Biblical Characters in Masonry: Shem

Graig Huber

The following is an excerpt from “Biblical Characters in Masonry” by John H Van Gorden. In the Royal Arch degree, Shem is referenced along with his two brother. Mr. Van Gordon says of Shem:

“Shem, whose name means “name” or “fame”, was the eldest of Noah’s three sons, — the elder brother of Ham and Japheth. As Noah’s son, Shem survived the flood in the Ark, as did his wife. He had married before the flood, as had his two brothers; but he and his wife were still childless. He almost certainly aided in the construction of the Ark.

The sparing of Noah’s three sons and their wives probably resulted more from Noah’s righteousness than from their own, and from God’s desire to repopulate the earth with Noah’s descendants. As a result of Noah’s influence, however, Noah’s sons may have been more righteous than other men. The special blessing conferred upon Shem may indicate that God considered him more righteous than his brothers. His deference toward his father may have only been evidence of his righteousness.

This deference appeared in the incident that brought Noah’s curse upon Ham. After the flood, Noah had cultivated grapes and made wine from them. After drinking the wine, he had become drunk, — Biblical scholars believe his drunkenness to have been accidental, man’s first experience with alcohol, — and lay naked in his tent. Ham entered the tent, saw his father lying there, drunk and naked, and told his brothers. Shem and Japheth went in and covered their father, carefully keeping their eyes averted so that they would not see their father’s condition. Their attitude contrasted markedly with the disrespectful attitude of Ham. When Noah recovered, he learned what had happened, and cursed Ham for his lack of respect. He then blessed Shem and Japheth.

But Noah gave Shem a blessing superior to that received by Japheth: ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.’ The Bible gives no clear indication of why Noah gave Shem the greater blessing and Japheth the lesser. Shem’s status as the elder may explain it, but it may well have resulted from the difference in their attitudes when Noah was drunk. The linking for the curse upon Ham with the blessing for the other two creates an inference; — no more than an inference, — that their attitudes resulted in the difference in the blessings Noah bestowed upon each. If so, this may indicate that, while Japheth displayed tact, Shem treated his father with deference.

Shem became the ancestor of the Semitic peoples, — Sem is the Greco-Roman variation of Shem, — which were those most favored by God. From these people arose the Israelites, God’s chosen people; as well as the Arabs and other Middle-eastern peoples. Thus Noah’s blessing on Shem was fulfilled.

Shem reportedly lived for 600 years, outliving all of nine generations of his descendants, except Eber and Abraham.

In the Masonic degrees, Shem is honored, along with Noah, Japheth and Ham, as a builder of the first Ark, — the Ark of Safety, — which saved Noah and his family, and thus saved the human race, from extinction in the flood. The construction of this Ark constituted both an act of faith and an expenditure of hard physical labor. That labor became a tangible expression of faith, an act of worship, illustrating the lesson that labor is honorable and worthy of respect by all; and that in the eyes of God the honest laborer is the equal of a king.”


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