Throughout Martin Luther’s Lectures on Genesis, he returns again and again to a surprising theme. Shem, the son of Noah, was a public leader over the ancient church and he even served as divine oracle for the patriarchs, mediating the word of God to them throughout the course of their lives.
After the Flood, when the ungodly descendants of Ham had suddenly increased and were filling everything with offenses, Noah, together with his son Shem and his grandsons, governed the church. This shows that the article of our creed is true when we believe one, holy, catholic church in all ages, from the beginning of the world until the end of the world. God has always preserved for Himself a people that would cling to the Word and would be the guardian of religion and of sound doctrine in the world, lest everything degenerate into ungodliness and there be no knowledge of God among men.
(Lectures on Genesis, Luther’s works, vol. 2. ( (J.J. Pelikan, H.C. Oswald, & H.T. Lehmann, Eds.) ). St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House; commentary on Gen. 11:10)
For Luther, this “church” really goes back to Adam. Noah was taught by Enoch (see Luther’s comment on Gen. 32:2), and then Shem continued this ministry, overseeing the church of the faithful as a sort of high prophet:
Noah saw his grandsons up to the tenth generation, for he died when Abraham was fifty-eight years old. Shem outlived Abraham by thirty-five years. Therefore he lived for one hundred and ten years together with Isaac and for fifty years together with Jacob and Esau. What a beautiful church this was! To be ruled by so many fathers living for so long at the same time! God wanted these lights of the church to shine among a host of offenses, lest everything degenerate into idolatry.
Elsewhere he writes, “Shem was a most saintly man who had in his charge the church, the Word, and the worship during so many centuries after the Flood” (Lectures on Genesis, Luther’s Works, vol. 4, comm. Gen. 25:22).
Shem as Overseer
Luther takes the idea of Shem organizing the ancient church quite literally, arguing that Shem went on to make Eber (Gen. 10:21) a sort of bishop over this church, “Therefore Shem, who had an extraordinary affection for his people, put him in charge of the church and appointed him as a kind of pontiff, that the line of descent of the church and of Christ might be known.” This is why the people of God were referred to as the Hebrews, “Because of this devotion it was appropriate that the church took its name from him, with the approval of the holy father Shem, and that those who adhered to the doctrine and faith of the holy father Eber were called Hebrews. This designation of the church persisted up to the time of Christ” (Lectures on Genesis, Luther’s Word, vol. 2, comm. on Gen. 11:14-26).
Luther credits this idea to “the Jews” and to “the fathers,” and appears to agree with some of their biblical grounding. Of the “tents” in which Jacob dwelled in Gen. 25:27, Luther states, “this passage should be understood of the tents of Shem and Eber, who were contemporaries of Jacob for 80 years.” A little later he expands on this argument:
Shem, you see, was the father of all the churches, as was stated above in the tenth chapter: “Shem, the father of all the children of Eber” (v. 21). For this reason the entire people and the whole church looked up to him in his extreme old age. But Eber took care of and taught the church, because he was able to bear the burden of governing it. Consequently, I gladly agree with the words of the Jews, or rather of the fathers, that Jacob was not only in the tent at home but also in the tents of others, especially with Eber and Shem.
(Lectures on Genesis, Luther’s Works, vol. 4, comm. on Gen. 25:27)
Luther also bolsters this by appealing to the chronologies provided throughout Genesis, “And on the basis of a computation of the years one concludes that Jacob was a contemporary of Eber for 80 years, of Shem for 46, and of Shelah for 23. With these fathers Jacob undoubtedly associated eagerly and reverently, especially with Eber; for Shem, who was exhausted by old age, commended the boy Jacob to the patriarch Eber.” He then adds a further textual proof, “Shem, you see, was the father of all the churches, as was stated above in the tenth chapter: ‘Shem, the father of all the children of Eber’ (v. 21)” (ibid).
Shem as Prophet
Shem also carried out a continual prophetic ministry, in Luther’s opinion, both relaying the word of God to others and rebuking them when they fell into error. Luther’s explanation of the Tower of Babel story is that Ham’s descendants seized power over both the physical territory of some of the sons of Shem and parts of the church at the time. This influence extended even to Terah and Abraham, whose history of idolatry is explained in this way. “Terah was deceived by the Nimrodic faction, departed from the faith with his household, and became an idolater. Yet when he was rebuked by the holy patriarch Shem, he decided that he had to give up the Nimrodic fellowship” (Lectures on Genesis, Luther’s Works vol. 2, comm. Gen. 11:31-32).
Indeed, the call of Abraham actually came through the prophetic ministry of Shem:
But here the question arises: How was Abraham called, and did he hear this voice from God Himself? I am convinced that he was not called directly by God without the ministry, as it is related below (Gen. 18:2) that God visited him, conversed with him, and was even the guest of Abraham; but I believe that this command was brought to him either by the patriarch Shem personally or by some others who had been sent by Shem.
What grieved pious Shem was not only this, that Terah and his children were perishing in that fire of the Chaldeans, that is, in Nimrodic idolatry, but that through divine revelation, or as a result of divine inspiration, he saw that Abraham would be the only one of his descendants from whose loins the Deliverer of the human race was to come. Moved by this revelation, he did not permit him to tarry any longer among the idolaters, especially since father Noah had now died. For Abraham was commanded to leave Ur about sixteen years after Noah’s death.
Some saintly men called him out because the Holy Spirit inspired them to do so. Therefore it is stated that the Lord called him out. Whatever men speak at the prompting of the Spirit of God, that God Himself speaks, as Christ says (Luke 10:16): “He who hears you, hears Me.”
Furthermore, the expression לֶךְ־לְךָ, which our text renders “go out,” is very emphatic in the Hebrew. Literally rendered it denotes: “Go for yourself out of your land.” Its meaning, however, is that the entire religion in which Abram had lived until now was ungodly and abominable. It is as though Shem wanted to say: “If you remain in that place, you will not be saved. Therefore if you desire to be saved, abandon that land, abandon your kindred, abandon the house of your father. Go away as far as possible from those idolaters, among whom there is no faith, no fear of God, but only superstition and blind delusion, which results from a lack of the knowledge of God.” If there had been no ungodly worship in Babylon, God would not have commanded Abraham to migrate elsewhere. Therefore this very expression implies the First Table. Abraham gives ear to it and begins to fear God; that is, he believes this threat and follows the holy advice. For this reason there follows such a grand promise later on.
(ibid., comm. on Gen. 12:1)
Shem’s prophetic ministry continued beyond the life of Abraham. He also advised Rebecca, according to Luther at least. “Thus when it is written that Rebecca consulted the Lord (Gen. 25:22), I think that she consulted Shem himself, whom the Lord wanted to be at the head of the church” (comm. Gen. 11:10). Also, “Therefore we hold fast to the opinion of those who maintain that she went to the saintly patriarch Shem, who, together with Shelah and Eber, was still living. …Undoubtedly, however, she did not go to Shem of her own accord in such great distress but went at the advice and bidding of Isaac and Abraham, who were in the clutches of the same trial” (Luther’s Works, vol. 4, comm. Gen. 25:22).
Luther even claims that it was Shem who prophesied that Esau would serve Jacob. “Isaac was not able to be satisfied with the earlier promises he had from his father Abraham and from Shem: ‘The elder shall serve the younger, etc.’ (Gen. 25:23)” (Luther’s Works, vol. 5, comm. Gen. 26:5). And, “When [Rebecca] heard this, she returned to her husband and joyfully related the prophecy: ‘Shem said that I would give birth to twins who will live and beget two peoples.'” (ibid., comm. Gen. 27:4).
Rebecca’s nurse, Deborah, also receives some comment from Luther. She too was taught by Shem:
On account of her age and other gifts she was held in reverence by the whole church and household. For she had seen and heard the greatest of the patriarchs for a long time, Shem for more than 100 years, with whom Jacob lived for 50 years, Rebecca 100 years, but the nurse 130 years. Such a woman was instructed in doctrine and experience in very many matters, and so they justly regarded her as a grandmother.
(Luther’s Works, Vol. 6, comm. Gen. 35:8)
Shem as Melchizedek and the Teacher of the Gentiles
Luther gives a few other noteworthy aspects of Shem’s ministry. He, following Jewish tradition, believes that Shem is Melchizedek. “On the basis of the general conviction of the Hebrews it is assumed that this Melchizedek is Noah’s son Shem. Even though not much depends on whether their conviction is right or wrong, I gladly agree with their opinion…” And, “Thus I am pleased with the general opinion that Melchizedek is Shem, because there was no greater patriarch at that time, especially in spiritual matters” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 2, comm. Gen. 14:18). In this office as priest and king, Shem ruled and taught true doctrine. Luther writes, “Because he inculcates the true doctrine about the Son of God, preserves the churches, the worship, and the discipline, not only the peace of the world but also the peace of God comes upon him.”
Luther emphasizes the fact that Shem’s ministry continued even after Abraham and his family were given the particular covenantal lineage. This is important because it means that Shem taught true doctrine to various Gentile tribes which in turn means that the boundaries of the church were always broader than the boundaries of Israel:
Here a new danger overtakes the patriarch Abraham; but before we expound the account, you should be reminded of the historical facts, which serve in an excellent way to bring about a correct understanding of Scripture. At that time Shem, Shelah, Serug, and Terah were living. Shem had seen the original world before the Flood. But we should not think that the saintly men lived in idleness; they publicly maintained the worship of God and gave instruction to the people of their households concerning the will of God, His promises, His Law, etc. Undoubtedly the neighboring households saw and heard this, and because of this opportunity Gentiles also arrived at the knowledge of the true God and were saved, even though they had not been circumcised. Thus at that time there were many well-established churches in the world.
(Luther’s Works, vol. 3, comm. Gen. 20:2)
Two other leading Gentiles in this broader church were Abimelech and Job. “King Abimelech is described as a godly king. Therefore he was undoubtedly one of the number of those who heard the patriarchs Shem, Shelah, and others” (ibid., comm. Gen. 20:3). Concerning Job, who Luther believes is one of the descendants of Edom, he writes:
From these churches and schools came forth prophets, teachers, and patriarchs, among whom was Job. But I make no decision as to whether he was descended from Esau or Nahor. This, however, is agreed upon, that his origin is connected with Shem, and this is the holy line of Christ laterally. For the doctrine remained with Shem, and from there it was propagated to Idumea, Mesopotamia, Arabia, Syria, and later through Joseph to Egypt.
(Luther’s Works, vol. 6, comm. Gen. 36:39)
So we see that Shem played quite a significant role in the history of Genesis, according to Martin Luther. He led the community of the faithful, rebuked Abraham for his idolatry and called him to Canaan, advised Rebecca to bless Jacob, ruled over Salem as the priest-king Melchizedek, and taught the righteous Gentiles of the ancient world.
Now it is true that each of these assertions are grounded on tradition and then what many might consider rather slim textual evidence. Indeed, several of them are little more than speculation. Still, it is interesting to consider why Luther finds all of this plausible. The first thing that we should notice is that Luther takes Genesis in a strictly historical manner. The genealogies matter, and crunching the numbers provides important context. For Luther, these characters were real men and women who lived in real history. The necessary details of life would have been as true for them as for us, and Luther is willing to connect a number of dots.
Secondly, Luther believes in the ordinary ministry and means of grace. While he is not opposed to the miraculous, nor immediate divine words from heaven, Luther believes that it is more often the case that God works through established and public means. Even in the case of prophecy, the prophet is known and has a lasting public ministry. The patriarchs set up churches and even hold office.
Thirdly, “the church” in Luther’s thinking is not an entirely new thing, proper to the New Covenant, but instead goes all the way back to the original creation. Imperiled as it was, it was also never wholly eradicated from the face of the earth but continued wherever God’s Word was proclaimed and believed. Wherever people worshiped the true God, there was His Church. And this means that it always included both Jews and Gentiles.
Whether or not modern readers find all of Luther’s claims persuasive is not really my main point. I am partial to at least some of them, but I grant that they cannot be held too dogmatically. More importantly is the way that Luther thinks about the text of Genesis and how he is willing to ask real-life questions about it. That is something which I find entirely compelling and a style of reading which I’d like to see more of.