Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) was a preeminent Jewish thinker, scholar, and prolific Biblical
commentator. In Genesis chapter 10, the Bible chronicles Noah’s children’s progeny – but in fantastic
shorthand. To be sure, history may be gleaned from the Bible, but it cannot narrowly be called a history
or historical book. Let us explain, using the verses below as an illustration.
“Now these are the generations of the sons of Noah: Shem, Ham, and
Japheth, and unto them were sons born after the flood….And unto
Shem, the father of all the children of Eber, the elder brother of Japheth,
to him also were children born.”
“And Shem, the father of all children of Eber, the elder brother of Japheth, to him also were children
born.” Eber was Shem’s great grandson: Shem begot Arpachshad; Arpachshad begot Shelah. Shelah
fathered Eber. Yet, Scripture makes it sound as if Shem only bore Eber. Abravanel asks: Why do
Arpachshad and Shelah get short shrift?
Another thing. Abravanel questions why Holy Writ identifies Shem as Yapheth’s older brother, but fails
to mention Ham, who also was Shem’s younger brother. In a word, Abravanel wonders why our verse
appears fragmented or incomplete, as far as Shem’s lineage is concerned. Curious.
Here is Abravanel’s approach. Shem’s progeny was many. Shem’s family of origin included his two
siblings, Japheth and Ham. Respectively, their children made up Shem’s extended family.
Who was Shem? Abravanel posits that he was a devoted truth seeker. Shem’s chiseled soul soared to
spiritual heights. He dedicated himself to study and upright conduct, surrounding himself with like-
minded thinkers. Now let us apply this knowledge to our verses, with a focus on this blog’s title: Bible as
The Bible is not particularly interested in painstakingly chronicling mankind. It is, among other priorities,
interested in shedding light into personalities, especially saintly ones. As Abravanel ascertains, for Shem,
Heaven’s values mattered most. Shem’s affinity was reserved for his erudite, great grandson Eber. He
had less in common with his own son Arpachshad and grandson Shelah. Shem also fawned over Eber’s
descendants. Soulmates, they explored timeless lessons in hallowed study halls.
Shem also didn’t have too much time for his brother Ham or his descendants. Let’s just say that their
lifestyles and choices parted ways. Japheth and Shem, on the other hand, enjoyed brotherhood. Literally
and figuratively. They found a common language, interests.
Abravanel reiterates, that Shem favored Eber so much in comparison to Arpachshad and Shelah, it was
as if they weren’t his son and grandson. As for Shem’s siblings, there is the same model. Namely, Shem’s
closeness with his brother Japheth dwarfed his relationship with Ham, to the extent that Shem hardly
related to Ham as kin.
Based on Abravanel’s World of Torah, by Zev Bar Eitan