Table of Nations (Gen 10), Interpretation, & History

Table of Nations (Gen 10), Interpretation, & History November 27, 2021

I’ve written about this chapter from the perspective of biblical archaeology. Here I wish to look at it from a different perspective, and delve into the question of the intentions and perspective of the author of the chapter, and how to most accurately interpret it. Friendly atheist “Lex Lata” has made some comments about it on Jonathan MS Pearce’s blog. These will be the jumping-off point for my analysis. His words will be in blue.


. . . the (historically problematic) Table of Nations, . . . 

The Table of Nations in fact shows a remarkable familiarity with various nations in the ancient near east, and is strongly corroborated by broadly contemporary non-Hebrew textual / geographical evidence.

I don’t claim the authors were unfamiliar with the peoples and cities around them. To the contrary, I think the Table of Nations is a useful window into the Hebrew authors’ subjective understanding of the political geography of the ANE. (Kinda like the Catalog of Ships in the Iliad reflects the authors’ understanding of communities in the Mycenean world.)

When I write “historically problematic,” I simply mean that the Table is inconsistent with the archaeological, anthropological, and philological evidence in several material respects. For example, the Table tells us the Caphtorites (Minoans/Myceneans) were of Egyptian descent, but we know they were of Indo-European origin. [see my article on the Caphtorites / Philistines] Similarly, the evidence we have is that the Hittites were an Indo-European ethnolinguistic group that, contrary to the Table, did not emerge from the Semitic Canaanites. And the mainstream scholarly consensus, based on the archaeological and philological evidence, is that the early Hebrews largely emerged from the Canaanites–Canaan begat Israel, so to speak–which is obviously not the relationship depicted in the Table and later chapters.

Then there are the chronological issues with the Table. Let’s assume arguendo the Noachian Flood occurred during the 3rd millennium BCE, the period to which it is traditionally assigned. The Table states that Egypt (Mizraim) was a son of Ham, and a grandson of Noah. But we know folks were practicing organized agriculture in the Nile valley and delta at least as early as the 6th or 5th millennium, and urbanizing and developing early hieroglyphic writing by the middle or late 4th millennium. Along the same lines, the Table tells us that one of Noah’s great-grandsons founded Uruk and Nineveh, but both were influential Mesopotamian cities with histories of occupation going back to roughly the 5th millennium BCE or even earlier.

(And then there are some internal quirks. For example, Havilah and Sheba are listed twice, under different fathers. Small beer, but problematic all the same.)

These discrepancies (and possibly others I’m too ignorant to discern) strike me as being totally understandable, given the authors’ perspective and the imperfect information available to them, and I wouldn’t call the Table fiction. But neither I nor mainstream scholars would call it historically inerrant, either.

The question comes down to what the author of the Table of Nations was trying to express. Baptist theologian Bernard Ramm, in his classic work, The Christian View of Science and Scripture (1954) opines:

The derivation of all races from Noah is only possible if one accepts a universal flood or a flood as universal as man. It is pious fiction to believe that Noah had a black son, a brown son, and a white son. . . . If the flood were local and the judgment of God restricted to the wicked population of the Mesopotamian valley there is no necessity of deriving all races from Noah’s sons. If the evidence is certain that the American Indian was in America around 8000 B.C. to 10,000 B.C., then a universal flood or a universal destruction of man, must be before that time, and due to Genesis and Babylonian parallels there is hardly an evangelical scholar who wishes to put the flood as early as 8000 B.C. to 10,000 B.C. . . .

As far as can be determined the early chapters of Genesis centre around that stream of humanity (part of the Caucasoid race) which produced the Semitic family of nations of which the Hebrews were a member. The sons of Noah were all Caucasian as far as can be determined, and so were all of their descendants. . . . Suffice it to say that the effort to derive the races of the entire world from Noah’s sons of the Table of Nations is not necessary from a Biblical standpoint, nor possible from an anthropological one. Genesis 10 contains a mixture of genealogical, ethnological, and geographical terms. It is a very important document of great antiquity. As Pinches reasons, it is limited to what could be gathered from travellers and merchants. (pp. 336-337)

Ramm references two nineteenth-century scholars, Canadian geologist Sir John William Dawson (1820-1899) and his book, The Meeting-Place of Geology and History (1894), and British Assyriologist and linguist Archibald Sayce (1845-1933) who held a chair as Professor of Assyriology at the University of Oxford from 1891 to 1919 and who could write in at least twenty ancient and modern languages. Ramm cited his volume,  The “Higher Criticism” and the Verdict of the Monuments (5th ed., 1894). Let’s take a look at what they both say about our topic. First, Dawson:

The remarkable record of the early distribution of the sons of Noah (‘Toledoth’ of the sons of Noah) in Genesis x. may be regarded, relatively to most of the nations it refers to, as a scrap of prehistoric lore of the most intensely interesting character. . . . [I]t has received a host of more or less conjectural explanations; and while all agree in extolling its value and importance as a ‘Beginning of History,’ nothing can be more various than the views taken of it. Only in the light of the recent discoveries and researches already referred to can we arrive at a clear conception of its import; but with these and some common sense we may hope to be more fortunate than the older interpreters. (p. 183)

1. The record has nothing to do with antediluvian peoples or with survivors of the Deluge other than the sons of Noah, if there were any such. . . .

2. The document does not profess to be a series of ethnological inferences from the present or ancient characters of different nations, but an actual historical statement of the known migrations of men from a common centre in Shinar, the Sumir of the Chaldeans.

3. It relates only to the primary distribution of men from their alleged centre over certain districts of Western Asia, Eastern Europe, and Northern Africa, and does not profess to know anything of their subsequent migrations or history. (pp. 186-187)

And now Sayce:

The chapter is concerned, not with races, but with geography. It is, in fact, a descriptive chart of Hebrew geography, the various cities and countries of the known world  being arranged in it genealogically in accordance with Semitic idiom. The idiom is not quite extinct even in our own day and in our own language. We still speak of a ” mother-country,” and our German neighbours write about their ” father-land.” But an idiom which is exceptional with us is the rule in Semitic tongues. The “sons of Canaan” are the Canaanites, the “daughter of Jerusalem” means the inhabitants of Jerusalem. When Ezekiel says of Jerusalem that its “father was an Amorite and its mother an Hittite,” he means that Amorites and Hittites had taken part either in its foundation or in its subsequent history. So, too, when we read that Sidon “the fishers’ town” was “the firstborn” of Canaan, all we are to understand is that it was the earliest of Phoenician cities. (pp. 119-120)

In the tenth chapter of Genesis this square is divided into three zones, a northern, a central, and a southern. The northern zone is represented by Japhet, the central zone by Shem, the southern zone by Ham. In one direction, however, along the coast of Palestine, Egyptian conquest caused the southern zone to be extended into the zone of the centre. In the age of the Tel el-Amarna tablets Kinakhkhi or Canaan was an Egyptian province, and was therefore necessarily grouped along with Mizraim or Egypt. It was like a tongue of land thrust forward into territory that belonged to Aram and Eber. How purely geographical the table is may be seen from the list of peoples who are all alike declared to be the children of Canaan. The Semitic Zidonian, the Mongoloid Hittite invader from the far north, the Amorite with his fair hair and blue eyes, are all associated together under a common title. But this common title made them sons of Canaan in a geographical and not an ethnological sense. It was because the Hittite had established himself at Kadesh on the Orontes [river], while the Amorite occupied the highlands, that they were classed along with the Semite. The ethnical relation of the latter was really with the sons of Cush on the one side, and the sons of Shem  on the other.

But among the sons of Shem also there is one name, that of Elam, which is ethnologically out of place. Geographically, however, Elam was situated in the central zone, and needed to be classified accordingly. The Elamites, therefore, who were Semites neither in blood nor in speech, are grouped with Assyrians and Aramaeans. There was one people whom modern discovery has shown to have belonged to two geographical zones. The Sabaean kingdom, like that of Ma’in which preceded it, extended from the extreme south to the extreme north of the Arabian peninsula. There were Sabaeans in Yemen, but there were also Sabaeans whose territory lay not far distant from that of the Philistines. Accordingly we find that Sheba, like the desert land of Havilah, is mentioned twice. Sheba and Havilah are not only sons of Cush and so natives of the southern zone, they are also sons of Shem in the central zone. (pp. 121-122)

The article, “Genealogy” from the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia offers additional insight:

The genealogical lists of Genesis, as well as those that are meant to account for the origin and subdivisions of the Israelitish tribes, are similar to the tables which were current, first orally and then in written form, among the Arabs. These lists illustrate the theory obtaining in early Semitic civilization, according to which the tribe—the central unit of every institution—was looked upon as the progeny of one common ancestor, assumed, in many cases, as the eponym. Historical, geographical, and ethnological data and reminiscences are spontaneously (not artificially or intentionally) expressed in the terms of this theory. Geographical or racial propinquity is indicated by the degree of relationship ascribed to the component elements. Political supremacy and dependence are reflected in the assumption of descent on the one hand in direct line from the first-born, on the other in a collateral line, sometimes traced through a concubine or a second wife, perhaps the bondmaid of the ancestor’s legitimate spouse.

Tribal Relations Indicated.

Septs and subdivisions are ranked in the tribal tree according to their numbers or importance, either as branches or as continuing the main trunk. Conversely, the descendants of groups originally not connected with the tribe, but in course of time incorporated into it, are characterized as offshoots, the issue of illegitimate conjugal unions . . .

The many discrepancies among the various genealogies are not due exclusively to imperfections of memory and the vicissitudes to which tradition is always exposed. Changes in geographical and political relations, as well as in religious views, are often reflected in these variations, the subject of the genealogy or a component part of it appearing at one time as the son or descendant of one person, while at another he is named as a member of some other family. It must be remembered that these genealogies are not all of one age. . . .

Genealogies in Genesis.

[. . .]

The so-called “List of Nations” (Gen. x.), while showing in what degree the peoples of which the ancient Hebrews had knowledge were regarded as related to the Israelites, reflects geographical and not ethnological data, the nations being ranged in the main under three great geographical zones. As now preserved, the chapter is not free from indications of being a composite of several ethnic-geographic lists.

Bottom line: before we set out to criticize Genesis 10 as “historically inaccurate” we need to understand precisely what it was trying to claim, and its outlook, methodology, and premises. The above data provides more than enough information for the critic to understand that relentless literalism is not the way to understand this chapter.


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Photo credit: [public domain / Max Pixel]


Summary: The Table of Nations (Genesis 10) — like much of the Bible — is far more complex & nuanced (and a lot less “literal”) than what may be apparent at first glance.

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