Although the three sons are consistently listed as “Shem, Ham and Japheth,” there is some uncertainty as to their relative positions according to age. The fact that Shem is mentioned first is of itself no definite indication that Shem was Noah’s firstborn, since Shem’s own firstborn son (Arpachshad) is listed third in the genealogical records. (Ge 10:22; 1Ch 1:17) In the original Hebrew, Genesis 10:21 allows for more than one possible translation, some translations referring to Shem as “the brother of Japheth the oldest [“elder,” KJ],” while others call him the “elder [“older,” AT] brother of Japheth.” (AS, Dy, RS, JB, Ro) The ancient versions likewise differ—the Septuagint, the translation by Symmachus, and the Targum of Onkelos present Japheth as the older, while the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Latin Vulgate, and the Syriac versions place Shem as the older brother of Japheth. The weight of evidence found in the rest of the Bible record, however, indicates that Shem likely was Noah’s second son, younger than Japheth.
The record shows that Noah began to father sons after reaching 500 years of age (2470 B.C.E.), the Deluge occurring in his 600th year. (Ge 5:32; 7:6) Already married at the time of the Deluge (Ge 6:18), Shem is stated to have fathered his first son, Arpachshad, two years after the Deluge (2368 B.C.E.) when he, Shem, was 100 years old. (Ge 11:10) This would mean that Shem was born when Noah was 502 years of age (2468 B.C.E.); and since Ham appears to be referred to as the “youngest son” (Ge 9:24), Japheth would logically be the first son born to Noah, when he was 500 years of age.
Following the birth of Arpachshad, other sons (and also daughters) were born to Shem, including Elam, Asshur, Lud, and Aram. (Ge 10:22; 11:11) After Aram, the parallel account at 1 Chronicles 1:17 also lists “Uz and Hul and Gether and Mash,” but at Genesis 10:23 these are shown to be sons of Aram. Biblical and other historical evidence indicates that Shem was thus the progenitor of the Semitic peoples: the Elamites, the Assyrians, the early Chaldeans, the Hebrews, the Aramaeans (or Syrians), various Arabian tribes, and perhaps the Lydians of Asia Minor. This would mean that the population descended from Shem was concentrated principally in the southwestern corner of the Asiatic continent, extending throughout most of the Fertile Crescent and occupying a considerable portion of the Arabian Peninsula.—See articles under the names of the individual sons of Shem.
When Shem and his brother Japheth covered over their father’s nakedness at the time of Noah’s being overcome by wine, they showed not only filial respect but also respect for the one whom God had used to effect their preservation during the Flood. (Ge 9:20-23) Thereafter, in the blessing Noah pronounced, indication was given that the line of Shem would be particularly favored by God and would contribute to the sanctification of God’s name, Noah referring to Jehovah as “Shem’s God.” (Ge 9:26) It was from Shem, through his son Arpachshad, that Abraham descended, and to him was given the promise concerning the Seed in whom all the families of the earth would receive a blessing. (1Ch 1:24-27; Ge 12:1-3; 22:15-18) Noah’s prediction concerning Canaan’s becoming “a slave” to Shem was fulfilled by the Semitic subjugation of the Canaanites as a result of the Israelite conquest of the land of Canaan.—Ge 9:26.
Shem lived 500 years after fathering Arpachshad, dying at the age of 600 years. (Ge 11:10, 11) His death thus occurred some 13 years after the death of Sarah (1881 B.C.E.) and ten years after the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah (1878 B.C.E.). In view of this, it has been suggested that Shem may have been Melchizedek (meaning “King of Righteousness”), the king-priest to whom Abraham paid tithes. (Ge 14:18-20) The Bible record does not say this, however, and the apostle Paul shows that no available genealogical record or other vital statistics were left concerning Melchizedek, so that he became an apt type of Christ Jesus, who is King-Priest perpetually.—Heb 7:1-3.