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.

JAPHETH, SHEM, HAM

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.

HAM, JAPHETH, SHEM.

So in conclusion there are three possibilities

JAPHETH, SHEM, HAM

JAPHETH, HAM, SHEM

& HAM, SHEM, JAPHETH

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
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6 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

  2. apolk says:

    You never considered that the order was Shem, Hem and Japheth, as was written in verse 5:32, 6:10, 7:13, and 9:18, 10:1. Five verses are consistent in listing them Shem, Hem and Japheth. Verse 9:18 appears to be a forgery (Jerimiah 8:8) inserted to make a point. The bad deed hadn’t even occurred yet, which makes this statement out of place. And then another forgery in verse 9:22 continues the lie. Verse 9:24 according to the over whelming evidence above would place Japheth as the wrong doer, not Ham! Curiously Shem is blessed in verse 9:26, why not Japheth? In verse 10:6 Kenaan is listed as the last son of Ham. How is that the case, wouldn’t he be first. Again the lying pen inserted at the end a lie. In verse 10:21 the forger sees another opportunity to embed a lie by stating at the end of the verse “Japheth the elder”. Note scribes of the time wrote everything out by hand and it would have been easier to insert at the end of lines, rather than dich the whole scroll and start from scratch to make changes.

    • jim lockey says:

      I think there is a greater point which is that the inconsistencies can be instructive… You seem very sure about forgery in scripture and which message is the true one. It sounds dangerous to me if you’re going to use that same scripture as a basis for your life.

      If you don’t believe in God and the Bible then obviously that wouldn’t matter to you

      But if you do then you need to ask yourself what God be saying with the text that we receive. We need to have our eyes open to inconsistencies and even the viewpoint of the human writers but either all scripture is God breathed or it isn’t… and if it isn’t then why follow any of it? Really, whats the point if God isn’t who he says he is. If it is God breathed… as I believe it it is, then God has stuff to tell us in that. In this scripture the ages of the sons is in flux in relation to Ham’s sin and is propositional of themes that are later solidified in the stories of the patriarchs whereby inheritance in the Kingdom of God is not decided by arbitrary, natural factors like who was born first but is decided by the will and plan of God.

      • apolk says:

        You are right inconsistencies can be instructive. Inconsistencies show us that there is something wrong. And to be a true student of the Word we need to acknowledge this and put aside the error. Not sure what you mean by “use that same scripture as a basis for your life”. Are you referring to Jerimiah 8:8? This scripture tells us that we must be aware that things have been added to the Word of God by the scribes. Is this so hard to believe? History tells us that when the Israelites were taken to Babylon the scribes and all of the nations educated were taken. This is where the scribes, mere men, scribed the scrolls of the Torah. Considering the cultural influence and personal agendas “things happen”. 1 Corinthians 14:33 God does not confuse, but the adversary does. God’s Word will always be true, and I do believe it is revealed within the scriptures. If Jerimiah 8:8 doesn’t matter or isn’t true then why is it in scripture? Either it’s true and we need to consider this when studying and things don’t add up, or it’s not true, doesn’t matter and it was added to send us down a rabbit hole. I was hopeful a more logical approach to this topic would be taken, but I’m not here to debate, so may your studies be enlighten. Good day.

      • jim lockey says:

        I wasn’t referring to Jeremiah 8:8 as it happens, though (as I said before) we need to be aware of perversion and changes that have been made to scripture over time for whatever reason. I don’t think however that it really relates to the point I was making. What I’m arguing for is a reading of the text that recognises the differences from whatever source. And rather than throw them out works out what can be learned from them (perhaps by understanding the context of why things may have been changed or through a form of literary criticism) Yes, we should name inconsistencies and their possible sources so far as we can. But I do not agree that any one person these many years later can claim to be able to sort between what is definitely from God and what is changed. Such an idea is foolish, what we need to do is wrestle with what we have and find the truth within it. We can make pretty definite guesses as to what isn’t original, but yet it has ended up there and must be engaged with. Ultimately the word is a dynamic thing, and it’s the spirit that reveals any form of useful truth within it.

        When it comes to the Law (referring to Jeremiah 8:8) changes or additions can be a real issue for a doctrine. As for the ages of Noah’s sons, which ever was born first actually makes no practical difference to the story and what can be learned from it as far as I can see (I’m happy to be taught but I feel pretty certain on that). – Unless of course you’re attributing meaning to each son that is outside of the text.

        I believe that God can speak through scripture today, by way of the Holy Spirit. And so when I engage with the text I don’t do merely as an exegete trying to find one definitive ‘meaning’. I treat it as a piece of trustworthy discourse and if I find some error or inconsistency within it, I assume that though some bloke thousands of years ago meant it for ill – God isn’t using it that way… the text is difficult not because God is trying to trick us, but because he’s saying difficult things.

        There are huge problems in scripture, I am not blind to it. Whole sections of books in both testaments are based on extra-biblical sources that are at odds with the through-line of the biblical narrative. But I don’t throw ‘em out. I wrestle with them and bring those questions before God, in search of his instruction.
        Dismiss any line of scripture at your peril.

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