Pine tree
advent lettering

Come Thou Long Expected Jesus

The God of Shem

by Dr. Blake Killingsworth

Today's Reading

Genesis 9

In yesterday’s devotional for Genesis 3:15, we read that the conqueror of the serpent-tempter (i.e. Satan) would be a man born of a woman. In other words, the promised deliverer would be a male child, a human offspring. Sin entered the world through a man and woman, and the world would be redeemed through a man born of a woman (Romans 5:17; Galatians 4:4).

In today’s devotional from Genesis 9, God uncovers further revelation concerning His commitment to dwelling with redeemed mankind, starting with His choosing of one particular nation of people from among all the fallen race of Adam—the descendants of Shem (in Greek, Semites).

The context of the passage follows on the heels of the Noahic Flood when God’s patience ran out on the sinfulness and violence on the earth, saving only Noah and his family through the ark. Then, after the waters receded, in a careless moment of shame and disgrace for Noah mocked by his son Ham, God declared a blessing over Japheth and an even more special plan for Shem.

Some translations like the NIV say, “may Japheth live in the tents of Shem,” and indeed, some have interpreted this to mean that Japheth’s descendants, typically associated with Indo-European peoples, would rule over the territory of the Semites (i.e., Israel). Others have spiritualized the text to mean Gentile inclusion in the blessings of Israel.

However, according to distinguished Old Testament scholar, Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., the original Hebrew does not specify Japheth in verse 27 at all but only “he,” and the most natural rendering of the sentence structure is that “he” refers to God as the subject. In other words, the incredible promise spoken here is that God would make His special dwelling in the tents of Shem, among the Semitic people, among Shem’s descendants not yet born! 

We know this to be true as we continue reading through the Old Testament, beginning in Genesis 12, and of God’s special calling of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the twelve tribes of Israel to manifest His glory on earth among the nations. As we will study tomorrow, that blessing was meant to spill out from Israel to the rest of the world, even as Jesus said, “salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22). 

Looking ahead, we know that Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary of the tribe of Judah, was God in the flesh dwelling amidst the people of Israel (Jn. 1:14). In Jesus, God came to visit Jerusalem to live among them, just as He promised in Zechariah 2:3-4 (cf. Luke 19:44). Yet, the incarnation of God in the age of the patriarchs was still a future mystery. The chosen people knew the deliverer would be born of their race and that God promised to be present with them in a special way, but they did not perceive that this man and God could be one and the same person! It was Jesus’ claims to union with God that upset the religious authorities and provoked charges of blasphemy leading to His trial and execution. 

When we think of God’s continuing desire and commitment to dwelling with sinful people, we are amazed at His grace and mercy. That amid our sins against Him, our brokenness, and helplessness, God stepped in and made a way. He did not abandon His desire or plan to share His life with us but was resolved through love to see it restored and fulfilled. That commitment holds true for every person who is in Christ. Do you doubt God’s love toward you? Consider the lengths that God went through in history, including raising up a nation to steward that promise, so that He might one day dwell with all who call upon His name. 

We also witness God moving in the details of history. He worked out His plan long ago with its future culmination in mind: first through Israel, then narrowed to the tribe of Judah, then the womb of the Virgin Mary, and finally, her firstborn child, Jesus. He would bring God nearer than ever before, drawing as close to us through the Holy Spirit as our own spirits. Do you find it difficult to see how the scattered pieces in God’s plan all fit together? Trust His wisdom and rejoice in His love even as He had us in mind when declaring His promise to Shem long ago.

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