The Table of Nations And the Explanation of the Divisions (Genesis 10:1 to Genesis 11:10 a) TABLET V.
THE NATIONS DESCENDED FROM NOAH (Genesis 10).
This tablet is described as ‘this is the history of Shem’ (Genesis 11:10 a). It demonstrates the descent of the nations from the sons of Noah with special emphasis on Shem, including important snippets of information typical of ancient genealogies (Genesis 10:9-10; Genesis 10:25). We can compare with it the Sumerian king lists which have similar snippets relating to things of especial importance. It finishes with a description of why the divisions took place (Genesis 11:1-9).
In many ways it is unique in the ancient world. Although lists of people and nations are known elsewhere, this was no list of conquests. It was a deliberate attempt to reveal ‘a world view’. It demonstrated God’s concern for the whole world, and showed that Yahweh was God over all.
Its scope is quite remarkable and must reflect the knowledge of someone with wide sources of information such as we would not find in a non-seafaring country like Israel. It was just such knowledge as would be available to a man in Moses’ position in Egypt, although there are indications that at least part of it was composed earlier than Moses. See, for example, the mention of Sodom and Gomorrah as though they were still active cities.
God had said to man, ‘be fruitful, and multiply’. Here was the fulfilment of that command as man spread abroad to possess the earth. It demonstrated that Yahweh was the God of the whole earth. But it is also made apparent that this expansion results in a world split up into tribes and nations. This is seen as being the result of a further fall of man leading to judgment (Genesis 11). Very interesting is the fact that there is in it no mention of Israel. This would seem to confirm its great age and authenticity.
Lists themselves were a common early Mesopotamian literary form, giving personal and place names, including names of countries and mountains, and are extant from the second millennium BC onwards, and a genealogical ancestry of Hammurabi, king of Babylon, (c.1750 BC) contains names of individuals later applied to peoples descended from them or to the territory they inhabit. But their nature is not the same as this record.
It is impossible to put a firm date on the narrative, nor is it likely that it remained totally unchanged in subsequent centuries. Whereas sacred texts and narratives may be preserved complete, especially where they formed the basis of a covenant, a listing of place and tribal names would have a tendency to be updated to make sense to the present generation, where old names had fallen out of use and could be replaced with their modern equivalent. Thus the dating of the original record cannot be determined by individual, possibly updated, place names.
But we must not overdo the suggestion of updating. We may yet be unaware of the ancient origins of names known to us from later inscriptions, and such changes could have been few, if any. The fact that the Persians are not mentioned confirms that any such changes, if they took place, had ceased to be made by the time of the exile.
However the use of very ancient forms of names does demonstrate the early date of the essential narrative (consider how the early empire in Shinar is described - (Genesis 10:10)) and there is much that is clearly early and on the whole nothing in it that need post-date the time of Moses at Pharaoh’s court, for such knowledge would have been available to Egyptian scholars. It is true that some few names mentioned only appear in 1st millennium BC records, but those mentioned in those records must have had a preceding history and there is nothing unlikely in the names being far older.
However any work done by Moses may well have made use of an earlier record. Abraham may well have had access to knowledge of a similar, but earlier, kind at Ur of the Chaldees, and there are indications that the essential record is as ancient as Abraham.
The account is one of growth and prosperity but behind it lies the ominous reminder that the earth has become divided so that brotherly love has ceased. It begins with all speaking one language but ends with nations speaking many languages (Genesis 10:5; Genesis 10:20; Genesis 10:31). The reason for this is given in Genesis 11.
Surprising is the non-mention of Sumer, although attempts have been made to show that it is present in the name ‘Shem’. It may have been thought of as indicated by ‘the land of Shinar’. But comparison of place names between ancient nations is a difficult operation and is still very far from being an exact science through lack of material. In spite of great advances, too little is known about the languages concerned and how they were transliterated into other languages. Thus many ‘identifications’ must be viewed with caution and it is always possible that nations known to us by one name may be included under another. Sumer may have been known to the compiler of the record under a totally different name.
(Genesis 10:1 a) ‘This is the history of the sons of Noah.’
The writer intends us to know the original source of his material, passed down orally through many feasts and finally put into writing we know not when or by whom, but we can be sure that it was very early on, well before the time of Moses who undoubtedly made use of these records.
The Table of Nations And the Explanation of the Divisions (Genesis 10:1 b - Genesis 11:10 a) TABLET V.
Genesis 10:1 b
‘Shem, Ham and Japheth, to these were born sons after the flood.’
This is in the nature of a heading and is typical of a link connecting with a previous tablet. (Compare ‘Shem, Ham and Japheth’ (Genesis 9:18).) Its purpose is to draw attention to the descent of known nations from the three sons of Noah (Genesis 10:32).
When considering the record we must beware of interpreting it by modern assumptions. Tribal groups and nations were extremely complicated affairs, constantly affected by intermarriage, tribal movements in times of crisis, conquest, assimilation, and merger. We only have to consider Israel to recognise the truth of this. Israel began as the clan group round the patriarchs, made up of the core of descendants of Terah, but including a large number of ‘servants’ described as their ‘households’ (Abraham could call on 318 fighting men - Genesis 14:14), probably from a number of races. These later became known as ‘the children of Israel’, but the majority were only children by adoption.
Then when ‘Israel’ left Egypt they were joined by a ‘mixed multitude’, again of many nations (Exodus 12:38). These too were assimilated into ‘the children of Israel’. So the ‘children of Israel’ who entered Canaan were far from being directly children of Jacob, any more than the whole of the nations in this chapter were directly related to only one of the sons of Noah. Israel itself was undoubtedly inclusive of Hamites and Japhites as well as Semites.
It is almost certain that later years saw further assimilation of groups and individuals with Israel, who were mainly of similar background and who were prepared to submit to the Yahweh covenant. This is evidenced in names borne by such people (Uriah the Hittite no doubt looked on himself as a ‘child of Israel’). Thus not all Israelites were strictly Semites even if they had absorbed the Semite culture.
Indeed clans, nations and people were united by treaty, by intermarriage, by conquest, by assimilation and by convenience. This phenomenon was common in the ancient world, as indeed it is today. The terms normally employed for physical relationships (‘sons of’; ‘bore/begat’) are all elsewhere used in Babylonian and Hebrew literature to denote such political alliances.
So the direct relationship of later clans and nations to the sons of Noah must not be seen as implying that all such were direct descendants of one particular son. Rather it shows their association in a variety of ways with those who were directly descended from one or the other.
It is certain from the heading of the Table of Nations, ‘These are the descendants (generations, genealogies or family histories - toledoth) of the sons of Noah’ (Genesis 10:1), and from the words ‘ These are the families (mispahot) of the sons of Noah according to their generations by their nations (goyim) and from these came the separate nations on earth after the flood’ (Genesis 10:32) that the differentiation of nations was the main purpose of the narrative, and the assertion that they were all descended from Noah in one way or another. Further we cannot go.
In many ways the distinctions are based on territory occupied. The writer is seeking to explain to his readers the derivation of the peoples they are aware of. But it would be too simplistic to assume that that was the only basis for distinction. Some are mentioned twice, possibly because of intermarriage and marriage treaties, possibly because of the movement of part of a tribe to a different area. There were many movements of peoples in the Ancient Near East caused by various circumstances, including pressure from other peoples.
However, one main message of this record is that the ‘world’, as known to the writer, descended from Noah, was originally of one language, but that as a result of their behaviour towards God and each other, they split up into many nations and languages.
Bearing this in mind we will briefly look at the people and nations described.
The names of Noah’s sons are dealt with in reverse order, Shem being the last. This is in order to deal with the other two before concentrating on the one important to the future narrative. This is a feature of the whole of Genesis 1-11 and demonstrates the emphasis on one particular line chosen by God.
‘The sons of Japheth; Gomer and Magog and Madai and Javan and Tubal and Meshech and Tirus.’
The term ‘sons of’ had wide significance in the Ancient Near East. It could mean descended from, connected with by treaty, subjugation in warfare, and so on. Here it is a recognition that the nations associated with these names in a general way look back to descendants of Japheth and are seen as associated with each other.
Whether they are to be seen as direct names of sons of Japheth we may never know. It could well be that later tribal or national names looked back to genuine individuals, but no certainty is obtainable, or necessary for the purpose of commentary. It would have been quite normal to call nations ‘sons of -’ when there was genuine connection of one kind or another.
The above are the major groupings from which other groupings (‘their sons’) derive. The deliberate point is that Noah bore nations not just sons. In Ezekiel 27:14 Togarmah, Tubal, Javan and Meshech are mentioned as peoples who supply slaves, horses, mules and other merchandise to Tyre. In Ezekiel 38:6 Gomer is connected with Togarmah as peoples.
Gomer probably here represents the ancestors of the Cimmerians, Madai of the Medes, Javan of the Ionians, Tubal of Tabal, and Meshech of the Muski, the latter being people who entered the Ancient Near East from the Northern steppe. Tabal and Muski are mentioned together in Assyrian inscriptions.
Tiras may be the ancestors of the Etruscans. Magog is not as yet satisfactorily connected with any known people but has connections with Tabal and Muski and may well be the name of a people rather than a land, ‘the land of Magog’ meaning the land where they lived (Ezekiel 38:2). (Meshech and Tubal are not etymologically connected with Moscow and Tobolsk in spite of their comparative similarity in English. Such a connection does not tie in with the usual transliterations of letters used in those days).
‘And the sons of Gomer, Ashkenaz and Riphath and Togarmah. And the sons of Javan, Elishah and Tarshish, Kittim and Dodanim.’
Ashkenaz probably represents the ancestors of the Scythians. Togarmah may well relate to Tegarama witnessed to in 14th century BC as lying between Carchemish and Harran. Elishah, probably connected with the Alasia in the Amarna letters, and Kittim (Phoenician kt or kty), are the ancestors of Cyprus, and Dodanim possibly the ancestors of Rhodes. (In Hebrew d and r are easily confused and the Samaritan Pentateuch and some Hebrew manuscripts read r here. The Septuagint (LXX) also has ‘rodioi’ - see also 1 Chronicles 1:7 which has Rodanim. Otherwise Dodanim is unidentifiable). Tarshish may represent the ancestors of Tartessus in South West Spain, but it simply means ‘refinery’ and could therefore be applied to a number of different places.
‘Of these were the isles/coastlands of the nations divided. (These were the sons of Japheth) in their lands, everyone after his tongue, after their families, in their nations.’
The phrase in brackets would be expected, compare Genesis 10:20 and Genesis 10:31, but is not in the Hebrew text. It may well have dropped out in error in copying.
The ‘descendants’ of Japheth are thus seen as having spread out over the islands and the coastal regions on both sides of the Great Sea, the Mediterranean. However not all the above were coastland areas. The description is general rather than specific, indicating general whereabouts. ‘Isles/coastlands’ really indicates ‘those across the sea’.
‘And the sons of Ham: Cush and Mizraim, and Put and Canaan.’
Cush is connected with Nubia or Northern Sudan but also with the Cassites in Mesopotamia. Mizraim is the usual name for Egypt, its plural form possibly reflecting the two kingdoms, Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt, which formed to make one, although this is by no means certain. Put is Libya. Whether these were names of actual sons of Ham we cannot know but we do know that the writer intends us to see in them the nations which may well have descended from them.
While the plural name Mizraim, which could mean ‘borderlands’ or ‘fortresses’, would appear to be more improbable as the name of a real son we know that Canaan is a genuine son of Ham (Geneisis 9:22 with 25). But the name also represents the peoples of Canaan and areas connected with the Canaanites such as Sidon (Canaanites reached much further than what we now think of as Canaan). Thus Canaan, the Canaanites and the nations south of Canaan are linked with Ham.
The linking of Canaanites with the Hamites has been questioned. Some suggest it was because at that time it came under the influence of Egypt, but then we would expect ‘son of Mizraim’. But the earliest known inhabitants of Canaan were in fact non-Semites and showed some affinities to the Sumerians, who were also non-Semitic, thus their original descent may well have been Hamitic.
‘And the sons of Cush, Seba and Havilah, and Sabtah and Raamah and Sabteca. And the sons of Raamah, Sheba and Dedan.’
Here Cush has clear connections with Arabia, for Seba is Saba in Southern Arabia, Dedan is Dedan in Northern Arabia. Havilah is mentioned in Genesis 25:18 and 1 Samuel 15:7 connecting with the Ishmaelites and Amalekites. It thus also has connections with Arabia. For Raamah, inscriptions found in Sheba suggest a location north of Marib in Yemen. Sheba is well known in the Old Testament as a trading nation and is also connected with Arabia.
‘And Cush begat Nimrod. He began to be a mighty one on the earth. He was a mighty warrior (hunter) before Yahweh (i.e. even in the Yahweh’s eyes); wherefore it is said “Like Nimrod a mighty warrior before Yahweh”.’
Here we begin to see some of the complications facing us in identifying some of these peoples. Nimrod was clearly, in pre-history, a great warrior who left his homeland seeking conquests and established great cities. Thus the descendants of Cush become connected with Mesopotamia.
This need not necessarily mean that the Cassites were all directly descended from Cush. It could mean that Nimrod, possibly with a small but powerful band of warriors, conquered the people who became known as Cassites in a similar way to that in which the Philistines became overlord of some Canaanites and gave them their name.
The reference to ‘a hunter’ probably indicates his warrior status as a hunter of men. But ancient kings did boast excessively about their prowess in the hunt and he may actually have been remembered as an exceptional hunter. In Micah 5:6, Assyria is described as ‘the land of Nimrod’ confirming the above connections.
“Wherefore it is said -”. This probably indicates a quotation from an epic passed down through the ages (compare Numbers 21:14). It is possible that the writer had access to ancient records about Nimrod and his activities. Alternately it may have been a well known proverb.
“Before Yahweh”. Compare Jonah 3:3 where Nineveh is described as ‘a city great to God’. The idea is that even Yahweh God sees them as great. It represents a superlative.
‘And the beginning (or ‘chief part’ or ‘mainstay’ - reshith - compare the use in Jeremiah 49:35 - ‘the chief’ of their might) of his kingdom was Babel and Erech and Accad and Calneh in the land of Shinar. Out of that land he went forth into Assyria and built Nineveh and Rehoboth-Ir and Calah, and Resen between Nineveh and Calah (the same is the great city).’
Shinar is Babylonia proper (Hittite - Shanhar - see Genesis 11:2; Genesis 14:1; Isaiah 11:11; Daniel 1:2; Zechariah 5:11), Babel is Babylon, Erech is Uruk, a very ancient city (the city where Gilgamesh, of the Gilgamesh epic, reigned, now modern Warka), Accad is Akkad or Agade, which ruled a great empire prior to the time of Abraham - site unknown. Calneh is less certain but may be connected with the Kullania mentioned in Assyrian tribute lists. Alternately it may mean ‘all of them’ (Hebrew kullana) i.e. all the others.
Nineveh is Nineveh, Calah is Kalhu (modern Tell Nimrud) on the bank of the Tigris twenty four miles south of Nineveh. Rehoboth-Ir and Resen are unknown. However, resen goes back to Akkadian res eni meaning ‘head of a spring’, a common Assyrian place name. Rehoboth Ir could relate to Akkadian rebatu alu which parallels Sumerian as.ur, referring to Ashur.
The differentiation between the cities he ‘built’ and the earlier cities may suggest that he obtained the former by conquest. Indeed even the ‘building’ could be rebuilding and fortifying. Thus we may well see Nimrod as coming up from Africa on a trail of conquest and settling in Mesopotamia to found an empire. Elsewhere in Sumerian, Assyrian and other records he was seen as a legendary figure performing great exploits. It is possible that he was the source from which came the idea of Ninurta (Nimurda) the Babylonian and Assyrian god of war.
“The same is the great city”. This may refer to the four cities as being seen as forming one great metropolis stressing the greatness of his empire.
Connecting these facts with Genesis 11:2 may suggest that it was Nimrod who was responsible for that debacle (but then we might expect a mention here - compare Genesis 10:25), but it is more probable that it occurred before Nimrod’s time. Certainly this mention of Nimrod is ominous as it is the first mention of empire building and conquest in the record in Genesis 1-11. What the world would no doubt see as a glorious triumph is anathema to God, as chapter 11 makes clear.
‘And Mizraim begat Ludim and Anamim and Lehabim and Naphtuhim and Pathrusim and Casluhim, from where the Pelishtim (Philistines) and Caphtorim went out.’
All these names are plural and represent peoples. The Ludim became famous bowmen and are connected with Egypt and Cush in Jeremiah 46:9 (compare possibly Isaiah 66:19). The Lehabim may equate with Lubim (2 Chronicles 12:3) and refer to the Libyans, but this is uncertain. Pathrusim - from pa to ris = ‘the land south’ - are the inhabitants of Upper Egypt. The Anamim and Casluhim are unknown with any certainty.
“From where the Philistines and Caphtorim went out”. This interesting comment reveals that originally the Philistines and Caphtorim came from Africa from where they went to the Aegean, settling in Crete and elsewhere, but the African connection was before the time for which we have external confirmation. Again we have a demonstration of ancient knowledge of pre-history associated with Egypt which would serve to confirm pre-Mosaic connections with this Table of Nations.
In Amos 9:7 the Philistines are described as ‘from Caphtor’, and Jeremiah speaks of them as ‘the remnant of the isle (or sea coast) of Caphtor’ connecting them with Tyre and Sidon (Jeremiah 47:4). In Deuteronomy there is mention of ‘the Caphtorim who came from Caphtor’, and as we see in this passage the Philistines and the Caphtorim are related. Caphtor is in fact Crete, referred to in Cuneiform documents as Kaptara (in the Mari archives - 18th century BC and later at Ugarit in Akkadian), and in Egyptian Kaftiu from an original Kaftaru (represented in 15th century BC tomb chapels at Thebes). There is little doubt that they can also be connected with the Cherethites ( 2 Samuel 15:18; 2 Samuel 20:7; 2 Samuel 20:23; Zephaniah 2:5). To some extent the names were used interchangeably.
At this stage there is no mention of Philistine connection with Canaan. The invasion by the sea peoples including the Philistines would not come until about 1200 BC when it would destroy the Hittite Empire. This record was clearly made before then.
‘And Canaan begat Sidon, his firstborn, and Heth, and the Jebusites and the Amorite and the Girgashite, and the Hivite and the Arkite and the Sinite, and the Arvadite and the Zemarite and the Hamathite, and afterwards were the families of the Canaanite spread abroad, and the border of the Canaanite was from Sidon as you go towards Gerar, to Gaza as you go towards Sodom and Gomorrha and Admah and Zeboiim to Lasha.’
The mention of Sidon as the firstborn probably refers to the fact that Sidon (which is later closely linked with Tyre) was the place where the Canaanites first settled when they arrived in the area. However there is a possibility that it should be seen as an indication that Sidon was a real son, in contrast to most of the others who are clearly undisguised peoples. Heth represents the Hittites who were for centuries a great nation in Syria before their sudden demise in 12th century BC. These two, Sidon and Heth, mentioned by individual name, are clearly seen as being especially important. They are major players on the scene.
Exodus 13:5 and elsewhere refer to the ‘land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Hivite and the Jebusite’. In Deuteronomy 7:1 (see also Joshua 3:10; Joshua 24:11) the Girgashites are included (as well as the Perizzites) to make the divinely perfect seven. The lack of mention of the Perizzites here when the others are included again points to an early date for the account (they could hardly have been overlooked later), as does the mention of Sodom and Gomorrha and related cities (destroyed about 1900 BC - Genesis 19) which points to a date no later than that. The Hittites here are those of the Hittites who had taken up residence in the land of Canaan. The Hivites are similarly Hurrians.
Amorites or, in Akkadian, Amurru are well testified to elsewhere as a nomadic shepherd people from Western Mesopotamia and are testified to in Syria, where there was an Amorite state, as a more sedentary people. Joshua 13:4-5 refers to this specific Amorite area. They are also testified to in external records as a mountain shepherd people (compare Numbers 13:29; Joshua 11:3; Judges 1:34). The name was sometimes used in external records as applying to the whole of Syria including Palestine. They became part of the Hittite empire and declined with them. Like Habiru it was a term that could be used to refer to people of a distinct type, in their case a shepherd people. Its general more widespread use, often seemingly parallel to that of ‘Canaanite’, was different from Canaanite in that it covered a wider area including Transjordan. Thus in Biblical usage the terms are not synonymous.
The Arkites, the Sinites, the Arvadites, the Zemarites and the Hamathites are all Phoenician peoples, along with Sidon. The Arkites probably relate to the Phoenician city of Arqa mentioned in Egyptian records, including the Amarna letters, and in later Assyrian records. Arvad is mentioned in Ezekiel 27:8; Ezekiel 27:11; (and in 1 Maccabees 15:23 as Aradus) as a Phoenician city and is also referred to in Assyrian records. The Zemarites relate to Sumar mentioned in the Amarna letters, which is referred to as Simirra in Assyrian texts. The Hamathites relate to the city of Hamath which is regularly mentioned in the Bible and inscriptions, and was on the border of the land of promise (Numbers 34:8). It was on the main trade routes and was at one time controlled by Solomon.
So the descendants of Canaan were seen as the inhabitants of the land of Canaan and the Phoenicians to the North who are all seen as ‘Canaanites’ in external records. (While of similar origin Ugarit prided itself on not being a Canaanite city).
‘These are the sons of Ham, after their families, after their tongues, in their lands, in their nations.’
The descendants of Ham are seen mainly as the inhabitants of Canaan and Syria and nations to the South in Africa and Arabia. Yet, as we have seen, through Nimrod they have intermingled with peoples in Mesopotamia.
The description demonstrates that all aspects of peoples are covered. The families with whom they were identified, their languages, their countries, their nationhood.
‘And to Shem, the father of all the children of Eber, the elder brother of Japheth, to him also were children born. The sons of Shem: Elam and Ashur, and Arpachshad and Lud and Aram.’
The special mention of Eber, the ‘father’ of the Hebrews, at this point, is the only concession in the whole account to the special importance of the ancestor of Israel, and it is noted that he descends from Arpachshad the least known of Shem’s ‘sons’. This comment was clearly written in a period when the writer’s people were known as ‘Hebrews’. There is nothing here of the claims to grandeur made by other nations in their writings. There is no boasting. It is totally down to earth and practical.
It is of interest to consider the fact that Arpachshad’s name is demonstrably non-Semitic and not related to any known nation. Genesis 11:2 demonstrates that he at least is a real ‘son’ of Shem, while the others are the names of well-known nations, and in their case, with the exception of Aram, no descent is given. Whereas the birth of the nations can be dealt with on a broad scope the birth of the ancestors of Israel must be accurately recorded and in detail. Furthermore the name is clearly genuine for no Israelite would ever have invented such a name. It was given at a time when all spoke one language which would have been a fairly primitive, pre-Semitic one. Thus we must not be surprised to find non-Semitic usage.
Elam refers to the area of the plain of Khuzistan north of the Persian gulf. They developed their own pictographic script shortly after writing began in Babylonia (third millennium BC). The reference to them here may reflect the presence of early Semitic people in the area. A king of Elam is mentioned in Genesis 14.
Ashur refers to ancient Assyria whose early kings were originally described as ‘kings who lived in tents’. The first of these kings is mentioned in tablets at Ebla (3d millennium BC). The area included a good proportion of Semites, but was a mixture, as is confirmed by probable reference to them among the Hamites (see on Genesis 10:10-12).
Lud here may well refer to ancient Lydia (Ludu), as distinct from the Lud which is connected with Egypt (Isaiah 66:19; Jeremiah 46:9). As with Ashur the two may be connected.
Aram here may refer to the Aram(e.i) in the East Tigris region north of Elam and north east of Assyria. Reference is made to ‘Aram’ in an inscription of Naram-Sin of Akkad (c.2300 BC) referring to a region on the Upper Euphrates and to a city on the Lower Tigris in documents from Drehem (c.2000 BC). Later ‘Aram’ would become associated with Syria. The paralleling of Aram with Elam and Ashur is therefore a sign that the narrative is of a very early date.
‘And the sons of Aram: Uz and Hul and Gether and Mash.’
The land of Uz was Job’s homeland, whose location is uncertain, but this may well have been a different Uz. It is probably safe to say that the identity of these ‘sons’ is unknown.
‘And Arpachshad begat Shelah, and Shelah begat Eber and to Eber were born two sons. The name of the one was Peleg, for in his days the earth was divided, and his brother’s name was Joktan.’
The movement from ‘begat’ to ‘born two sons’ is in reverse to the earlier ‘sons of’ becoming ‘begat’ (Genesis 10:8). The inclusion of both descriptions in the same sentence, yet in different order, serves to demonstrate that such changes are purely stylistic and not evidence of separate narratives.
“In his days the earth was divided”. Division is mentioned in Genesis 10:5 and Genesis 10:32, but there the idea is of a gradual division into nations. ‘Division’ is not mentioned in Genesis 11. The meaning may therefore be that ‘the land was divided’ by irrigation channels. Peleg’s name (‘water-courses, division’) may have been given because of this very intention. We can compare Isaiah 30:25; Isaiah 32:2; Job 29:6; Job 38:25 where ‘peleg’ means irrigation canals (Assyrian plagu). Alternately the ‘division’ could refer to a dispute between the two sons, resulting in a divided land, like that between Abraham and Lot.
However it is possible that this is suggesting that Genesis 11 and the process of division into nations began at this time, but then why not more directly say that ‘that was when the people were scattered’?
The genealogy of Arpachshad at this point is clearly a genuine genealogy as we understand it (compare Genesis 11:10-14) as befits the ancestor of Eber and Abraham. Thus Peleg comes very early on in the period that produced the nations.
Eber - the name means ‘one who emigrates’. He is thought of as the eponymous ancestor of ‘the Hebrews’, and the name appears to be referred to Israel in Numbers 24:24. But while the term ‘Hebrew’ is referred to Abraham and his descendants, and very much later became in general use connected with the Jews, it was originally essentially used in a context where the term is applied by foreigners who saw them as immigrants and probably mainly used in derision. Israel did not see themselves as ‘the Hebrews’.
‘And Joktan begat Almodad and Sheleph and Hazarmaveth and Jerah and Hadoram and Uzal and Diklah and Obal and Abimael and Ophir and Havilah and Jobab. All these were the sons of Joktan.’
Hazarmaveth probably connects with the kingdom of Hadramaut in southern Arabia. Jerah means ‘the moon’ in Hebrew and occurs in southern Arabian inscriptions with this meaning. However no city or people of that name are yet known. Uzal perhaps connects with ‘Azal given by Arab historians as the ancient name for San‘a in Yemen.
Ophir is a tribe known from pre-islamic inscriptions lying between Saba and Havilah. This may or may not be the Ophir mentioned later as a source of gold (1 Chronicles 29:4 etc) but Havilah is connected with gold in Genesis 2:11. Havilah means ‘circle’ or ‘district’ (see also Genesis 10:7) - the site is unknown but is probably somewhere in Arabia, compare the Havilah mentioned in Genesis 25:18 in north west Arabia. This Havilah may be a different Havilah from the one in Genesis 10:7 but alternatively there may have been an absorption of one tribe by another with a consequent mixing of races. It is apparent from all this that at least some of Joktan’s descendants have affinities with Arabia
‘And their dwelling was from Mesha as you go towards Sephar, the mountain of the East.’
Mesha may connect with Massa in northern Arabia. Massa was the seventh of the twelve princes of Ishmael according to Genesis 25:14, demonstrating Arabian connections for the name, and may be identified with the Masa who paid tribute to Tiglath Pileser III. Sephar can possibly be connected with the coastal town Zafar in the kingdom of Hadramaut. This is possible but by no means certain, especially in view of the z instead of s.
“As you go towards -” essentially meaning ‘in the direction of’. This would seem to link the ‘sons’ together as covering one large area in Arabia.
‘These are the sons of Shem after their families, after their tongues, in their lands, after their nations.’
Compare Genesis 10:5; Genesis 10:20. The descriptions confirms that ‘sons’ is to be taken in the broader context of describing tribes, lands and nations.
The mention of language in each of these references is interesting. There is no attempt to divide by language. We must therefore see it as drawing attention to distinctions of language in preparation for the account given in Genesis 11.
‘These are the families of the sons of Noah, after their generations, in their nations, and of these were the nations divided in the earth after the flood.’
This remarkable chapter has demonstrated the growth of the nations from the families of Noah and his sons, simplifying a most complicated situation. Its concern is to demonstrate that all known nations are descended from Noah. At this stage there are no ‘chosen people’. All nations are the same before God. But the connecting narrative will demonstrate why they are now no longer satisfactory in God’s eyes leading on to his calling of one man, Abraham, to finally bring about a remedy for the needs and sins of the nations.
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Genesis 10". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany