Perhaps you are like me. For years I assumed that Shem was Noah’s oldest son because he is listed first in Genesis 5:32; 6:10; 7:13 and 1 Chronicles 1:4. There are reasons, however, to believe that Shem may not have been Noah’s first son.
While many English translations of Genesis 10:21 say that Shem was Japheth’s older brother (e.g.: AMP, ESV, HCSB, ISV, LEB, NASB, NET), others indicate that Japheth was Shem’s older brother (e.g.: AMPC, KJV, NIV, NKJV). The King James and NKJV both say Shem was “the brother of Jepheth the elder”
Adding to the possible confusion, Genesis 5:32 says that Noah fathered his three sons when he was 500 years old. Some English translations say “after” Noah was 500 years old,” but that is somewhat interpretive because the Hebrew uses a ‘waw’ consecutive, which can be translated several ways, including: “and,” “then,” “when.”
It seems unlikely that the three brothers were born the same year as triplets. If Shem, Ham, and Japheth were not all born the same year, then the most likely interpretation of Genesis 5:32 is that Noah began having his sons when he was 500 years old. This would still leave the possibility of Shem being the oldest brother.
The next piece of the puzzle is found in Genesis 11:10, which says Shem was 100 years old when he begat Arphaxad two years after the flood. This indicates that Shem was 98 when the flood ended, but Genesis 7:6 and 7:11 both say the yearlong flood began when Noah was 600 years old. So Shem would only have been 97 when Noah was 600.
This means Shem was born when Noah was 503. If Noah had his first son at the age of 500 as indicated by Genesis 5:32, then Shem could not have been Noah’s oldest son.
If Shem was not the oldest, then who was?
Genesis 9:20-25 records Noah getting drunk and lying uncovered in his tent. Ham saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers about it. Gen. 9:24 says that Noah knew what his youngest son (“younger” in the KJV and NKJV) had done to him. Based on this passage, we know that Ham was the youngest of Noah’s three sons.
Since Shem was born when Noah was 503 and Ham was Noah’s youngest son, then Japheth must have been the oldest brother, born when Noah was 500-years old. This supports translations of Genesis 10:21 which refer to Japheth as Shem’s elder brother.
This means the birth order of Noah’s three sons was Japheth first, Shem second, and Ham third.
Why then, you may ask, do Genesis 5:32; 6:10; 7:13 and 1 Chronicles 1:4 list Noah’s sons as Shem, Ham, and Japheth rather than in the order of their birth (Japheth, Shem, and Ham)?
The Bible often lists children in the order of their importance instead of their birth order, and may even omit those unimportant to the Biblical narrative or chronology. For example, Ishmael was 14-years older than Isaac, but Isaac was named first in 1 Chronicles 1:28, “The sons of Abraham; Isaac and Ishmael.”
Isaac was listed first because he was the heir to Abraham’s blessing and promise. God told Abraham, it was in Isaac that his seed would be called (Genesis 21:12). Ishmael had been born by the will of the flesh; Isaac was the promised son, born by the will of God. It was through Isaac that all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 22:18; 26:4). The nation of Israel, and the promised Messiah who would save us from our sin, came through Isaac.
It should also be noted that Abraham also had six more sons by Keturah after Sarah died (Genesis 25:1-6), but they are not included in the 1 Chronicles genealogy because Abraham sent them away, so they were not important in Bible history.
Another example would be the “generations of Adam.” Adam and Eve were healthy, genetically perfect adults who lived over 900 years. God commanded them to be fruitful and multiply, and Genesis 5:4 says Adam “begat sons and daughters,” so it is extremely unlikely that they only had 3 children in 130 years. The 4th chapter of Genesis tells us about Cain and Abel, but only Seth is listed in Genesis 5:3 and 1 Chronicles 1:1, because Seth was the source of the Godly line that led to Noah, Abraham, Israel, David, and Jesus.
The reason Shem is listed before his older brother Japheth is because he was more important in producing the Godly line that led to Jesus Christ, our lord and savior.
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