1 These are the generations of the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Sons were born to them after the flood. 2 The sons of Japheth: Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech, and Tiras. 3 The sons of Gomer: Ashkenaz, Riphath, and Togarmah. 4 The sons of Javan: Elishah, Tarshish, Kittim, and Dodanim. 5 From these the coastland peoples spread in their lands, each with his own language, by their clans, in their nations. 6 The sons of Ham: Cush, Egypt, Put, and Canaan. 7 The sons of Cush: Seba, Havilah, Sabtah, Raamah, and Sabteca. The sons of Raamah: Sheba and Dedan.8 Cush fathered Nimrod; he was the first on earth to be a mighty man. 9 He was a mighty hunter before the Lord. Therefore it is said, “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the Lord.” 10 The beginning of his kingdom was Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. 11 From that land he went into Assyria and built Nineveh, Rehoboth-Ir, Calah, and 12 Resen between Nineveh and Calah; that is the great city. 13 Egypt fathered Ludim, Anamim, Lehabim, Naphtuhim, 14 Pathrusim, Casluhim (from whom the Philistines came), and Caphtorim. 15 Canaan fathered Sidon his firstborn and Heth, 16 and the Jebusites, the Amorites, the Girgashites, 17 the Hivites, the Arkites, the Sinites, 18 the Arvadites, the Zemarites, and the Hamathites. Afterward the clans of the Canaanites dispersed. 19 And the territory of the Canaanites extended from Sidon in the direction of Gerar as far as Gaza, and in the direction of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, as far as Lasha. 20 These are the sons of Ham, by their clans, their languages, their lands, and their nations. 21 To Shem also, the father of all the children of Eber, the elder brother of Japheth, children were born. 22 The sons of Shem: Elam, Asshur, Arpachshad, Lud, and Aram. 23 The sons of Aram: Uz, Hul, Gether, and Mash. 24 Arpachshad fathered Shelah; and Shelah fathered Eber. 25 To Eber were born two sons: the name of the one was Peleg, for in his days the earth was divided, and his brother’s name was Joktan. 26 Joktan fathered Almodad, Sheleph, Hazarmaveth, Jerah, 27 Hadoram, Uzal, Diklah, 28 Obal, Abimael, Sheba, 29 Ophir, Havilah, and Jobab; all these were the sons of Joktan. 30 The territory in which they lived extended from Mesha in the direction of Sephar to the hill country of the east. 31 These are the sons of Shem, by their clans, their languages, their lands, and their nations. 32 These are the clans of the sons of Noah, according to their genealogies, in their nations, and from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood.
Genesis 10, traditionally called the Table of Nations, is a long list of names representing different peoples and nations of the earth. What are we supposed to do with long lists like these? What on earth could an ancient list of names have to do with life today? Genesis 10 is one of those passages that we might be tempted to skim over in our personal devotions. In fact, preachers have been having to encourage their folks not to skip over these kinds of passages for quite some time.For instance, in the 16th century, David Chytraeus, a German Lutheran, addressed the issue like this:
Though the genealogy of the sons of Noah that is recited in this tenth chapter seems to contain a useless multitude of names, it actually contains weighty doctrine and is for many reasons necessary for the church…[T]hose with good hearts find these things extremely useful.
Yes, I agree with Chytraeus. People with good hearts will indeed find this chapter useful. I would propose that you will find it useful for two primary reasons.
The Table of Nations gives us a right understanding of the globe.
First, Genesis 10 helps us to think rightly about the globe, about how we view the world! Before we unpack this, let me offer a word on the kind of list this is that I think might be helpful. In his book The Infinity of Lists, Umberto Eco argued that there are essentially two types of lists that we find in books and literature: practical(or pragmatic) lists and poeticlists. Eco argued that examples of practical lists would be “a shopping list, the list of guests invited to a party…a library catalogue…the lists of assets in a will…an invoice for goods requiring payment…a restaurant menu,” etc. A poetic list, however, he defines as “any artistic end for which the list was proposed and whatever art form is used to express it.” He goes on to argue that people create poetic lists “because we cannot manage to enumerate something that eludes our capacity for control” and that one of the purposes of the poetic list “is being seized by the dizzying sound of the list.” Speaking of genealogies and other such lists, Eco writes that “it is not so much which of the names are present or absent as it is their rhythmic enunciation for a sufficiently long period of time.”
I find this extremely helpful when approaching Genesis 10. I would like to propose that the Table of Nations represents an overlap between a practical list and a poetic list. It is practical in the sense that it does indeed name real people and places that can be used to trace the growth of humanity after the flood. Yet, it is poetic in the sense that Moses clearly did not name every single name and people and nation on the earth, which would be impossible. In other words, the list is reaching for something “we cannot manage to enumerate something that eludes our capacity for control,” namely the breadth of peoples upon the earth and the goodness of God in establishing the nations. And, yes, one of the purposes of Genesis 10 is to create that “dizzying sound,” but for a purpose, for a reason. Moses was wanting to communicate something about God and the world that we need to grasp, and the best way to do that is to structure this awesome and overwhelming list to help us reach this understanding. But what is the point of understanding we need to reach? There are two aspects. The first is theological and the second is anthropological. In other words, the first tells us something about God and the second tells us something about man.
Theologically, the Table of Nations Speaks of the Goodness of God and Our Accountability to Him
Let us remember that this long list comes after Genesis 9 which contains the Noahic Covenant, God’s promise to bless the earth and no longer flood it. Remember?
8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9 “Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the livestock, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark; it is for every beast of the earth. 11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”
Do you see? One of the beautiful effects of the dizzying sound of this list is to remind us, “Oh, yes! God has been faithful to His covenant with Noah! Yes, our God can be trusted! He is good! He is faithful! He has not abandoned the earth!”
But it goes deeper than the Noahic covenant. “In the map of chapter 10,” writes Walter Brueggemann, “the well-being promised and envisioned in chapter 1 becomes visible.” Indeed, the Table of Nations reveals that God has not abandoned His creative intent as expressed in Genesis 1. His plan has not been thwarted. He still revels in the goodness of creation.
The overwhelming goodness of God is further captured in the fact that Genesis 10 has traditionally been read as a list of seventy names, seventy nations. This use of seventy is important. While we must be careful with numerology, with finding deeper and spiritual meanings behind the numbers in scripture, it is almost universally recognized among commentators that the use of 70 nations is deliberate and provocative. Kenneth Mathews observes that:
…the table enjoys the use of the number “seven” and its multiples. As a whole there are seventy nations named…The table’s favorite term “sons of” (bene) occurs fourteen times (seven twice). Japheth’s section shows two groups of seven (sons and grandsons). The Hamites also have arrangements of seven: seven descendants of Cush…and seven offspring of Mizraim (if “Philistines” is omitted; v.13).
Why does this matter, the seventy nations? The great Old Testament translator Robert Alter observes that the number seventy is “the biblical formulaic number for a sizeable and complete contingent of any sort.”Mathews writes that “[t]his multiple of ‘seven’ and ‘ten,’ numerical figures indicating ‘completeness,’ indicates that the whole of the world’s families are under the eye of God.”
Here again we must remember that Moses could have recorded eighty names or ninety but he did not. Rather, he gave us seventy. This means he was intentionally communicating something to Israel that they would have understood by his original audience. Indeed, the number seventy had deep significance for Israel. Matthews notes that Jacob had “seventy members [who] descended into Egypt (46:27; Exod 1:5; Deut 10:22).”Furthermore, Victor Hamilton speaks of “the significance of the number” as having been “traced to the number of the Sanhedrin or to the number of elders in Israel (Exod. 24:1).”So, yes, this number seventy was significant to Israel!
What, then, does the use of this number in Genesis 10, the Table of Nations, tell us about God? It tells us that God is the God of all nations, of all peoples. And this fact brings in a note of accountability. If all the peoples of the earth have God as their father then all the peoples of the earth are accountable to God! The seventy nations, that is, everybody, must offer worship to God!
Interestingly, Clyde Francisco speaks of “a rabbinical opinion that there were 70 ministering angels about the throne of God.”In other words, not only all the earth but all of heaven offers worship to God!
The next time you look at a globe or map, think this: our great God created all of this, and our existence on earth is a testimony of His goodness. We should praise Him!
Anthropologically, the Table of Nations Speaks of the Kinship of all Humanity
The anthropological point of Genesis 10 is also important. Genesis 10 establishes the kinship of all people, what is sometimes called “the brotherhood of man.” The reason for this is obvious: if we all come from Noah and his sons as a result of the goodness of God then we all have a common ancestor and we are all bound to see each other as (a) kin and (b) created by God. Walter Brueggemann put it nicely when he wrote:
The “map” offers an unparalleled ecumenical vision of human reality. In a sweeping scope, the text insists that there is a network of interrelatedness along all peoples. They belong to each other.
Let us be clear: the failure to understand this point—that Genesis 10 establishes the brotherhood and sisterhood of all men and women—opens the door to all kinds of evil, particularly hatred, racism, conflict, misunderstanding, and even war.
Consider racism. The only way you can hate somebody for the color of their skin is by failing to see and embrace the universal brotherhood of all people. Here is a practical example. Philip Yancey has written of how his church in the 1960s did not open its doors to those of other colors. The pastor and deacons wrote up a little card to hand to African American visitors should they enter the church. Notice carefully their wording in rejecting African Americans from church membership and participation. Yancey writes:
In the 1960s the church deacon board mobilized lookout squads, and on Sundays these took turns patrolling the entrances lest any black “troublemakers” try to integrate us. I still have one of the cards the deacons printed up to give to any civil rights demonstrators who might appear:
Believing the motives of your group to be ulterior and foreign to the teaching of God’s word, we cannot extend a welcome to you and respectfully request you to leave the premises quietly. Scripture does NOT teach “the brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of God.” He is Creator of all, but only the Father of those who have been regenerated.
If any one of you is here with a sincere desire to know Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord, we shall be glad to deal individually with you from the Word of God.
(Unanimous Statement of Pastor and Deacons, August 1960)
See? Dress is up how they will, it was their erroneous rejection of the biblical doctrine of the brotherhood of all people that played a big part in this rejection of one particular people. If you get Genesis 10 wrong, you set the stage for a lot of mischief and wickedness! But if you get it right, you have the foundation for loving all people. The church of Yancey’s youth got it wrong. But not everybody does. Consider these words from the 16thcentury French Reformer, Wolfgang Musculus:
…there remains a relationship of blood, race, kinship and origin by which all the nations of the whole earth are connected by a kind of bond, so that the whole world is inhabited by nations joined in fraternal kinship. Indeed, however much Eastern peoples are separated from those in the West by great expanses, or Northern peoples from those in the South, or divided by national differences, they are still descendants from one father and are all joined as brothers by blood…It is an evil division that separates that which was joined together so that all feeling and affection for original unity is lost…But such fraternal feeling and affection does remain alive among the godly, who acknowledge and serve the creator of all and thus also harbor genuine affection for all who partake of human nature.
To this we can only say “Amen!” Yes, Genesis 10 matters. Theologically it speaks of the goodness of God and our accountability before Him. Anthropologically it speaks of the kinship of all peoples.
The Table of Nations Gives Us Scope for Our Mission as God’s People
And ecclesiologicallyit defines the scope of the church’s mission. Remember: the number seventy is the number of completion, of totality. What are we to make, then, of the number of missionaries that Jesus sends out in Luke 10? The New American Standard Bible reads:
1Now after this the Lord appointed seventy others, and sent them in pairs ahead of Him to every city and place where He Himself was going to come.
8 Whatever city you enter and they receive you, eat what is set before you; 9 and heal those in it who are sick, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’
Yes, there is a manuscript conflict concerning the number in Luke 10. Some manuscripts say seventy. Some say seventy-two. Many scholars argue that this uncertainty is incidental to the clear implication: Jesus is alluding to Genesis 10 in His sending out of the seventy (or seventy-two) missionaries. For the church, this means that the whole church must be seen as a missionary body.We are all missionaries of the gospel of Christ! It is grievous to see how Protestants have done to missionaries what Roman Catholics have done to monks: created a separate group of folks, detached from the church at large, whose job is to do this task exclusively and well. But the missionary imperative was never intended to be the calling of the few. Rather, it is the very heartbeat of the church!
The church does not send missionaries. The church is the sent missionary!
In sending seventy, was Christ Jesus not making this exact point? The seventy represent us all. We are all to go for we are all the body of Christ.
And the sending of the seventy speaks to the scope of the church’s mission. Jesus sent seventy “to every city and place where He Himself was going to come.” And what was their purpose? To “heal those…who are sick, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’” If the seventy are sent to every city where Jesus was to go, what does this mean to the church today? To what places of the world is Jesus going today? Everywhere, of course! To all nations (Matthew 28:19), to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8)!
So we must go! We sent seventy, that is, all of us, must go to the seventy nations, that is, everywhere!Why? Because “God so loved the worldthat He gave His only begotten Son.” That is why! The Table of Nations is there to remind us of our relationship with God and with one another!
The Old Testament scholar Gerhard Von Rad was a bit doubtful about the salvific import of Genesis 10. He wrote:
The (older) interpretations that relate these nations to God’s gracious will which had been revealed in Israel, be it as “unredeemed,” be it as “future beneficiaries of the same salvation,” do not correspond with the Priestly text if we take it as it is. To speak of “the invisible verdure of hope which winds through the barren branches of this register of nations, the hope, namely, that the widely separated ways of the nations will meet at last at a goal set by the God of revelation” (Del.)—that is justifiable for theology only when it brings our chapter together with other (prophetic) witnesses and then, above all, with Acts, ch. 2.
But thankfully we doindeed have these “other (prophetic) witnesses,” and, above them all, we do indeed have Christ. We read Genesis 10 through those lenses. I am grateful that this list is not all we have. Yes, there is an “invisible verdure of hope which winds through the barren branches of this register of nations.” It is the hope and promise of life now and eternal, of forgiveness, of grace! Thankfully Genesis 10 does not stand alone. It is part of a tapestry, a story, a tale God’s loving saving work of goodness and grace.
See the Table of Nations! See the goodness of God! See the mission field of the Church!
John L. Thompson, ed. Genesis 1-11. Reformation Commentary on Scripture. Gen. Ed., Timothy George. Old Testament, vol. I (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), p.321.
Umberto Eco, The Infinity of Lists. Translated by Alastair McEwen. (New York, NY: Rizzoli, 2009), p.113, 116-118.
Walter Brueggemann, Genesis. Interpretation. (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1982), p.94.
Kenneth A. Mathews, Genesis 1:11-26. The New American Commentary. Old Testament, vol. 1A (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, Publishers, 1996), p.436-437.
Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses. The Hebrew Bible. vol. 1 (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 2019), p.35, f.6.
Kenneth A. Mathews, p. 436-437.
Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1990), p.348.
Clyde T. Francisco, “Genesis.” The Broadman Bible Commentary. Vol. 1, Revised (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1969), p.149.
Walter Brueggemann, p.93.
Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? https://books.google.com/books?id=YoiM82U_X-AC&pg=PT88&lpg=PT88&dq=Philip+Yancey+racism+brotherhood+of+man&source=bl&ots=wrpzLdLkht&sig=ACfU3U27cXSeuHHwVuc3SJY-VCGCUv74g&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjowujwtunjAhVEQq0KHYmGA qQQ6AEwBHoECAkQAQ#v=onepage&q=Philip%20Yancey%20racism%20brotherhood%20of%20man&f=false
John L. Thompson, ed., p.322.
Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis. Revised Edition. The Old Testament Library. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1972), p.144.