A Genealogy of Nations

Biblical genealogies are not my favorite parts of the Bible. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who feels that way. They’re full of names that are given once and never really thought of again. They seem to have some purpose, but what that purpose is isn’t always clear. I just find them tough to get through a lot of times.

Despite that fact I find myself facing Genesis 10, what is commonly referred to as the “The Table of Nations”. So while I may not run away from such a passage, one has to ask what is going on here?

Looking at the text itself we’re looking at the sons of Japheth, Ham, and Shem. However, this is a picture given particular focus. Japheth is given very little focus, we hear about his sons and the sons of only two of his seven sons and that’s it. Shem gets a little more attention and the largest focus is on the sons of Ham. Is there anything going on more than a bunch of names and nations being presented here?

I’m not entirely sure and the main commentaries I’m using haven’t helped me all that much. John H. Sailhamer seems to be very focused on how about half of the genealogy has associations with the number seven. He doesn’t really explain why this matters other than saying the author’s “intention is not to give an exhaustive list, but rather a ‘complete’ list, one that for him is obtained in the number seven.” However this doesn’t really mean too much, and only really applies to about half of the chapter.

Walter Brueggemann in his commentary on Genesis from the Interpretation series (yes I have procured a new commentary on Genesis) seems focused on the fact that this chapter is a “verbal ‘map’ of the world,” and that it “pays attention to the territorial and political realities.” So this chapter winds up being centered around a political reality for Brueggemann, but again what exactly does that mean? I think that he’s meaning that the chapter is functioning like a political map, developing the existence of certain nations and the area where they are located.

To be honest I found Brueggemann more helpful than Sailhamer on this chapter, but I still think that Brueggemann might take the whole political map angle a bit too far. So instead of just giving a general picture of the chapter I’ll give a few more specific thoughts that came to me as I read both the text and the commentaries.

1. To me genealogies in the Bible always seem to be about transitioning us from one point to another or about setting a background for what is to come, if given at the very beginning. This chapter is about transitioning us from Noah and his sons to the Tower of Babel, but also anticipating Abraham. We have the introduction of the land of Shinar here in this chapter and it also appears in the story of the Tower of Babel.

2. It is about setting up a political map of sorts. Not only are we establishing a connection between Noah and his sons and the Tower of Babel and Abraham, but it also introduces nations that Israel interacts with on a regular basis, particularly with in the line of Canaan.

3. Nimrod is the standout figure in this passage, but it is hard to know why he is standing out here. Sailhamer simply writes his inclusion off as an introduction to the land where the Tower of Babel occurs. Brueggemann on the other hand wants to compare Nimrod to Enoch from the last genealogy, only instead of the theological significance of Enoch, Nimrod is focused on politically as one of the first mighty rulers recorded.

Again though I find Brueggemann a bit more helpful. It doesn’t seem like an introduction to Nimrod would be needed if all he served as was an introduction to the land where the Tower of Babel occurs. My question ultimately becomes is Nimrod to be viewed in a positive or negative light? He seems to be positively mentioned here, but the land he rules is the setting for the Tower of Babel (although interestingly enough he isn’t mentioned in that narrative). So I don’t really know how to take him, and in the greater scheme of things, it probably doesn’t really matter all that much.

4. There isn’t much in the way of contemporary significance for this passage. You could like Brueggemann, say something like, “the ecumentical and political reality of this text affirms that all nations derive their historical existence from the life giving power of God and are called to be responsive to him.” I would agree with that assessment and add that it isn’t just the reality for nations, but the point could seem a bit abstract for some.

So these are my thoughts on this passage. I don’t think they’re all that profound, but then again I didn’t really expect as such from a chapter that was solely a genealogy. Do you have any extra thoughts on Genesis 10? Let me know.




2 thoughts on “A Genealogy of Nations

  1. I am always confused by the names of places in the Bible…I can barely keep score of the people names, let alone the regions, towns, kingdoms etc

    • Agreed, they can be confusing to me as well. Especially since place names have changed so much over time or that we don’t even know where some (many) of the places mentioned are referring to, it becomes a mess in my mind pretty quickly. The names of people are often more than enough for me to try to tackle at times.

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment I always enjoy getting those.

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