Q. What was the birth order of Noah’s children?
A. It is often assumed that Shem was Noah’s firstborn. When all three are listed together, Shem is always mentioned first (Genesis 5:32, 6:10, 7:13, 9:18, 10:1, and 1 Chronicles 1:4). However, there are clues in the text of Genesis that suggest this assumption is incorrect.
- First, in Genesis 10:21, the Bible cites Japheth as “the elder” in reference to Shem.
- Second, in Genesis 9:24, the Bible calls Ham Noah’s younger son.
- Third, in Genesis 11:10, the Bible lists Shem’s age in reference to the flood.
Genesis 5:32 And Noah was five hundred years old: and Noah begat Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
Without context – such as Genesis 9:24, 10:21, and especially 11:10 – we might assume Noah fathered triplets in his 500th year. Even with triplets, there can be an elder and a younger! However, by comparing Genesis 11:10 with Genesis 5:32 and Genesis 7:6, we can conclude by God’s mathematics that Shem was not Noah’s firstborn. We know from Genesis 5:32 that Noah was 500 when he began to have children, but Shem was not born when Noah was that age. Genesis 11:10 tells us that Shem was 100 when he begat Arphaxad two years after the flood. Noah was 600 when the flood waters came upon the earth (Genesis 7:6). If Shem was 98 years old when the flood came, he was born when Noah was 502 years old. He could not be the eldest without contradicting these harmonized Scripture texts.[i]
Japheth is “the elder” just as Genesis 10:21 states. Ham was the younger of the three (Genesis 9:24). Shem is listed first because the history of the Old Testament, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, will primarily be a history of the descendants of Shem – not Ham and Japheth.
[i] Interestingly, many modern translations insert a contradiction in this line of thought, making Shem “the elder brother of Japheth” and Ham Noah’s youngest son. Therefore Shem would have to be the oldest son. But if Shem was the oldest son and was born when Noah was 502, this does not harmonize with Genesis 5:32.