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The fourth account: the sons of Noah (10:1–11:9)
The table of nations
Genesis Chapter 10, verse 1
This is the account of Shem, Ham and Japheth, Noah’s sons, who themselves had sons after the flood.
A question everyone wants to know the answer to is this: Where did I come from? What is the origin of the human race? The very first chapter of Genesis answers that question conclusively.
A question every student of history wants answered is this: Where did the many nations of the world come from? If the world’s billions have a common ancestor, why are there so many different national groupings? Moses answers these questions before focusing on the history of God’s chosen people of Israel. We have his answer in chapter 10
This chapter is often referred to as the table of nations. It’s part of what Moses calls the account of the sons of Noah, the fourth of the ten accounts that make up the book of Genesis. Moses had previously introduced us to Noah’s three sons; here he gives us the subsequent history of those three branches of Noah’s family.
A word of warning before we begin to read the chapter. Chapter 10 does not make for easy or interesting reading. There are many names, and we can’t identify them all. You may very well be tempted simply to skip over a chapter like this. But before you do so, remember these two things: (1) God wanted you to have this document. (2) In all of literature, this is the only document of its kind, listing the geographical distribution of the human race by nation. Israel is the only nation of antiquity that preserved this information.
The table of nations has been criticized for not being complete. Not all nations are described with the same degree of detail, nor should we expect this. Moses devotes more attention to those nations that stood in close relationship to the people of Israel. Since the table is inserted into Genesis just prior to the story of Abraham, we conclude that it represents the state of nations at that time. Chronologically it follows the dispersion of people at the tower of Babel (10:25).
The sons of Japheth:
Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech and Tiras.
The sons of Gomer:
Ashkenaz, Riphath and Togarmah.
The sons of Javan:
Elishah, Tarshish, the Kittim and the Rodanim. (From these the maritime peoples spread out into their territories by their clans within their nations, each with its own language.)
The descendants of Japheth are listed first, because in the centuries to come, the Israelites would have the least amount of contact with them. The Japhethites settled in the areas farthest removed from the Promised Land. Fourteen descendants of Japheth are named, seven sons and seven grandsons, and they form a group known as the Indo-European family of nations.
They’re called the “maritime peoples” because they inhabited countries bordering on the Mediterranean Sea and the coasts of the Black and Caspian Seas. Each Japhethite group had its own country and its own language. Each lived in tribal divisions, or clans, and in its own nation. These four are the only points of difference Moses listed in compiling this table. The Bible is quite silent about the origin of differences in race.
Genesis Chapter 10, verses 6 through 20
The sons of Ham:
Cush, Mizraim, Put and Canaan.
The sons of Cush:
Seba, Havilah, Sabtah, Raamah and Sabteca.
The sons of Raamah:
Sheba and Dedan.
Cush was the father of Nimrod, who grew to be a mighty warrior on the earth. He was a mighty hunter before the LORD; that is why it is said, “Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the LORD.” The first centers of his kingdom were Babylon, Erech, Akkad and Calneh, in Shinar. From that land he went to Assyria, where he built Nineveh, Rehoboth Ir, Calah and Resen, which is between Nineveh and Calah; that is the great city.
Mizraim was the father of the Ludites, Anamites, Lehabites, Naphtuhites, Pathru sites, Casluhites (from whom the Philistines came) and Caphtorites.
Canaan was the father of Sidon his firstborn, and of the Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites, Girgashites, 17Hivites, Arkites, Sinites, 18Arvadites, Zemarites
Later the Canaanite clans scattered and the borders of Canaan reached from Sidon toward Gerar as far as Gaza, and then toward Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, as far as Lasha. These are the sons of Ham by their clans and languages, in their territories and nations.
Listed next are the sons of Ham: Cush, Mizraim, Put, and Canaan. We learn that they settled in northern Africa and Canaan, or Palestine. Mizraim is the Hebrew name for Egypt. In Bible times Cush was a country south of Egypt,
perhaps present-day Sudan. It is clear that at certain points in the table of nations, we don’t know if the name Moses preserved is that of the actual ancestor or that of a tribe or even that of an entire nation.
Special mention is made of a famous grandson of Ham: Nimrod. He is described as “a mighty warrior on the earth.” Nimrod was a ruler and also the founder of an empire. The first step in his empire-building was to gain control over the four cities of Babylon, Erech, Akkad, and Calneh (north and west of
the Persian Gulf, on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers). From there Nimrod moved northwest and established a second center of empire around the four cities of Nineveh, Rehoboth Ir, Calah, and Resen. This famous ruler is called “a mighty hunter before the LORD,” the very opposite of God’s ideal of a king. God’s ideal of a king is a shepherd, a man who seeks the welfare of the flock entrusted to his care. A hunter, by contrast, gratifies himself at the expense of his victim.
A number of verses are devoted to describing the Canaanites. In years to come God’s people were going to have a lot of contact with them. God later instructed the Israelites to dispossess the Canaanites, to occupy their homeland and exterminate them because of their vile idolatry. We can therefore understand why Moses not only includes them in the table of nations but describes them in such detail.
Genesis Chapter 10, verses 21 through 32
Sons were also born to Shem, whose older brother was Japheth; Shem was the ancestor of all the sons of Eber.
The sons of Shem:
Elam, Asshur, Arphaxad, Lud and Aram.
The sons of Aram:
Uz, Hul, Gether and Meshech.
Arphaxad was the father of Shelah,
and Shelah the father of Eber.
Two sons were born to Eber: One was named Peleg, because in
his time the earth was divided; his brother was named Joktan.
Joktan was the father of
Diklah, 28Obal, Abimael, Sheba, Ophir, Havilah and Jobab.
All these were sons of Joktan.
The region where they lived stretched from Mesha toward
Sephar, in the eastern hill country.
These are the sons of Shem by their clans and languages, in
their territories and nations.
These are the clans of Noah’s sons, according to their lines
of descent, within their nations. From these the nations spread
out over the earth after the flood.
Five sons of Shem are named, but the sons of only two are listed. Apparently the other three were too far removed from Israel to be of special interest.
Shem’s son Aram gave his name to the country immediately north of Palestine. Four sons of Aram are named, indicating that this branch of the family was important to God’s ancient people. Rebekah, the wife of Isaac, was an Aramean, as were Leah and Rachel, the wives of Jacob and mothers of the heads of the 12 tribes of Israel.
Arphaxad was the ancestor of the most important branch of Shem’s family tree. The line of Arphaxad became the messianic line. After two generations, this line divided into two branches. The first is that of Joktan, 13 of whose descendants are named, all in eastern Arabia. The more important branch is that of Peleg, whose line is the messianic one, leading to Abraham (Chapter 11, verses 10 through 26) and, ultimately, to Christ.
Chapter 10 is a one-of-a-kind document on the pages of the Scripture. It teaches the unity of postflood humanity, showing that every person on earth today is a descendant not only of Adam but of Noah. It describes the rise of states and identifies the first founder of empires. It shows that God had a hand in distributing the nations. It helped ancient Israel to determine its relationship to the surrounding nations. And—most important—it shows the development through six generations of the family that gave us our Savior.
Relapse into heathenism
Genesis Chapter 11, verses 1 through 4
Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.
They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. hen they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
In the preceding chapters, Moses has given us a history of God’s first universal judgment and a brief survey of the dispersion of nations after the flood. Now he provides an explanation for the puzzling fact that nations that trace their origin to a common ancestor today speak more than five thousand different languages. The great variety of languages in the world today has been called a monument to the cleverness of the human mind. Chapter 11 shows us that it’s more a monument to the rebelliousness of the human heart.
It’s understandable that in the first centuries after the flood, the whole world had a single language. Since all people came from the family of Noah, the vocabulary they used was the same, and the way they spoke was the same.
It soon became obvious, however, that although their language had not changed, the attitudes of these descendants of Noah had changed—and not for the better. We see a development similar to the one we observed in the family
of Adam after the fall, when the godly Sethites gradually patterned their lives after those of the unbelieving Cainites. This brought down God’s judgment of the flood on the whole race.
Here we see the Shemites, the line that had received Noah’s special blessing, rebelling against God’s expressed will for them. After Noah’s family left the ark, God had commanded them, “Fill the earth!” It was God’s good will that in
time the whole earth should be filled with people who would live for his glory, so that from east to west his reputation as Savior would be magnified.
Noah’s descendants started out well. From Armenia, where the ark had come to rest, they journeyed down into the Tigris-Euphrates valley, often referred to as Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq). The direction of their migration was to the southeast; here it’s described as “eastward,” because the Hebrew language has expressions only for the four points of the compass; it has none for the
“They found a plain in Shinar and settled there.” A wellwatered plain would naturally look good to farmers, and in disobedience to God, they decided to stop their migration and settle down. It didn’t matter to them that God had said, “Fill the earth!” They answered: “Why should we? It doesn’t get any better than this!”
The settlement they planned to establish was not a temporary one either. “Let us build ourselves a city,” they said—a fortified settlement. The materials they chose also indicate that this settlement was to be permanent. Instead of sundried clay or stone, they chose fire-hardened brick for their building project, with tar for mortar instead of the customary mud. And look at the stated purpose of their building project: “so that we may make a name for ourselves.”
“Glory to man in the highest!” That’s turning God’s plan for us topsy-turvy. That’s rejecting his goal for life and substituting a goal of our own. Sustenance (food and shelter), security, status—these were the life goals the descendants of Noah had adopted. Satan doesn’t have to persuade us to kneel down in front of an idol if he can get us to look at life only in terms of ourselves.
Genesis Chapter 11, verses 5 through 9
But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
It does not surprise us that the Lord intervened in judgment to stop that building project. “I am the LORD,” he has told us. “I will not give my glory to another” (Isaiah Chapter 42, verse 8). Moses tells us that “the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building.” The statement that the Lord “came down” is not to be understood literally, as though the Lord had to travel to the building site to learn what the builders were up to. God does want to emphasize, however, that whenever he intervenes in judgment, he has carefully evaluated all the facts; his judgment is never impulsive or arbitrary.
God’s judgment here, unlike at the time of the flood, wasn’t even visible. God simply made some changes inside the minds of the builders. They could no longer understand one another’s language. For one thing, that meant that they
could no longer work together. Worse yet, they no longer trusted one another. The spirit of friendliness and confidence was replaced by ugly suspicion, and they had to move away from their dream home. The settlement they had hoped would bring them fame became known as Babel (“confusion”). It is significant that this judgment of scattering the descendants of Noah is ascribed to the LORD, Jehovah, the Savior-God. It is the Savior who says, “Do not be deceived: I will not be mocked.” He is absolutely unwilling to let people wipe their feet on his great, good plan for this world.
Martin Luther called God’s action at Babel a much more horrible judgment than the flood. That divine judgment wiped out only a single generation of humanity. Confusing the languages at Babel, however, has bred confusion, suspicion, and hatred in every generation since then, down to our broken, disorderly world. Why is nation pitted against nation, social element against social element, individual against individual? We have an answer here.
The narrative of Babel brings the account of the sons of Noah to a close, and it ends on a sour note. The descendants of Noah were running away from God—some of them no doubt ignorantly but most of them maliciously.
The unanswered question at this point is this: What would God’s relationship be to this disorderly and rebellious human race? Would his patience finally be exhausted? If people wanted to run away from him, would he finally say,
“All right! If you want to go to hell so badly, have it your way! See if I care!”? If the God of grace had not once again intervened, the history of mankind would have ended in the darkness of heathenism.