The Table of Nations

Destination by D Petzold Photography
Destination by D Petzold Photography
Genesis 10 is not the easiest passage to read or to preach on. An endless list of unpronounceable names. Nations scattered far and wide after the tower of Babel. Admit it, when you got there in your Bible in a Year reading the other week, you skimmed it, didn’t you?

But it’s actually a fascinating chapter, not only as a source for unusual baby names (Hazarmaveth anyone?) but as a turning point in salvation history; the problem to which the rest of the Bible’s story is the answer. 

It was always God’s plan for people to multiply and spread across the Earth. He commanded it of Adam (Gen 1:28) and restated it to Noah (Gen 9:1). Yet in Genesis 11:1-9 it is man’s refusal to scatter, and his plan instead to settle and establish his name over that of God, that results in God’s scattering of the nations.

In Genesis 10 we see (roughly speaking) the offspring of Japheth becoming predominantly Indo-European people, living around Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, Ukraine and Russia (10:2-5); Ham populating the Middle East, Egypt, East and North Africa, Ethiopia and Libya (10:6-20); and Shem dwelling in the Middle East, Syria and Assyria (10:21-32). Of course, Shem’s line becomes the focus of much of the rest of the Biblical story.

So far so good; a mildly interesting geography lesson. But how does this scattering of the tribes fit within the broader picture of God’s plan for the nations?

Throughout Genesis 10, the writer uses a four-fold formula to describe the diversity of the scattered nations. He speaks of clans, languages, lands and nations. Commentators point out that such a formula isn’t used again throughout Scripture, until you reach Revelation where it is used twice. Revelation 7 seems to be deliberately alluding to Genesis 10 and says:

“I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes, and peoples and languages.” (Revelation 7:9)

Genesis 10 and Revelation 7 are the bookends of the story of the nations. A story in which the nations are:

Idolatrous > Scattered > Gathered > Worshipful

But how does this transformation take place? What is it that re-gathers the nations like this and reorients their hearts towards God?

Well, firstly and most obviously, it’s the cross. Revelation 5, again using that four-fold formula, says:

“By your blood, you purchased men for God, from every tribe and language and people and nation.” (Revelation 5:9)

It is the death of Jesus that turns idolaters to worshippers, that gathers the scattered. But I think the New Testament also gives a second answer to the problem of Genesis 10. Most manuscripts count 70 nations in Genesis 10. The Greek translation lists 72 nations. In Luke 10:1-2 we read this:

“[Jesus] appointed seventy-two others…”

Hold it before you read on. If you have a Bible to hand check out the footnote at the bottom. It probably says something like “some manuscripts say 72, some manuscripts say 70.” Have you ever wondered why Jesus chose 70/72 disciples and not 64, or 78? I think it was a prophetic statement. In the same sort of way that Jesus chose 12 disciples to represent the 12 tribes of Israel, now he appoints 70/72 others to represent the nations of the world. Jesus sent out the same number of disciples as there were scattered nations – even accounting for manuscript discrepancy! The whole passage:

“[Jesus] appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go. And he said to them, the harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.” (Luke 10:1-2)

Disciples, commissioned and sent out by Jesus with the good news of his life, death and resurrection, are God’s chosen method of reconciling the nations to Himself. Jesus sent out one person for every nation, representing the fact that every people group is accounted for in the saving plan of God. And through his sacrifice and the witness of his people, Jesus alone can reconcile the nations to one another, to God and to true worship.

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