This chapter is known as "The Table of Nations" and is unique in the annals of ancient history. The purpose of the chapter is given at the beginning (v. 1) and the end (v. 32): to explain how the earth was repopulated after the Flood by the descendants of the three sons of Noah.
Before we look at some of the details of this chapter, and then try to draw some spiritual lessons from it, we need to heed some warnings.
First, the listing is not a typical genealogy that gives only the names of descendants. The writer reminds us that these ancient peoples had their own "clans and languages...territories and nations" (Gen. 10:31, niv). In other words, this is a genealogy plus an atlas plus a history book. We're watching the movements of people and nations in the ancient world.
Second, the listing isn't complete. For example, we don't find Edom, Moab, and Ammon mentioned, and yet these were important nations in biblical history. The fact that there are seventy nations in the list suggests that the arrangement may be deliberately artificial, an approach often used in writing such listings. There were seventy persons in Jacob's family when they went to Egypt (Gen. 46:27; Ex. 1:5), and our Lord sent seventy disciples out to preach the Word (Luke 10:1).
Third, it's difficult to identify some of these nations and give them "modern" names. Over the centuries, nations can change their names, move to different locations, modify their language, and even alter their racial composition through intermarriage.
Japheth's descendants (vv. 2-5).
Seven sons are named and seven grandsons from only two of the sons. Does this mean that the other five sons had no children born to them, or is it another evidence of the selective approach of the compiler?
Japheth is the ancestor of the Gentile nations who located north and west of the land of Canaan. These would be the distant nations, the countries that represented the "outer limits" of civilization for the average Old Testament Jew (Ps. 72:8-10).
Ham's descendants (vv. 6-20).
Cush is ancient Ethiopia (not the modern nation), Mizraim is Egypt, and Put may be Libya. We've already touched upon the peoples of Canaan. The descendants of Ham located in areas we'd identify today as Egypt, Palestine, the Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.
At this point in the listing there's a "parenthesis" to discuss a famous man, Nimrod, the founder of a great empire (vv. 8-12). He's mentioned because the nations he founded played an important part in the history of Israel, and also because one of them (Babel) is discussed in the next section of Genesis.
In the Authorized Version, Nimrod is called "a mighty one in the earth" and "a mighty hunter before the Lord" (vv. 8-9). The word translated "mighty" refers to a champion, somebody who is superior in strength and courage. It's translated "mighty men" in 1 Kings 1:8 and 10 and refers to David's special bodyguards. The image of Nimrod in the text isn't that of a sportsman hunting game but rather of a tyrant ruthlessly conquering men and establishing an empire. He built four cities in Shinar (Babylonia) and four more in Assyria. Both Babylon and Assyria became the enemies of Israel and were used of God to chasten His disobedient people. We'll learn more about Babylon in the next study.
Shem's descendants (vv. 21-31).
Shem is usually mentioned first, but he's listed last this time so that the narrative can move right into the story of Babel and the genealogy of Abraham, who descended from Shem (11:10ff). Five sons are mentioned, but the emphasis is on the family of Arphaxad because he was the grandfather of Eber (10:24). Abraham, the father of the Hebrew nation, came from the line of Eber, and his story begins in chapter 12.
There's another "parenthesis" in 10:25 to discuss the "dividing of the earth" during the days of Peleg, which means "division." This is probably referring to the dividing and dispersing of the nations described in chapter 11. However, some students think this "division" refers to a special dividing of the continents and rearranging of the landmasses.
This list of names and places carries with it some important theological truths, not the least of which is that Jehovah God is the Lord of the nations. God gave the nations their inheritance (Deut. 32:8) and "determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation" (Acts 17:26). In spite of despots like Nimrod, Jehovah is the God of geography and of history; He is in control. What God promises, He performs; and Noah's prophecy about his sons came true.
Second, in spite of external differences, all nations belong to the same human family. God made us all "of one blood" (Acts 17:26) and no race or people can claim to be superior to any other race or people. While in His providence, God has permitted some nations to make greater progress economically and politically than other nations, their achievements don't prove that they are better than others (Prov. 22:2).
Third, God has a purpose for the nations to fulfill. The account in Genesis 9:24-11:32 makes it clear that God's chosen nation was Israel. From chapter 12 on, Israel will be center stage in the narrative. But God also used Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, Media-Persia, and Rome to accomplish His purposes with reference to the Jewish people. God can use pagan rulers like Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus, Darius, and even Augustus Caesar.
Fourth, God is concerned for all the nations. Frequently in the Book of Psalms you find the phrase "all ye lands" or "all nations." Psalms 66:1-8 and 67 both express this universal vision that all the nations of the earth come to know God and serve Him. The church's commission to go into all the world isn't a New Testament afterthought; it's written into the warp and woof of the Old Testament story.
Finally, what's written in Genesis 9-10 must have been an encouragement to the people of Israel when they conquered Canaan. They knew that they were the chosen people of God and that the Canaanites would be their servants. They also knew that their God was the Lord of the nations and could dispose of them as He pleased. The conquest of Canaan was a victory of faith in God's promises, which explains why God admonished Joshua to meditate on the Word of God (Josh. 1:8).
Noah's three sons left a mixed legacy to the world, but the Lord of the nations was still in charge, and history is still His story.
Bible Exposition Commentary