[This is part two in a series of analyses on appearances of the Hebrew word for name, shem, in the weekly Torah portion.]
We saw various iterations of ‘name’ in parashat Bereishit, the Torah’s very first parasha. Nearly every Torah character is given a name tag — sometimes parent-given, other times just Torah-narrated — but that explicit ‘name’ doesn’t often appear in the text.
The first human-to-human interaction with shem is when Adam names his wife Eve in an act of recognition and intimacy (Genesis 3:20). Names speak to one’s essence and carry with it a greater connection between people. To know one’s name is to know one’s identity.
After Adam and Eve sin in the Garden of Eden, shem came to be associated with a more abstract version of one’s ‘name’ — professions and acclaims, reputations and legacies. But then shem was also used for evil ends like rebelling against God (Gen. 5:26) and exploiting fellow humans (Gen. 6:4).
Serving as the counter-balance to this corruption of shem, Noah’s own son is named Shem and Noah emerges as humankind’s first hero since Adam 10 generations prior. As the torchbearer of God’s mission and the generational link, his shem lives on through his descendants.
Whereas shem appears in different forms throughout the first parasha, its appearances here in parashat Noah are far more limited. Aside from passing mentions of Noah’s son Shem, we don’t see shem until after the Flood wipes out most of humanity toward the end of the parasha. Its relative disappearance mirrors humanity’s diminution.
The manner in which shem then reappears in the Torah text is striking: only two instances in a list of dozens of names. Compare that to the birth of Jacob’s 13 children later in Genesis where each is accompanied by shem.
Genesis chapter 10 lists the offspring of Noah’s sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth, comprising the traditional 70 nations of the world. Names of people and places are mentioned and repeated 100+ times in 32 verses while shem is confined to just two brothers in one verse:
וּלְעֵ֥בֶר יֻלַּ֖ד שְׁנֵ֣י בָנִ֑ים שֵׁ֣ם הָֽאֶחָ֞ד פֶּ֗לֶג כִּ֤י בְיָמָיו֙ נִפְלְגָ֣ה הָאָ֔רֶץ וְשֵׁ֥ם אָחִ֖יו יׇקְטָֽן׃
And to Eber were born two sons: one was named Peleg, because in his days the earth was divided [Peleg-conjugation], and the name of his brother was Joktan. (Gen. 10:25)
We see here how one’s name is preserved, even enlarged, through their offspring. Eber is not used with shem here, but we know later from chapter 11 that he serves as the generational link. Rather, Eber’s name lives on through his sons Peleg and Yoktan, both of whom are associated with shem here. This joins other examples we’ve seen of parents associated with shem through their offspring: Adam’s son Seth, Cain’s descendants, Seth’s son Enosh, Noah’s own son Shem.
Peleg’s name as a derivation of ‘in his days the earth was divided’ doesn’t bode well and indeed his brother Joktan gets his offspring listed in the following verses (Gen. 10:26–30) while Peleg gets none. However, in the grand scheme of things, in the list in Genesis chapter 11 spanning the 10 generations from Noah to Abraham, it’s Peleg who serves as the generational link, not Joktan.
Next, the Tower of Babel episode. It’s a cryptic story of just nine verses and few details. The gist from the text is that humanity joins together to build a city and it doesn’t sit well with God. The fatal verse:
וַיֹּאמְר֞וּ הָ֣בָה נִבְנֶה־לָּ֣נוּ עִ֗יר וּמִגְדָּל֙ וְרֹאשׁ֣וֹ בַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וְנַֽעֲשֶׂה־לָּ֖נוּ שֵׁ֑ם פֶּן־נָפ֖וּץ עַל־פְּנֵ֥י כׇל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃
And they said, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.” (Gen. 11:4)
They wanted to ‘make a name for themselves,’ using shem in a way that God disapproved of. This was a replay of humanity’s downfall in the previous parasha, before the Flood. Like those ‘men of renown’ earlier, no individual names are mentioned here, their personal legacies lost to antiquity. Rather, the Torah uses shem to commemorate the result:
עַל־כֵּ֞ן קָרָ֤א שְׁמָהּ֙ בָּבֶ֔ל כִּי־שָׁ֛ם בָּלַ֥ל יי שְׂפַ֣ת כָּל־הָאָ֑רֶץ וּמִשָּׁם֙ הֱפִיצָ֣ם יי עַל־פְּנֵ֖י כָּל־הָאָֽרֶץ
That is why it was called by the name Babel, for there the Lord confused the language of the entire earth, and from there the Lord scattered them upon the face of the entire earth. (Gen. 11:9)
The sin of the Tower of Babel isn’t clear from the text, but evidently seeking to make a name for oneself is not a recipe for success. Those who seek fame will more likely end in infamy.
In shem’s final two appearances in parashat Noah we meet Abraham:
וְאֵ֙לֶּה֙ תּוֹלְדֹ֣ת תֶּ֔רַח תֶּ֚רַח הוֹלִ֣יד אֶת־אַבְרָ֔ם אֶת־נָח֖וֹר וְאֶת־הָרָ֑ן וְהָרָ֖ן הוֹלִ֥יד אֶת־לֽוֹט׃ וַיָּ֣מׇת הָרָ֔ן עַל־פְּנֵ֖י תֶּ֣רַח אָבִ֑יו בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מוֹלַדְתּ֖וֹ בְּא֥וּר כַּשְׂדִּֽים׃ וַיִּקַּ֨ח אַבְרָ֧ם וְנָח֛וֹר לָהֶ֖ם נָשִׁ֑ים שֵׁ֤ם אֵֽשֶׁת־אַבְרָם֙ שָׂרָ֔י וְשֵׁ֤ם אֵֽשֶׁת־נָחוֹר֙ מִלְכָּ֔ה בַּת־הָרָ֥ן אֲבִֽי־מִלְכָּ֖ה וַֽאֲבִ֥י יִסְכָּֽה׃ וַתְּהִ֥י שָׂרַ֖י עֲקָרָ֑ה אֵ֥ין לָ֖הּ וָלָֽד׃
Now this is the line of Terah: Terah begot Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran begot Lot. Haran died in the lifetime of his father Terah, in his native land, Ur of the Chaldeans. Abram and Nahor took to themselves wives, the name of Abram’s wife being Sarai and Nahor’s wife was named Milcah, the daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah and Iscah. Now Sarai was barren, she had no child. (Gen. 11:27–30)
Abraham’s brother Haran dies prematurely, ‘in the lifetime of his father,’ and leaves children behind. In marrying Haran’s daughters, Abraham and Nahor help to continue the legacy of their dead brother Haran and the extended legacy of their father Terah. Accordingly, both of the daughters are used with shem, extending their forebears’ names.
Straight away Sarah’s barrenness tests Abraham’s own legacy. As the reader, we know from several verses later in the next parasha (Genesis chapter 12) that God gives Abraham the mantle of His mission and declares him the progenitor of His Chosen People.
Following humanity’s failings with shem in parashat Bereishit, the world began anew after the Flood 10 generations later. Still, humanity faltered and shem was used inappropriately. Just as humanity was scattered around the world from the Tower of Babel, so too shem was scattered in the text of parashat Noah: either confined to the ark and held safe from the world (Shem), or blips on a list of 70 nations and 100+ names (Eber’s sons). Another 10 generations would be born until humanity found its beacon and shem started appearing consistently.
Where people had earlier failed, Abraham got it right. In caring for someone’s else legacy Abraham demonstrated using shem for his fellow man. He sought not to make a name for himself but for others. This served as a counter-balance to those who had used shem in exploiting people. But, there still remained the corruption of shem against God. In next week’s parasha, Lech Lecha, Abraham will demonstrate using God’s shem. He will show us how to make a name for God, cementing his own name in return.