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Seven Irrefutable Facts about the Table of Nations

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

technorati tags: genealogy, genesis, ham, japheth, shem, table of nations

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6 Comments

  1. I remember doing a paper on biblical genealogies, including the Table of Nations, for Smothers’ class on Genesis. Were you in that class? Because this sounds very familiar and I know I haven’t looked at those particular notes or that finished paper since then.

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  2. D. P. says:

    Alas, I didn’t have Smothers for OT. (Wish I had; he was great for Hebrew syntax). Most of this comes from Nahum Sarna and Walter Brueggemann.

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  3. John Hobbins says:

    Thanks, D. P., for a post well done. I highlight it on my blog.

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  4. Doc Brash says:

    One should use caution when making statements like ‘irrefutable facts’ when some are refutable! Jesus Christ often corrected his critics with the statement, ‘Have you not read’ & also to the Sadducees concerning the resurrection of the dead, ‘you know NEITHER the Scriptures nor the power of God.’ They didn’t read what the Scriptures SAID in context, which often solves 99% of interpretational issues. The examples below should be sufficient enough to turn irrefutable fact (#1) to refutable opinion & presumed conjecture. If you can show me from Scripture where you are right & I am wrong please do.

    You presume that the Israelites mixed with the mixed multitude & that the mixed multitude described the Israelites. Thus you make your conclusion.

    Is that what the Scriptures really say? And, was the practice of the Israelites to marry interracially or was interracial marriage condemned?
    Why was geneaology so critical in Jewish thought & life? What was the reason why the Yehudah (Jews) hated the Samaritans so?

    Ex 12:37,38, 40,42 Then the children of ISRAEL journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about 600,000 men on foot, besides children. And a mixed multitude went up ALSO WITH THEM; & flocks & herds, even very much cattle…Now the sojourn of the children of ISRAEL who lived in Egypt was 430 years. It is a night of solemn observance to the Lord for bringing THEM out of the land of Egypt. This is that night of the Lord, a solemn observance for all the children of ISRAEL throughout THEIR generations.
    (Israel was NOT the mixed multitude, they came ALSO up WITH Israel)

    Gen 15:13 Then He said to Abram: “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs & will serve them & they will afflict them 400 years.

    Genesis 21:12,13 But God said to Abraham, “Be not displeased because of the lad & because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for THROUGH ISAAC shall your DESCENDANTS be named. And I will make ‘a’ nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring.”

    Exodus 23:9 “Also you shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

    Numbers 1:1,4,18 Now the Lord spoke to Moses in the Wilderness of Sinai, in the tabernacle of meeting, on the 1st day of the 2nd month, in the 2nd year after they had come out of the land of Egypt, saying, “Take a census of all the congregation of the children of ISRAEL, by THEIR families, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, every male individually, from 20 years old & above (these are named from the 12 sons of Jacob as the context shows)…& they recited THEIR ANCESTRY by families…

    Numbers 11:1-6 Now when the people complained, it displeased the Lord; for the Lord heard it & His anger was aroused. So the fire of the Lord burned among them & consumed some in the outskirts of the camp. Then the people cried out to Moses & when Moses prayed to the Lord, the fire was quenched. So he called the name of the place Taberah, because the fire of the Lord had burned among them. Now the mixed multitude who were among them yielded to intense craving; so the children of Israel also wept again & said: “Who will give us meat to eat? We remember the fish which we ate freely in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions & the garlic; but now our whole being is dried up; there is nothing at all except this manna before our eyes!”

    Numbers 36:6 “This is what the Lord commands concerning the daughters of Zelophehad, saying, `Let them marry whom they think best, but they may marry only within the family of their father’s tribe.’

    Leviticus 17:8,10,15 “And you shall say to them: `Whatever man of the house of Israel, or of the STRANGERS who sojourn AMONG YOU, who offers a burnt offering or sacrifice & does not bring it to the door of the tabernacle of meeting, to offer it to the Lord, that man shall be cut off from among his people. And whatever man of the house of Israel, or of the strangers who sojourn among you, who eats any blood, I will set My face against that person who eats blood & will cut him off from among HIS people. And every person who eats what died naturally or what was torn by beasts, whether he is a NATIVE of your OWN country or a STRANGER, he shall both wash his clothes & bathe in water & be unclean until evening. Then he shall be clean.

    Lev 19:34 The alien (stranger) living WITH YOU must be treated LIKE one of your NATIVE-BORN. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.

    Lev 20:2 “Say to the Israelites: `Any Israelite OR any alien living IN Israel (not of Israel or native-born in Egypt) who gives any of his children to Molech must be put to death.

    Leviticus 25:45 You may also buy some of the children of the temporary aliens (stangers) living among you & members of THEIR clans born in YOUR country & they will become your property.

    Joshua 8:35 There was not a word of all that Moses had commanded which Joshua did not read before all the congregation of Israel, with the women, the little ones & the strangers who were living AMONG them.

    Deut 28:1 If you fully obey the LORD your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the LORD your God will set you high ABOVE all the nations on earth. (blessing) vs (curse) 28:32 Your sons & daughters will be given to another nation & you will wear out your eyes watching for them day after day, powerless to lift a hand.

    Deut 7:3 Do not intermarry with them. (many nations of promised Land) Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods & the LORD’s anger will burn against you & will quickly destroy you. For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. Therefore, take care to follow the commands, decrees & laws I give you today.

    Neh 10:29,30 All these now join their brothers the nobles & bind themselves with a curse & an oath to follow the Law of God given through Moses the servant of God & to obey carefully all the commands, regulations & decrees of the LORD our Lord. And that we would not give our daughters unto the people of the land, nor take their daughters for our sons.

    Nehemiah 13:3, 27 So it was, when they had heard the Law, that they SEPARATED all the mixed multitude from Israel. Shall we then listen to you & do all this great evil & act treacherously against our God by marrying strange (foreign, alien) women?”

    Thanks for allowing me the opportunity to respond.

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  5. D. P. says:

    Thanks, Doc. Perhaps you’ll notice that all of these laws about separating from Gentiles come after the Exodus and pertain to pagan religious practices, not to genealogy. And perhaps you’ll also remember that King David’s great-grandmother was a Moabite. Then perhaps you’ll re-read that first heading and realize that my “irrefutable fact” is that “there is more than one way to become a ‘son,'” a proposition in no way addressed by your comment, other than some nitpicking about one of my examples which, for whatever reason, you believe is at the center of my contention.

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  6. […] the comments left on the first blog, I also found another post debunking the Table of Nations. (This was promulgated in early YES lessons in the beginning of the 80s, and was also featured […]

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