Our passage today has a global perspective. It is as if we’ve just looked into a wide angle lense and zoomed out. However, it is the story of a family. We’ve been focusing on one particular family for the last several weeks, but now, with this text, we see how this one family expands by almost exponential degrees. We see how the globe comes to be covered with people.
This is, of course, one of those passages that we usually skip in our Bible reading. Yet, there is much to say about the passage. This is not just a bunch of names. It is divine teaching, and there are quite a few lessons that we can learn from it.
One of the things that a passage like this really highlights is how reliable our Bibles are.
I. General comments
A. The reliability of the Bible.
I've mentioned a number of times in our study that there are many people discount the first 11 chapters of Genesis. This is true of this chapter too. There was a time when the so called “scholars” said that chapter 10 was not to be trusted. They didn’t give it the time of day because they didn't think that it gave an accurate geographic depiction of man’s origins and movements. However, that is not true today. The exact opposite is the case. Even some of those who would not be characterized as friendly to Christianity recognize that what is laid out here is unparalleled in its accuracy.
As a matter of fact, Bill Cooper, set his life’s work to study the ancient world and how it compared to the table of nations that we have listed here. He began his work with the goal of finding 40-50% of the names listed here among the Middle Eastern world. He thought that finding just half of them would be ambitious, and lend a high degree of credibility to the book of Genesis. But his research far exceeded his expectations. He discovered that, “Every one of their names is found in the early surrounding records of the Middle East.” He went on to say, “No other ancient historical document of purely human authorship could be expected to yield such a level of corroboration as that!”
We know that the reliability of the Bible doesn’t find its basis in archaeology or any other form of investigative research. The authority and reliability of the Bible rests in God. But things like this always provide us with nice confirmations of that truth. And they serve to remind us of the fact that every word of Scripture is from God, and the whole of the Bible can be trusted.
So that is the first observation from our text. The second thing this chapter teaches us is the unity of the human race.
B. Unity amid division
This passage of course is talking about the division of the peoples and how they each go in their own distinct direction and how each forms its own unique culture. But it reminds us that we all have a common ancestor and are all “sons of Adam” and descendants of Noah.
As such it reminds us of the equality of humankind. A passage like this reminds us of the fact that, even though there may be some differences of size, shape, or color, there is no difference when it comes to our basic humanity. To put it another way: this passage tells us that there are not multiple races. There is only one race, the human race.
The concept of multiple races is something that we pick up from secular thinking. It has its roots in the evolutionary worldview. As a matter of fact, we can trace this right to Darwin himself. I was reminded this week of Darwin’s premier work, “The Origin of Species.” I was reminded of the full title of that book. We’ve cut it down to “The Origin of Species.” But the full title was “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.”
The subtitle, or perhaps the more literarily precise title, was “the Preservation of the Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.” The basic premise of Darwin’s book was that there are some races that are inferior because they are less evolved. His whole argument was that the color of one’s skin determines how evolved one is.
Some of you may not know this, but the “evolution picture”—the one with that is depicting the different points of man’s evolution. It starts with the monkey, then has a few “transitionary forms,” and then ends with the upright man. Some of you probably do not know that there were actually six different frames to the original picture. What you typically is just one of those frames. But there were originally six. There was the depiction of the white man at the top, and then the Asian man, and then at the bottom a black man.
That is where racism finds its roots! That is not a Biblical idea. The Bible tells us that all men have descended from one man and none are less evolved or an inferior race. And since this is so, each individual is to be esteemed with the utmost respect.
The last comment I would like to make regarding the chapter as a whole regards the absolute sovereignty of God.
C. The sovereignty of God
“The sovereignty of God? Where do you get that?” A periphery reading of the text reveals just a bunch of names, with a few generalized comments thrown in. But if you examine the chapter more in depth, you come to find that it has a distinct structure. It was crafted in such a way as to mention 70 names (or people groups). Of course, this is a selective list. Not every people group is listed. You’ll notice that just by looking at the text this is so. For instance, the first five verses talk about Japheth’s descendents. His line is the largest and covers the most territory (as our text last time indicated-Genesis 9:27). But only 14 names are mentioned. So it is the smallest record of all of Noah’s sons.
But when you add all of the names up, it comes to 70. Why is that significant? Two reasons. First, numbers meant something to the Jews. The number 70 would be significant because it is 7 multiples of 10. Seven is the number of perfection and ten is the number of completion. So listing 70 peoples is Moses’ way of saying that God has ordained the exact number of people on the earth.
Taken by itself you might think that I was doing a Harold Camping with numerology. But if you look at the end of this book you will find that there are 70 who people who go down into Egypt. I don’t think that was a mistake. The number of God’s chosen people are 70 in all. The number of peoples listed here is 70. I believe that this is saying something about God’s sovereignty over the world. He sovereignly ordains life and directs the courses of history.
You may also remember that Jesus also sent out 70 disciples on a short term missionary trip. I don’t think that count was coincidence.
All this is to say that peoples may go where they go and governments may rise to power but it is God who governs all. And knowing that He is in control is something that we can take great delight in.
So those are a few things that we can say by way of generalization. We haven’t really said anything about any one specific verse yet. So let’s do that.
II. Specific Comments
The first five verses deal with the line of Japheth. I mentioned a second ago that it is the shortest list of names. But Japheth’s line takes up the most territory. His line extends north and west into Europe, and then to the north and east—which are the territories we know as Russia and India. Scholars also say that there used to be land that linked Russia and Alaska, and people most likely migrated through that territory down into Canada, America, and then into South America.
But you’ll notice that in verse 5 it says that the “coastland peoples spread in their lands.” This, I want you to understand, is the Bible’s way talking about the furthest reaches of the earth. These coastlands are the distant places, or the outer regions. We might say today that they spread “to the far corners of the earth.”
And we learn from this that though they be distant peoples, God still has his eyes on them. Though they are not completely known to us (they are simply those people out there), God does know them and there is a sense in which he wants us to remember them.
As a matter of fact, the Scriptures use this word “coastlands” quite a few times in talking about the nations. Sometimes it is used in regards to judgment. But in Isaiah, these coastlands are depicted as eagerly awaiting the coming of the Messiah.
All this is to say is that these names mentioned here emphasize the world-wide scope of the Bible. It reminds us that we are never to be introspective or introverted as a church. We are always to be thinking about how we can bring the gospel to the far corners of the earth.
Now the next group lists the descendants of Ham.
And if you are familiar with the Bible and its history, some of these names probably were familiar to you. This lists the names of many of Israel’s enemies. All of these are summed up in the fellow, Nimrod, who is mentioned in verses 8-10. In verse 8 Nimrod is said to be the first on the earth to be a mighty man. Recognize that this is Bible speak for a warrior. You know that David had his mighty men. Those were his warriors. Nimrod was a mighty warrior. And it is likely that he was more than just a hunter of animals. It is likely that he was a hunter of men!
Nimrod stands out as one who is a tyrant and a man who is seeking to subjugate peoples. That’s interesting because Ham’s line was supposed to be the line that was subjugated, wasn’t it? (Gen. 9:25) It is likely that he is being depicted as in complete rebellion to the Lord. He will not obey even the command to be a slave, but he will rise up in his aggression against God and make slaves of men.
We will of course talk more about the Babel incident next week. But we notice again the intense hatred man has for God. And we see the cycle of violence that existed before the flood is repeating itself. We are reminded of man’s intense desire to shake his fist in the face of God.
The last to be mentioned, of course, are the descendants of Shem. You might say that the best is saved for last.
Shem is placed last because he is, as you remember from last time (Genesis 9:26-27), was the line through which the Savior would come. The whole of the chapter is coming to this point: to show the linage of Shem and how the Lord is moving closer to the fulfillment of his Mesianic Promise.
When it comes to Shem’s line though, there are two things that stand out. The first is this fellow Eber. You might have noticed that his name is mentioned twice. The first mention is in verse 21—at the very outset of Shem’s list. He is then mentioned again verses 24-25. Eber is significant because this is where we get the name “Hebrew.” Eber was eventually the father of the HE-brews.
The other thing we ought to take note of is Eber’s children. Eber has two children, Peleg and Joktan. The text is clear regarding Peleg’s name. He receives his name because “the earth was divided” in his days (Peleg, of course, meaning division). Most scholars believe that it was during his life that the Tower of Babel incident occurred. That was the division. What it doesn’t tell you is that Joktan’s name means “contention” or “dispute.” That too likely comes from the Babel incident.
These two men express the whole point of this passage though. It is contention and division. Everywhere you look it is contention and division.
What I want you to understand is that this table of nations is not something that is completely good. Yes, it is wonderful that people are filling the earth. That they are multiplying and being fruitful is good. But there’s contention and division! That’s not the way it was supposed to happen. People were supposed to fill the earth, but there is no harmony. They are saying good bye and good riddance to each other. They are forming their own people groups and forgetting the ways of their fathers and mothers.
You might say to me, “But isn’t that a natural thing? Isn’t that just going to happen? As you move away, you are going to develop your own culture?” I’m sure that is unavoidable to some degree, but what you have here is a complete dishonoring of father and mother. As they move away they are not just creating their own culture, they are seeking revolution. They are not honoring their father and their mothers, they have desire to retain their traditions and distinctives. And ultimately they have no desire for unity because they have no desire for the GOD of their fathers!
As Japheth spreads out, he says, “Who cares about this Lord guy!” This division and contention is more than just a language barrier. It is an issue of the heart.
And this division and contention has continued all down through history to today. What do we have between nations today? Is it not division and contention? And it isn’t just a national and international thing. It is not just a problem of the state. What do we have in families but division and contention? What do you say every time you have a family reunion?! Is it, “Yippie! We get to go see crazy uncle Jimmy?”
It is division and contention. And I wouldn’t doubt that some of you in this congregation are dealing with it in your own homes. It might be that you are an adult now and you have run away from home. You don’t call it that. You say, “I’ve found an occupation that has taken me elsewhere.” But really, if you would look underneath it all, you don’t call and you don’t visit much because there are issues between you and your parents.
Or maybe it is one of you young people. Some will call it a generation gap. That’s a myth. That you don’t want anything to do with their music or their traditions is symptomatic of something deeper. It is a way of leaving your parents before you are allowed to move out. The minute you can get it you’ll be gone.
Sure, there might not be yelling or screaming in the house. But there is certainly not unity. Division and contention doesn’t have to be audible. It is represented primarily in distance and disunity.
This segregation is not the way it was supposed to be. People were to move out over the earth, but they were not supposed to fight and faction and conquer one another. Originally, they were supposed to be people who dwelt in harmony. They were supposed to be united and living in peace with one another. But this is what sin does. It drives men away from one another and it drives people away from God.
And it only serves to remind us of the need for Christ and his overruling grace.
In time Jesus would come and manifest himself as the Prince of Peace. And the kingdom that he inaugurated was to be characterized by unity. Christ came so that he could tear down the dividing wall of hostility, which, of course, is what he did through his sacrifice. He opened the way to God. He brought reconciliation with the Lord. And through that, he brings people together.
I always thought it funny who Jesus chose to be his apostles. His main core of disciples was a rag tag band. He chose Simon the Zealot. Here was a guy who was a rebel with a cause. The Zealots were people who were actively seeking to throw off the Roman government. They were so zealous for Israel that they would knife Romans and Roman sympathizers in the street.
And right there with the Simon the Zealot was Matthew the tax collector. I bet that made dinner parties awkward. And you have James and John, two brothers. Guys who were known as “The Sons of Thunder.” I don’t think they got that name because they were gentle and easy to get along with. They were stormy guys. Rowdy men. Contentious and divisive!
And yet Jesus could bring all of them together. It was characteristic of what he had come to do. His intent was to establish a kingdom that would be characterized by peace, purity and unity. And, of course, the only way he could do that is by bringing them first unto himself. There, in submission to the Lord, this band could experience real and true harmony.
Every once in a while the Scripture gives us a glimpse of the antithesis of what we find in this passage. Here, the nations are shown to be running away from each other. And as they run from each other, they are running from God. But every once in a while we are told about a time when the nations will stream to Jerusalem. We are given pictures of all the nations doing a 180 turn, and with one accord beginning to seek the face of the Lord.
I think it climaxes in the seventh chapter of Revelation. For there John has a vision and he says, “I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and they cried out, “Salvation belongs to our God and to the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:9)
If anything, this table of nations reminds us of the curse of the fall. It reminds us of our desperate need for Jesus if we want to see any hope for our future generations.
 Alpha Omega Institute, “Geneologies: There for a reason.” by Mark Sonmor, a review of After the Flood, by Bill Cooper.
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Matt is blessed to be a husband, father, and pastor in Ashland, Ohio.