Who is the Oldest Son?

An interesting translation discrepancy appears in Genesis 10:21 on the issue of who was the oldest son of Noah, Shem, or Japheth. It’s weird how some of the modern English versions of Gen 10:21 says Shem was the older brother of Japheth, but others including the KJV say Japheth is the elder. The Hebrew text has gadol (גָּדֽוֹל) after Japheth while the NASB lexicon places it before Japheth. Which is it? A similar issue arises with Abraham and his brothers.

Genesis 6:9-10 introduces us to Noah and his sons. It says Noah had Shem, Ham, and Japheth at age 500. However, they are not triplets and Noah only has one wife that we know of so that must mean age 500 is when his firstborn son was born. We know Ham is the youngest from Genesis 9:24. So then that leaves Shem and Japheth. Shem we know is 502 years younger than Noah because he was 100 years old two years after the flood started when he had Arphaxad (Gen 11:10). Noah got on the Ark when he was 600 (Gen 7:11), so Noah was 602 years old when Shem had Arphaxad. This means Shem was 98 (100 – 2) when the flood started and was born when Noah was 502 (600 – 98). Therefore, Shem couldn’t have been born when Noah was 500 years old, and since all three are mentioned in Gen 6:10, one of them must have been born when he was 500, and that leaves Japheth. People assume because Shem is mentioned first he is the oldest, but then Ham is mentioned second and he is directly stated to be the youngest, so that logic doesn’t hold up.

This type of situation can also be seen with Abraham and his siblings. Gen 11:27-32 says at age 70 Terah had Abram (before his name was changed to Abraham), Nahor, and Haran. Again many assume that since Abram is mentioned first he is the oldest. However, if that’s true then it causes a discrepancy. Terah dies at 205 (Gen 11:32), so if Abram was born when Terah was 70 then Abram would be 135 years old when Terah died. This is a problem because Abram left Haran to answer God’s call to go to Canaan around the time Terah died, and scripture says Abram was 75 when this happened (Gen 12:4), not 135. The alternative is that Terah was 130 when Abram was born, then 75 years later Terah dies at 205 as the text says, making Abram 75 years old when he leaves for Canaan. Just like we know Noah’s sons are not in order of age, Terah’s sons are not in order of age either. Haran may be the oldest since he died first. He was old enough to have a daughter named Milcah who was old enough to marry his brother Nahor after he died (Gen 11:29). However that doesn’t exactly exclude Nahor as firstborn, so it can go either way. All we know for sure is that one of the other two brothers (Haran or Nahor) was the firstborn when Terah was 70, and Abram was born when Terah was 130.

The lesson here is that order in which a person’s children are listed is not necessarily birth order. The first-mentioned is sometimes simply the most important or most relevant to the story. In Gen 6:9-10, Shem is mentioned first because he is who Abraham and therefore Moses (the author of Genesis) descends from. Then Ham is second because he is the one who disrespects Noah and his firstborn Canaan gets cursed by Noah. Japheth is last simply because nothing major or relevant happened to him. In Gen 11:27-32, Abram is mentioned first because he is the main character in the succeeding chapters and he is the father of faith for the Israelites. Haran is likely to last because he dies and we don’t know much more about him other than his children are Milcah, Iscah, and Lot (Abraham’s famous nephew). Nahor is in the middle because his granddaughter Rebecca marries Isaac and his great-granddaughters Rachel and Leah marry Jacob.

Often times the answers may be hidden in plain sight. Linguistic context is important for bible study but we must not forget that when dealing with discrepancies regarding numbers, the language of Math can help us out.

Multiple translations of Genesis 10:21 on Biblehub

The Hebrew table Layout says Japheth the Elder

The Lexicon puts gadol before Shem, calling Shem the older brother