1. One of the five sons of Shem from whom descended “families, according to their tongues, in their lands, according to their nations.” (Ge 10:22, 31; 1Ch 1:17) The names of Elam’s sons are not specified; his name, however, designates both a people and a region on the SE border of Mesopotamia.
Historically, the name Elam applied to an area in what is now called Khuzestan in SW Iran. It included the fertile plain on the eastern side of the lower Tigris Valley, watered by the Karun and Karkheh rivers, and evidently extended into the mountainous regions bordering this plain on the N and E, although these two boundaries are the least certain. A region called Anshan is believed to have been situated in these mountainous regions and is represented in inscriptions as forming a part of Elam from an early period. Elam, located at the extreme eastern end of the Fertile Crescent, was, therefore, in somewhat of a frontier position, being one of the regions where territory populated and generally dominated by Semitic races confronted or merged with races descended from Noah’s other sons, principally the Japhetic line.
The land of Elam was called elamtu by the Assyrians and Babylonians and Elymais by the classical Greek writers, who also at times referred to it as “Susiana” after the city of Susa, or Shushan, at one time evidently the capital of Elam. Under the Persian Empire, Susa (Shushan) was a royal city. (Ne 1:1; Es 1:2) It was situated on the trade routes leading off to the SE and also up into the Iranian plateau. Efforts to gain control of these routes made Elam the object of frequent invasion by Assyrian and Babylonian rulers.
Language. In discussing Elam, reference works generally claim that the writer of Genesis listed Elam under Shem only on a political or a geographic basis since, they say, the people of Elam were not Semitic. This view they base on the claim that the language of the Elamites was not Semitic. Investigation, however, reveals that the earliest inscriptions found in the geographic region designated Elam are “mere lists of objects pictorially jotted down on clay-tablets with the numbers of each beside them, indicated by a simple system of strokes, circles and semicircles . . . their contents at this time are purely economic or administrative.” (Semitic Writing, by G. R. Driver, London, 1976, pp. 2, 3) These inscriptions could reasonably be called “Elamite” only as meaning that they were found in the territory of Elam.
The weight of the argument of those opposing the inclusion of Elam among the Semitic peoples, therefore, rests principally upon later inscriptions in cuneiform, regarded as dating considerably within the second millennium B.C.E., as well as on the Behistun monument (of the sixth century B.C.E.), which contains parallel texts in Old Persian, Akkadian, and “Elamite.” The cuneiform inscriptions attributed to the Elamites are said to be in an agglutinative language (one in which root words are joined together to form compounds, thereby distinguished from inflectional languages). Philologists have not been able successfully to relate this “Elamite” language to any other known tongue.
In evaluating the above information, it should be remembered that the geographic region in which the descendants of Elam eventually concentrated may well have been occupied by other peoples prior to or even during such Elamite residence there, just as the early non-Semitic Sumerians resided in Babylonia. The Encyclopædia Britannica (1959, Vol. 8, p. 118) states: “The whole country [designated Elam] was occupied by a variety of tribes, speaking agglutinative dialects for the most part, though the western districts were occupied by Semites.”—Italics ours; MAP and CHART, Vol. 1, p. 329.
That the cuneiform inscriptions found in the region of Elam would not of themselves prove that the true Elamites were originally non-Semitic can be seen from the many ancient historical examples that can be cited of peoples adopting a tongue other than their own because of domination or infiltration by foreign elements. There are likewise examples of ancient peoples simultaneously employing another language along with their own for commercial and international uses, even as Aramaic became a lingua franca used by many peoples. The “Hittites” of Karatepe wrote bilingual inscriptions (evidently in the eighth century B.C.E.) in “Hittite” hieroglyphic script and in old Phoenician. Some 30,000 clay tablets of the time of Persian King Darius I were found at Persepolis, a royal Persian city. They were mainly in the language termed “Elamite.” Yet Persepolis would not be called an Elamite city.
Further showing that it is unwise to view the table of nations at Genesis chapter 10 as purely geographic, and not actually genealogical, is the evidence in the form of sculptures carved for Elamite kings and dated by archaeologists as far back as the time of Sargon I (whose rule they assign to the latter part of the third millennium). These sculptures not only present the form of typical Akkadian (Semitic Assyro-Babylonian) figures but also bear Akkadian inscriptions.—The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, edited by J. D. Douglas, 1980, Vol. 1, p. 433.
History. The first Biblical mention of Elam as a country, or nation, is in the time of Abraham (2018-1843 B.C.E.) when Chedorlaomer “king of Elam” marched with an alliance of kings against a Canaanite coalition of kings in the Dead Sea region. (Ge 14:1-3) Chedorlaomer is indicated as the leader of the alliance and as having held suzerainty over the Canaanite kings, upon whom he now inflicted punishment. (Ge 14:4-17) Such a campaign, requiring a round-trip journey of perhaps 3,200 km (2,000 mi), was not unusual for Mesopotamian kings even in that ancient time. Secular history confirms that in the early part of the second millennium B.C.E. there was such a period of Elamite dominance in the Mesopotamian region. An Elamite official named Kudur-Mabuk who successfully occupied the prominent city of Larsa (along the Euphrates north of Ur) appointed his son Warad-Sin as king there. Noteworthy is the fact that Warad-Sin and Rim-Sin (Warad-Sin’s brother who succeeded him as king) are both Semitic names, further substantiating a Semitic element in Elam.
This period of Elamite power in Babylonia was upset and terminated by Hammurabi, and it was not until the latter part of the second millennium B.C.E. that Elam was able to conquer Babylon and again establish control for a period of some centuries. It is believed that it was during this time that a stele bearing the famous Code of Hammurabi was taken from Babylonia to Susa, where modern archaeologists discovered it.
Elam again was reduced to a subordinate position by Nebuchadnezzar I (not the Nebuchadnezzar who, several centuries later, destroyed Jerusalem), but it continued to be a frequent participant in the power struggle between Assyria and Babylon until finally Assyrian Emperors Sennacherib and Ashurbanipal (Asenappar) defeated the Elamite forces, transplanting some of the people to the cities of Samaria. (Ezr 4:8-10) Also, Israelite captives were sent into exile in Elam. (Isa 11:11) Inscriptions of the Assyrian emperors vividly describe this subjugation of Elam.
Following the downfall of the Assyrian Empire, Elam appears to have come under Japhetic (Aryan) control. The Medes and Persians are thought to have spread into the Iranian plateau region several centuries earlier, and under Cyaxares, the Medes fought with the Babylonians in overthrowing the Assyrian capital of Nineveh. Daniel 8:2 seems to indicate that Elam thereafter became a Babylonian district. Whatever the immediate effects on Elam from the Assyrian collapse, the Persians evidently succeeded in taking from Elam the region called Anshan, as Persian rulers Teispes, Cyrus I, Cambyses, and Cyrus II were all respectively called by the title “King of Anshan.” While some consider such conquest of Anshan to be in fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy concerning Elam (Jer 49:34-39), most scholars place the conquest of Anshan by Teispes many years prior to the pronouncement of that prophecy made in about 617 B.C.E.
Isaiah’s warning at Isaiah 22:4-6 foretold that Elamite archers would be among those attacking Judah and Jerusalem. The Elamites were also prophesied to unite with Media in despoiling Babylon (539 B.C.E.), Media by that time being under the rule of the Persian Cyrus II, “King of Anshan.” (Isa 21:2) Elamites thus contributed toward the release of Israel from exile, yet having aligned themselves at various times with enemies of God’s people, Elam along with the other nations would, in due time, be made to drink of the cup of God’s wrath and go down into Sheol.—Jer 25:17, 25-29; Eze 32:24.
On the day of Pentecost, 33 C.E., Elamites were among the thousands hearing the message spoken by the disciples in the language then currently spoken in Elam. (Ac 2:8, 9) As a nation and people, however, they have since ceased to exist, even as foretold at Jeremiah 49:34-39.
4. Progenitor of an Israelite family of whom 1,254 descendants returned from Babylon with Zerubbabel (Ezr 2:1, 2, 7; Ne 7:12) and a later contingent of 71 males accompanied Ezra. (Ezr 8:7) Some of his descendants were among those agreeing to put away their foreign wives (Ezr 10:19, 26), and a representative of the family signed the covenant in Nehemiah’s time.—Ne 10:1, 14.