What is the Origin of the Semitic People
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.
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.