Christianity Should Return to the Tents of Shem – Its Survival Depends On It
Christianity is shrinking in the Western World, and there is no sign the decline will stop. In the US, a September 2022 Pew Research Center Study found that in the next 50 years, Christianity may dip to as low as 35% of the population – a drop from 64% in 2022 and 91% in 1976. The Presbyterian church, for example, between 2000 and 2015 declined by 40% and closed 15.4% of its churches. The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod reported in 2021 that it had lost 1 million members since 1971, and conservative Evangelical denominations now represent only 14% of the US population – down from 23% in 2006.
In 2019, 4,500 Protestant churches closed in the U.S. According to the Pew Research study, people are leaving US churches to join the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated or “nones.” The main reason, according to Pew, is “switching” – Christians are concluding they do not want to be Christian anymore.
This declining trend is not unique to America. In Germany, 500 Catholic Churches have closed since 2000; in 2021 alone, 360,000 Catholics left the Church, and 280,000 Protestants left the Protestant Church. In Canada, 20% of its churches have closed since 2000. According to a 2018 British Social Attitude Survey in the United Kingdom, 33% of people over 75 identified as part of the Church of England, and only 1% of 18-24-year-olds identified as members of the Church of England. In 2018, the Pope shared his discouragement that many of Europe’s Catholic Church buildings were being sold to Pizza parlors, bars, and strip clubs.
What are we to make of Christianity becoming smaller? Why the shrinking is happening may have everything to do with an ancient blessing. In this regard, the decline of Christianity in the Western World may actually be a good thing – perhaps the only thing that will save Christianity from its looming existential threat.
The blessing is found in Genesis chapter 9. After the flood subsided, Noah, a man of the soil, planted a vineyard and, from the produce, made wine and, from the wine, became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent. Noah’s son Ham saw the nakedness of his father and, with seeming contempt, announced it to his two brothers. Not wanting to humiliate their father, Ham’s two brothers, Shem and Japheth, laid a garment over their shoulders and walked backward so as not to see, covering their father’s nakedness. When Noah became sober, he pronounced a blessing over the two sons who honored and covered him:
“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem…May God enlarge Japheth and let him dwell in the tents of Shem…”.
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were Shem’s direct descendants, while Japheth’s descendants spread through Greece and Turkey and eventually into Europe – becoming the Gentile nations. Noah’s blessing over Japheth was enlargement and expansion. There are many interpretations of Noah’s blessing over Shem. Some say it was Shem’s idea to cover his father’s shame, which is why his blessing is connected to the Lord – Noah saw something spiritual in Shem. Some Rabbis teach that the Tallit – the Jewish prayer covering – has its origin in Shem’s covering of his father’s nakedness. A medieval Jewish commentator – Rashi – taught that the second temple was built by a descendant of Japheth – the Gentile, Cyrus – and the “Shechinah” holy presence of God did not dwell in it but only dwelled in the first temple built by Solomon, a descendant of Shem. Rashi also notes that Esau was a man of the field, and Jacob was a simple man who dwelled in tents – a reference, according to Rashi – to the spiritual tents of Shem.
The paradox of the two separate blessings pronounced on Shem and Japheth is that the expanding Gentile nations descendant from Japheth would only find their spirituality under the covering of the Jewish tents of Shem. And here is the heart of the paradox: For the expanding Japheth to enter the tents of Shem, Japheth must become small.
Could it be that Christianity’s decline is due to the fact that instead of humbly coming under the tents of Shem – becoming small – and honoring the Jewish founders of its faith, it has instead, over the centuries, expanded without seeing the paradox in Noah’s blessing – Its expansion is based on its contraction. Christianity must become small to become great, and without a Jewish foundation it will eventually implode. The New Testament makes this clear: “You (Christians from the nations) do not support the (Jewish) root, but the root supports you.”
Throughout the ages, God always seems to work best with a small remnant. The swift decline of Christianity in the Western world may not be a tragedy but a blessing – a catalyst that will lead a remnant of Christians back to the early beginnings of Christianity before it broke away from the Jewish rudiments of the faith. A reminder that Christianity cannot survive without the nourishing sap of the olive tree, Israel. For Christianity to survive, it must humble itself and realize it only expands by becoming small – small and humble enough to enter the tents of Shem. A grandiose and prideful Christianity could never see this.
There has always been a remnant of righteous Japheth Gentiles from the nations who have attached themselves to Shem’s Jewish descendants and come under their tents. Righteous Gentiles from the nations involved in Jewish-Christian relations understand the necessity of this. A prophecy in Zechariah 8:23 seems to affirm the blessing of Noah and that a future remnant of Japheth’s descendants will dwell under the tents of Shem.
Amazingly, the word for robe or fringe of a robe in this passage in Zechariah is the Hebrew word for the edges of the Tallit (the prayer covering) known as the Tzitzit (the tassels or fringes of the covering). The Tzitzit reminded the Israelites who God was, the commandments He gave them, and what He called them to be and do. The hope of those committed to Jewish-Christian relations long for the day when this prophecy comes into its fullness:
“Thus says the Lord of hosts: In those days ten men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the robe (Kn’af: Tassels of a Tallit, corner, Tzizit) of a Jew, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you’” (Zechariah 8:23).