THE HEBREW WORD SHEM

by Glen Penton

When I teach introductory Hebrew, the first word I typically teach is the common noun SHEM. It's pronounced exactly like our English word "shame", means almost exactly the opposite, and seems to me to be a key to some of the discussions about God's Name in Messianic circles today.

  1. The Old King James Bible almost always translates SHEM as 'name'. It very often means that, as in, "The SHEM of Naomi's husband was Abimelech." So it's easy to see why lazy translators will translate SHEM as 'name', even where that translation makes no sense at all.

  2. Like our English word 'name', SHEM has several meanings besides the most common and literal one. SHEM sometimes means 'fame', as in "Noah had three sons whom he named SHEM, Good-looks, and Warm-heart." Thirty-something years after David's parents named him, the Lord said, "I'll give you SHEM, like the greatest kings of history." God gave David a new SHEM, but not a new name. In a contrary circumstance, to damage someone's SHEM is to defame them.

  3. A more common meaning of SHEM in the Bible is 'the essential reality of who someone is', as in Proverbs 21:24. "A proud and haughty person's SHEM is scorner." In Exodus 34:14 we read,
    "The Lord, Whose SHEM is jealous, is a jealous God."
    In a more famous example, the prophet Isaiah gave Messiah's SHEM as being
    • "Wonderful,
    • Counselor,
    • the Mighty God,
    • the Eternal Father,
    • the Ruler of Shalom." (Isaiah 9:5-6)
    He certainly is all of those, and they are some of His royal titles, but none of them are His Name. The plural form of SHEM is SHMOT. The Bible has many SHMOT for God which are royal titles and revelations of the reality of Who He is, but not names as such.

    In Biblical Hebrew, to trust in Someone's SHEM means to trust Him because of Who He is. To bless Someone's SHEM means to bless Him because of Who He is.

    Now before we proceed to idioms, would you like to work a small puzzle? Here it is: Untangle the visual pun in Revelation 19:16:

    "And on his robe and on his thigh He has His SHEM written:
    KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS."
    There's a wonderful secret hidden in this play on the word SHEM. If you discover this hidden truth and live in its light, God will bless you. Please don't check on my solution to the puzzle yet. Work a while with it for yourself first. OK?

  4. An idiom is a phrase that means something other than the words in the phrase. The English idiom "step on it", for example, means 'hurry'. No amount of research into the three words that make up that idiom would help you at all to find the idiom's meaning. An idiom is usually learned by hearing it in a context where its meaning is obvious. Human languages are full of them. That's one of the things that makes language study so much fun and so difficult.

    A common Bible idiom is "in the SHEM of...." When you see that idiom, expect the next word to tell you who is the source, the authority, or the originator of something. For example, first Haman, then Mordechai wrote letters and decrees in the SHEM of King Ahasuerus, because the king was the source of their authority, so what they wrote could be received as from the king himself. Teaching in Someone's SHEM means either teaching by His authority or that the content of the teaching comes from Him. If there is salvation, healing, blessing, etc., "in His SHEM", then He is the Source of all those good things. There is no real relationship here between SHEM and name, although the English word "name" can sometimes be used in this kind of idiomatic way also.

  5. When the verb meaning 'know' (yada') appears with SHEM, the reference is to an intimate friendship. God said to Moses according to Exodus 33:12, "I know you with SHEM." Translating SHEM as 'name' here is somewhere between silly and blasphemous, but not as bad as mistranslating the texts that make such wonderful promises to those who "know His SHEM". Knowing God is not a matter of academic studies, but a matter of loving friendship. Even less does "knowing His SHEM" have anything to do with being smart enough to discover the right sequence of Hebrew consonants and vowels. Instead, He longs to be your dearest Friend. I suppose it won't take but a millisecond in His Presence someday for us to learn everything there is to learn about everything, and have all information and insight on every subject. But if He helps you to begin to "know His SHEM" now, we will spend all eternity together growing to "know His SHEM, and each other's" better and better.

  6. One last idiom I will mention pairs the verb qra' ('call') with SHEM. It is the prerequisite to that wonderfully deep friendship He offers us. The idiom seems to mean something like 'pray sincerely with faith'. I think if you'll think a moment, you'll agree that it cannot mean simply 'call on His Name'. If it did, then both a knowledge of Hebrew and well-functioning vocal apparatus would be required for us to begin to know Him. A person praying earnestly may indeed "call out His Name" and that may be where the idiom comes from. But the real meaning of the idiom involves our heart-response to Him.

All I've said here is pretty straightforward and intuitive for most ordinary Bible readers. I hope it helps you to organize and think consciously about truth you may already know. Even more, I hope it helps you to use the Bible, in whichever translation you may read, to grow to know His SHEM better and better.


solution to the puzzle
more about Biblical names
God's Name
God's Titles
how to call on His SHEM
an article about your SHEM
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