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Chronological Conundrums (2)

Order, Order!

I have, in recent days, been chewing over two trinities of names that occur in the early pages of Genesis and with which we are very familiar because of the order in which they appear. We have “Shem, Ham and Japheth” (5:32; 6:10; 7:13; 9:18; 10:1; 1 Chronicles 1:4) and “Abram, Nahor and Haran” (11:26, 27).

The perceived wisdom on which I was certainly raised has always been that the repeated order of these names reflects their chronological order, i.e. eldest first. So Shem must have been the eldest of the three sons of Noah, followed by Ham and Japheth, in that order, and Terah’s three sons, in the order in which they were born, were Abram, Nahor and Haran.

But a closer look at the textual evidence reveals that this is simply not true and reveals something that is significant in a correct understanding of the biblical text.

Shem, Ham and Japheth

There are 4 verses we need to look at.

First, 5:32, where we learn that all three of Noah’s sons were born after he was 500 years old.

Second. 11:10, where we read, “When Shem was 100 years old, he fathered Arpachshad two years after the flood”. In a previous post, I tried to demonstrate that this means that Shem would have been born when Noah was 502 or 503 years old.

Third, 10:21 which, in the ESV at least, describes Shem as “the elder brother of Japheth”. However, there is some dispute about this translation with the NIV opting for, “whose older brother was Japheth”, and the AV choosing, “the brother of Japheth the elder”.

Fourth, there is 9:23 where Ham is described as Noah’s “youngest son”. The AV translates this as “younger”, perhaps to preserve the idea that Ham was the middle, rather than the youngest of the three, but my understanding of the Hebrew experts is that the word used in 9:23 is a superlative rather than a comparative adjective and so youngest is correct.

So what do we do with all of this? Well, when there are some uncertain issues and differences between translators we must, at the very least be cautious and not dogmatic. But based on the above verses, and what I have read of the various explanations, I am persuaded that Shem was the older brother of Japheth, not the other way around, and that Ham was indeed the youngest son.

Apart from anything else, if Noah’s first son was born after he was 500, and Shem was born when he was 502 or 503, it is probable, not though certain, that Shem was that firstborn.

Mind you there is one other possibility in all of this, namely that Shem, Ham and Japheth were triplets! Well, while that is possible it seems highly improbable, and why would terms like “older” and “youngest” be used of the different brothers?

So while the biblical order is Shem, Ham and Japheth, it seems almost certain that the age order was Shem, Japheth and Ham, and we’ll see why shortly.

Abram, Nahor and Haran

Again, our first instinct is probably to understand this to mean that Abram is the oldest, but the facts suggest otherwise. Terah, his father, must have been about 130 when Abram was born, because Abram was 75 when he arrived in Canaan following the death of Terah at the age of 205 (Genesis 11:32; 12:4).

Genesis 11:26 tells us that Terah’s sons were born after he was 70 years old and it is most unlikely that Abram was the first of three to be born over that 60 year period. I have read numerous detailed explanations about how Haran was the oldest, followed by Nahor and then Abram, even giving likely years of birth for Haran and Nahor, but the truth is we simply don’t know and we must be careful not to go beyond what Scripture actually says. It seems most likely, therefore, that Abram was the yougest of the three and the fact that Haran died first may – but only may – suggest that he was the oldest.

What’s the significance of these orderings? Well, first, it reminds us not to jump to conclusions or make assumptions. When you read something like, “When Terah had lived 70 years, he fathered Abram, Nahor, and Haran“, don’t automatically interpret that to mean that Abram was born to Terah when he had turned 70. Do your homework and check the facts.

More importantly is seems to demonstrate a deliberate authorial intention where the names are listed in terms of biblical and spiritual order. As one writer puts it, “the nonelect lineage is issued first and the chosen seed recounted last”. So Moses, inspired by the spirit of God, begins with those individuals who are not in the line chosen by God, and then names those around and through whom the biblical narrative is going to concentrate.

Jacob and Esau

Another good example which seems to confirm this very point is that of Jacob and Esau. Twice they are referred to in that more familiar order (Joshua 24:4; Hebrews 11:20), and only once (Genesis 35:29), at least that I could find, in the order of their birth.


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