The tenth chapter of the Book of Genesis gives us an overview of how all the nations of the world began. It is often referred to as the Table of Nations for that reason. Noah was told by God to go forth from the ark with all the animals and “breed abundantly in the earth, and be fruitful and multiply upon the earth” (Genesis. 8:18). It was just Noah and his three sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth, and their wives, who produced the whole human race that exists today.
Japheth is always mentioned last in the list of Noah’s sons, but it seems that he is the eldest of the children of Noah (Gen. 10:21). Japheth was two years older than his brother Shem (see Appendix 1 below). The meaning of the name of Japheth is subject to some controversy. Some see the name defined in Genesis 9:27 as wide, or enlarged. Other, however see the play off the names of Shem (possibly meaning dark) and Ham (meaning black) and see the name of Japheth to mean “fair” or “white.” Some believe that Japheth was later worshiped as Jupiter of the Romans.
Japheth had seven sons: Gomer, and Magog, and Madai, and Javan, and Tubal, and Meshech, and Tiras. Traditionally, Gomer is associated with Cymri or the Celts or Gauls, Magog with the Scythians, Madai with the Medes or Aryans, Javan with the Ionians or Greeks, Tubal with Tibareni or Turkey, Meshech with the Moschi or later Russia, and Tiras with Thrace. Basically, Japheth’s descendants seemed to have moved westward and northward and occupied the “isles of the Gentiles” (Gen. 10:5). He was the father of Europe and some nations, like the Scots, count their beginnings from him.
Shem always heads the list of the sons of Noah. Many therefore identify Shem as the eldest. But as mentioned above, this assumption must be erroneous. But Shem may be listed first because his lineage is the focus of scripture, therefore he is given pre-eminence. Shem is given pre-eminence because his lineage produces the people from whom Messiah came, the Semites (Shemites). However, in the Table of Nations, Shem’s lineage is listed last and Japheth’s first, perhaps because in the following pages of scripture, Shem’s descendants will be the focus, and Moses wanted to end upon Shem to continue the thought.
Unto Shem were born five listed sons: Aram, Elam, Asshur, Arphaxad and Lud. Aram produced the Arameans who today are represented by Syria. The Elamites produced the Persians. Asshur gave us the Assyrians who occupied the area in modern northern Iraq. Arphaxad produced the Chaldeans in southern Iraq. To Arphaxad was born Salah who is listed as the father of Eber. Eber became the father of the Hebrews, from whom we have Abraham (Gen. 11:10-26). Abraham is central figure in both Jewish and Christian history. Finally Lud gives us the Lydians who came from the area in modern Turkey.
Finally, Ham is listed as producing four sons, Cush, Mizraim, Phut and Canaan. Cush is identified with Ethiopia. Mizraim is identified with Egypt. It is the Semitic name for Egypt. Phut is Libya and Canaan “was the ancestor of the Phœnicians and other tribes inhabiting Palestine” (People’s Dictionary of the Bible). Interestingly though, is the fact that Nimrod was the grandson of Ham, making the Babylonian empire a product of Ham’s descendants.
The name Ham means “hot” or “black.” Some take this as a reference to the black, fertile soil along the Nile and in the delta. In the Bible, Egypt is called the land of Ham (Psalm 105:23; 106:22). Apparently, Ham was the younger of the sons of Noah (Gen. 9:24). A curse was placed upon Canaan, the son of Ham, because Ham had seen the nakedness of his father (Gen. 9:20-27). The exact details of this event are somewhat obscure. The curse involved Canaan in becoming a slave of his brethren. This was all spoken prophetically of the descendants of Ham.
“The curse simply means that the descendants of Canaan were doomed to enslavement to the other two branches of the family. This destiny seemingly was reversed when Nimrod and Mizraim founded Babylonia and Egypt respectively. But it was abundantly fulfilled in early antiquity when the Canaanites in Joshua’s time were partly exterminated and partly reduced to abject slavery by the Israelites who belonged to the family of Shem, and those that remained were further reduced by Solomon (Josh. 9:23, I Kings 9:20,21). It was fulfilled later when the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and Egyptians, all of whom belonged to the Line of Canaan, were reduced to subjection by the Japhetic Persians, Macedonians, and Romans. These peoples, the Canaanites included, all were obsessed with the gross sexual indulgences characteristic of the ancient Cult of Fertility, as described by the Apostle Paul in Rom. 1:18-32. It may be fulfilled too in the longstanding moral and spiritual (and cultural) backwardness of the South African peoples who perhaps more than any other have been forcibly reduced to abject slavery…” (College Press).
The Table of Nations is valuable because it gives the early history of the spreading of the family of Noah and his descendants throughout the world (Appendix 2). There are, of course, nations in the world that are left out of the Table. These nations play no immediate or essential role in the story of salvation, which is the purpose of scripture. The total number of the nations listed equal seventy, which is symbolic number signifying completeness. For example, the total number of the people recorded as going into Egypt of the house of Jacob was seventy (Gen. 46:27). We will meet many of these places again as we study through the lands of the Bible.
Eric L. Padgett
1056 – Noah was born (Gen. 7:6)
1556 – Noah began to bear his children, making Japheth the first born
1558 – Shem born (Gen. 11:10)
1656 – Flood, date determined from the genealogies
1658 – Arphaxad, son of Shem born (Shem 100 years old – Gen. 11:10)
Genesis 9:24 – Ham is the youngest son of Noah
“W. F. Albright comments that the Table of Nations ‘shows such a remarkably ‘modern’ understanding of the linguistic situation in the ancient world . . . that it stands absolutely alone in ancient literature, without even a remote parallel even among the Greeks, where we find the closest approach to a distribution of the peoples in genealogical framework. But among the Greeks the framework is mythological and the people are all Greeks or Aegean tribes’ (quoted by Cornfeld, AtD, 37)” (College Press).