that Japheth will live in the tents of Shem, primarily because it is supported by God’s call to Abram.

Three groups

In Genesis 12 we read “Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonours you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” There is a remarkable symmetry between this statement and Noah’s words.

  1. God is going to bless the descendants of Abram (and Shem) – God will bless them and make them into a great nation.
    Noah’s words “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem”. We see in Noah’s words a special connection between God and the descendants of Shem – God is their God, and they are His people.
  2. God is also going to bless those who bless Abram “I will bless those who bless you”.
    Compare to Noah’s words. “May God enlarge Japheth (ie, bless and prosper him) and (or because) he will live in the tents of Shem”. Japheth will bless Shem and live under his blessing, the blessing that comes through Abram.
  3. This is contrasted then with Canaan, who receives his father’s curse, and under the Abrahamic formula, would be counted as one who curses Abram and receives God’s curse as a result.

So what we see are three groups of people.

  1. One group with whom God forms a special relationship, (Shemites, descendants of Abram),
  2. one group who blesses this special group and shares in their blessing (Japhethites and those who bless Abram), and lastly
  3. a group which comes under God’s curse because they have cursed God’s special people.

This pattern has also appeared earlier in Bereishit (Genesis).
Adam also had three sons. (Adam was created from the adamah, the ground, and Noah is described as a man of the adamah Gen 9:20).

  1. One of Adam’s sons, Abel, had a special relationship with God and found favour in His sight.
  2. Cain not only cursed this person who had a special relationship with God, but he killed him, and so came under God’s curse.
  3. Seth was then born to “replace” Abel, and Seth inherited the promises and favour of God.

So again we have one special person/family, one person/family who share the blessing given to the special ones, and one person/family who is cursed because they despised the special ones.

When we move to the gospels, we find Jesus talking about the same pattern of three groups.
In John 3 we find Jesus saying: For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
Again we find three different elements.

  1. The special person/family who is blessed by God – in this case God’s son who brings salvation/blessing to the world;
  2. those who bless Him and share His blessing – those who believe in Him; and
  3. those who despise the special one/family and are cursed – those who don’t believe and are condemned.

The Gentiles included in God’s blessing

So the pattern that we find elsewhere in scripture would allow us to interpret our text in parshah Noach to mean that Japheth will live in the tents of Shem.
And if we soften the lens a bit away from Jesus, where it finds its clearest focus, we find here in Genesis 9 a reference to the Gentiles being included into God’s blessing for the world.
Even though Shem’s family have the special relationship with God, Japheth’s family are not deprived of God’s blessing. They receive the blessing when they live in the tents of Shem. Canaan, and all those who curse God and His people, remain outside of the blessing by their own choice. Even Cain, who is the first pattern of those under a curse, despised the grace of God by counting the sign God put on him as useless, and went away to build cities to protect himself.

The Messianic line, and more particularly the Messiah himself, has always been the watershed of humanity, determining who God speaks to in love or in anger.
And what is significant about this division is that it divides the whole world into these three camps.
Following this story about Ham, we find in Genesis 10 a list of seventy nations, representing the whole world – the number seventy being seven times ten, the perfectly complete number. The seventy nations are divided according to whether they are descended from Shem, Ham, or Japheth
So the people of the world are divided up according to how they relate to the promises of God to bring restoration and the removal of sin.

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