Japheth/Shem/Ham – Who is oldest?

The Ages of Noah’s sons.

***please note that this post relates to the one immediately preceding it entitled ‘Answers In… where exactly?’ In which I make a rash and hasty judgment about something I read. It is also all based around Genesis 5-11***
Ok, so the time has come to talk of the ages of Noah’s sons. Oh great moment of theological unrest that it isn’t! But for my novel I had to come up with some decision on what their ages are in relation to each other.

This entry tries to avoid controversy around other dates and time frames given in the biblical account of the flood- but of course that is difficult to do.

The order of birth that accords most harmoniously with the biblical account looks like this.


We’re told in Genesis Chapter 10:21 that Shem is younger than Japheth, and in chapter 9:24 that Ham is youngest. We can also conclude that Shem is two years Japheth’s junior by this other passage.

And so this whole thing can be sown up right? (You’ll notice that this deduction supports the answers in Genesis article, which I previously lambasted. I worked out the references myself… then realised they were present in the article even if ordered strangely. Whoops.)(Also I think I just got cross because I’d spent a lot of time with my nose in the Bible trying to work it out and when I read that article I just wanted to scream… ‘its not as simple as that!!!)

Well as is often the case things aren’t so easy as all that.

See apparently when Noah was 500 he begat (good word) all three of his sons. This sounds like triplets. The text isn’t clear whether he had them all when he was 500 but the verse comes in at chapter 5, which is a rigid section of genealogy, so it has some weight. This assertion is contested of course, by the chapter 11 detail. Please note that some translators render the chapter 5 verse as ‘after Noah was 500’ but this is only to make it accord with Chapter 11.

So here’s the rub. Either the numbers don’t add up or the verse is supposed to mean that his first child arrived when he was 500.

Some readers of Genesis have put forward the idea that the tonal shift from legal genealogy to literary story actually occurs not at the chapter break but the verse before. This change of tone would make the age of 500 perhaps just a number picked for exaggeration or to give us an idea of Noah’s age and to establish the presence of his sons in the tale. This doesn’t seem an unreasonable idea as the verse does break the previously established pattern, and bares direct relevance to the following verses.

Ok phew, its all sorted, Noah wasn’t literally 500…

However that story section is elsewhere conspicuously detailed about things like dates and measurements… so why exaggerate here?

Things are hazy again aren’t they, then wonder about this… its within the story section of the text that we’re told that Ham is the youngest. However in the tables of genealogy in Chapter 10 Ham appears second. Remember Genealogies have precise verbal and ordering formulas that are designed to denote their authority. They would not make the mistake of describing the lineage of the youngest before his elder brother would they? So we must assume them to be accurate. The earlier detail of Ham being the youngest… coming where it does in the story (after he’s just seen his father’s nakedness and told his brothers) may be intended not to denote a fact about Ham but emphasise the infantile nature of his behavior, at the same time it explains his brother’s sober response.

OK, so Ham is the youngest and the Middle child? We must hold these two possibilities in tension.

Want some more? I’ve often thought about the story typologically; how does this tale compare to other stories of sons in the Bible. Very often in the Old Testament, the last becomes first and the younger brother receives blessing whilst his older sibling/s get pushed aside. It happens to Isaac, it happens to Jacob, it happens to Joseph and it happens to David. It is also the case that with Noah a younger son, Shem gets a bigger portion than his older brother Japheth. Taking this correlation to its logical conclusion one might assume an order like this.


So in conclusion there are three possibilities




They may also be triplets, but they might not.

Certainly the first ordering is the least problematic, but as I hope I’ve displayed… all the theories are problematic.

As a fun little thought exercise that’s fine. What’s it matter which was born first anyway right? But of course I need to make a decision for the sake of the novel.  Never one to go for the most obvious I’ve gone for one that for polemical reasons that I wont go into- I feel carries more weight. It’s also a choice that crucially allows for a more poetic plot point in chapter 3. I don’t want to give it totally away but remember this whole story is heading somewhere and I want to give the characters as much to loose and as much to gain as possible… and of course when this story comes to an end the thing that is gained and lost is their father’s blessing… OK, I gave it away didn’t I!

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About jim lockey

Artist & Jesus Follower
This entry was posted in novella, studies and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Japheth/Shem/Ham – Who is oldest?

  1. ShuiYin says:

    Gen 9:24 Ham is definitely youngest

    • jim lockey says:

      I tend to agree with you, as far as plumping for a definite answer is concerned. However as I hope I demonstrated in the post, it is actually far from clear. As a believer of scripture I assume that the apparent discrepancies in different parts of the account of Ham do not appear by accident. This isn’t lazy writing. I take the view that God has something to teach us through the bumps in the text

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