What is the Origin of the Semitic People
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What is the Origin of the Semitic People

Who are the Semites? Jews, Arabs, Africans and other mid-eastern people groups have connections to Semitic origins through the line of Shem.

Who are the Semitic People

The Semitic people are the descendents of Shem, one of the three sons of Noah. Typically thought of as the Jewish people, the Semites actually encompass people groups from the populations of the entire middle east. The accounts of the movements and history of the sons of Shem are told throughout the book of Genesis from the Great Flood to the enslavement of the Hebrew people in Egypt.

The Jewish People

Shem had five sons; Elam, Asshur, Arphaxad, Lud and Aram. The focus of the Genesis account is primarily on the descendents of Arphaxad. Eber is in the linage of Arphaxad and it is from Eber that we get the name Hebrew. The linage of Arphaxad leads to the birth of Abraham who, according to Genesis 12:1-3, God called out of Haran and promised to make of him a great nation. Abraham and Sarah have a son, Isaac, and Isaac is the father of Jacob who’s name is later changed to Israel. This is the lineage of the Semitic Jews.

The Arabic People

Some Arabic people trace their lineage back to the birth of Ishmael, born of Abraham and Sarah’s Egyptian handmaid, Hagar. Genesis 21:9-21 tells the story of the expulsion of Ishmael and his mother from Abraham’s camp. The story follows Hagar and Ishmael to the Sinai peninsula where he marries an Egyptian wife. During their journey to the Sinai peninsula, God also promises Hagar that He will make a great nation of her son Ishmael. This is the lineage of the Semitic Arabs. It is notable that there are many Arabic people who do not identify themselves as Semitic but rather trace their ancestry back to other sources.

Other Descendants of Shem

The bible mentions more than 60 descendants of Shem. Half of them are listed in Genesis 10:21 - 32. More extensive genealogies are found in 1Chronicals. The descendants of Shem populated the Mesopotamian and African regions and mixed with other racial and ethnic groups. The identification of Semitic people is not always as straightforward as one might think.

Language Identification

One method of determining and identifying people groups is accomplished through linguistics. Linguists use criteria such as structure, grammar, common properties and vocabulary to identify language types. Semitic languages are used throughout the middle east with some variation and dialects. Hebrew and Arabic are two of the most well known Semitic languages suggesting common ancestry.


Language is not always an accurate indicator of common ancestry but may instead be a product of proximity of cultures. Physical characteristics that are distinct in a particular group of people are one way to identify a racial or ethnic group but this can lead to inaccurate stereotyping. With our ability to genetically identify a people group it can now be done scientifically rather than by means of visual identification. One study in the Annals of Human Genetics shows a genetic similarities between two neighboring groups in Iran and a group in North Africa where at least one group does not speak Semitic based languages. Another genetic study shows common genetic markers among the Sephardic Jews, the Lebanese and the Palestinians. The Bantu people in South Africa have genetic markers linking them to the Ashkenazi Jews in Tel Aviv. The concept of race is one that is being redefined and no longer relies specifically on physical characteristics.

Addressing the question of Semitic identification is complex and many factors enter into the identification of people groups. Some groups who can clearly identify their genealogy and identify themselves through that genealogy are easily categorized but others may require deeper investigation using other methods.

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Comments (13)

Excellent explaination which clarified the origins of the Semitic People and the Hebrow and Arabic languages. The Kora'an also mentioned the same story. Thanks Judith for this graet post

Hummm . . . shouldn't this be called What is the Origin of the Semitic People according to the Bible?

Linguists trace the origin of the word Semite to the name of Shem the son of Noah and they also trace the name of Hebrew to the name Eber. So linguistically the names in the line of Noah are traced to different people groups, nations and tribes. When you title an article do you cite your resources in your title? It is clear in my article that the primary resource is the book of Genesis and Chronicals. My other sources are genetic studies and studies by linguists. So no I do not think that it is necessary to use your suggestion. Biblical resources are often used in the study of politics, anthropology, linguistics, history and many other fields.

I would still contend that while the linguistic origins are indeed related to those Biblical names, the origin of the "people," the subject suggested by your title, is not.

They self identify their lineage to Shem. Your initial point was that the title should be different and since I clearly stated my resources (first sentence) in the body of the article I do not see your point of a different title. When a person uses a resource such as WebMD they do not say in the title "The symptoms of gastric upset and what they mean according to WebMD" Nor do they use any resource in their titles or only rarely.

If I were to change the title it would be - The Ancestry of the Semitic People

excellent, my husband traces his heritage back to abraham he is arabic

Interesting article. I have to say, nothing wrong with using the bible as a source regardless of religious beliefs. Genesis is an ancient chronicle whichever way you look at it.

well written, thought provoking article, thanks for sharing :)

I must be missing something as I fail to see James's point. Surely it does not matter what resource is used to research a subject?

Of course it makes a difference what source(s) you use. There is a specific, step by step sciencific procedure and process to research that perhaps you are unaware of. Your final product is only as accurate and legitimate as your source material. This has been the rule of writing for the past century.

Oh good grief James! Really. I am not making any assertions about my research or defending my right to use the bible to trace the lineage of semites to shem. Your point was that I should name my resource in the title. OK - WARNING WARNING: BIBLICAL REFERENCES USED. It is clear from my first sentence what resource I am using and you or anyone else are free to stop reading at that point and dismiss it as illigitimate. I realize that you are responding to Jill's post above and if you want to write a more academic anthropological scientific treatise on the origin of man then go do it but be sure to cite your sources in the TITLE OF YOUR ARTICLE!. The bible is often used as a resource for historical and cultural resources. This is not an anthropology article and as far as my article goes using the resources that I have chosen to use I have not hidden my resources and it is clear that I use the bible.

Good grief - how has this become such a big deal? James there are medical articles on here that are FACTUALLY incorrect, that is much more important, as they can cause serious problems if people believe them. That sort of inaccuracy is something it is worth getting worked up over, but so far I seem to be the only one complaining about them - and I think they should be removed in case they do damage. (and Judith did not write them)