“May God enlarge Japhet, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem, and let Canaan be his servant” (ESV, Gen. 9:27).
The last of Noah’s prophecies concerns Japheth and his descendants. According to Genesis 10:2-5 Japheth’s sons included Gomer, Magog, Javan and Meshech—names familiar to Biblical readers as describing those tribes which settled in areas that would later be called Eastern Europe and Russia. “From these the coastland peoples of the Gentiles were separated into their lands, everyone according to his language, according to their families, into their nations” (Gen. 10:5, NKJV). An anthropologist would refer to Japheth’s descendants as the Indo-European peoples. What was the prophetic blessing? According to Genesis 9:27, they would be “enlarged.” This must refer to territorial and temporal enlargement—exactly what took place in the later history of the Indo-European peoples and their culture. Who can doubt that much of the world’s exploration as well as creative culture appeared among Japheth’s descendants?
But it is not the temporal blessing of territory and influence that exhausts the promise to Japheth. Note the second line on Noah’s prophecy: “and let him dwell in the tents of Shem” (Gen 9:27b). The phrase, “dwell in the tents” does not mean a military conquest, but must be understood in its Middle Eastern context. To dwell in someone’s tent means to share in the belongings of your host who owns the tent (cf. Ps. 84:10). This image was brought home to me in a graphic way when I visited with a Palestinian Bedouin in his tent in the spring of 1980. His hospitality (for which the Bedouin are famous) knew no limits as he invited me to share what he owned. I settled for only a cup of Bedouin coffee, however, and its strength practically grew new hair on my bald head! But I learned firsthand the meaning of this phrase as I “dwelt in his tent.”
According to Genesis 9:27, someday the Gentile peoples will dwell in the tents of the Shemites. In other words, they will partake of Shem’s unique privilege—a special relationship to the one true God. For thousands of years, men wondered and speculated on how this prophecy would find its fulfillment. Not until the appearance of Shem’s greatest Son did the prophecy begin to take shape. Jesus indicated that His work would be extended beyond the realms of the Jewish people by His declaration in John 10:16,
And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
It was not until after His resurrection, ascension and granting of the Holy Spirit to the young church that the tent door was finally opened to Japheth. Even then, those early Jewish believers were hesitant to go to the supposedly “unclean” Gentiles. Finally, God showed Peter that the Gentiles were to be granted the same opportunity that the Jews had received. And so, Cornelius, a descendant of Japheth, came to dwell by faith in the tents of Shem.
While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days. Now the apostles and the brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. (Acts 10:44-11:1)
A beautiful illustration of how the gospel relates to each of the three branches of mankind is found in Acts 8-10. Acts chapter 8 records the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch, a descendant of Ham. Acts chapter 9 records the conversion of Saul, a descendant of Shem. Acts chapter 10 records the conversion of Cornelius, a descendant of Japheth.
Whatever their ethnic or racial ancestry, individuals among the many and varied people groups of this world can find their salvation through a descendant of Shem who brings life, peace and hope to all who trust Him as Savior! He who is the Messiah of Israel is also the Savior of the World.