Bible passage: Genesis 9:26
Written: As early as 1400 BC
In Gen. 9:26, Noah addresses his three sons and blesses Shem:
He also said, "Praise be to the Lord, the God of Shem!" (Gen. 9:26a, NIV)
This is considered to be a Messianic prophecy, in that it is the first indication of the lineage of the Messiah, that he would be a descendant of Shem, and not Shem's brothers, Japheth or Ham.
The Old Testament, especially in the book of Genesis, gives a series of prophecies about the lineage of the Messiah. Gen. 9:26 is viewed as being the first of those prophecies.
To better understand why it is considered a prophecy, let's review the broader context. In Gen. 9:18-28, Noah falls asleep drunk and naked in his tent. His son Ham walks in on him, sees that he is drunk and naked, and tells his brothers.
His brothers, Shem and Japheth, take a garment, enter their father's tent and place it over their naked father. They show respect to their father, even though he is drunk and naked, by never looking directly at him, and they cover him with a garment.
When Noah wakes up and realizes what has happened, he is angry with Ham but pleased with Japheth and Shem.
Noah curses Ham and blesses Japheth and Shem. He tells Ham that Ham's son, Canaan, will be the lowest of slaves.
The blessing and cursings appear to be long-term. Noah isn't just talking about Shem, Ham and Japheth - he is talking about them and their descendants. We see this in verses 26 and 27:
He also said,
"Praise be to the Lord, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem. May God extend Japheth's territory; may Japheth live in the tents of Shem, and may Canaan be the slave of Japheth." (Gen. 9:26-27, NIV)
As you can see, the three sons, and their descendants, are each linked with a blessing or a curse. Japheth is blessed in connection with territory. Ham is cursed with enslavement. Shem is blessed with a connection with God.
Based on this passage, it would make sense that the Messiah would be a descendant of Shem, as opposed to one of Japheth or Ham, given the nature and content of Shem's blessing.
In later verses of Genesis, we begin to see a pattern - God is announcing the lineage of the Messiah, through the form of blessings.
For example, in Gen. 22:18, Abraham is told that his descendants will be a blessing to the world. Abraham is a descendant of Shem. Then in later verses of Genesis, a similar blessing is given to Isaac, who is a son of Abraham, and then to Jacob, who is a son to Isaac.
By the time we get to the end of Genesis, specifically in Gen. 49:10, we learn that the Messiah will come from tribe of Judah, which descends from the lineage of Jacob, Isaac, Abraham and Shem.
This concept of a Messiah coming from a pre-announced lineage continues in other books of the Old Testament until finally we learn that the Messiah will be descendant of King David, such as in Isaiah 11:1-10 and Jeremiah 23:5. By then, it becomes clear that the blessing specifically involves the Messiah.
Whereas Isaiah 11:1-10 and Jeremiah 23:5 can be viewed as among the final prophecies involving the lineage of the Messiah, Gen. 9:26 is viewed as being the very first.
In Luke 3:36, Jesus' genealogy is listed, including Shem as one of his ancestors.