VII. Shem, Ham, and Japheth
The flood narrative provides detail demonstrating that Shem, Ham, and Japheth were not triplets:
" 32 Noah was five hundred years old, and Noah became the father of Shem, Ham, and Japheth." (Gen 5:32, NAS)
“Now Noah was six hundred years old when the flood of water came upon the earth” (Gen 7:6 NAS).
“Shem [was] one hundred years old, and begot Arphaxad two years after the flood” (Gen 11:10b NKJV).
“When Noah awoke from his wine, he knew what his youngest son [Ham] had done to him” (Gen 9:24 NAS) [or “younger son” (NKJV)].
These verses not only show that the three are not triplets, they also
provide evidence that the three are not listed in order of birth:
1. Shem is 100 years old two years after the flood, when Noah is 602
years old (counted from the beginning of the flood, or 603 years old
counted from the end of the flood). Hence Shem was born when Noah was
502 (or 503) years old – not 500 years old.
2. Ham is not the oldest son; he is a younger (perhaps the youngest) son.
3. Since Genesis 5:32 says Noah “begot” when he was 500 years old,
Japheth must be the son born at that time; Japheth must be the oldest.
Genesis 10:21 seems to confirm that Japheth is the oldest –
notwithstanding some modern English translations to the contrary. This
verse refers to Shem as the ׳ach [<0251> brother or male
relative] of Japheth the gadol [<01419> elder, bigger, or
greater]. All modern English Bibles translate Gadol as meaning the
elder (or older) brother – but they disagree on the antecedent! The
JPS, NASB, ESV, and RSV translate the verse to say Shem is the older
brother. By contrast, the NIV and AMP say Japheth is the older,
and the LXX, KJV, NKJV, and YLT read “Japheth the elder.” The disparity
in the English translations reflects the ambiguity of the biblical
Hebrew: it seems impossible to determine precisely which brother is
older. Nevertheless, the Greek in the Septuagint (LXX) clearly states
that Japheth is older <need Greek text to put in footnote>, and
considering the above comparison of Gen 7:6, 9:24, and 11:10, it seems
probable the LXX is clarifying the ambiguity of the biblical Hebrew in
Gen 10:21. Hence we believe translations which list Shem as the oldest
do so only because he is listed first in Genesis 5:32.
So if Shem is not the oldest, why is he listed first in Genesis 5:32?
We suspect the list is in the order of relative importance to the
1. Shem is ancestor of the Jewish race and hence most important.
2. Ham is ancestor of the Egyptians and Canaanites, who enslaved the Israelites and were their continual adversary.
3. Japheth, ancestor of northern peoples who had relatively little
contact with the Israelites at the time the Old Testament was written,
was least important to the Israelites.
Another interpretation is that Shem is listed first because his father
declared that he would receive the oldest son’s share of the
inheritance – even though he was not the oldest. An example of this
occurs in the story of Jacob: Joseph is given primacy over his older
brother Reuben, and Jacob gives the oldest son’s blessing to Joseph’s
younger son Ephriam.