Genesis 9:20-24 NKJV

And Noah began to be a farmer, and he planted a vineyard. Then he drank of the wine and was drunk, and became uncovered in his tent.
And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid [it] on both their shoulders, and went backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces [were] turned away, and they did not see their father's nakedness.

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

The word "younger" in Hebrew is qaton which means "small", "unimportant" or "insignificant".

It also means "young" but that meaning doesn't seem to fit the context because Ham was not the youngest son of Noah.

The sons are supposedly listed in order of their birth as Shem, Ham and Japheth


Transliteration: qâṭân qâṭôn

BDB Definition:

a) young b) small c) insignificant d) unimportant

Ham was actually the second son of Noah so why is he referred to as the "Younger son".

Was this a mistranslation in the text? or

Was it a literary device with prophetic implications concerning the Hamitic race?

  • 1
    "It also means "young" but that meaning doesn't seem to fit the context because Ham was not the youngest son of Noah. The sons are supposedly listed in order of their birth as Shem, Ham and Japheth". This is not necessarily the case see this question and answer hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/17001/…
    – bach
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 13:38
  • @Bach credit given below in my answer
    – user22655
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 15:21
  • See updated answer
    – user22655
    Commented May 3, 2018 at 20:37

2 Answers 2


There are various resolutions, here are some. I'm not going to explain each one in depth, they come from a variety of sources which you can look up here (and some are mine, likely the weaker ones):

  1. It refers to Ham:

    • a) he is a younger son than Shem/Yefet (i.e. not the oldest) - RDZ Hoffman in the name of "Dillman and others"
    • b) he is "insignificant", "worthless" (as per BDB above) - Rashi and others
    • c) he was actually the youngest and the order of the sons in not the order of age - RDZ Hoffman, Bach in comments
    • d) despite being old to us he may have still been "young" (either relative to the ages of others until then, or that he was born significantly after Noah turned 500)
  2. It refers to someone else:

    • a) it refers to Ham's son Canaan, who was the youngest (listed last in birth order), and seems to have been involved in this incident in some way - Radak and others
    • b) according to those who explain that Ham castrated Noah, this refers to the fact that Noah could no longer have a new "youngest" son - Targum Pseudo-Jonathan
    • c) it refers to Noah's youngest son covering him (the positive done by the youngest son) - Hizkuni and others

I feel that the most straightforward readings would be 1a, 1b, and 2c (my personal favorite).

1a is compelling because we have no reason to assume that Shem, Ham, and Jefeth were born in that order, as Bach noted in the comments, and therefore, the question is not valid. This verse would then indicate that he was the youngest.

1b works well since Qaton does indeed mean less important, and would make sense as a choice of words when cursing someone. Compare Genesis 48:19, where we are told that the younger son will be "greater".

2c is another excellent possibility since Katon can mean the youngest son, and we can still assume that their birth order is correct. It has the additional benefit of noting the action of Shem/Jefeth, as one of them (with the help of the other) was the only one who actually performed any action to Noah according to the simple narrative, by covering him. It is also helpful in that Noah would have noticed that he was covered as soon as he "woke up", but might not have known that Ham had seen him unclothed until after investigating.

  • Thanks. But you didn't tell me which position is most plausible. You just gave a list of resolutions or theories that try to explain the issue. You didn't really answer the question. Nevertheless +1 for your effort.
    – user20490
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 21:14
  • 1
    That's entirely opinion based. I'll try to put in some reasoning as to which I think are more compelling, but I'll only get a chance much later... @user20490
    – user22655
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 21:57
  • 1
    Perhaps also noteworthy is that Genesis 10:21 seems to say that Japheth was older than Shem (though granted some translations differ). cc @user20490
    – Alex
    Commented May 4, 2018 at 0:38
  • Also the genealogical listing in Chapter 10 lists Japheth then Ham and Shem last. This is brought as evidence by Gersonides that "qaton" cannot be referring to Ham.
    – Alex
    Commented May 4, 2018 at 1:11
  • Re: OP's comment above, sometimes the best answer is just a commented catalogue of what learned people have thought over the years. Who do you want to arbitrate between eminent scholars? Commented Jun 12, 2018 at 10:42

Philo argues at length in De Sobrietate that "qaton" is not a measure of age at all.

II. (6) Such then is the condition of the sober man; but when Moses speaks of Noah's "younger son," he is not so much meaning to make a statement respecting his age, as to show the disposition with which those persons are endued who are inclined to innovation; since how could he have forced himself to see, what ought not to be seen, in defiance of all law and justice, or to divulge what ought to have been concealed in silence, or to bring to light what might have been kept in the shade at home, and to transgress all the boundaries which should confine the soul, if he had not been eager for change and innovation, laughing at what happens to others when he ought rather to lament over such accidents, and not to ridicule things which it was more natural and decent and proper to grieve for. (7) In many places indeed of the exposition of the law, Moses speaks of those who are somewhat advanced in age as young men, and on the other hand those who are not yet arrived at old age he entitles elders; not having regard to the number of their years, whether it be a short or a very long time that they have lived, but to the faculties of their soul, according to the way in which it is influenced, whether it be for good or for evil. (8) Accordingly he calls Ishmael when he has now lived a space of nearly twenty years a child, speaking by a comparison with Isaac who is perfect in virtue; for, says he, "he took bread, and a skin of water, and gave it to Agar, and put it upon her shoulder, and the child also, when Abraham sent them forth from his House." And again he says, "She put the child down under a pine tree;" and further on he says, "that I may not see the death of the child." And yet before Ishmael was born and circumcised, thirteen years before the birth of Isaac, and having been now weaned for more than seven years, he was banished with his mother, because he being illegitimate was mocking the legitimate son, as though he were on terms of equality with him. (9) But nevertheless, though in reality a young man, he is still called a child, being as it were a sophist put in comparison with a wise man; for Isaac received wisdom for his inheritance, and Ishmael sophistry, as when we define the characters of each we purpose to show in certain dialogues. For the same relation which a completely infant child bears to a full-grown man, the same does a sophist bear to a wise man, and the encyclical branches of education to real knowledge in virtue. (Translation by Charles Duke Yonge)

  • Welcome to BH.SE, and thanks for your insightful post! Consider elaborating on this position rather than simply quoting it, as per the OP's request here.
    – user22655
    Commented May 4, 2018 at 2:00
  • A great post Alex. I've learnt a lot from this. Philo implies that Ham was younger in terms of the faculties of his soul. +1
    – user20490
    Commented May 4, 2018 at 21:42

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