The tenth chapter of Genesis contains an intriguing register of nations that has long been misunderstood and misused in Christian teaching. The common belief is that it gives the racial descent of all of the peoples and nations on earth. Conversely, respected evangelical Bible commentator Matthew Henry believed, “…it is the church that the scripture is designed to be the history of, and of the nations of the world only as they were some way or other related to Israel and interested in the affairs of Israel.” Dr. Henry advised that all of the world’s peoples are not included in Genesis chapter ten; instead, it only comprised those countries that interacted with Israel in biblical times.
The nations are divided in this chapter into three sections: Japhetic, Semitic, and Hamitic. The Believer’s Bible Commentary categorizes as follows: “Shem: The Semitic peoples—Jews, Arabs, Babylonians, Assyrians, Arameans, Phoenicians, Cypress, Ethiopia, Egypt. The Japhetic peoples—the Medes, Greeks, Cypriots, etc. Probably the Caucasian people of Europe and of northern Asia. Many scholars would also include the Orientals here. The Hamitic peoples—Ethiopians, Egyptians, Canaanites, Philistines, possibly the African and Oriental peoples, though many scholars view the Orientals as Japhetic.”
It is interesting that biblical commentaries cannot decide whether Oriental nations are Japhetic or Hamitic, and some even claim the Japanese are Semitic! Where are the people of India? Eighteenth century scholar, Thomas Coke, also asked, “But the question is, how came that fourth and late discovered part of the earth, America, to be peopled?” Where are the “native Americans” and the “Eskimos”? A universal explanation of Genesis ten has many problems.
The Biblical Background Commentary says regarding the Semites, “There is a mixture of Semitic and non-Semitic nations (by our ethnic criteria) in this list [in Genesis 10:21-31]. For instance, Elam (east of the Tigris) and Lud (Lydia in southern Asia Minor) are considered non-Semitic,” but listed as Semites.
This chapter, perhaps more than any other passage in Scripture, has been used as the basis to deny that any of the peoples of Europe have any descent from biblical Israel. For example, The Popular Commentary says, “The Sons of Japheth…The descendants of these men have been identified respectively, and with some show of probability, as the Cimmerians of Asia Minor, with whom the Cymry of Wales and Brittany and the Cimbri of ancient Germany are related, as the Scythians of Southern Russia, as the Medes south of the Caspian Sea, as the Graeco-Italian family of nations, and as the Iberians, Georgians, and Armenians of Asia Minor.” Thus, we are told that the peoples of Europe are all Japhetic, not Semitic, and have no part in the biblical promises and covenants of Scripture. This interpretation, however, does not stand up to scholarly scrutiny, first of all because a racial categorization is not in view in this chapter.
Genesis Chapter Ten is Geographical, not Racial.
In his biblically significant book, “Races of the Old Testament,” Dr. Henry Sayce stated, “…the tenth chapter of Genesis is ethnographical rather than ethnological. It does not profess to give an account of the different races of the world and to separate them one from another according to their various characteristics. It is descriptive merely, and such races of men as fell within the horizon of the writer are described from the point of view of the geographer and not of the ethnologist. The Greeks and Medes, for example, are grouped along with the Tibarenian and Moschian tribes because they all alike lived in the north; the Egyptian and the Canaanite are similarly classed together, while the Semitic Assyrian and the non-Semitic Elamite are both the children of Shem. We shall never understand the chapter rightly unless we bear in mind that its main purpose is geographical. In Hebrew, as in other Semitic languages, the relation between a mother-state to its colony, or of a town or country to its inhabitants, was expressed in a genealogical form” (pp.39-40).
Not understanding this fact creates misunderstanding and mayhem in the categorization in Genesis chapter ten. The southern Arabian tribe, Sheba, is listed twice, both as Hamite and Semite (ibid. p.41). The Indo-European Hittites with yellow skin, and the Semitic blond Amorites, were not related racially, but both are classed as children of Shem (p.59, 113). Dr. Sayce further pointed out that there is no justification for speaking of a “Semitic race,” since Semitic is a language categorization, not a racial classification (p.69). Speaking of Semites as a race “confounds language and race” (p. 69). Yet this fact is routinely ignored in most religious studies of Genesis ten.
The Inter-varsity Press Biblical Background Commentary agrees, “The genealogy of Noah’s family provides information on the future history and geographical distribution of peoples in the ancient Near East… There is no attempt, however, to link these peoples to racial divisions.”
Bridgeway Bible Commentary says, “The record concerns only the sons of Noah, and says nothing about peoples in the more distant parts of the world who may not have been affected by the flood.” In this view, Noah’s flood was a local flood, not worldwide, and Genesis 10 only concerns the Noahic race, not other races.
Today many think of the biblical Ham and his descendants as Black Africans, but in Biblical times, according to Dr. Sayce, “the natives of Libya also belonged to the blond race and are accordingly classed with the people of Europe,” and there was “a line of blonds extending from the northern coast of Africa” (ibid. p.114). Libya in northern Africa is considered to be Hamitic but this people was White in biblical times. In addition, the “curse of Ham” in Genesis 10:25 was actually a curse that was only applied to Ham’s fourth son, Canaan, whose descendants the Canaanites of Palestine, were not Black!
It is also commonly thought that Ham’s second son, Kush (Gen. 10:6), was Black, but Barnes Notes informs us, “Kush has left traces of his name perhaps in the Caucasus, the Caspian, and the Cossaei of Khusistan. There is an allusion in Amos (9:7) to his migration to the land south of Egypt which bears his name. It is possible, that some of the Kushites went toward India. To Ethiopia, however, the name generally refers in Scripture.”
Theologian John Gill confirms, “Cush, as used in Scripture, is generally rendered by us Ethiopia. This must not be understood of Ethiopia in Africa, but in Arabia; and indeed is always to be understood of one part of Arabia, and which was near to the land of Judea; so Moses’s wife is called an Ethiopian, when she was an Arabian, or of Midian, Num. 12:1, and Chusan and Midian are mentioned together, Hab. 3:7, and [Jean-Baptiste-Gaspard Bochart de Saron (1730 – 1794), a member of the Royal Academy of Science] has shown, by various arguments, that the land of Cush was Arabia; and so the Targum of Jonathan [a respected early Hebrew commentary] interprets it here Arabia. There was a city called Cutha in Iraq, a province in the country of Babylon, where Nimrod the son of Cush settled, which probably was called so from his father’s name. Here the eastern writers say Abraham was born, and is the same place mentioned in 2 Kings 17:24.”
It is commonly believed that the name, Ham, means “Black or hot,” and therefore indicates that his descendants are the Black peoples of today. Recent Hebrew scholarship, however, has disproved that assumption. In his book, “The Curse of Ham,” David M. Goldenberg says, “Recent research has shown conclusively that ancient Hebrew retained two distinct sounds from Proto-Semitic, a velar fricative and a pharyngeal fricative, as indeed modern Arabic still does. The alphabet that the early Hebrews inherited from the Phoenicians, however, had only a sign for the [pharyngeal] sound. The Hebrew [letter chet] therefore had to do double duty representing both sounds” with different meanings (pp.146-147). Dr. Goldenberg explained that “we can sometimes know which sound was meant…by looking at early Greek transcriptions…” (p.147) The Greek language differentiated the two sounds, and early translations of Proto-Semitic Hebrew into Greek allow the correct fricative to be known. Goldenberg summarized, “One thing is, however, absolutely clear. The name Ham is not related to the Hebrew or to any Semitic word meaning ‘dark’, ‘black’, or ‘heat’, or to the Egyptian word meaning ‘Egypt’. To the early Hebrews, then, Ham did not represent the father of hot, black Africa…” (ibid. p.149).
Dr. Goldenberg sums up the issue saying, “The idea that Noah’s sons…were of different skin colors is an old theory in biblical scholarship, which was long ago discarded.” (ibid. p.152)
Finally, “Commentary on the Holy Bible,” (J.R. Dummelow, Ed.) addresses the issue of Noah’s sons saying, “We may…consider that the arrangement is determined chiefly by geographical considerations, nations in proximity to each other being regarded as related. Thus the races assigned to Japheth (Gen. 10:2-5) are all in the north, those to Ham in the south (Gen. 10:6-20), whilst Shem’s descendants (Gen. 10:21-31) are in the centre…The nations mentioned are mainly those which were grouped round the Mediterranean Sea, and are generally known as Caucasian, no reference being made to Negro, Mongolian or Indian races.” All of Noah’s sons and their immediate descendants were of the same race. In fact, to make a racial classification of all the world’s peoples out of this tenth chapter of Genesis is seriously mistaken and a misuse of Scripture.