These are the families of Noah’s sons, according to their genealogies, in their nations; and from these the nations spread abroad on earth after the flood. (Gen 10:32)
The Table of Nations (Gen 10) is unique in Scripture and perhaps in all ancient literature as a cultural and ethnographic “map” of the ancient Israelites’ world. It is also, unfortunately, a greenhouse for ridiculous theories of every sort about early human history.
I may have more to write about the Table of Nations later, but for now I’d like to state some basic observations.
1. There is more than one way to become a “son”
Israel itself is a clear example. Israel began as an extended family or clan comprised of the descendants of Terah (Gen 11:26), but there were also a large number of servants and retainers as part of the patriarchal household. These additional people were not descendants of Terah and most likely came from a number of races or ethnic groups. Abraham could call on 318 fighting men from among those who counted on his patronage (Gen 14:14). At the time of the Exodus, Israel was still a “mixed multitude” of many nations (Exod 12:38)‚ perhaps even more than when they entered Egypt. They were all “children of Israel,” but not all were biological descendants of Jacob. Most were “children” by “adoption.”
Israel was not unique. Clans, nations, and peoples were united by treaty, intermarriage, conquest, assimilation, and simple convenience, and the terms normally employed for physical relationships (“sons of”; “bore/begat”) are all elsewhere used in Babylonian and Hebrew literature to denote such political alliances. This terminology could even imply subjugation in warfare.
Turning to the Table of Nations, we need to keep the same factors in mind. To claim that certain peoples or nations were the “sons” of one or the other of the sons of Noah must not be seen as implying that every last member of the group was a direct descendant of a particular son. Rather, it shows their association in a variety of ways with those who were directly descended from one or the other. According to Walter Brueggeman, “The basic principle of organization is not racial, ethnic, linguistic, or territorial, but political. It reflects networks of relations at a given time” (Genesis [John Knox, 1982] 91-92). Therefore, any theory interpreting the Table of Nations purely along racial or genetic lines is a waste of effort.
2. The list includes toponyms, ethonyms, and personal names
The Bible says as much when it speaks of “families,” “nations,” “lands,” and “languages” (Gen 10:5, 20, 31). Among the seventy “nations” listed, we find:
- Nimrod (v. 8 ) and Peleg (v. 25), two individuals who may or may not have become the ancestors of ancient people groups. I suspect Cush (v. 6) was also an individual, although he ultimately gave his name to the region of Africa south of Egypt. There may well be other individuals on the list.
- Tribal groups, designated by a plural noun, such as Dodanim (v. 4) and Anamim (v. 13). Perhaps these can be traced to an eponymous ancestor (e.g., “Dodan” or “Anam”), but this is not certain.
- Cities and/or their inhabitants, especially in the portion of the Table devoted to Canaan (vv. 15-19): Sidon, Arvadites, Hamathites, etc.
- Territories like Pathros in Egypt (“Pathrusim,” v. 14) and Hadramaut in Arabia (“Hazarmaveth,” v. 26). Again, these may go back to an eponymous ancestor.
In the case of cities and territories, it is possible that the geographic reference is primary and that later migrants inherited the name of the original inhabitants of a region, whether or not they were genetically or culturally related. In secular history, this is certainly the case with the Nesili people, who conquered the region of Hatti and were known from Egypt to Mesopotamia as the “Hittites.”
The Hittites also possibly give us a biblical example as well. Most scholars take Canaanite Heth (v. 15) to be a reference to the Hittites, and yet the Nesili/Hittite people were an Indo-European people who only later arrived in the Levant. Ethnolinguistically, we might have expected them to be assigned to Japheth, the presumed ancestor of the Indo-European peoples. If Heth in fact refers to the Hittites, then apparently some of them—the only ones the author of Genesis 10 cared to comment on—became culturally assimilated to the Canaanite population.
The bottom line is that the Table is a mixed bag in which the data sets are not always strictly comparable with one another. What is true for one part of the Table is not necessarily true for another part.
3. Some names are repeated
A number of nations are listed twice on different parts of the Table. Both Ham and Shem claim a Sheba and a Havilah. Elsewhere in Genesis, there is even a third Sheba, with a brother named Dedan (see v. 7): the sons of Jokshan, a descendant of Abraham! (Gen 25:3.) It is at least possible that Shemite Lud (v. 22) is the same as Hamite Ludim (v. 13) and that Shemite Mash (v. 23) is the same as Japhetite Meshech (v. 2).
These duplications may signify that part of the group migrated to a different region, or that all or part of the group became associated with other tribes or nations through intermarriage or marriage treaties. However they are interpreted, they point to the mixed nature of ancient people-groups.
4. Some of the names are anachronistic
There are a few places where it seems a more recent term is used rather than a more ancient one. For those who hold strictly to Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, this is problematic. The problem is especially pronounced in the case with the descendants of Japheth (vv. 2-5). The Greeks, for example, are not called by any of the names by which they were known when they first entered recorded history in the Middle Bronze Age, such as Achaeans (Hittite Ahhiyawa; Egyptian Ekwesh?) or Danaans (Egyptian Denen, Danuna?). Rather, they are called Ionians (Hebrew Yavan, v. 2)‚ a term that first seems to appear with Homer around 750 BC or so.
Eventually, the Ionians seemed to outshine other Greek-speaking groups, so that “Ionian” came to mean “Greek” among outsiders like the Assyrians (who called them Yamanu) and the Hebrews. Yes, it is possible that the Ionians were descendants of an earlier eponymous ancestor named Iawones or something similar‚ although this is clearly not what Homer asserts in Iliad 13.685, regardless of what some believe! But the Ionians were but one subgroup of the Greek nations, along with Achaeans, Aeolians, and later Dorians. How and when did this part come to stand for the whole in Hebrew thought?
Similarly, all the Indo-Aryan peoples (Persians, Medes, Indians, etc.) seem to be summed up not under the group’s most ancient self-designation of “Aryans” (Airya, Arya) but under the heading Madai (v. 2), that is, the Medes. This makes perfect sense for the late eighth to mid-sixth century BC, when the Medes were dominant in the Old Testament world. It seems likely that this was the era when the Table came into its present form. It makes for rough going, however, if one wants to track these groups back to their earlier ancestors.
Personally, I think a case can be made that the Table does go back to much earlier times. Abbot has made some general observations about the nature and antiquity of the Table of Nations, and I think he’s on target. In particular, he argues that, if Genesis 10 was a “living” document in Israel’s history, the names may have periodically been updated to reflect new international developments. Unfortunately, the earlier names are now lost to us, and the names we have are often parts meant to stand for a whole that is not always easy to discern.
5. There are groups missing
Despite the attempts of many, there is no credible way to find Chinese and other east Asian peoples, Native Americans, Australian aborigines, etc., in Genesis 10. Occam’s Razor demands that Sinites (v. 17) refer to the inhabitants of the Canaanite city of Siyannu and not to the “Sinitic” peoples of the Far East, for example. For that matter, the attempts to find the early Celtic and Germanic tribes in Genesis 10 are strained at best.
Even among peoples of the ancient Near East, there are some notable omissions. There do not seem to be any Hurrians (biblical Horites) despite the many points of cultural contact archeologists have discovered between the Hurrians of northern Mesopotamia (e.g., the writers of the Nuzi texts) and the world of the patriarchs.
Some have attempted to find a connection between the Canaanite Hivites and the Hurrians based on a single verse (Gen 36:2) where a Hivite is also described as a Horite. But this is far more easily explained as a scribal error, since only one letter distinguishes the two names (resh instead of yod). Even if the text stands as it is, however, it is a leap of logic to suggest that because one Hivite was also a Horite, that all Hivites are Horites. We know very little about Zibeon’s ancestry, after all. At any rate, the Hurrians were definitely not a Semitic people, so even if this identification were correct, it would be another example of an outside group becoming thoroughly assimilated to the dominant culture after settling in a new territory.
6. Using the Table of Nations as a guide to modern ethnic identity is a waste of time
Even if one stipulates that all humans alive today derive somehow from the descendants of Noah (and I’m prepared to accept this on statistical grounds), there are still no longer any “pure-blooded” representatives of any of the seventy nations listed in Genesis 10.
Even in antiquity, peoples on the fringes of the Near East who, after embracing Christianity, tried to fit themselves into the biblical history often ended up doing so by making themselves into mongrels. The Ethiopians saw themselves as both Hamites (through Sabtah, son of Cush) and Shemites (through Aram, whom they called Ori). The Armenians claimed ancestry from both Togarmah (Japheth) and Aram (Shem). (And if Meshech is a reference to the Mushki or Phrygians, most linguists would claim they belong in the mix as well.) What hope, then for those of us whose ancestors hailed from northern Europe? Irish monks in the Middle Ages contrived a theory by which the Celts came from the Japhethite lines of both Magog and Riphath, although some versions of the story find room for Javan, too, and most versions have Nel, an early Gaelic hero, marrying Pharaoh’s daughter and thus bringing at least a touch of African/Hamite blood to the Emerald Isle! (And thus, the “one-drop rule” rises up to bite all those Scots-Irish southerners who show up at KKK rallies right where it hurts!)
Keep in mind that the Armenians and Ethiopians (and even the ancient Celts, if you insist on going there) lived centuries before Christ. Two or more millennia later, what is the chance of finding even one person on earth who can legitimately claim only one of these lines as his or her own? What is the chance that anyone on earth is not “tainted” with at least a drop of the blood of some group they would rather not claim as ancestors?
7. The Table of Nations is both historical and theological
I think there are some good, ancient historical data embedded in the Table of Nations, although it requires a fair bit of sifting and cross-checking with other ancient sources to bring it to light. Others will no doubt disagree, but if Brueggemann is right about the political‚ rather than mythological‚ organization of the Table (93), then we have to take seriously what it can tell us about actual history. What is irrefutable, however, is that the Table of Nations has come down to us because of its theological significance for the ancient Hebrews.
The Table of Nations bridges the gap between the Flood (Gen 6-9) and the Call of Abram (Gen 12). It sets Abram’s family within the context of the wider world. In so doing, it makes the following points of a theological nature:
- The fundamental unity of the human race. Brueggemann says it well: “In a sweeping scope, the text insists that there is a network of interrelatedness among all peoples. They belong to each other. As ecumenists are fond of saying, we have to do not with a unity to be achieved, but with a unity already given among us” (93).
- The presence of human evil, which comes to the fore in the brief account of Nimrod (vv. 8-9)—the only major departure from the stylized structure of the Table. Nimrod’s empire-building is seen as an affront to humanity’s God-given unity.
- The fulfillment of creation. The Table of Nations gives witness to humanity’s success at “being fruitful and multiplying” in the era after the Flood (see 9:1). The fact of all these people‚ with all of their different languages, lands, and families‚ is considered a good thing.
- The line of election. Although Israel, a relative latecomer to history, is absent from the Table, the entire chapter establishes its place in the scope of world affairs. The genealogy of Israel’s ancestors is further elaborated in Genesis 11. Finally, one member of that family, Abram, steps onto center stage in Genesis 12.
These are the issues that matter. I find the rest—the ethnography, the tantalizing bits of history, and so forth—to be quite intellectually stimulating (history buff that I am), but they are certainly not “important” in the vast scheme of things. But some people insist on pushing the Table of Nations in directions it was never intended to go. Consider this post my little attempt to push back.
Related: The Descendants of Japheth