The chapter of Genesis that comes after the flood is fascinating. It is called the Table of Nations. It tells of the people on earth that came from Noah’s three sons. It starts out like this:
“‘The sons of Japheth:
Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshach, and Tiras.’”
The Bible goes on to list who all of their sons were. Then it moves to the descendants of Ham. They were:
“‘Cush, Mizraim, Put, and Canaan’”
Once again, it goes on to list their sons as well. Finally, the Table of Nations tells about Shem. His sons were Elam, Asshur, Arphaxad, Lud, and Aram.
Over hundreds of years, the children of Japheth, Ham, and Shem filled the earth with great nations. They spoke many different languages and had very different cultures. They each moved to different regions of the world and had territories of their own.
This was all very important for the Bible to teach. It shows the link of all the people of the earth back to Noah and Noah’s God. Every single clan and nation on earth started out knowing the goodness of the Lord of all Creation. Any group that does not worship Him and love Him had to rebel and walk away at some point in their history. Everyone on the planet has an ancestor that started out knowing the living God.
The Table of Nations also shows how every nation on the planet took part in God’s great blessings. Because of God’s goodness, they were fruitful, and their children multiplied. Even as they rebelled, He continued to show them grace by giving them the chief joys of life. He cared deeply for them, preparing their lands and their languages, their blessings and even their curses far in advance.
There was another important reason for the Bible to have the Table of Nations. Into this great mass of different nations and people groups, God was going to insert a very special nation that would serve them all. He wanted to create a nation that would be set apart to specialize in the high and holy ways of the Lord.
This nation would be the nation of Israel. They would be a nation of priests whose whole way of life and culture would be crafted around the commands of God. The Lord’s holy presence would be with them in a very sacred, special way. These people were meant to spend their whole lives learning and pursuing God and being near to Him. They would be transformed into a higher goodness than ever seen before in this cursed world. They would be the model to other nations, showing how the human race was meant to relate to their Creator.
God would reveal Himself to them in special ways. Humanity could not return to the Garden to walk with God in the cool of the day. But the nation of Israel was to build a holy Temple in their most sacred city, and it would be like the throne of God on earth. His intense, holy presence would honor them above all the other nations of the earth.
God would also reveal Himself to the nation of Israel through Holy Scripture. They would write down His words through stories and prophecies and poems and sacred legal codes. The people of this nation could draw near to God by studying His Word. It would make a way for the fallen human race to learn about the Most High God, His righteousness, and His plans for history. (When you read the book of Genesis, you read an important part of that blessing!)
The nation of Israel did not exist at the time of the Table of Nations. But the Table prepares the reader to be ready for the day when God would move in history to create His nation of priests.
As the reader looks at all of the names on the Table of Nations, each with thousands upon thousands of human souls, a problem arises. How was God working to help free the wicked on earth from their entanglement with sin? How was He going to stop the terrible curse? He promised He wouldn’t send another flood, so what was His plan? The nation of Israel was the answer. They were meant to be a priestly blessing to all the nations that are on the Table.
The Table of Nations was written to show the people of the world where they belonged in the history of God’s work in humanity all the way back to the Flood. But it was especially written to teach the nation of Israel its special place of blessing, leading all the way back to Noah. They would be called out as a nation from the line of Shem, and the blessing of Shem was upon them.
The Table of Nations first tells us about the sons of Japheth. He had seven! Fourteen nations or language groups would come from Japheth’s marriage. The clans of these different language groups ended up being the people who settled in a land called Anatolia, or modern day Turkey.
Then the Bible tells us about the children of two of them: Gomer and Javan. Javan had a son named Rodanim, and his descendants were people of the sea. They built boats and navigating the waters of the glistening Mediterranean. Their ships took them farther and farther away as they settled new territories across the sea. We believe his son named Elishu settled on the island of Cyprus. Rodanim probably settled on the island of Rhodes.
The Table of Nations tells us how the human race grew and spread across the earth after Noah and the flood. After telling about Noah’s son Japheth, the Bible teaches about Ham’s sons. Remember, Ham was a man who rejected the ways of his godly father. His heart was bent towards rebellion and sin. The ways he chose were the ways of Satan. Because of his wicked behavior, Ham and his descendants were under Noah’s curse. The curse of their sin would show its spreading poison over time. From Ham’s descendants the Bible lists thirty nations or language groups.
Ham’s sons were named Cush, Mizraim, and Canaan. Cush was the father of a man named Nimrod. He was brilliantly famous as a great and mighty warrior. He was the founder of the great cities of the ancient world. Together they made up Nimrod’s mighty empire. Yet Nimrod was cut from the same sinful cloth as Cain and Lamech and Ham. His name means, “we shall rebel.” He built his empire on force and violence and his own will to power. It spread across whole regions, eating up the land and everyone in it.
It was Nimrod who first built the cities of Babylon and Nineveh. They would one day become the empires of Babylon and Assyria, and they would follow in Nimrod’s footsteps. One of the reasons Nimrod’s story is told in the Bible is because both of these nations would become great oppressors of God’s holy people,the nation of Israel. Assyria would one day destroy a whole section of God’s holy nation, the Northern Kingdom, forcing the people into captivity and slavery. Babylon would do the same to the Southern Kingdom. It would only be after Babylon was conquered by another nation that the Israelite people would be allowed to return to their land. The Bible taught that these cruel nations came from the line of Ham, a people whose father chose wickedness over the ways of God.
Mizraim would be the father of those who lived in the region that became Egypt. It would become a place of great idolatry. They would worship everything from the sun to the Nile River to their very own Pharaoh! Egypt, too, would become a great oppressor of God’s holy people, the nation of Israel. But God would do a mighty work to free his people from their tyrannical king.
Another group that came from the line of Mizraim was the Philistines. These people would come across the sea to Israel to attack them and take their land. In the famous story when David fights against Goliath, it was to defeat the Philistine army.
Ham’s son Canaan would settle in the land that God would promise to Israel. They would become the great enemies of God’s holy people. They would live in the land for hundreds of years in horrific rebellion, idolatry, and moral filth against the Lord. Sodom and Gomorrah were in the land of Canaan, and their sin was so violently wicked that God would utterly wipe them out. But it wasn’t just Sodom and Gomorrah. The whole land would become contaminated with the toxic pollution of sin, so much so that the Bible says the land would end up vomiting them out in disgust! That was a poetic way to say that God would use the nation of Israel to judge them for their sin and remove them from the land.
The Table of Nations teaches many things. As an Israelite read through the list of Ham’s descendants, it would have been like reading through the record of all their nation’s greatest enemies. The line of Ham produced the great violators of God’s way. They were idol worshipers who forcefully imposed their immorality on the other nations of the world. They did not simply wish to live in their own private sins, they pushed and forced their wickedness and idolatry on others, enslaving them and brutally punishing those who did not join them.
These stories tell us about things that happened in ancient history. But part of the reason God put them in the Bible is because they teach us why the world is the way it is now. The reason we have sin and suffering and shame now are the same reasons there was sin and suffering and shame in the past. Our situation on planet earth now comes from what happened in the past. Through these stories, God is teaching us how to understand our world. The violence and brokenness and lack of love in this world started with separation from God in the Garden. As whole sections of the human race rejected the perfect, holy ways of the LORD, they brought greater and greater wickedness and pollution of sin onto the earth. Everyone bears the pain of this. Every life is marked with hardship. And right now many, many people across the world live in terrible conditions of loss, hunger, and degradation because of the systems of wickedness and oppression that are set in their governments and their cultures.
This is important for us to understand because it is God’s truth. It is also important for us to understand because if we wish to be a part of God’s bright, holy transforming work of good against the powers of evil, we have to understand why the evil is there. We have to know the enemy of God’s perfect goodness so that we can join the LORD and His holy angels in the battle against him.
The wicked nations and cultures that rose up from the line of Cain did exactly the opposite of what God created the nation of Israel to do. Israel would be His nation of priests, and God would use them to bring His bright and holy presence into the midst of a dark and cursed world. This nation would come from Noah’s son Shem, or the Semite people.