Many Nations Under God: A Biblical View of World History
September 15, 2002
At first glance Genesis 10 would not seem to offer much promise as a sermon text. To the untrained eye, it appears to be just one more biblical genealogy, although a closer examination reveals that it seems oddly different from the regular genealogies. From another point of view, it reads like an Old Testament phone book with the numbers mysteriously left out. Sometimes we talk about giving a certain passage a “casual” or quick reading. That obviously does not apply to Genesis 10. If you read it casually, you will no doubt pass through the list of 70 names as quickly as possible so you can pick up the story again in Genesis 11. Some commentators suggest 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.
Whether it is a mistake or not I will leave to the reader to judge, but we will push ahead in the belief that every word of Scripture has a message we need to hear. But I do confess that this chapter does pose certain challenges, the most obvious one being, “What’s going on here?” Why does Moses plop this long list of names down in the middle of his post-flood narrative? Who are these people? Where did they come from? And most importantly, what difference does it make? The place to begin in answering those questions is the first verse of Genesis 10. “This is the account of Shem, Ham and Japheth, Noah’s sons, who themselves had sons after the flood.” This verse is the key to everything else. If we take Genesis 9-10 literally (as I think we should), then after the flood there were only eight people living on the earth: Noah and his wife, Japheth and his wife, Shem and his wife, Ham and his wife. From those eight people came the entire population of the world. Genesis 10 tells us how it happened:
The Descendants of Japheth, verses 2-5.
The Descendants of Ham, verses 6-20.
The Descendants of Shem, verses 21-31.
The last verse of Genesis 10 summarizes the chapter: “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 10:32). So Genesis 10 describes what happened when Noah and his family left the ark and reestablished civilization. The three sons moved in three 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 three 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. It serves as a sort of “written map” to help the Jews as they entered the Promised Land understand the various nations and tribes that were in the land already and also scattered around the Middle East. And that’s why the most space is given to the descendants of Ham. Those tribes included the Canaanites who were under the curse of Genesis 9:23-27. They lived in the land God promised to Abraham and his descendants. This chapter would help the Jews understand why they had to annihilate the Canaanites without mercy.
One other point and we can move on. Since Moses wrote Genesis 10 for a particular generation of Jewish readers, it is obviously selective in nature. For instance, Japheth had seven sons but Moses only mentions the descendants of two of those sons, Gomer and Javan. It’s not that the other sons of Japheth were childless, it’s just that the tribes that sprang from them were not critical for the Jews to know about. What we have, then, is a selective but accurate account of the nations in and around the Promised Land during the time of the conquest under Joshua.
Perhaps an illustration will help. If you have ever played the board game Risk, you know that it contains a large map of the world. The object of the game is simple: Defeat all the other players and end up ruling the world. Each player is given armies of a different color—blue or red or black or brown or yellow or green. The first step in the game is for the players to put their armies one by one on various countries or regions on the board—Great Britain, Greenland, Japan, India, the Middle East, the Congo, Western United States, and so on. When all the armies are in place, the game can begin. But there is a moment—it happens in every game—just before the first player takes his turn, when everyone stops and studies the board to see the alignment of forces. “He’s really strong in Africa.” “I’ll bet he makes a move for Europe.” “I’m going to fight him for South America.” “If he gets India, he’ll take all of Asia.” And on it goes. There is a moment, always, when all the armies are in place and the fighting is about to begin, that things grow silent. Then someone rolls the dice and the armies go into battle.
Genesis 10 is like that moment just before the first player takes his turn. It’s a snapshot of the ancient world showing how the nations are arrayed in and around the Middle East, especially around the Holy Land. This is what the world looks like just before the “game” begins.
Those who have studied this chapter in detail remark on its amazing historical accuracy. It reveals the “genius of the Hebrew mind” and gives us a peek behind the curtain into the misty far reaches of early world history. There are 70 separate names here. Some of those names are people, some are names of cities, and others are names of tribes or nations or people groups. This is World History 101 as taught by Moses who was inspired by the Holy Spirit. If you enjoy history and geography and anthropology, and if you like to make connections between the ancient world and the 21st-century, then you’ll enjoy Genesis 10. And all of us can gain something from this chapter because this is where we came from. This is our family tree! We are all in here somewhere. Commenting on this chapter, Martin Luther said, “Look into the historical accounts of all nations. If it were not for Moses alone, what would you know about the origin of man?” We would not know these things if God did not tell us. Science and research alone can never tell us. Luther called this passage a “mirror” to see who we really are. We are so marred with sin, so divided from one another, that we cannot know our own history unless God himself tells us. This chapter is a sacred thread that joins the early morning of earth history to the rest of the Bible, and ultimately to you and to me.
I. An Outline of Genesis 10
The best discussion I have seen of Genesis 10 comes from a book by Arthur Custance called Noah’s Three Sons. You can read it online at: www.custance.org. Click on “The Books” and follow the links to the text of Noah’s Three Sons.
A. Descendants of Japheth 2-5
These verses list 14 names. After the flood, the descendants of Japheth spread out to the north and west of the Middle East. Gomer lived in the region north of the Black Sea, Madai became the father of the Medes, Javan founded the tribes living in Greece, Meshech and Tubal settled in Russia. One branch of Japheth’s family moved east and settled in the region of India. Thus you have the descendants of Japheth stretching from India through Russia across the Mediterranean Sea northward into Europe and Scandinavia. It is noteworthy that 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.”
Verse 5 adds the fact that the Japhethites settled the islands and were mariners, traveling and constantly expanding their territory.
Less is said about the descendants of Japheth because they lived in regions remote from the Promised Land. Since they do not largely figure into the Old Testament story, they are given very little mention in Genesis 10. The Japhethites will figure prominently in the expansion of the gospel in the New Testament.
B. Descendants of Ham 6-20
The section on Ham’s descendants lists 30 names. After the flood, the Hamites moved south and west. Ham’s four sons were Cush, Mizraim, Put and Canaan. Cush is Ethiopia, Mizraim is Egypt, Put is Libya, and Canaan refers to the Holy Land, the land of Israel. Verses 8-12 mention a son of Cush named Nimrod. He was a mighty warrior, a hunter, a man of considerable skill, and a man of rebellious spirit. Nimrod means “rebel.” He was the Rambo of the Old Testament, a despot with enormous leadership skills and great military prowess. He founded (or took over) Babel (later to become Babylon) and Nineveh (later to become capital of the Assyrian empire). It is noteworthy that the Babylonians and the Assyrians were the greatest enemies of Israel in the Old Testament. Nimrod is thus responsible for establishing vast empires in rebellion against God, filled with idolatry and greed, and kept in power through military might and unspeakable cruelty.
Verses 15-18 mention the various Canaanite tribes: Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites, Girgashites, Hivites, Arkites, Sinites, Arvadites, Zemarites and Hamathites. These were the people Joshua and his followers had to fight when they entered the Holy Land. It is thought that after the collapse of their empire, the Hittites migrated east and settled in the region of western China. Custance offers extensive evidence that the “Sinites” later became part of the Assyrian empire and at least a portion of them became part of the early settlement of China. He offers a number of connections between the name “sin” and various Chinese words. It is noteworthy that the study of Chinese literature, history and culture is called “sinology.”
Some writers speculate that a branch of the Hamite people crossed the ancient land bridge at the Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska, becoming the first settlers of North and South America. This would suggest that the various American Indian tribes along with the Aztec and Mayan people groups are descended from Ham.
It seems indisputable that the Hamites founded the first great world empires: Egyptian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Sumerian, Hittite, and possibly the Aztec and the Mayan empires as well.
One other note about those Canaanite tribes mentioned in verses 15-18. 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 9:23-27.
C. Descendants of Shem 21-31
This section lists 26 names. From Shem come the Assyrians, the Hebrews, some of the Arab tribes, and tribes that lived in parts of Turkey, Syria and Armenia. The “Uz” who was a son of Aram (v. 23) founded a tribe in the northern Arabian desert. Job was from the “land of Uz.” Eber (v. 25) is very significant because from his name comes the general title “Hebrew,” which is first used of Abraham in Genesis 14:13. From Elam comes the Elamites, from Asshur the Assyrians, and from Aram the Aramites, all important groups in Old Testament history. The modern term “Semitic” literally means “descended from Shem.”
The name Peleg (v. 25) means “divided,” because in his days the earth was divided. That may refer to the division of languages at the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) or it may infer that after the flood, the continents were once joined together and later separated. The modern theory of continental drift is similar to this, although on a vastly different timescale.
Verse 26 lists the sons of Joktan, the brother of Peleg. Those descendants of Joktan settled in the Arabian Peninsula, in the area of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates.
The careful Bible student will note that the descendants of Ham and Shem in many cases lived side by side in very close proximity. We should not be surprised that they are continually at odds throughout the Old Testament.
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 much later be fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Genesis 10 lists the descendants of Shem last to emphasize that God’s promise will be fulfilled in the line of Shem. That line looks like this:
Genesis 11 will continue the line from Peleg, climaxing in the birth of Abraham. Here is the line in a very compressed form:
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.
II. Lessons from the Table of Nations
I find it fascinating to study this chapter from the standpoint of history, geography, and the unfolding evidence of God’s hand at work across the ages. There are also important spiritual lessons to be learned from Genesis 10.
A. The Unity of the Human Race.
This may seem like an odd lesson after studying a chapter that emphasizes the division of humanity. Yet the broader point is clear. After the flood everyone on earth is descended from one of three men—Japheth, Seth or Ham. That includes all six billion people who presently inhabit planet earth. We all descend from these three sons of Noah. This means that today’s diversity is not the last word. The human race is diverse in geography, language, culture, skin color, physical capabilities, dress, habits, diet, and so on. But those differences, as real and profound as they are, are not the final truth. We are all branches from the same family true. And every person is related to every other person on earth. Here is the proof. You can take the blood of an Irishman and transfuse it into the body of a woman from Japan and his blood will save her life. Or you can take her blood and transfuse it into a man from Brazil, and her blood will save his life. Researchers tell us that human DNA is so stable that you can take two people from any place on earth, compare their DNA, and it will be 99.8% identical. Furthermore, of the 0.2% difference, the visible characteristics (such as skin color, eye shape, and so on) 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. (For a fascinating discussion of this whole question, see One Blood: The Biblical Answer to Racism by Ken Ham, Carl Wieland, and Don Batten, Master Books, 1999.)
This leads us to many 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. And all of us can be saved through Jesus Christ.
Last Wednesday night 3,500 people gathered in Mills Park for a September 11 Memorial Service sponsored by eight local churches. Of the many comments I have heard since then, one has been repeated over and over again. “It was so good to see people from so many different backgrounds worshiping the Lord together.” One man said, “This is like a little bit of heaven.” All those churches, all those people. All those backgrounds, colors, languages, joining together in a public park to remember, to honor, and to proclaim our hope in Christ. This is truly what heaven will be like. 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 Americans can sometimes act arrogant, as if we are somehow innately superior to people from other countries. (If you doubt my words, ask someone born and raised outside this country.) We are not genetically superior to other people in other places. That was Hitler’s mistake. He truly believed the “Aryans” were superior to the “mongrel” races that deserved to be enslaved and then destroyed. But Hitler was mistaken. The foulest person on earth is my brother, part of my family tree. One way we deny this is by using demeaning terms to attack one another—insults and stereotypes that lift us up and put others down.
But this is also an exalting truth. All the kings and heroes, all the soldiers who marched in righteous battles, all the wise and strong and good, 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. Every man has a chicken thief among his ancestors. (When I said that on Sunday morning, a man came up to me and said, “I don’t have a chicken thief in my family, but my uncle robbed the First National Bank.” “That qualifies,” I replied.) And every woman has a Florence Nightingale back there somewhere. 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 truth we get a clear view of world missions. Sometimes we talk about “home” versus “foreign” missions. But where does home end and where does foreign begin? These days you can walk down the street and meet people from six nations living on the same block. The world has come to America, and especially to the big cities of America. This world is my home; all men are related to me. We are all in the same human family. “The world is my parish,” declared John Wesley. We should say the same thing.
It is easy to grow narrow and provincial and to say, “Us four and no more.” Just my kind. Just my color. Just my culture. Just my language. Just my people. Just my background. Just my tradition. Just 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.” The great Apostle 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 color, then we do not understand the gospel message.
B. The Sovereignty of God over Every Nation.
Genesis 10 emphasizes this truth by the very fact that the nations are listed by clans and languages, in their territories and nations (v. 20). Lest we think this happens by accident, consider the words of 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.” Though it may seem that “might makes right,” history testifies that God is in charge of where men and nations end up. He apportions their places and boundaries.
I have often meditated on the amazing words of 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.” The King James Version of the first phrase is very picturesque: God “hath made of one blood” all the nations that dwell on the earth. One blood. What a powerful image.
No such thing as American blood.
No such thing as French blood.
No such thing as Pakistani blood.
No such thing as Israeli blood.
No such thing as Finnish blood.
No such thing as Filipino blood.
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. Just over a half-century ago the Nazis elevated the “pure Aryan” race and used that as an excuse to murder 12 million Jews, Slavs, Ukrainians, Russians, and others deemed inferior and unworthy. In our own country the belief in white superiority fueled slavery, segregation, and the Jim Crow Laws. It still causes men to loathe and fear others of a different color.
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. Once past the surface, you discover no fundamental difference between a savage in the jungle and a corporate lawyer on Wall Street or between a woman in a brothel in Rio and a refined graduate of Vassar College. Everywhere we are 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, colors, pigments, backgrounds, languages and cultures. These differences are not evil and should not be ignored or deprecated. 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. Paul’s point is clear. Since we all descend from the same person, there is no room for inordinate 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 civil rights and for fair treatment of all people. This is the biblical argument against all prejudice and racial discrimination.
C. The Narrowing of God’s Purposes.
Ray Stedman called his sermon on Genesis 10, “God’s Funnel.” A funnel is an instrument for concentrating the flow of something from a wide area into a small area. That’s what’s happening here. 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. Shem is the neck of the funnel. The line that started with Adam goes to Noah, then to Shem, on to Peleg, 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. And how will this blessing come to the nations? Through the ultimate “Seed of Abraham,” the Lord Jesus Christ.
Thus at the end of Genesis 10, we come face to face with Jesus Christ. This is where every biblical 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. And to a world in a rebellion, God says, “I love you! I love you! I love you!” This is the message of the gospel. And 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 written is just an academic exercise if it does not lead you to personal faith in Christ.
History is His Story.
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?
“I Just Didn’t Know His Name”
In her book God’s Story (pp. 259-260), Anne Graham Lotz tells the following story:
Elizabeth Carter was a young American woman who taught English in mainland China. On a weekend outing with friends, she hiked up Tai Shan, a holy mountain, not too far from the city where she worked. At the base of the mountain, as she began her ascent, she saw an old beggar sitting by the path. She felt very impressed to speak with him and tell him about God. Because her friends hurried on up the path, Elizabeth suppressed the urge to stop and speak, and so she passed him by.
During the afternoon exploration on the mountain, her thoughts kept returning to that old beggar. She began to deeply regret having not spoken to him, knowing that he would most likely have left before she returned. As she descended the summit in the early evening she resolved to make time to speak to him if he was still there.
When Elizabeth reached the base of the mountain, to her eager surprise, the old beggar was still sitting exactly where he had been before. This time she went over to him and gently began to speak to him. She told him that there is a God Who created all things, that the great Creator God had created him because he loved him and wanted to be known by him. She told the old man that God had sent his Son to die on a cross as a sacrifice for the man’s sin, and that if he placed his faith in God’s Son, Jesus, he would be forgiven and would receive eternal life.
As Elizabeth continued telling the old man about God, tears began to slip down his weather-beaten face, moistening his few wispy white whiskers. Thinking she had offended him in some way, Elizabeth asked what was wrong. The old man smiled through his tears and said softly, ‘I have worshiped him all my life. I just didn’t know his name.’
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 on a street corner in Calcutta or a businessman in a Singapore high-rise. You might be a taxi driver in Madrid or a farmer in Belarus. You might live in a village in Chad or you might be an entertainer at a nightclub in Sao Paulo. You could be a housewife in Tulsa or a Drivers Ed teacher in Cicero. 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.
Here is the question you must answer: “What have you done with Jesus?” History truly is His Story. You cannot live without him.
What have you done with Jesus?