As a pastor who desires to be faithful in teaching God's Word, I encourage people to come to me with their biblical questions so that I can help keep them from going astray in their reading of the Word. I recently received this email from a particularly thoughtful member of my congregation and I thought many of you might have the same question. I have reproduced the question and answer for your edification
I write to you for guidance in answering a most distressing point of detail in the book of Genesis. My wife came to me for spiritual instruction (for as the head of the household I am most wise) about an item of note in Chapter 10, the 21st verse. In it is stated (and I use the English Standard Version for correctness, accuracy, and salvation), quote, "To Shem also, the father of all the children of Eber, the elder brother of Japheth, children were born."
Was there then a 4th brother, a son of Noah named Eber? According to my wife (who is most distressingly educated), the custom of the day was that, if a man died childless, his wife should go to one of his brothers, and that any children produced from this second union should in point of fact be the heirs and children of the first, somewhat deceased brother, and not considered the children of the livelier, more virile second brother. Furthermore, is it possible then that Eber was the eldest son, and Shem the youngest, and that in taking Eber's wife for his own, Shem the youngest son, and father of Israel, took the inheritance and lineage of the eldest and made it his own, thereby irritating the descendants of Ham and Japheth?
Yours truly etc.,