Genesis 10 - 11: The Nations


© Rosemary Bardsley 2013


Genesis 9:18 to 11:32 tracks the history of the line of Seth, through Shem, the son of Noah, up to the call of Abram in chapter 12.

A.1 Genesis 9:18-28
This passage recounts Ham’s discovery of his drunk, sleeping, naked father. This brought forth a rather startling response from Noah in which he cursed Ham’s son Canaan, and his descendants. On the surface Noah’s response seems rather more than what was merited by an accidental occurrence in which he himself was also at fault. Keil/Delitszch explain it this way:

‘This trifling fall served to display the hearts of his sons. Ham saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without. Not content with finding pleasure himself in his father's shame … he just proclaimed his disgraceful pleasure to his brethren, and thus exhibited his shameless sensuality. The brothers, on the contrary, with reverential modesty covered their father with a garment … walking backwards that they might not see his nakedness and thus manifesting their childlike reverence as truly as their refined purity and modesty. For this they receive their father's blessing, whereas Ham reaped for his son Canaan the patriarch's curse.’ [Commentary on Genesis. Public Domain.]

This incident is the focus of debate among Bible scholars and teachers, and certain interpretations of the cursing and blessings have led to the justification of the mistreatment of some races and some skin colours. Regardless of how we personally respond to Noah’s action, we can isolate a few facts:

In Genesis 9:1 God ‘blessed Noah and his sons’ and in 9:8 the sons are obviously included in the covenant described throughout 9:1-17.

Genesis 9:6 outlaws the mistreatment of humans because they are made in the image of God. On this basis, nothing said later can authorise the mistreatment of one human being by another.

Noah’s ‘curse’ is put upon Canaan, Ham’s youngest son, not on Ham or his other sons.

Noah did not actually ‘bless’ Shem and Japheth. He blessed Shem’s God, not Shem, and he prayed (1) that Canaan would be the slave of both Shem and Japheth, (2) that Japheth and Shem would be friends, and (3) that God would enlarge Japheth’s territory.

History proves that the descendants of Canaan did indeed become dominated by the descendants of Japheth and Shem:

‘The Canaanites were partly exterminated, and partly subjected to the lowest form of slavery, by the Israelites, who belonged to the family of Shem; and those who still remained were reduced by Solomon to the same condition (1Kings 9:20-21). The Phoenicians, along with the Carthaginians and the Egyptians, who all belonged to the family of Canaan, were subjected by the Japhetic Persians, Macedonians, and Romans; and the remainder of the Hamitic tribes either shared the same fate, or still sigh, like the negroes, for example, and other African tribes, beneath the yoke of the most crushing slavery.’ [ibid]

However, the above summation of the history of the descendants of Canaan, and of Ham, overlooks two other facts: that [1] some of the nations descended from Canaan have been, and some still are, major powers, and [2] some of the nations descended from Japheth and Shem have been subjugated, even exterminated.

There is no mention here of skin colour nor of ‘race’.

Two questions remain:

[1] Are we to understand Noah’s response as the thoughtless, vitriolic anger of an embarrassed old man? Or are we to see it as an expression of his deep and grief-filled insight into the spiritual characters and inclinations of his sons and a generalised prophetic announcement inspired by the Spirit of God?  

[2] Are we to understand the curse on Canaan, to be intended to encompass all the descendants of Ham, not just of Canaan?

Irrespective of how we answer these questions there are several truths that must override our answers:

[1] That the seed of the woman, the line of Jesus Christ, is traced through Shem, whose God Noah here identifies as the LORD – that is, YAHWEH. And that is blessing indeed. And as we will see later in the records about Abraham, the whole human race, all the nations of the earth, will actually be blessed through the coming Saviour descended from Shem. This ultimate blessing thus overrides and reverses all the ‘curses’ under which any person might find themselves.

[2] That the descendants of Shem and Japheth, as part of the human race descended from Adam and Eve, were still under the original Genesis 3 ‘curse’ of suffering, pain and death; and they lived in a world now even more devastated by the further judgement of God upon human sin from they have just escaped with their lives.

[3] That the pronouncement of a curse, whether it be upon Canaan and his line only, or on Ham and all his descendants, does not give anyone the freedom or the authority to mistreat, disrespect or despise their descendants. This is very obvious [1] from God’s stern warning against all who would trouble Cain [Genesis 4:13-15], [2] from Genesis 9:6, and [3] the attitude of Jesus to Judas throughout his three years of ministry and up to and including his betrayal. The suffering that has been imposed on many because of a faulty interpretation of this ‘curse’ is as great as it is unjustified.


A.2 The Table of Nations – Genesis 10
Genesis 10 records the descendants of Ham and Japheth for three ‘generations’ after the flood, and the descendants of Shem for six ‘generations’. As well as including the names of individuals, this ‘genealogy’ also includes the names of people groups descended from them. For this reason this genealogy is sometimes called ‘The Table of the Nations’.

Henry Morris comments:

‘Even higher critics have often admitted that the tenth chapter of Genesis is a remarkably accurate historical document. There is no comparable catalogue of ancient nations available from any other source. It is unparalleled in its antiquity and comprehensiveness. … Dr William Albright … said …”It stands absolutely alone in ancient literature, without a remote parallel, even among the Greeks, where we find the closest approach to a distribution of peoples in genealogical framework .. The Table of Nations remains an astonishingly accurate document.” ’ [The Genesis Record, p 245].

The table below reflects generalized information gathered from several sources regarding the nations descended from Noah’s three sons, with a fourth column for those descended from Ham’s son, Canaan.




Other sons


Semitic peoples

[both Jews and Arabs]


Aryan [ancient]







Native American, Indigenous Australian, Pacific Islands


From these all the people of the earth are descended and can be traced. Some people object that there is not sufficient time for the present population of the world to have grown from these three men and their wives. However, various scholars have demonstrated that this is entirely possible. A model allowing for 35 years per generation and 3 children per family creates a world population of over 4 billion in as little as 1,820 years. [See]. The world population, currently estimated at approximately 7 billion, could very easily have grown from Noah’s sons, even in the calculated 6000 years since the flood allowed for by conservative biblical chronology.

Another problem raised by unbelief is that of the physical features characteristic of the various ‘races’. This is not a problem in view of the confusion of the languages and the dispersion of the people in Genesis 11.

‘In summary, the dispersion at Babel, breaking a large interbreeding group into small, interbreeding groups, ensured that the resultant groups would have different mixes of genes for various physical features. By itself, this would ensure, in a short time, that there would be certain fixed differences in some of these groups, commonly called “races.” In addition, the selection pressure of the environment would modify the existing combinations of genes, causing a tendency for characteristics to suit their environment.’ [p.75 One Blood: The Biblical Answer to Racism Ken Ham, Carl Wieland and Don Batten.]


A.3 Shem to Abram – Genesis 11:10-32
The genealogy in Genesis 10 communicates the origin of the nations. The genealogy in Genesis 11 tracks the line of Adam, Seth, Noah, Shem through to Abram, with whom the covenant of worldwide salvation was established and more specifically detailed. The rest of the Old Testament and much of the New Testament is directly or indirectly related to this covenant with Abram.

We need to note that some sons’ names are passed over and grandsons’ names used instead. A similar thing occurs in the Matthew genealogy. This is not false evidence, but simply a stylistic manner of reporting the genealogies in sets of generations. Ultimately, the grandson is the ‘child’ of the grandfather. [But also see Genesis 48 where Jacob claimed Joseph’s two sons as his own.]



Task #1: Answer the questions below:

[1] Up to this point what kept the people together? [11:1]

[2] When they began to build a ‘city’ or ‘tower’, what reason did they give? [11:3-4]

[3] Suggest why this evoked God’s response. [11:5-7]

[4] What was the result of this confusion of their language? [11:8-9]


Here we see men living as though God was not there: they see their safety and their security, both physical and social, in their own hands. They have to secure and save themselves. God is nowhere in their equation. Thus Schaeffer states:

‘Verse 4 makes what might be called the first public declaration of humanism … We have already found this sort of humanism in Cain, but what a strong humanistic statement this is! Let’s make a name for ourselves so that we can maintain a human unity and we can achieve social stability.’ [p152 ibid]

And so another judgement of God falls upon the sin of man, and yet another division occurs, not on the basis of ‘race’ or ‘colour’, but on the basis of language.