This chapter reads like an OT phone book with the numbers mysteriously left out. If you read it casually, you will pass through the 70 quickly so you can pick up the story again in Genesis 11. Some say that it would be a mistake to preach on this chapter because it is impossible to interest modern congregations in this very ancient list of names. I will leave to you to judge.
“What’s going on here?” Who are these people? Where did they come from? v. 1 - “This is the account of Shem, Ham and Japheth, Noah’s sons, who themselves had sons after the flood.” This is the key to everything else. There were only 8 people living on the earth after the flood: Noah and his wife, Japheth and his wife, Shem and his wife, Ham and his wife. From those 8 people came the entire population of the world. v. 32 - “These are the clans of Noah’s sons, according to their lines of descent, within their nations. From these the nations spread out over the earth after the flood.”
Genesis 10 describes what happened when Noah and his family left the ark and reestablished civilization. The 3 sons moved in 3 different directions. They had children, their children had children, their children’s children had children, and over the years, those descendants formed families, clans, tribes and nations. Some of those nations eventually became mighty empires spread across vast regions. Alliances eventually formed among the various descendants of Noah’s 3 sons. Some were friendly to Israel; others became bitter enemies of the Jews. That last point is very important because it appears that Moses wrote Genesis 10 sometime near the end of his life. This chapter would help the Jews understand why they had to annihilate the Canaanites without mercy.
Those who have studied this chapter in detail remark on its amazing historical accuracy. There are 70 separate names here. Some of those names are people, some are cities, and others are tribes or nations or people groups. This is World History as taught by Moses who was inspired by the Holy Spirit.
1. An Outline of Genesis 10
A. Descendants of Japheth v. 2 - 5
After the flood, the descendants of Japheth spread out to the north and west of the Middle East - stretching from India through Russia across the Mediterranean Sea northward into Europe and Scandinavia. Linguists tell us that there are amazing similarities between the languages of Europe, Iran and India, to the point that they believe there was once a common language, called by the experts “Indo-European.”
Less is said about the descendants of Japheth because they lived in regions remote from the Promised Land. They do not largely figure in the OT story. They will figure prominently in the expansion of the gospel in the NT.
B. Descendants of Ham v. 6 - 20
The Hamites moved south and west - Ethiopia, Egypt, Libya and Canaan, the land of Israel. Nimrod was the Rambo of the OT. He founded (or took over) Babel (became Babylon) and Nineveh (became Assyria). The Babylonians and the Assyrians were the greatest enemies of Israel in the OT. Nimrod is responsible for establishing vast empires in rebellion against God, filled with idolatry and greed, and kept in power through military might and unspeakable cruelty.
Large and powerful in Joshua’s day, the Canaanites descended from a wicked father, inherited an awful curse, possessed a large area and established a massive power base. They prospered for a long time. Only slowly were they conquered and ultimately destroyed in fulfillment of Noah’s words in Genesis 9.
C. Descendants of Shem v. 21 - 31
From Shem come the Hebrews, some of the Arab tribes, and tribes that lived in parts of Turkey, Syria and Armenia. The descendants of Joktan settled in the Arabian Peninsula, in the area of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.
By far the most important fact about Shem is that the Messiah will be his direct descendant. Genesis 3:15 predicts a coming “seed of the woman” who will one day crush the serpent’s head. This will be fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Here is the line in a very compressed form: Adam, Noah, Shem and Abraham.
So by the end of Genesis 10, the human race is hopelessly divided into a bewildering variety of tribes, nations and empires, separated from one another and from God. But even while rebellious humans separate from each other, God continues to keep his promise alive across the generations.
2. Lessons from the Table of Nations
It is interesting to study this from the standpoint of history and geography, but there are important spiritual lessons to be learned -
A. The Unity of the Human Race.
After the flood everyone on earth is descended from one of 3 men—Japheth, Seth or Ham. That includes all 6 billion people who inhabit planet earth. The human race is diverse in geography, language, culture, skin colour and so on. But those differences are not the final truth. We are all branches from the same family tree. Every person is related to every other person on earth.
You can take the blood of a European and transfuse it into the body of an Asian. You can take that blood and transfuse it into an African. Human DNA is so stable that you can take 2 people from any place on earth, compare their DNA, and it will be 99.8% identical. Of the 0.2% difference, the visible characteristics (such as skin colour and eye shape) account for only 0.012% of the genetic difference. This means that the so-called “racial” differences, which seem so important to many people, are trivial to the point of insignificance.
Other important truths - We are all made in God’s image. All are sinners who fall short of God’s glory. We are all highly valued, deeply fallen and greatly loved. All of us can be saved through Jesus Christ. Revelation 7 tells us that there will be some from every tongue, tribe, nation and from every people group on earth gathered round the throne, praising the Lamb that was slain. God’s redemptive vision encompasses the whole wide world.
A Humbling and Exalting Truth
What a humbling truth this is. We Westerners can sometimes act arrogant, as if we are somehow superior to people from other countries. We are not genetically superior to other people. That was Hitler’s mistake. He believed his race were superior to the mongrel races that deserved to be enslaved and destroyed. But Hitler was mistaken. The poorest and dirtiest person on earth is my brother, part of my family tree. People use demeaning terms to attack one another—insults that lift us up and put others down.
But this is also an exalting truth. All the kings and heroes, all the wise and strong, all are my brothers and my sisters, too. Let’s face it. Our ancestors are a mixed lot. There are heroes and villains in every family tree. We’re all in the same boat, aren’t we? Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief. King, pauper, prince, clown, murderer. This is our common lot. The earth is one, and humanity is one, and there is only one God over all.
From this we get a clear view of world missions. Now you can walk down the street and meet people from 6 nations. The world has come to us and especially to the big cities.
It is easy to be narrow. Just my kind - my colour - my culture - my language - my people - my background - my tradition - my preferences. Pretty soon you end up with a church all by yourself because no one else fits there. Christ came to redeem us from our smallness, our littleness, our narrowness. Jesus said, “Go and teach all nations,” and “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.” Paul declared, “I am a debtor to all men.” We are called to care for the people of the world. Christianity will not allow the heart to be small, but opens the heart to the whole wide world of men and women made in God’s image.
If we have narrow visions and small ideas and exclusive claims that we are better than others because of our heritage or background or skin colour, then we do not understand the gospel message.
B. The Sovereignty of God over Every Nation v. 20
The nations are listed by clans and languages, in their territories. Deuteronomy 32: 8 “When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when he divided all mankind, he set up boundaries for the peoples according to the number of the sons of Israel.” History testifies that God is in charge of where men and nations end up. He apportions their places and boundaries.
Acts 17: 26 “From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.” What a powerful image. There is only one blood. Human blood. It flows in endless varieties but it is all “one blood.” The theory of racial superiority has led to horrible results in history. The Nazis used that as an excuse to murder 12 million Jews, Slavs, Ukrainians, Russians and others deemed inferior and unworthy. In our own country and in America the belief in white superiority fueled slavery and segregation, and it still causes men to loathe and fear others of a different colour.
Against the evils of racism Paul declares, “We’re all from the same stock. Fruit from the same branch. Born into the same human family.” This is the basis for Christian reconciliation between the races and the various ethnic groups in society and in the church.
More Alike Than Different
It is also confirmed by common sense. The more you travel around the world, the more common humanity seems to be. Superficially we are very different in our appearance, background, language and customs. But scratch deeper and you discover that all people are substantially the same - the same longings, regrets, dreams, hopes, the same need to love and be loved, the same desire to bear children and raise a family, with the same sense that there must be a God of some kind who made us.
As long as we live together on the earth there will be various races, colours, backgrounds, languages and cultures. These differences are not evil and should not be ignored. There is much to appreciate in the various differences in humanity. But let us be clear on this point: There is only one race in God’s eyes—the human race. Secondary differences do not matter to him the way they seem to matter so much to us. Since we all descend from the same person, there is no room for pride or a feeling of superiority over others. We’re all in this together—and we all need the saving touch of Jesus Christ. This truth provides the biblical basis for fair treatment of all people. This is the biblical argument against all prejudice and racial discrimination.
C. The Narrowing of God’s Purposes.
Although it appears that God is working only with nations, the end of the chapter reminds us that the line of promise goes from one man to another. The line that started with Adam goes to Noah, then to Shem, eventually to Abraham, and thousands of years later will climax with the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. The flow of the biblical story moves from many nations to one man, Abraham, through whom all the nations on earth will be blessed. How will this blessing come to the nations? Through the ultimate “Seed of Abraham,” the Lord Jesus Christ.
So we come face to face with Jesus Christ. This is where every sermon must end. He is the goal of every part of the Bible. Genesis 10 ends with the nations divided and in rebellion against God. To a world in a rebellion, God says, “I love you! I love you! I love you!” This is the message of the gospel. The question becomes very personal. If God has arranged all the events of history to bring his Son to the world, then you must eventually answer this question: “What have you done with Jesus?” Truth demands a personal response. All that I have said is just an academic exercise if it does not lead you to personal faith in Christ.
You cannot live without him. He is the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Jesus.
Do you know him? It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are or what family or group or clan or tribe or race or nation you come from. You might be a beggar or a businessman. You might be a taxi driver or a farmer. You might live in a village or a city. You could be a housewife or a teacher. You could be married or single, male or female, rich or poor, old or young, healthy or very sick. The specific circumstances of your life do not change the fundamental truth. All of us were with born with a desire to know the God who made us. But most people living on earth do not really know his Name. His name is Jesus. “What have you done with Jesus?”