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The New International Encyclopædia/Semites

SEMITES. A name used to designate a certain group of peoples whose close kinship is revealed by many physical and mental characteristics, but especially by language and religion. The term is derived from the table of nations in Genesis x., in which the eponym heroes of some Mediterranean peoples known to the authors are represented as descendants of the three sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japhet (qq.v.). But, as a matter of fact, all the nations here grouped under Shem are not akin; some of the peoples arranged under Ham are evidently kinsmen of the leading nations reckoned as descendants of Shem, and some peoples are mentioned under both Shem and Ham. Historical and geographical reasons seem to some extent to have prevailed in the arrangement. But in spite of the inexact classification in Genesis x., the term ‘Semites’ has been retained for the sake of convenience in preference to other designations which have been proposed, such as ‘Syro-Arabians’ or simply ‘Arabs.’ As it is now used, it indicates Babylonians, Assyrians, and Chaldeans; Phœnicians, Carthaginians, and other Canaanites; Israelites, Edomites, Moabites, and Ammonites; Arameans; Arabians and Ethiopians.

As to the original home of these Semitic peoples there is a preponderance of opinion in favor of Arabia or Africa. On the other hand, recent discoveries have tended to revive the idea of a Babylonian origin. Certain customs, possessions, and achievements of the early Egyptians exhibit a marked similarity to those of their contemporaries in Babylonia. Some scholars find it most natural to explain the introduction of metals, domestic animals, a peculiar mode of burial, and the use of brick in a land where stone is found in plenty, by the immigration into the Nile Valley of a Semitic race that once lived in Babylonia. Closer examination, however, has shown the identity of the Neolithic race in Egypt with the dynastic Egyptians. The close affinity ethnologically between the Egyptians and the other so-called Hamitic peoples, such as the Libyans, the Berbers, the Cushites, the Gatlas, the Danakils, and the Somali, renders it improbable that the Egyptians were immigrants from Asia. Nevertheless, the kinship of the North African languages with the Semitic speech is unmistakably shown in numerals and prepositions, noun formation and verb inflection, syntax, and morphology. (See Semitic Languages.) Some scholars have therefore drawn the conclusion that the Semites are likely to have lived originally in Africa, though not as differentiated Semites, and to have crossed into Arabia by Bab el-Mandeb or Suez, where in new surroundings and seclusion their characteristic peculiarities may have developed. From Arabia succeeding waves of emigration sent Semitic nomads into Babylonia, Mesopotamia, and Syria. The invasion of Babylonia must have occurred very early, since already in the fifth millennium B.C. the influence of the Semitic speech is seen in the Sumerian language (q.v.) and the religious conceptions of Babylonia in the fourth millennium reflect conditions of society no longer prevalent in the time of the Minæan Empire. (See Minæans.) It is impossible to date with certainty the invasion of Syria, but there is a tradition that brings the foundation of some Phœnician cities back to the first half of the third millennium B.C. (see Phœnicia), and there is no reason to doubt that Palestine attracted the Semitic nomads even at an earlier time. How soon the tribes subsequently developing into the nations of Israel, Edom, Moab, and Ammon drifted into Syria cannot be determined. Some passages in the Amarna letters written about B.C. 1400 mentioning the Habiri, possibly a cuneiform equivalent of ’Ibiri, Hebrews, seem to refer to them. Arameans had settled in Mesopotamia and Babylonia at least as early as the thirteenth century B.C., and Chaldæans are found in the neighborhood of the Persian Gulf not much later. Semites speaking a decidedly Sabæan dialect seem to have lived in Abyssinia in the seventh century B.C. and probably long before that time. See Ethiopia.

The Semites belong to the white Caucasian race. Physically, the Semitic type has probably maintained itself most pure in Arabia. In Babylonia it is likely to have been modified by the Sumerians, in Assyria by the Gutians, in Mesopotamia by the Mitanians and Hittites, in Syria by the non-Semitic aborigines, in Abyssinia by Hamitic tribes, in Carthage by the Berbers. During the period of the caliphs the Arabs in the conquered lands intermarried with the nations and the mixture of blood was increased by the harem life. Nevertheless, there are certain unmistakable physical characteristics of the Semitic race, such as a tendency to prognathism, fullness of lip, an aquiline nose, and wavy or curly hair.

It is widely held that the Semitic mind is analytical rather than synthetical, practical rather than speculative, inclined to occupy itself with details rather than with generalizations; the race excels in commerce and industry rather than in warfare and statecraft, in morals and religion rather than in science and art. In the main this estimate is probably fair. There are not wanting scholars, however, who look upon it as a one-sided characterization. In order to reach a comprehensive and well-balanced judgment their arguments must be given due attention. The fact that Semitic speech avoids the formation of compounds is no doubt a most significant indication of an analytical rather than synthetical tendency; and the marked capacity for keen analysis coupled with a striking inability to systematize knowledge, seen in the Arabic philosophers not less than in the Talmud, is in harmony with this. Nevertheless, there is force in the argument that three monotheistic religions created by this race indicate a deep sense of unity and a remarkable power of synthesis. It should be observed, however, that monotheism with the Semites is not so much a result of processes of ratiocination as of the concentration of worship upon one god. The correctness of ascribing to them a certain sober, matter-of-fact way of reasoning may not be seriously questioned on the ground of allegorizing common among Hellenistic Jews, the curious flights of Cabalists from the solid ground of reality, or the speculations of some Arabic and Jewish philosophers of the Middle Ages, since in these instances it is necessary to reckon largely with infusions of foreign blood and foreign thought. To what extent the mythical lore of Babylonia was the creation of Semites and not of their predecessors, the Sumerians (see Sumerian Language), is difficult to determine. Our most prolific sources do not reveal the wealth of myths once no doubt flourishing in Syria and Arabia; they are late and are written either from the standpoint of monotheism interested in the suppression or transformation of the myths, or from the standpoint of rationalism interested in translating them into history. Much weight must be attached to the peculiar idealism that so often manifests itself among the Semites in prophetic enthusiasm and devotion to lofty aims promising no immediate returns. It is indeed to be observed that the prophetic outlook is most sober where it is least affected by foreign movements of thought; and it cannot be denied that the cases of love of the ideal for its own sake become more striking by contrast with the prevailing devotion to a certain cause because of the tangible reward it will bring.

To the growth of political life the contributions of the Semite do not appear to have been very great. His attitude is that of the Orient as distinct from the Occident, and there is less difference between him and the Persian than between the Persians and their kinsmen, the Greeks. The superiority of the Semite as a trader is not wholly due either to a survival of nomadic habits or to the social conditions of an exile from home not permitted to engage in agriculture. Cuneiform inscriptions reveal an extraordinary development of commercial relations, including banking, contracts, deeds, bookkeeping and the like, in ancient Babylonia among a settled people, whose land was carefully cultivated. Such peoples as the Arameans settled in Mesopotamia; the Yemenites, the Edomites, and the Phœnicians were great traders. From Carthage, Rome secured her text-books on agriculture; yet Carthage was even more famous for her commerce. No doubt the heaviest debt that science owes to the Semites is for faithful transmission of knowledge originally won by others. Babylonians, Arameans, Arabs, and Jews have done yeoman service as intellectual brokers. It should not be questioned, however, that they have added not a little to the precious burdens they have carried down the ages, especially in astronomy, mathematics, chemistry, anatomy, and philology. At least one Arabic historian, Ibn Khaldun, deserves to lie ranked with the greatest interpreters of history in any age.

To what extent religious protests against images prevented a normal development of native capacities for the plastic arts cannot be known. The statues found at Telloh can probably not be claimed for the Semites. They give the impression of being the ripe fruits of a long growth among the Sumerians. It can scarcely be an accident that such works of art are not found in later periods of undoubted Semitic dominance. The Assyrians certainly excelled in the representation of animals, but do not seem to have developed otherwise a high artistic taste. The representations of the human figure on South Arabian monuments are exceedingly crude. It is chiefly in the arabesque, based upon mathematical motives, that the Semitic art achieved a distinct triumph. There is reason to suppose that music may have reached a comparatively high degree of development among the ancient Semites. Unfortunately, it is not possible to determine its exact character. The Semitic race has never produced a great drama or epic poem. But the Semite excels in lyric poetry. The finest examples are the Book of Job (q.v.) and the poems of Heine (q.v.), though the Psalms, Canticles, and the Muallakat furnish some passages of genuine inspiration. This tendency also created an elevated prose or semi-poetry found in oracles, as in the prophetic writings and the Koran, often with a definite metre and a simple rhyme. There have been great philosophers among the Semites such as Philo, Ibn Gabirol, Maimonides, Spinoza, Avicenna, and Averroes, but their contributions are indicative of the influence of foreign speculation rather than representative of native tendencies of thought, finding expression through these men of genius.

On the other hand, it may be questioned whether the sense for conduct and the genius for religion accredited to the Semites have not to some extent been exaggerated. It is true that so early a production as the Code of Hammurabi (q.v.) exhibits surprisingly advanced ethical conceptions. The legislative codes of Israel, especially Deuteronomy (q.v.), show much concern for the poor, the weak, and the slaves, and seek to safeguard the sanctity of the family, and the commentaries on the Law in the Mishna and the two Talmuds reveal a sturdy moral sense endeavoring to apply the Law to the various conditions of life without making the burdens too heavy. The great prophets put the emphasis very strongly on the moral requirements, equity, justice, and mercy. In their spirit Jesus gave paramount importance to the inner disposition and made love the fulfillment of the law. South Arabian inscriptions show a deeper consciousness of sin as well as a keener religious sense in general than the secular songs of a late syncretistic period had led men to expect. And the moral earnestness of Mohammed himself and many followers of this prophet must be recognized. But no Semitic people ever conceived of such a marvelous adjustment of character and destiny as the Indian doctrine of metempsychosis presents. The emphasis upon truthfulness seems stronger among the Persians. The uncompromising rectitude of spirit that led the Teuton to involve Odin himself in the twilight of the gods because of his moral delinquencies is only approached in the Book of Job. Yahweh may repent of what he has done, but he is not punished for his errors. Without the impact of ideas essentially foreign to his native modes of thought, and recognized as such by his kindred, no Semite has ever risen to the conception of moral autonomy. The question why one course of action should be preferred to another has been universally answered by the Semite by reference to a law imposed from without. This dependence upon an external authority for a standard of right has no doubt strengthened the religious feeling. Another cause of religious fervor has been sought in the institution of polyandry which apparently prevailed among the early Semites to a greater extent than among any equally gifted race, and continued, long after another type of marriage had taken its place, to exercise its influence in the worship of a mother-goddess who freely gives herself even to human lovers. A religious mysticism ultimately based upon such a conception of sexual relationship poured a wealth of tenderness and devotion into the worship of the supreme tribal god and remained an important factor long after the mother-goddess cult had ceased. That the Semite possesses a capacity for intense religious faith is manifest; the name of Jesus would alone prove this. He was preceded and followed by many prophets in Israel; but Mohammed is the only important witness to the power of the religious feeling in the home of all the Semites. The fact that monotheism was reached by Jews and Arabs, not by reasoning, but by faith in and devotion to the tribal god, is itself a testimony to the hold religion had on these people. Nevertheless, it is impossible to escape the impression that neither the consciousness of the unity of the divine life, nor the sense of mystic union with the divine, nor the devotion to a divinely ordained mode of life, was ever so universal or so intense among the Semites as it has been in India. If the Semites are to us the people of religion par excellence it is because through the prophets of Israel, and preëminently through the founder of Christianity, a form of religion has found its way into the world which, independent of cultic performances and changing intellectual apperceptions, presents high ethical motives and ideals touched with a sense of the infinite mystery and sacredness of life.

Bibliography. Schrader, in Zeitschrift der deutschen morgenlandischen Gesellschaft, vol. xxvii. (Leipzig, 1873); Chwolson, Die semitischen Völker (Berlin. 1872); Kremer, in Das Ausland, vol. xlviii. (Stuttgart, 1875); Guidi, “Della sede primitiva dei popoli semitici,” in Accademia dei Lincei (Milan, 1879); Sprenger, Die alte Geographie Arabiens (Bonn, 1875); Hommel, Die semitischen Völker und Sprachen (Leipzig, 1883); De Goeje, Het vaderland der semietische volken (Leyden, 1882); Brinton, Cradle of the Semites (Philadelphia, 1890); Robertson Smith, Religion of the Semites (2d ed., London, 1894); id., Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia, (Cambridge, 1885); Barton, A Sketch of Semitic Origins (New York, 1902). Consult also the works mentioned in the article Semitic Languages.