Noah had three sons born to him, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, before God sent a flood to destroy the world (Genesis 5:32). Whenever the names of Noah’s three sons are recorded, Shem is always mentioned first (e.g., Genesis 9:18; 10:2, 21), even though Shem was the second-born (the Bible often lists people according to prominence rather than age). Japheth was the oldest (Genesis 10:21), and Ham was the youngest (Genesis 9:24).
Japheth was born when Noah was 500 years old, and the flood came 100 years later (Genesis 7:6–7). Since Shem was 100 two years after the flood (Genesis 11:10), he must have been born when Noah was 502 years old. There is no record of when Ham was born other than the fact that he was born sometime after Shem (Genesis 9:24).
“Shem was the ancestor of all the sons of Eber” (Genesis 10:21), and this is important because the word Eber is the origin of the Hebrew word for “Hebrew.” The word Shem means “name,” which implies that Noah expected this son’s name to become great. He was right—the modern words Semitic and Semite are derived from Shem’s name. The Bible records that Shem had five sons: Elam, Ashur, Arphaxad, Lud, and Aram (Genesis 10:22). Shem lived to be 600 years of age (Genesis 11:10–11) and became the ancestor of the Semitic peoples (Genesis 10:1, 21–31). Abraham, a descendant of Shem, is the first person in the Bible who is referred to as a “Hebrew” (Genesis 14:13).
Noah blessed Shem above his brothers (Genesis 9:26–27), and it was through Shem that the promised seed destined to crush Satan came (Genesis 3:15). That seed is traced back to Adam’s son Seth (Genesis 5:1–32), through Shem, and on to Abraham, Judah, and David, leading all the way to Christ (Luke 3:36).
Shem’s son Elam was the father of the Elamites, who later settled east of Mesopotamia. Shem’s son Ashur, whose name is related to the word Assyria, is most likely is the father of those who settled the ancient region of Assyria (Genesis 2:14). Arphaxad is thought by many scholars to be a compound form of the Hebrew word for “Chaldea,” which was a region in southern Mesopotamia (Genesis 11:10–13). It was through Arphaxad that Eber came. Scholars believe that the descendants of Shem’s son Lud became known as the Lydians of Asia Minor. And Aram is identified by Bible scholars with the area northeast of the Promised Land, known today as Syria (cf. 2 Kings 16:6). The sons of Aram are listed in Genesis 10:23. Of Aram’s sons, Uz is later referred to in the book of Job (Job 1:1).
Noah’s firstborn son, Japheth, is listed as the father of Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech, and Tiras (Genesis 10:2). Their descendants became the people who lived to the north and west of Israel and, after Babel, spoke what today are classified as Indo-European languages.
In blessing his son Japheth, Noah said, “May God extend Japheth’s territory; / may Japheth live in the tents of Shem, / and may Canaan be the slave of Japheth” (Genesis 9:27). There are two schools of thought regarding what this prophecy about Japheth means.
Some scholars are of the opinion that the enlargement of Japheth’s territory refers to a great numerical increase of his descendants. The comment “may Japheth live in the tents of Shem” means that Japheth will share in the blessings of Shem. According to this view, there was to be a time when God worked primarily with Shem (the people of Israel), but later Japheth would be brought into connection with the faith of Israel to share Israel’s blessings. A similar prophecy is evident in the Abrahamic Covenant, when God promises to bless all nations through Abraham’s seed (Genesis 12:3). The fulfillment is found in Christ and in the gospel coming to the Gentiles at the inception of the church (Acts 15:7; Romans 15:16; Galatians 2:2). Other scholars are of the opinion that the extension of Japheth’s territory refers to territorial enlargement, and living “in the tents of Shem” is the conquest of the Semites’ territory by Japhethites. According to this view, the fulfillment was the Greek and Roman conquests of Israel.
Ham, the youngest of Noah’s three sons, had four sons: Cush, Mizraim (Hebrew for “Egypt”), Put, and Canaan (Genesis 10:6; 1 Chronicles 1:8). Egypt was later called the “land of Ham” (Psalm 78:51; 105:23; 106:22). The Hamitic peoples are shown in Genesis 10:6–20 as becoming a godless and worldly power. It was the land of Israel that was assigned to Ham’s son, Canaan, and for centuries it was under the control of the Egyptians. Ham is the father of the Arabians, Canaanites, and Africans, including the Egyptians. Due to Ham’s sin against his father (Genesis 9:20–25), Noah cursed Canaan, saying Canaan would be a servant to Shem (Genesis 9:26). This was fulfilled centuries later when the Israelites entered the land of Canaan and subdued the inhabitants of that land (1 Kings 9:20–21).