Genesis 10: The Table of Nations

Genesis 10 is one of those chapters that Bible students often try to avoid, because it is filled with names that are difficult to pronounce, and it’s hard for our modern ears to hear it as anything other than an interruption. But to the redactor of Genesis, these genealogies were serious business.

Genesis 5 provides a key genealogy, and its major purpose is to show the preservation and continuity of the patriarchal line. We will see another genealogy much like it in Genesis 11. But Genesis 10 provides genealogies that deal with a number of people and nations.

The key point here, I would suggest, is to show Israel as part of the world, related to those with whom she would interact over the centuries. As suggested in the Interpreter’s Bible (Exegesis on Genesis 10:1-32), this may be the beginning of Israelite universalism. God (YHWH) is not just interested in Israel, he is interested in the whole world. All the world’s peoples are in one family, however distant they may be. This idea is fairly weak in Genesis, but it will get stronger, especially in 2nd and 3rd Isaiah (40-55; 56-66).

The Bible Knowledge Commentary comments:

The table of nations is a “horizontal” genealogy rather than a “vertical” one (those in chaps. 5 and 11 are vertical). Its purpose is not primarily to trace ancestry; instead it shows political, geographical, and ethnic affiliations among tribes for various reasons, most notable being holy war. Tribes shown to be “kin” would be in league together. Thus this table aligns the predominant tribes in and around the land promised to Israel. These names include founders of tribes, clans, cities, and territories.1

Other commentators generally agree on the purpose of the list, but vary in their view of the historicity.2

There is a final question of historicity. I think this is really the wrong question to ask here. The story thus far tells us of the population of the earth. If the flood is to be regarded as a large, but nonetheless local event, then the issue is one of the groups of people most closely related to Israel. I believe there is good reason to expect that these lists arose from traditions, and not from some kind of direct revelation, and thus should be seen to paint a general picture and not to provide historical details.

In particular, the interchange of personal names with the names of people groups is a key. The interest is less with the historical descent of the people involved than it is with the way the land is divided and their relationship to one another, and particular to the chosen people.

Chapter 10, combined with chapter 11, forms a bridge between the history of the world in general that runs from Genesis 1-11 and the very specific history of Israel that begins in chapter 12 with the call of Abraham.

I have only a small number of notes on this chapter. If you are looking for details on the various names, you will need a Bible dictionary, and even there facts will be a little bit scarce. I based the following working translation on the ASV simply to save myself the trouble of getting the transliteration of all the names in standard form. None of the transliterations are mine.

Finally, this is an excellent example of Biblical criticism, particularly source and redaction criticism, in action, though one shouldn’t assume that there is sufficient information in this one chapter to build a character of the sources. Nonetheless there is a critical pattern in the language used that helps identify the sources, in this case J (Yahwist) and P (Priestly). I will use blue text for P, and black text for J. In addition, I will underline the key introductory phrases that separate the sources.2

It is very likely that each source contained overlapping material, but the redactor combined all of this information into a single picture suitable for his purpose–displaying Israel as God’s servant in the broader world.

The translation and notes will be below the fold.

1This is the account of Noah’s children, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Children were born to them after the flood.

What I have translated “account” is more literally “generations of,” a phrase characteristic of the priestly source (P) as has been noted in Genesis 5. “Were born,” a form of the Hebrew word YLD/yalad, identifies the Yahwist source (J).

2Here are the sons of Japheth: Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech, and Tiras.

3The sons of Gomer were: Ashkenaz, Riphath, and Togarmah. 4The sons of Javan: Elishah, Tarshish, Kittim, and Dodanim. 5From these the islands and coastlands of the nations divided into their various territories, each one according to its language, according to their clans among the nations.

6The sons of Ham: Cush, Mizraim, Put, and Canaan.

7The sons of Cush: Seba, Havilah, Sabtah, Raamah, and Sabteca. The sons of Raamah: Sheba and Dedan.

The section on Nimrod interrupts the table to some extent to focus on a single person.

8Cush gave birth to Nimrod. He began to be a hero in the land. 9He was a great hunter before YHWH, which produced the saying, “Like Nimrod a great hunter before YHWH.

The hunter is identified as a great hunter before YHWH, not because he is a worshipper or one of God’s people but rather because the theme here is that everyone lives and does what he does before YHWH. At a later date, when Babylon and Assyria were alternately the key enemies of Israel and Judah, this ties those powers together and places them firmly under God’s control.

10His key cities were Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. 11From that territory he went into Assyria (Asshur), and built Nineveh, Rehoboth-ir, Calah, 12and Resen between Nineveh and Calah. (Resen is a great city.)

Nobody has proposed a very successful identification for Nimrod. It may be that he combines stories about several different figures with the linking of Mesopotamian powers more important than the details.

13Mizraim gave birth to Ludim, Anamim, Lehabim, Naphtuhim, 14Pathrusim, Casluhim (the Philistines came from there), and Caphtorim.

15And Canaan gave birth to Sidon his first-born, Heth, 16the Jebusites, the Amorites, the Girgashites, 17the Hivites, the Arkites, the Sinites, 18the Arvadites, the Zemarites, and the Hamathites. Later the clans of the Canaanites were scattered. 19And the Canaanite border went from Sidon as one goes toward Gerar, to Gaza; as one goes toward Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, then to Lasha.. 20That is a list of the sons of Ham, after according to their families, their tongues, in their territories, by their nations.

The descendants of Shem are placed last because they are the key. It is all God’s world. The nations are spread all around–in all directions from Canaan, the land God promised to Israel. They would be at the crossroads of the world, representing God to all who passed through that land.

21Children were also born to Shem, father of all the children of Eber, elder brother of Japheth. 22The sons of Shem were: Elam, Asshur, Arpachshad, Lud, and Aram.

23And the sons of Aram were: Uz, Hul, Gether, and Mash.

24Arpachshad gave birth to Shelah, and Shelah to Eber. 25To Eber were born two sons: One was named Peleg, because the earth was divided in his days. His brother’s name was Joktan

26And Joktan gave birth to Almodad, Sheleph, Hazarmaveth, Jerah, 27Hadoram, Uzal, Diklah, 28Obal, Abimael, Sheba, 29Ophir, Havilah, and Jobab. All of these were sons of Joktan. 30And the border of the land they lived in started from Mesha, as one goes toward Sephar, the mountain of the east.

31These are the sons of Shem, according to their families and their tongues, in their lands, by nations. 32These are the families of the sons of Noah, according to their generations, in their nations. This is the way the nations were divided after the flood.



1. Walvoord, J. F., Zuck, R. B., & Dallas Theological Seminary. (1983-c1985). The Bible knowledge commentary : An exposition of the scriptures. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, on Genesis 10.

2. A good discussion of the names in Genesis 10 can be found in the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible under MAN, ETHNIC DIVISIONS OF. This is cited in the Anchor Bible as Volume 3, p. 235ff. I am working from the CD and cannot check the page number.

3. I recommend the articles in the Old Testament Library commentary on Genesis by Gerhard von Rad, and E. A. Speiser’s volume in the Anchor Bible.

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