The Table of Nations, Part One
By: Date: August 26, 2019 Categories: Uncategorized
The lands of Japheth, Shem, and Ham

Genesis 10 gives us a long listing of names that is often called the Table of Nations, the seventy (or so) descendants of Noah that became distinct people groups after the flood. With the help of genetic science, it is possible to track their movements over time to see where they began, and where they are today. The Hebrew Bible has seventy names, while the Christian Bible lists 72.

Understanding the Table of Nations contributes a great deal to our Biblical world view. To simplify the many opinions, I defer to the excellent compilation of Tim Osterholm,

The number seventy occurs 56 times in the Bible, with the prototype in Genesis 10. Here are a few prominent anti-types:

  • Abraham has seventy named descendants: Esau with his sons and grandson “Chiefs” makes 28, Jacob and his sons add 13, Ismael and his sons add 13 more, Keturah’s named offspring add 16, so (28+13+13+16=70)
  • Exodus 1:5, seventy Israelites, the offspring of Jacob, went down to Egypt and started the Nation of Israel
  • Exodus 24:9-11, Moses took seventy of the elders of Israel together with Aaron, and his sons, and went up Mount Sinai and ate and drank with God
  • Numbers 11:16, Moses appointed seventy elders of Israel and brought them to the tabernacle of the congregation. Based on this number the Sanhedrin Council consisted of seventy elders of the people
  • Jeremiah 25:11-12, the Israelites were exiled in Babylon for seventy years
  • Daniel 9:24, “seventy weeks are determined upon Jerusalem and its people to finish the transgression, and to make an end of sins and to make reconciliation for integrity and to bring an everlasting righteousness and to seal up the vision and prophecy”
  • Matthew 18:21-22, Jesus said to forgive seventy times seven
  • Luke 10:1, Jesus called and sent seventy disciples (KJV) or seventy-two (NIV) to declare the Kingdom of God, providing an anti-type for the Genesis ambiguity of 70 standing for 72 nations
  • The Septuagint Bible was named LXX (70) for the 72 scholars that translated it, providing a second anti-type

Based on these examples, I think it safe to say that seventy represents all the people, or is a representative group to speak for the people, but it sometimes represents a period of time in which a covenant is in abeyance due to disobedience. Seventy years is a long enough time for an unrepentant generation to pass away, to begin anew with the next. Seventy years in prison is a “life” sentence, so seventy is also a generation. 

Typology in the Main Divisions

Noah’s three sons were Japheth (the eldest), Ham (the youngest) and Shem (the middle brother). Traditionally these three branches have been understood to represent the three-part creation of man in the image of God. Unfortunately, they have also been used improperly to justify slavery or racial stereotyping. I want to understand what God meant by these men, their names, and how their descendants obeyed the Lord’s command to fill the earth – without falling into the errors of our fathers. 

Japheth is said to represent the mental man, curious about world views other than his own, but always in a self-interested way. Japheth means Enlargement or Expansion, a good description of what the Japheth nations did. Japheth had seven sons and seven named grandsons making up 14 nations that spread out to the north of Mt. Ararat. Today his Indo-European genotype is found in India, Europe, and the northern parts of Asia. Typologically speaking, Japheth is North.

Ham (Heb. Cham) is said to represent the physical man. Ham means Hot, usually in the sense of being excitable or hot-headed. Ham had four sons, 16 grandsons, two named greats, with a listing after of the Canaanite groups inhabiting Palestine in the time of Moses. His older three sons populated Africa. Typologically speaking, Ham is South.

Ham’s grandson nations spread out into Arabia, Babylon, Assyria, Anatolia (Eastern Turkey), and Georgia. Ham’s son Canaan (whom Noah cursed) has a separate story from the rest of his family that deserves a full telling later on. Hamites were the hardy pioneers who went first into the furthest reaches of the earth, often followed by opportunistic Japheth later on.

Shem is said to represent the spiritual or believing man – his heart. His name means a name, reputation, character, or glory, but it also became the way Jews speak of YHVH, calling him Hashem, or “the Name,” to avoid saying the holy name with unclean lips. 

Semites became a smaller population sandwiched between nations to the North and South, just as he was the middle son of Noah. He is prominent in the Bible narrative as father of the Eberites (Hebrews) and of Abraham, who left Ur in Chaldea and migrated to the Promised Land. 

Shem’s descendants inhabited Persia (Iran), Assyria (Northern Iraq), Chaldea (Southern  Iraq), Lydia, Syria, Arabia, Jordan, and Lebanon. Don’t let it bother you that there is overlap with Japheth and Ham, because nations mixed then as now, and there were many wars with invaders occupying the lands they conquered.

Think for a moment about what these three divisions say about mankind. We are hot-headed, prone to war, and only seek understanding in a self-interested way so that we can enlarge and expand our personal empires. Mankind’s spiritual heart is small and weak in comparison to the power of our minds above and flesh beneath.

No wonder it impresses the Lord when man believes what He says on the basis of faith in the character of God alone. In the next few posts, we’ll take a closer look at where all these nations ended-up, and read the message the Lord wrote for us in their names. 

For previous articles on name lists, visit:

Name Lists, Part One and Part Two