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Genesis 5:32

"Noah was five hundred years old, and Noah became the father of Shem, Ham, and Japheth."

When considering the Genealogies of Genesis 5, it becomes evident that the standard form of recording the offspring of each firstborn son, is to name that son and then say of the father of that son, "and he had other sons and daughters". The obvious implication is that such and such had a firstborn son (who is named) and then he lived 'x' amount of years, "and he had other sons and daughters." Each paragraph reads the same, or has the same format, until we get to Noah.

For example:

Gen 5:28 "Lamech lived one hundred and eighty-two years, and became the father of a son. Now he called his name Noah, saying, “This one will give us rest from our work and from the toil of our hands arising from the ground which the LORD has cursed.” Then Lamech lived five hundred and ninety-five years after he became the father of Noah, and he had other sons and daughters. So all the days of Lamech were seven hundred and seventy-seven years, and he died."

But when we come to Noah in verse 32 we read:

"Noah was five hundred years old, and Noah became the father of Shem, Ham, and Japheth."

Does this verse indicate that Noah had triplets? Or simply that both Shem, Ham and Japheth were prominent persons, and although born at different times, their names were recorded for posterity due to their prominence as three of the eight on the Ark and the fathers of the post flood World?

  • 1
    You may want to see Contradictions: My Three Sons and Did Noah Have Triplets. – Paul Vargas Mar 10 '15 at 18:26
  • @PaulVargas i must admit i was just reading and realised it could mean he had triplets. will read your suggestion thankyou! – John Unsworth Mar 11 '15 at 10:37
  • No. The Genesis chronology, especially in the Septuagint, yields rather round values, which is where the one year of the Flood (Genesis 7:11, 8:14, the ten extra days corresponding to the known difference between lunar and solar years), and the two years following it (Genesis 11:10), come in. Adding three years to the 2242 (Noah's Flood, LXX), we get 2245, followed by exactly 1000 years to the birth of Terah, Abraham's father. – Lucian Oct 5 '17 at 14:47
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List of Firstborns? Not Necessarily

In the Sepher Ṯōl'ḏōṯ, or Generations Book, of Genesis 5 the very first son (Seth) listed, as is evident from Genesis's immediately preceding chapter, is actually not a firstborn son. Seth is Adam's third son, who, as the story apparently says in Ch. 4, is born when his brothers Cain and Abel are already full-grown (indeed when one of them has already died most likely in adulthood, as per vv. 8-15).

Down Seth's line, similarly, there shouldn't be any reason to conclude that necessarily any other son named in this sepher, prior to Noaḥ's offspring, is a firstborn anything. It could just as well mean, like in the premier instance [i.e. Seth], that every one of them has older brothers (who remain unmentioned in the sepher for whatever reason). The only thing the formula is explicitly saying about birth-timing is how old the son's father was when the son was born, not whether it was the first son or not. The father definitely has children after the named son, but this does not preclude him from having sired other—and perhaps a great many—children before Named Son's birth.

Sequencing the Offpsring

It would seem that the order in which the names of Noaḥ's sons are almost always listed (see Chs. 5-7, & 9), "Shem, Ḥām and Japheth", has more to do with their relationship with Israel, as ancestors, rather than their birth order.1 Shem and Ḥām are both Israel's progenitors (or Ḥām is the father of at least some parts of Israel) and among Ḥām's descendants are both friend and foe to Israel. Japheth has looser connections which become apparent only much later on in the chronology. (And incidentally the Ṯōl'ḏōṯ Benē Noaḥ, "Generations of Noaḥ's Sons" [in Genesis 10], are listed in reverse sequence from the trend thus far, starting with Japheth's sons, going forward to Ḥām's and then ending with Shem's offspring.)

Based on deductions which can be made from the Ṯōl'ḏōṯ Shem, "Shem's Generations" in Ch. 11, as well as the potentially problematic statements in Genesis 9.24 & 10.21, it is possible to at least safely conclude that Noaḥ's sons cannot be triplets and also that possibly this is the order of their birth, from first to last: Japheth -- Shem -- Ḥām.

TRIPLETS or No?

AmazingBibleTimeline.com's article "Are There Triplets In the Bible?" deals with a similar question regarding Abraham and his brothers but also has this to say about Noaḥ's more immediate family:

Shem begat Arpachshad when he was 100, and Arpachshad was born two years after the flood (Genesis 11:10). We know that Noah was 600 years old at the start of the flood (Genesis 7:6). So what do we get from this? If Shem were born when Noah was 500 he would have been 100 the year of the flood but he isn’t 100 until two years later when Arpachshad is born. That means Shem was born when Noah was 502.

Gen. 8.13, however, seems to imply that the flood-waters had dried up just when Noaḥ had turned 601, and if that's the case then Arpachshad may even have been born when Noaḥ was 603, and thus Shem was born when Noaḥ was 503. (Albert Barnes makes a similar calculation working out to this figure.)

Gen. 5.32 is usually interpreted to mean that at least one of Noaḥ's sons must have been born when Noaḥ was 500. By way of elimination, this could not be Shem (who is therefore at least 2 years younger than the firstborn), which leaves Ḥām and Japheth.

Canaan "The Little Son"?

The end of Genesis 9 relates an ambiguous narrative in which Noaḥ pronounces a curse (which per se is a huge kettle of other fish, as it were) against his own grandson Canaan, listed last among Ḥām's 4 sons in v. 6 of the succeeding chapter. Going by popular English translations like the KJV, & Douay & Webster's Bibles, Gen. 9.24 says that Noaḥ, before cursing Canaan, "knew/learned what his younger son had done to him." More recent, even more popular translations like the NIV, NLT & ESV say "youngest son". Haq-qāṭān, the adjective translated here, is used later in reference, in Ch. 27, to Jacob (the younger of Rebekah's two sons) and in Chs. 42 & 43, to Benjamin (the last of Jacob's 12 sons). And its Ancient Greek translation (from the Septuagint [LXX]), neóteros, does tend to mean "younger."

Notwithstanding that, exactly what is happening at the end of Gen. 9 is not all that obvious to determine. Contrary to much elaborate mythology especially over the last several hundred years, nowhere in the Bible does Noaḥ ever even mention Ḥām's name, much less curse him together with all his descendants. He does, however, curse Canaan, and quite bitterly at that. This has led many commentators including Charles Ellicott, Joseph Benson and Matthew Poole to the conclusion that Canaan, rather than Ḥām, must be Noaḥ's ben haq-qāṭān in this instance, noting, as does John Gill, that in Hebrew ben can mean "grandson" or "descendant" as much as "first-generation offspring." (A similar phenomenon occurs in other languages as well.)

In this view Gen. 10.6 is almost invariably taken to mean that Canaan is literally the lastborn of Ḥām's sons. And so then if Ḥām is Noaḥ's lastborn then this argument regarding the meaning of qāṭān / neóteros is bolstered by the interpretation "youngest son of [Noaḥ's] youngest son".

Japheth "The Big Brother"

Taking all that into account would make Japheth the one who was born when Noaḥ was 500. And thus Ḥām would've been born after Noaḥ was 502 or 503, following Shem's birth.2 In the Hebrew of Gen. 10.21 Shem is the "brother of Japheth hag-gāḏōl", for which the LXX has "Japheth meízonos", which in English translations, almost unanimously, makes Japheth "Shem's older/elder/eldest brother".

Meízonos is a superlative which can mean greater, larger, longer, taller or older. In its substantive form it can mean an elder, like the leader of a village. Hag-gāḏōl literally means "the great one" just as haq-qāṭān is "the little one." Cf. how the High Priest is hak-kōhēn hag-gāḏōl, "the Great/Big Kōhēn" (e.g. in Numbers 35.25), or the Mediterranean is hay-yām hag-gāḏōl, "the Great/Big Sea" (e.g. in Numbers 34.6-7). So it could be just as legitimately translated "brother of Japheth the greater"3 or "brother of Yaphet the magnificent".4

At any rate the passage does not explicitly indicate that Japheth is older than Ḥām, and the only evidence for this deduction is the cryptic reference in Gen. 9.24. Most of the aforementioned commentators note that Ḥām is always the second brother mentioned in the enumerations of Noaḥ's three sons, and thus have trouble seeing him as literally the lastborn. The only alternative to that option is that he is the firstborn. If that's the case, there is a potential narrative parallel later in Genesis5 for the conclusion that he, like Jacob's firstborn Reuben, could have lost his position of prominence like as meízon/village leader (for whatever reason[s]). And if Japheth is the literal lastborn here, it definitely would fit the Genesis theme of the younger/youngest essentially becoming the Elder/Eldest (cf. Seth [& perhaps Abel before him], Abraham [perhaps]6, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and, later on, Moses, & King David.)

Maybe Twins?

The term hag-gāḏōl occurs 5 other times in Genesis, the 1st time to refer to the sun as greater or bigger than the moon (Gen. 1.16), another time in reference to a river in the Near or Middle East (Gen. 15.18) and all the other times to indicate Esau as Jacob's older twin brother (at the beginning, in the middle & at the end of Ch. 27). I wonder how fair it would be infer from this that Shem and Japheth are twins. It certainly would expound on their closeness in Chs. 9 & 10.

At any rate, in my understanding of Gen. 7.6 & 11.10, what is certain is that Shem is younger (in the literal sense, and by years rather than minutes or hours) than at least one of his brothers.


1. In his Notes On the Whole Bible Albert Barnes asserts the same thing as "the historical relationship subsisting among the nations descended from them".
2. See, again, Barnes' Notes [as in prev. footnote].
3. The Apostolic Bible Polyglot (ABP)
4. The Ancient Hebrew Research Center's Revised Mechanical Translation (AHRC-RMT)
5. Ch. 35, vv. 21-22 to connect with Ch. 49, vv. 1-4
6. See the linked web article on triplets, as above.

1

It appears there are other references to Noah's sons which indicate that they were not triplets.

Genesis 10:21

Also to Shem, the father of all the children of Eber, and the older brother of Japheth, children were born.

Genesis 9:24

So Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done to him.

These verses seem to clearly indicate different ages by years. Yet when we look for further accounts of 'elder' and 'younger' brothers, we find the account of Jacob and Esau. There we read that these two twins were addressed by God as elder and younger.

In Genesis 25:23 we read:

The LORD said to her, "Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger."

In Romans 9:12-13 we read:

"it was said to her, “THE OLDER WILL SERVE THE YOUNGER.” Just as it is written, “JACOB I LOVED, BUT ESAU I HATED.”

So it appears that the words older and younger are equally applicable to both twins and siblings born with more than a year between them.

Without specific reference there appears to be no way of knowing with certainty whether they were triplets or not, although there is a strong sense in which the genealogy in Genesis 5 seems to indicate the possibility of them being triplets. After all it does happen from time to time.

"Noah was five hundred years old, and Noah became the father of Shem, Ham, and Japheth."

  • 1
    Just a note on Genesis 9:24, it is ambiguous as to whether it's referring to Noah's younger son, or Ham's younger son (as Ibn Ezra states). – Yosef Weiner Mar 14 '15 at 22:10
  • 1
    @SKinnyJ - (A.) It is okay/reasonable to infer that the "youngest son" was Noah's youngest son, Ham, and not Ham's youngest son, Canaan. (B.) When a pronominal, (him, he, etc), is used, it "points" to the last proper noun, in this case, Noah. (C.) Granted, the passage following raises the question why Canaan was cursed, and not his father, Ham, since Ham was the one that left his father naked. (D.) But, many times in Scripture the son pays the penalty for the father's mistake. (E.) +1 for insight, but an English translation/reference/citation for Ibn Ezra would be more helpful. – elika kohen Mar 17 '15 at 4:02
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Jubilees has Ham born in the year 1209 A.M. — two years after Shem, three before Japheth, and 99 before the flood. It gives the name of his wife who also survived the flood as Na'eltama'uk.

0

Were Shem, Ham and Japheth Triplets?

THE ANSWER IS "NO"

Genesis 5:32 (NASB)

32 "Noah was five hundred years old, and Noah became the father of Shem, Ham, and Japheth."

Genesis 7:6 (NASB)

6 "Now Noah was six hundred years old when the flood of water came upon the earth."

Genesis 11:10 (NASB)

SHEM:

10 These are the records of the generations of Shem. Shem was one hundred years old, and became the father of Arpachshad two years after the flood;

From the above verses we note that Shem was 100 years old and became father to Arpachshad two years after the flood, this means that Noah was 502 years old when he gave birth to Shem.

HAM:

Ham called the youngest son.

Genesis 9:20-24 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

20 "Then Noah began farming and planted a vineyard. 21 He drank of the wine and became drunk, and uncovered himself inside his tent. 22 Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. 23 But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it upon both their shoulders and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were turned away, so that they did not see their father’s nakedness. 24 When Noah awoke from his wine, he knew what his youngest son had done to him."

JAPHETH:

Japheth then ,is obviously the first son born to Noah, when he was 500 years old.

-4

Before going too far down this interpretive path you should be reminded that Genesis is a compilation of writings, none of which were written contemporaneously with the times they are writing about. At the time the stories about Noah were first written, all that could be truly known about his sons is that three distinct people groups bore their names, and the people group bearing the name of Ham's son was occupying/had occupied the land that Yahweh was telling the Israelites to conquer. There were oral traditions, of course, and also parallel flood myths of other Mesopotamian cultures. At this late date we don't have enough information to say for sure how the Israelites got their information about Noah. Had they preserved historical details in their oral tradition more reliably than the peoples around them? Or had they taken the best stories of their neighbors and recast them in light of their faith in Yahweh?

  • "none of which were written contemporaneously with the times they are writing about" Where's your evidence for that? – curiousdannii Sep 13 '16 at 12:39
  • You don't remotely address whether they were triplets or not, which makes this Not An Answer. – curiousdannii Sep 13 '16 at 12:40

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