Shem and the Sumerians

In David Rohl‘s book Legend (Rohl is an egyptologist with many interesting theories on ancient history, but also many that seem like a stretch), he covers an argument regarding the origin of the Sumerians that was presented by Samuel Noah Kramer in his 1963 book The Sumerians.  Kramer is considered by many to be the greatest Sumerologist of the 20th century.  The argument originated with Kramer’s mentor Arno Poebel, who is also a world-renowned Sumerologist.

I don’t know enough about this to add much of value, so I’m just going to quote the key points of the argument:

Kramer: “The achievements of the Sumerians in the areas of religion, education, and literature left a deep impression not only on their neighbors in space and time but on the culture of modern man as well, specially through their influence, indirect though it was, on the ancient Hebrews and the Bible.  The extent of the Hebrew debt to Sumer becomes more apparent from day to day as a result of the gradual piecing together and translation of the Sumerian literary works; for as can now be seen, they have quite a number of features in common with the books of the Bible.”

“If the Sumerians were people of such outstanding literary and cultural importance for the ancient Near Eastern world as a whole that they even left their indelible impression on the literary works of the Hebrew men of letters, why is it that there seems to be little trace of them in the Bible?”


Rohl: Nearly every other major civilization in the ancient Near East is mentioned in the Old Testament – Egyptians, Canaanites, Amorites, Hurrians (Horites), Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians – they are all there.  But why no Sumerians?…


Kramer: “In Genesis, chapters 10 and 11, for example, we find lists of quite a number of eponyms, lands, and cities. But except for the rather obscure word ‘Shinar’, which scholars usually identify with Sumer … there seems to be no mention of the Sumerians in the entire Bible, a fact which is hardly reconcilable with their purported pre-eminence and influence.”

“Now to return to our problem and the quest for the word ‘Sumer’, or rather ‘Shumer’, to use the form found in the cuneiform documents.  Poebel was struck by the word’s resemblance to the name ‘Shem’, Noah’s eldest son, and the distant ancestor of such eponyms as Ashur, Elam, Aram, and above all, Eber, the eponym of the Hebrews.”

“(1) The Hebrew vowel ‘e’ is often equivalent to the cuneiform vowel ‘u’ – as is the case with the Hebrew word for ‘name’ – shem – which is the Akkadian word shum.  Thus Sumerian Shumer becomes Hebrew Shemer.

(2) The letter ‘r’ at the end of Shumer is an amicable consonant which is not pronounced.”


Rohl: Thus the vocalization of Shumer in the Hebrew tongue would be Shem!  The conclusion is both inevitable and, at the same time, revelatory.


Kramer: “If Poebel’s hypothesis turns out to the correct, and Shem is identical with Shumer-Sumer, we must assume that the Hebrew authors of the Bible, or at least some of them, considered the Sumerians to have been the original ancestors of the Hebrew people.”

Now, Kramer didn’t see the Shem/Sumerian connection as evidence for the Biblical story, but it’s striking to me that there is a direct link between the son of Noah and the first known civilization on earth.


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