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Genesis 10:1-32

The text this morning is the tenth chapter of Genesis. Genesis 10 is the kind of passage that for long years Christians skimmed over while struggling to pronounce the names. It raises the question in many minds why such material was taking up space in the Word of God. But our understanding of passages like these has come a long way over the last generation and now we realize the way with, which even in a genealogy such as this one, both theology and ethics are communicated, taught and illustrated.

Text Comment

v.1       “These are the generations of…” marks a new chapter, the fourth chapter of the ten that make up the book of Genesis. What that tells us is that the first paragraph of our chapter 11, the paragraph that recounts the history of the Tower of Babel, is also part of the same chapter that begins here with the so-called Table of Nations. And they belong together in this way: as the Table of Nations emphasizes the unity of the human race, the Tower of Babel explains its disunity. [Waltke, 162]

The unity of the race is emphasized “by introductory and concluding formulas of summarization” in vv. 1 and 32. [Sarna, 67] All these peoples descended from Noah. But, as you will see, what is before us here is Israel’s known world. These are the peoples known to Moses and his contemporaries. As one scholar describes the world of the Table of Nations:

“The geographic horizon of this roster of peoples roughly encompasses the vast territory that stretches from the Caucasus in the north to Arabia in the south, from the Iranian plateau in the east to the island of Crete, and perhaps beyond, in the west — all from the perspective of one centered in Canaan, the future land of Israel, which is where the three geographic arcs intersect.”  [Sarna, 68]

v.2       As we have already noted, in Genesis the genealogy of the non-elect seed is given first. We had Cain’s genealogy before Seth’s; we will have Esau’s before Isaac’s, and so on. Here we have both the genealogies of Japheth and Ham before that of Shem.

There is much detail about these names provided in the commentaries. But I would bury you with detail if I identified each of these peoples, at least as much as they can be identified. In fact the table presents a number of problems that are insoluble in our present state of knowledge. What is interesting, however, perhaps particularly because of things we may have heard about the curse of Ham or Canaan, is that racial characteristics, skin color, and so forth play no role whatsoever in the categorizing of peoples. [Sarna, 68]

v.4       You are going to notice a lot of names with the “im” ending. Remember “im” is the masculine, plural ending for Hebrew nouns. One seraph, two seraphim; one cherub, two cherubim. All of these are individual names that have become the names of peoples. We are given here stylized history; that is, we don’t have an exhaustive report, only material sufficient to make the narrator’s point. We here read, for example, of seven sons of Japheth and seven grandsons. We’re used to the number “seven” as a symbol of totality or completeness.

v.5       The mention of these unnamed peoples indicates both that the genealogy was never intended to be exhaustive and that the number of nations explicitly mentioned has a particular purpose, as we shall see. [Sarna, 69]

v.8       The Hebrew verb means “began to be,” and marks a new innovation in human history — there was no one quite like Nimrod before Nimrod — as in 4:26 where we read that men “began to call on the name of the Lord,” and 6:1 were we read of men beginning to multiply on the face of the earth. Think of Nimrod as the archetype of a new figure in world history: the Caesar, the Napoleon, or the Hitler: great military leaders who would overspread the earth with war.

v.12     Vv. 8-12 are virtually a parenthesis, a pause to explain the genealogical and spiritual origins of Assyria and Babylon.

v.19     The delineation of Canaanite territory, of course, would have been highly interesting to the original readers of Genesis, as Israel was to take that territory for themselves.

v.20     Among the descendants of Ham were Israel’s great enemies who will figure most prominently in the history recorded in the rest of the Old Testament: Egypt, the Canaanites, Assyria, and Babylon. The four terms — clans, languages, territories, and nations — reminds us how the peoples of the world are still divided today: by ethnicity, geography, language, and politics. [Waltke, 165]

v.21     Finally we come to the elect line. Eber is thought to be the origin of the term “Hebrew.” [cf. Sarna, 78] Eber is emphasized by being mentioned out of order, as we won’t come to him in the genealogy itself until v. 25. He was Shem’s great grandson if the genealogy is complete, a more distant descendant if not.

v.32     Not all the nations of the world are mentioned in the chapter but enough of them to make the point: the nations of the world descend from the same ancestors and have the same creator and Lord. Many of these names are those of individuals, but they meet us later in the OT as nations or city states. [cf. Sarna, 68] If you count them up, you will find that there are seventy nations listed in chapter 10, again a symbolic number. Seventy will also be the number of Abraham’s descendants who go down to Egypt at the end of Genesis. So we not only have here a stylized genealogy that serves as a microcosm of the whole world, at least Israel’s world, but Israel will, in turn, prove to be a microcosm of this microcosm. She will be the nation through whom the nations of the world are finally blessed, the nation whose fortunes are the world’s fortunes in miniature: she will be the world within the world.

You will also notice here that our chapter 10 is an example of what literary critics call anachrony or dis-chronologizing in a narrative. Obviously chapter 10 follows chapter 11 in historical order, not only in reporting people who lived much later than the events of chapter 11, but in referring to the separate languages of these various peoples, the origin of which separation isn’t explained until the account of the Tower of Babel in the next chapter.

Prof. Bruce Waltke suggests that the reason for this anachrony is that in this way the nations of the world are set out first as the objects of God’s blessing, before they become the objects of his judgment. We are given here a panoramic view of mankind which continues to live because of the blessing of God, lives under his sovereign rule whether or not mankind acknowledges the fact, and for which God still has gracious intentions. Soon we will learn that it was out of concern for the peoples of the entire world that God called Abraham to be a blessing to all the nations of the earth. [Sarna, 69-70] Holy Scripture was first written in Hebrew, but Hebrew is a development of the Canaanite language. God redeemed it, as he will so many of the people and so many of the accomplishments of the nations of the world. This totality of humanity is never out of sight in Holy Scripture.

It is highly interesting that there is no other document like our chapter 10 that has been discovered in the literature of the ancient world. [Sarna, 69] This interest in the entire world, in the whole of mankind — where it came from, where it is going — a large world of which Israel was but one very small part, is uniquely biblical. Indeed, it is striking that in this Table of Nations Israel is not mentioned. Many other nations are mentioned that would live long after Israel had become a people and a nation, but not Israel. This is not only some demonstration of the historicity of this information, a faithful record of what was true after the flood but before the days of Moses. A theological point is being made. Israel might have easily been written back into the genealogy of the nations, but she wasn’t. And in this way we are taught that Yahweh is the God of the world; the God of all the peoples of the world, not only the God of Israel; he is the God of the Gentiles not only of his people Israel.

Indeed, until late in chapter 11 we have no idea where we will find Israel in this genealogical account of the peoples of the world. [Waltke, 174-175] Later in the Pentateuch we will read that “The Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind…” [Deut. 32:8] In the NT the Apostle Paul will make the same point when he says that every family in heaven and on earth receives its name from God the Father (Eph. 3:14). The living God is the God of every person, every people, every nation, whether or not they will admit the fact. The comings and goings of the nations, the fortunes, even, perhaps especially the fortunes of those nations that will not confess the one true God, are likewise the outworking of Yahweh’s will. A major theme of the later books of the OT, as you know, is that, as his servants, however unwittingly, the Lord will use these nations — especially Assyria and Babylon — to punish and discipline his people. There are no peoples, no nations, there is no human history that lies outside God’s sovereign rule and that is not part of his eternal purpose for the world.

We can put the point this way. The point of there being 70 nations is that “the varied instrumentalities of human devisiveness are all secondary to the essential unity of the international community…” [Sarna, 69] There really is, in other words, a human family.

The Table of Nations is not some accountant’s digression in the narrative of Genesis. We have rich and deeply significant theology here, a theology that ought to inform and direct our lives. It was certainly theology for the book’s original audience. By identifying the descendants of both Canaan and Shem, the fulfillment of the curse upon Canaan and the promise that Canaan would be Shem’s slave, made in Gen. 9:24-27, can be charted exactly in the remainder of the five volume work that Moses was writing. We will see that Shem’s lineage is reported again in greater detail at the end of chapter 11, as a prelude to the history of Abraham, whose ancestor Shem was. Remember, Moses had his own contemporaries primarily in his view when he wrote this early history of the world. They were Shem’s descendants and were about to conquer Canaan.

But it is theology to live by for us as well. What we have here is a demonstration, in the form of a family tree, of the unity of the human race. All men descending from the same individuals, all the nations branches of the same stock, all owing their lives to the deliverance God granted mankind through the flood, and all, in one form or another, living out their lives in this world under the curse or the blessing of God.

There is a famous statement found in one of the plays of the second century B.C. Latin playwright Terence. “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto“, or “I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me.” [From Heauton Timorumenos, “The Self-Tormentor.”] Well, we could alter that famous sentence in a single word and describe the theology of Genesis 10. “I am a Christian; I consider nothing that is human alien to me.” No one should care more for this world and its peoples, no one should consider the interests, the circumstances, the ups and downs of humanity more interesting, more important, more deserving of thought and attention than Christians, who know that the world of mankind is our heavenly Father’s world, a world for which he has great purposes, and, ultimately, for which he has a great concern and a great love. Don’t ever forget this astonishing fact: Israel waited four-hundred years in Egyptfour hundred years takes us back to 1615 much of that time suffering cruel oppression — because Yahweh was unwilling to punish and to dis-possess the Canaanites, his Canaanites, until every opportunity had been given them to repent, to abandon their inhuman paganism, and to acknowledge the living God.

Your Bible is not a provincial book and in that it transcends every religion, every holy book and every secular philosophy of life! Even in the OT, in which, after Gen. 12, the concentration is plainly on one family and then one nation, the rest of the world’s population, all the remainder of mankind, is never far out of sight. A biblical mind is and must be a mind open to the whole world.

God will no sooner take Abraham into covenant with himself and promise to make of Abraham a great nation than he will say in Gen. 12:3 that the purpose of this covenant and this promise is that all the nations of the earth might be blessed in and through Abraham, that is, the very nations we have just read about before we get to Gen. 12, the nations listed by name in Gen. 10 and all the peoples and nations of the world that have through the ages descended from them. Gen. 10 is thus the context of Gen. 12:3. These are the nations any reader of Gen. 12:3 would immediately recognize to be in view in the promise that God would bless all the peoples of the earth through Abraham.

You remember that wonderful scene in Acts 8, when Philip encounters the Ethiopian eunuch riding in his chariot in the desert, reading the 53rd chapter of Isaiah, and, using that text leads the man to faith in Jesus Christ. That Ethiopian eunuch was a descendant of Ham! The descendants of Japheth and Ham came into the kingdom of God in some numbers before the incarnation, but since Pentecost they have been streaming into the church in immense and ever greater numbers and never more so than today.

But long before Pentecost, indeed all through the OT, there are these same nations, seen, as it were, out of the corner of the eye. When Solomon dedicated the temple he asked God, in his great dedicatory prayer, that

“when the foreigner, who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your name — when he comes and prays toward this temple, then hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel…” [1 Kgs 8:41-43]

A remark of John “Rabbi” Duncan has always stuck in my mind. He said, in reference to the very large amount of material regarding the hope of salvation for the nations of the world one finds in the OT: “before the door was wide open it was somewhat ajar.” [Brown, Life, p. 501] And every now and then one from those many nations would receive God’s blessing and salvation as a sign that he had not forgotten the other peoples of his world: the Syro-Phoenician woman whom Elijah befriended, Namaan the Syrian general whom Elisha not only healed but evangelized, and so on.

And then there were the prophets, thundering their judgments not just against Israel and Judah, but against Moab and Ammon, Tyre and Sidon, Assyria and Babylon. These nations too were subject to the law of the one and only living God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He was their judge as well as the Judge of Israel and he was their Sovereign and ordered their rising and their falling just as he ordered the fortunes of his own chosen people.

And not just his judgments; promises too everywhere you look. And what promises! Most of you were not here in the church when, many years ago, an Egyptian Presbyterian pastor — for the Egyptian Coptic church is a Presbyterian Church — preached here. The Rev. Sobhi Ouida impressed us as a faithful and godly man and pastor. In his sermon, he drew attention to a passage in Isaiah 19 that took on completely new meaning for me as a result of this man’s comment on it. There we read of a day in the future when there shall be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will go to Egypt and the Egyptians to Assyria. The Egyptians and Assyrians — deadly enemies in the ancient world remember — will worship together. And then this: In that day Isaiah says Israel will be the third, along with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing on the earth. You know where Assyria is: modern day Iraq and Iran. The Lord Almighty will bless them, saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance.”

What an astonishing thing for Isaiah to prophesy in his day, when Israel was being ground to dust, crushed between those two great empires. And who but an Egyptian Christian could see the full wonder of that promise and the evidence in it that Egyptians too were precious to God; that he cared for them and had not forgotten them. Zechariah speaks of the day when “the survivors from all the nations…go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord Almighty…” [14:16] And in Rev. 5:9, the Bible’s own commentary on John 3:16, we read that the Lord Jesus, in fact, purchased with his blood, “men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation…” And, at the announcement of that, there was a great song sung by “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power for ever and ever!”

And, were that not enough, in Rev. 21:24, in that glorious description of heaven with which the Bible concludes, we are told that “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it.” In other words, the nations, all the people of the world are not some adjunct to God’s real purpose in the world, but are as well the direct and immediate interest of the living God. Their times too are in his hands; they too live and move and have their being in God as Paul taught the Athenian philosophers; all of their days also were ordered for them before there was a one of them and they too are the objects of God’s electing and redeeming love — if not individual by individual and head for head, at least nation by nation and people by people.

But it is not only at the end that the nations are a matter of supreme interest to God but all the way through the Bible and the whole course of human history. And not just in a general way — as sinners in rebellion against him or as harboring among them those elect whom he will send his Spirit to fetch out and bring into the church. No, all of the life of the nations. Did you notice that striking statement in v. 9: “Nimrod was a mighty hunter before the Lord…”? That his, he was mighty “in God’s sight.” God thought that he was mighty. It doesn’t mean that God loved this man with a saving love, or that he approved of how he lived his life. What it does mean, however, is that God noticed, God himself formed an estimate of his great skill. His life, his accomplishments mattered to God! Indeed, his life and accomplishments were, apart from the sin in them, the gift of God.

There is a dark side here and an unspoken irony. Here Nimrod with his skill and power founds Babel, or Babylon (v. 10); how much are we going to hear about that city through the rest of the Bible, all the way to Revelation, where the name Babylon is used to stand for all enemies of God who meet their catastrophic end at the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. But still Nimrod was a mighty hunter before the Lord! God acknowledged his prowess, his skill, his just fame.

I may have told you this. A few months back several of us were in the car coming back from presbytery in Walla Walla and the night before Derek Jeter, the Yankee shortstop, had played his final game as a Yankee at Yankee Stadium. And, lo and behold, one of the greatest Yankees of them all had a walk-off hit to win the game in the bottom of the ninth inning. His last hit in Yankee stadium won a game. We fell to discussing in the van, “Was that God’s gift to Derek Jeter because he likes really good shortstop play and likes really good hitting, likes it better than bad hitting and bad shortstop play.” Perhaps that is why I’ve never had even a single hit in Yankee Stadium! I think he did. Derek Jeter was a great shortstop before the Lord, like Nimrod was a mighty hunter before the Lord.

And so it will be throughout the Scripture and to the end of the world. There is glory in the nations that God plans to take for himself to heaven! There is glory there, of course, for no other reason than that they are his creatures, they bear his image, he has given them great gifts, they live in his rich and fertile world. Whether we are speaking of intellectual endeavors, or artistic triumphs, or scientific breakthroughs, literary or musical masterpieces, deeds of heroism, courage, fortitude, endurance, or acts of faithfulness, kindness and generosity, there is a great deal of glory in the nations and, irony of ironies, it is all the reflected glory of their maker and their Lord whom they still deny and still reject. The Lord did not confine his gifts to his own people; he gave them liberally to the entire world.

Florence and I went to see Unbroken the other day because of our interest in the story of Louis Zamperini’s life. Unfortunately the movie does not tell the most important part of his story. Angelina Jolie might have had real difficulty really grasping that part of the story and perhaps it is better that she didn’t try to tell it. But she tells the remarkable story of this man’s life up to the end of the Second World War; his courage, his fortitude, his athletic prowess. He was widely thought to be, in those days, the man who would break the four minute barrier in the mile. It was an admirable story to tell, but Louis Zamperini was not yet a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. In that sense his life was something of a parable, what the world is without Christ, often admirable, courageous, remarkable in its accomplishment; but how it must have Christ at the end or it all is for naught. For true it is, without Christ Louis Zamperini’s life would have been a sad tale no one would have wanted to tell, a life defeated by his experiences in the war, a life ended in alcoholism and alienation.

I remember very well my first visit to India as a seminary student in 1975. Those first few days I was really depressed and discouraged. I was jet-lagged and overwhelmed. If someone had come to me and said “Here is a ticket home,” I would have taken it and gone. At first I found the country extremely depressing. I was missing Florence, to whom I was recently engaged. I had never encountered such vast numbers of people everywhere one looked; you were always in a crowd. The country was filthy and in many respects pathetically backward. I took a walk in the countryside one Sunday morning before church and saw a water buffalo do his business on the road in front of me and a moment later, a woman was scooping up the dung with her hands and carrying it away to be formed into a patty to be used for her cooking fire. The benighted condition of those vast multitudes still in thrall to India’s primitive idolatries, the temples you could see everywhere, was deeply discouraging. Had I left after a visit of just a few days or a week I would have come away from India with almost an entirely negative impression. I am so grateful that our group was there for an entire month, for as the time passed I realized how wrong and how unchristian my early impressions had been. As the days passed I began to see what I had not seen at first: how handsome the Indian people are, how clever and bright, how beautiful is so much that they produce, how much reflected divine glory is shining everywhere and always in that country. Some friends and I visited Agra and saw the Taj Mahal, which surpasses everything you have ever heard about one of the world’s most beautiful buildings. Its builder, its architect, whomever he was, was like Nimrod, “a mighty architect before the Lord.” And now I am glad to think that the glory of this nation too will be brought into heaven to be enjoyed by God’s people forever.

The word “humanist” has, understandably, a bad press in the evangelical world of our day. A humanist in common parlance is someone who believes in man, who denies the existence of God, and who seeks for the meaning of life and whatever hope may be found for the future in human potential alone. Such is the creed of the Humanist Manifesto for example. For such reasons we often consider “humanist” to mean irreligious. We use the term “secular humanism” to describe a world view that is completely opposed to our own as Christians.

But, as with so many other fine words, this meaning, this understanding of humanism is Johnny-come-lately. That is not what a humanist was first thought to be, nor what the word means in its classical and original sense. The OED, the Oxford English Dictionary, the definitive lexicon of the English language, in its article on “humanism,” does give the more modern definition: the worship of man and belief in man to the exclusion of belief in any supreme being. But it was the last of four definitions of the word. Definition numbers 3 and 2 both had to do with humanism as a movement of learning founded upon a return to the languages and the learning of the classical world. In this sense a humanist is a scholar of the classical languages — Greek and Latin — and of the literature and philosophy that had been written in those languages. But the first definition of “humanist” in the OED, the basic and original definition of the word, is “a student of human affairs, or of human nature.” A humanist is someone who finds human culture and human history and human affairs interesting and important and gives himself or herself to that study and that interest.

And, in that sense, Genesis 10, with its witness to God’s interest in the life of the nations and the accomplishments of even unbelieving men and women, is a summons to every Christian to be a humanist in this higher sense, to be a true humanist because one is a true Christian!

We live in a world of adversaries, no doubt. But we cannot forget that even our adversaries, those who hate us and wish us ill, our Canaanites, Assyrians, and Babylonians, are men and women made in the image of God, whose life our heavenly Father has given them, whose future is a matter of importance to him, and who called his church out of the world in large part to seek their salvation. No Christian can be indifferent to mankind, to its terrible sins or its magnificent achievements. No one should love the people of the world, appreciate their strengths or mourn their sufferings more than a servant and follower of Jesus Christ who, as we read in the gospel of John, came into the world that the world might be saved through him.


How does a Christian confess the truth of Genesis 10? How can you and I obey Genesis 10? By living as a Christian humanist, a lover of the nations, an admirer of all that is good in them, as one who suffers over their rebellion against God, and who at all times cherishes the hope of their eventual salvation and so faithfully prays and works to that end! Genesis 10 is just another fascinating way of teaching us to love our enemies, not just because Jesus loved you, but because he loves them!