Menu Close

“The Descent of Man”

Genesis 9:18-10:32
Bob DeGray
November 20, 2005

Key Sentence

The many nations around us show varying degrees of light and darkness.


I. Darkness Persists (Genesis 9:18-29)
II. Degrees of Light and Darkness (Genesis 10:1-32)


Some thoughts on Sources for ‘the Table of Nations’ (Genesis 10)

        Scott Murray loaned me a good book some time ago called “Undaunted Courage”, about the Lwis and Clark expedition. One interesting thing was the variety of the Indian tribes along the route. For example, when they reached the Pacific, they found whole tribes which had a pervasive habit of stealing. “They came from up and down the river to see and steal from the white men. ‘These people are constantly hanging around us,’ Lewis complained. One party of warriors tried to wrest a tomahawk from Private John Colter, but they had picked the wrong man. “He retained it,” Lewis dryly recorded. Still, as the expedition worked it’s way upriver the Indians were always there, ready to grab anything left unguarded. In the evening, three Indians stole Lewis’ dog, Seaman, which sent him into a rage. He called three men and snapped out orders to follow and find those thieves. The soldiers set out; when the thieves saw they were being pursued they let Seaman go and fled.” These Indians, whole tribes, were deceitful and treacherous.

        But just a little further up the Columbia, Lewis and Clark met the Wallawalla indians of the Nez Perce. Their chief, Yellept, graciously welcomed the white men, gave them information, and made gifts to them of horses, food and supplies. After a three night stay the party “took leave of these friendly, honest people, and departed around 11:00 a.m.” The second night out, three teen-age Wallawalla boys rode into camp, returning a steel trap that had been left behind. Lewis wrote ‘I think we can justly affirm to the honor of these people that they are the most hospitable, honest, and sincere people we have met in our voyage.”

        Two very different nations of Indians living just a few miles apart: one honest and noble, the other dishonest and treacherous. These distinctions are typical between nations throughout history. Some cultures have been philosophical, some practical, some warlike, some peaceful, some debased, some moral, some criminal, some law-abiding. In fact, every culture is made up of some darkness and some light. One might have hoped that the post- flood world would be repopulated by the righteous, that the sons of the sons of Noah would live in holy fear of God that translated into appropriate choices. Unfortunately, but predictably, they didn’t. The cultures that rose after the flood were immediately infected with sin, and the amount of spiritual darkness in the new world was depressing. There was still some light, but it was strong in only a few societies, just a flicker in most. And Moses, who was the editor of Genesis wanted his readers to know the darkness was there. So he included the sins of Noah’s family and the list of nations they founded in order to remind his readers that “The many nations around us show varying degrees of light and darkness.”

I. Darkness Persists (Genesis 9:18-29)

        Let’s begin with the rather sad account of the sins of Noah and his family. Genesis 9:18-29 The sons of Noah who came out of the ark were Shem, Ham and Japheth. (Ham was the father of Canaan.) 19These were the three sons of Noah, and from them came the people who were scattered over the earth. 20Noah, a man of the soil, proceeded to plant a vineyard. 21When he drank some of its wine, he became drunk and lay uncovered inside his tent. 22Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father's nakedness and told his two brothers outside. 23But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it across their shoulders; then they walked in backward and covered their father's nakedness. Their faces were turned the other way so that they would not see their father's nakedness. 24When Noah awoke from his wine and found out what his youngest son had done to him, 25he said, "Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers." 26He also said, "Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem. 27May God extend the territory of Japheth; may Japheth live in the tents of Shem, and may Canaan be his slave." 28After the flood Noah lived 350 years. 29Altogether, Noah lived 950 years, and then he died.

        God had already recognized that the hearts of people were ‘inclined toward evil’. But this account of Noah brings that home in a way that still saddens us thousands of years later. Here’s Noah, the one blameless in his generation, with a righteousness that came by faith in God and his promises, and yet not long after the ark had landed, not long after he planted a vineyard, we find him drunk in his tent. This is the first mention of wine in Scripture, and it’s negative. However, from Scripture’s point of view wine is not the problem - drunkenness is the problem. Noah indulges in too much of this new wine and becomes so drunk he passes out in his tent. He may have left his garment outside the tent door, which would have alerted his sons to his possible loss of modesty if they went in.

        So Satan succeeds in luring Noah, this righteous man, into sin; even in this family, which was supposed to be the light of this cleansed world, there was darkness. Yet Moses doesn’t emphasize Noah’s guilt, but rather Ham’s sin, violating his father’s privacy by going in to look upon him. Some suggest that some evil took place in that tent, but there’s no reason to assume any misconduct beyond what’s in the text: the sins of drunkenness by Noah and dishonor by Ham. In fact if Moses had reported this in any more detail he would have been imitating the sin of Ham. Hollywood would take us inside the tent in dolby wide-screen. Moses leaves us outside with Shem and Japheth. Verse 22 ‘Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father's nakedness and told his two brothers outside.’ Ham was the youngest of Noah’s sons, and Canaan the youngest of Ham’s. This implies that at least several years have passed since the flood; Noah’s sons didn’t have children until the flood was over. But in addition to being youngest, Ham also seems to be the son most prone to disrespect and rebellion. Possibly because he chafed under the constraints of Noah’s righteousness, he had no compassion for him and didn’t even try to preserve his dignity.

        In any event, he didn’t see to it that Noah was properly covered. Instead he went outside and graphically described to his two brothers the folly which had overtaken their father. Ham seems to have been amused by Noah’s sin, rather than appalled by it. Isn’t that exactly what happens in our culture, which rarely finds horror in sin, but often encourages us to laugh at it? In the same way, our culture leads us think of the lengths to which Shem and Japheth went in order not to see their father as extreme. One of the commentators I’ve been reading, Robert Deffinbaugh, says “Our great problem is that we have almost no sense of identification with the attitudes or actions of Noah’s two godly sons, Shem and Japheth. We feel no shame and no shock at the report of Noah inside his tent. But we’re part of a society that senses no shame and no shock at moral and sexual indecency. We’re not troubled by Noah’s nakedness because we are so much farther down the path of decadence we hardly flinch at what happened in this passage. If the condemnation of God fell on Ham’s actions and on those who walked in his ways, what does that say to you and me? God forgive us for being beyond the point of shockability and shame. God teach us to value moral purity and to deal with sin. May we refuse to let it live among us, just as Israel was taught in this text.”

        I think Deffinbaugh nails it. Despite the darkness of our own culture we have to recognize that Ham’s dishonoring behavior was sinful, and that Shem and Japheth, as they backed into that tent, were acting with a better sense of righteousness and propriety than we know. Without looking on their father, they covered him. In the morning, when Noah woke from his drunkenness, he knew what had happened. Perhaps he was alert enough to remember the events of the previous night. If the story was known in the camp, it was probably due to Ham.

        Noah’s response seems to go beyond this incident and have much broader implications. In fact I’m convinced verses 25 to 27 are more prophecy than curse. Noah had seen a rebelliousness and defiance in Ham that he prophetically knew would characterize Ham’s son, Canaan and his descendants. Remember, the original readers of Moses’ book were the Hebrews who had come out of the Egyptian captivity and were headed toward the land of Canaan, to conquer and subdue it. Moses emphasizes Noah’s comments about Canaan in order to reinforce in his readers the truth that the Canaanite nations live in darkness and rebelliousness against God.

        So Noah says that Canaan is to be the lowest servant - servant of servant - to his brothers. I don’t think this referred so much to Canaan himself as to the Canaanite nations. The prophetic point is that these nations will be judged by God for their dark iniquities and made subject to the people of the light, the people of Israel. In a larger sense, though, the point is that as the whole world population develops out of these three brothers, some nations will be Canaanish in their characteristics, and some Shemish, and some Japhethish.

        Some commentators contend that the nations that came from Canaan were the materialists - concerned with subjugation of the physical world and the manipulation of the gods through physical idols, but not so much with learning, philosophy or true worship. The nations that came from Japheth, on the other hand were more philosophers and thinkers, as epitomized by the Greeks. And the nations that came from Shem were the more spiritually minded, clinging to the idea of one true God. There is some merit in these generalizations, though they don’t apply to every nation, and certainly not to individuals. By the way, some have seen this curse of Canaan as a curse on those of dark skin, since the African nations were descended from Ham. Totally false inference, and if used to justify slavery, totally evil. People who know that God so loved the whole world he sent his son have to refute prejudice, whether it comes from bad theology or bad science; evolution has also been used to justify racism on the basis of one race being more evolved. Hitler liked that one. But it’s rubbish. All men are equally sinners, loved by God and saved by Jesus.

        The words of Noah, then, contain a prophecy about his sons. The character of these three individuals will be reflected in the nations which emerge from them. Canaan will reflect the moral flaws of his father, Ham. And the Canaanites will manifest these same tendencies in their society. In the same way, the blessing of Shem in verse 26 is a prophecy of the national character of Shem’s descendants. The godly line of the Messiah is to be preserved through Shem. Finally, Japheth will be blessed in his relationship to Shem, verse 27: “May God extend the territory of Japheth; may Japheth live in the tents of Shem, and may Canaan be his servant.” In the same way, God will say to Abraham: “And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

II. Degrees of Light and Darkness (Genesis 10:1-32)

        In chapter 10 the names and activities of some of those nations are briefly spelled out. Let’s begin with the sons of Japheth, Genesis 10:1-5. This is the account of Shem, Ham and Japheth, Noah's sons, who themselves had sons after the flood. 2The sons of Japheth: Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech and Tiras. 3The sons of Gomer: Ashkenaz, Riphath and Togarmah. 4The sons of Javan: Elishah, Tarshish, the Kittim and the Rodanim. 5(From these the maritime peoples spread out into their territories by their clans within their nations, each with its own language.)

        Japheth and his sons are listed first, apparently because his descendants had the least significance to the Middle East and therefore to Moses’ original readers. However these nations are far from insignificant to us. The sons and later descendants of Japheth appear to have settled principally in Europe, along with parts of Asia. For example Japheth and his son Javan and his son Elishah are very clearly linked both in Scripture and in tradition to Greece and the surrounding lands. The legendary ‘father’ of the Greeks is ‘Iapetos’ which is a reasonable adaptation of ‘Japheth’; the Greek name for their islands ‘Ionia’ can be derived from ‘Javan’; ‘Hellas’, the name the Greeks give the mainland appears to come from ‘Elishah’.
        And this kind of thing happens all the time - there are dozens of names in this chapter with verbal links to nations that are located not only in Europe and the Middle East but also in Africa and Asia. Even liberal scholars have admitted that this table of nations is the best single source on the peoples of the ancient world.

        So the descendants of Japheth appear to have settled Europe, Eurasia and Asia. The son of Gomer, Ashkenaz, is associated with the settlement of Germany, so that Jews who immigrated to Europe still call themselves ‘Ashkenazi’. Magog and Meshach and Tubal appear to have settled in central Europe, where Meshach’s name may be preserved by the people of Moscow. Madai may have been the earliest ancestor of the Medes, who eventually became a dominant power in Persia. You could expand almost indefinitely on these kind of associations, but Moses summarizes them well in verse 5, literally, ‘from these the coast lands of the gentiles spread out into their lands, every one according to his language, according to their families, into their nations.’ Japheth was the father of these Gentiles. If you’re of European descent, you’re probably, in the end a son or daughter of Japheth. Now were these nations ‘light’ or ‘darkness’? Clearly there were elements of both. The Greeks were great philosophers and explored the foundations of life in ways that have profoundly influenced Western culture, including Christian thought. So there is some light. Yet these same societies gave rise to myths and idols and gods whose morality is at times shocking even to our jaded thinking. So there was plenty of darkness among the sons of Japheth as well.

        Next the chronicle turns to the sons of Ham, who receive more extensive focus because they were the ancestors of Israel’s enemies in the promised land. Genesis 10:6-21 The sons of Ham: Cush, Mizraim, Put and Canaan. 7The sons of Cush: Seba, Havilah, Sabtah, Raamah and Sabteca. The sons of Raamah: Sheba and Dedan. 8Cush was the father of Nimrod, who grew to be a mighty warrior on the earth. 9He was a mighty hunter before the Lord; that is why it is said, "Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the Lord." 10The first centers of his kingdom were Babylon, Erech, Akkad and Calneh, in Shinar. 11From that land he went to Assyria, where he built Nineveh, Rehoboth Ir, Calah 12and Resen, which is between Nineveh and Calah; that is the great city. 13Mizraim was the father of the Ludites, Anamites, Lehabites, Naphtuhites, 14Pathrusites, Casluhites (from whom the Philistines came) and Caphtorites. 15Canaan was the father of Sidon his firstborn, and of the Hittites, 16Jebusites, Amorites, Girgashites, 17Hivites, Arkites, Sinites, 18Arvadites, Zemarites and Hamathites. Later the Canaanite clans scattered 19and the borders of Canaan reached from Sidon toward Gerar as far as Gaza, and then toward Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, as far as Lasha. 20These are the sons of Ham by their clans and languages, in their territories and nations.

        The sons of Ham settled primarily in the Middle East and Africa. “Cush” is Scripture’s name for Ethiopia. Ancient writings and tablets agree that this region was once called ‘kish’ or ‘kashi’. The text lists eight of Cush’s descendants, and focuses on Nimrod, whose name means ‘let us rebel’ and who is called ‘the mighty hunter’. But he also became a mighty tyrant, having a kingdom first focused on Babylon and then on Ninevah in Assyria, both of which became great centers of civilization and ultimately enemies of Israel. Ham’s next son, Mizraim was the ancestor of the Egyptians. The word is used almost a thousand times in the Old Testament as the customary name for Egypt. Since ‘Mizraim’ is a plural form, it may not have been this man’s exact original name; some have suggested that the legendary founder of Egypt’s first dynasty, ‘Menes’ was Mizraim. Notice also that this is the first instance where a whole people ‘the Egyptians’ are talked about as ‘the son’ of a particular individual. Many of the ‘sons’ mentioned in this account are in fact whole peoples founded by descendants of the named father.

        Put, or Phut, is the ancient name for Libya, the region of North Africa west of Egypt. Put is the only one of Ham’s sons whose further descendants are not explored. The emphasis is on the descendants of Ham’s fourth son. These were the Canaanite tribes, a people well known to Moses’ readers: the Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites, Girgashites, Hivites, Arkites, Sinites, Arvadites, Zemarites and Hamathites. Most of these are found in the promised land - the Jebusites, for example, lived in the region of Jerusalem. However, a few of these tribes may have migrated further. There is some evidence the Sinites settled in the Far East, where ancient secular histories called the people ‘Sinae’.

        But the main identity of these Canaanities, the important identity for Moses and his people, was as the ungodly inhabitants of the promised land, which God gives to Israel because of the gross darkness of the Canaanites. Three categories of Canaanite sin are mentioned in Scripture. First, sexual sin: in Leviticus God gives a list of forbidden sexual practices and says “Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations I am going to drive out before you became defiled.” Second, idolatry. God told the people of Israel: “Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and burn their Asherah poles in the fire; cut down the idols of their gods and wipe out their names from those places. 4You must not worship the Lord your God in their way.” Unfortunately Israel often did. Third, occult practices. Deuteronomy 18:9 “When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. 10Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, 11or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead . . . because of these detestable practices the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you.”

        So these were nations wrapped in darkness, even compared to the nations around them, and God makes it clear that such darkness is subject to judgment. Even today nations are mixtures of darkness and light, some with virtually no moral compass, some with the light of Christ, some with a moral light that God allows even apart from the light of Christ. In this last category I think of China, which at no point in it’s history has really had the benefit of Biblical influence, but which at many points in its history has imposed a truly admirable morality on its people. Confucius taught the golden rule in 500 b.c.: ‘what you don’t want yourself, don’t do to others’. His moral guidance has been important in China ever since. And in many periods the rulers of China have imposed morality: shame based, legalistic, but real morality. Even today missionaries in China say they feel safer on the streets of China than in America, and can allow their children much more freedom growing up in China than in America because there is little danger of them coming to the kinds of harm we worry about.

        On the other hand, there are nations with significant darkness. I had a brief talk with Amy Morrow a week or so ago, and I was struck by the fact that in certain key areas such as sexual fidelity and senseless theft, the population of Zambia seems devoid of a moral compass. What’s really astounding is that this moral vacuum exists in a county swept by revival, with extremely high church attendance, proclaiming itself a Christian nation. Then I thought about our country, and recognized that in many ways we are just as hypocritically depraved. We have gross darkness built into the fabric of our society. And it’s clear every nation is mixed: darkness and light. Not even a Christian foundation can prevent darkness, and the absence of one does not preclude light.

        But usually, light comes from knowing God. The descendents of Noah’s son Shem had some of this light. Verses 21-32 Sons were also born to Shem, whose older brother was Japheth; Shem was the ancestor of all the sons of Eber. 22The sons of Shem: Elam, Asshur, Arphaxad, Lud and Aram. 23The sons of Aram: Uz, Hul, Gether and Meshech. 24Arphaxad was the father of Shelah, and Shelah the father of Eber. 25Two sons were born to Eber: One was named Peleg, because in his time the earth was divided; his brother was named Joktan. 26Joktan was the father of Almodad, Sheleph, Hazarmaveth, Jerah, 27Hadoram, Uzal, Diklah, 28Obal, Abimael, Sheba, 29Ophir, Havilah and Jobab. All these were sons of Joktan. 30The region where they lived stretched from Mesha toward Sephar, in the eastern hill country. 31These are the sons of Shem by their clans and languages, in their territories and nations. 32These are the clans of Noah's sons, according to their lines of descent, within their nations. From these the nations spread out over the earth after the flood.

        The Shemites were clustered in the Middle East, though some of these names have been identified with places in Europe, Asia and Africa. Five sons of Shem are listed, and many other descendants as well. One of the most important was Joktan, whose many sons are listed. For some reason they were well known to the original compiler of this text. Their territory is probably modern day Saudi Arabia - the Arabian Peninsula. One confirmation of this has come from the space program. In 1992 the Shuttle Imaging Radar confirmed the existence of the lost city of Ubar in the deserts of Oman. Sumerian tradition says Ubar was founded by a grandson of Noah. It was lost for 1600 years after it sank into a limestone pit. But it’s not a myth - it’s been found and examined.

        The other son of Eber was Peleg, who has two distinctions. First, we’re told that in his day the earth was divided. Some have speculated that this comment implies continental drift and plate tectonics, but the obvious Biblical connection is with the Tower of Babel we’re going to study next week in chapter 11, where the people of the earth were divided from each other by the confusion of languages. The second important thing about Peleg is that he is the connection in this chapter to the line of Christ. Probably the easiest place to see this is in Luke’s genealogy, where he takes us back, generation by generation, to Abraham and then continues “the son of Terah, the son of Nahor, 35the son of Serug, the son of Reu, the son of Peleg, the son of Eber, the son of Shelah, 36the son of Cainan, the son of Arphaxad, the son of Shem, the son of Noah.” There is a direct line, through Noah and Peleg, from Adam to Abraham, David and Jesus of Nazareth. Peleg has to be mentioned because he is the representative of that line of promise, the line of light, which God is preserving in order to bring a savior for all these nations, from the darkest to the most enlightened, from Canaan to Greece to China to Africa to Friendswood.

        None of these nations is totally light. None is totally darkness. But every individual in these nations needs the light of Christ, the rescue of Christ, the forgiveness of Christ, new life in Christ. And God had purposed from eternity past to preserve this line through all history, until the time was right to send forth his son, to rescue those living in darkness. Christmas is coming: it’s not a close as the stores want you to think, but it is coming. And one week soon we’ll glance at Isaiah chapter 9, where God says “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. . . For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Like the nations founded by Noah’s sons, the nations around us display varying degrees of light and darkness. So do individuals. But the true light of life and true rescue from darkness is found only in Jesus, who said “I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.”