Genesis 10: The Table of Nations – Japheth

By Mary Jane Chaignot

The end of chapter 9 focuses on Noah's sons and one post-flood incident in the life of Noah. Chapter 10 begins with an account of Shem, Ham, and Japheth (Noah's sons). This list becomes important in that it shows that God's promises were fulfilled. Noah's sons, indeed, had sons after the flood.

This is more than a genealogy of his three sons. It is called a table of tribes and nations. Some are names of well-known nations; others are names written in plural form; still others are cities. Yet no one suggests that this is a complete text of all the nations that are mentioned throughout the Bible. Attempts to trace all the nations back to this list will prove futile. The best that can be said is that this is a partial list of some of the tribes and nations that were located within the Middle East. Perhaps this list was compiled from the limited information that was known at the time. There are 70 names in all, if one discounts the name, Nimrod, which is definitely an individual.

The text begins with the Japhethites, even though Japheth is the youngest son. The people in this family are clearly the most widespread. They settled the area ranging from the Caspian Sea in the west to the Fertile Crescent in the north. They became highly skilled seafarers. Geographically removed from Canaan, they had limited contact with other tribes and merit little notice in biblical stories.

Japheth had seven sons. The most well-known is Gomer, which is a name that means, "standing for the whole family." Josephus, writing in the first century, thought the Gomerites lived in Galatia, were descended from the Gauls and Celts, and were the Galatian people who were familiar to the Greeks. A few hundred years later, Hippolytus (234 CE) thought Gomer was the ancestor of the Cappadocians, neighbors of the Galatians. Both could be correct.

The Hebrew name of Gomer is thought to refer to the Cimmerians, whose name means, "complete." They had a long history of warring with other tribes. Around 1300 BCE they lived in the region between the Black and Caspian Seas. The Scythians drove them south in the 8th century. Herodotus (440 BCE) wrote that after they had been expelled by the Scythians, the men of the royal family fought each other to the death so they would be able to be buried in their homeland. The populace buried them along the riverbank as they fled the Scythian army. Notice of this migration can be found among the Assyrian annals because the Assyrian king, Sargon II, was killed in 705 BCE while engaged in warfare with them.

From there, they went on to capture Phrygia (695 BCE), whose king (Midas) took poison rather than submit to captivity. A few battles later, they captured Lydia (654 BCE) and caused great destruction to its capital city, Sardis. Neighboring peoples were shocked by their ruthlessness and their success. Yet their occupation would prove to be short-lived. Within 15 years, there was an outbreak of the plague, and control of the cities was returned to its inhabitants. Shortly thereafter, the Cimmerians disappeared from any historical accounts, but scholars have speculated that they went into Cappadocia, the area known as Armenia and Georgia.

In 200 BCE, a tribe known as "Cimbri" settled in Denmark. In 1586, the Britannia was the first to connect the Welch name Cymri with Gomer, the Cimmerians, and Cimbri. By 1716, a book tracing Welch history located their origin back to Gomer and the Cimmerians. Modern scholars have mainly debunked this theory, linguistically tracing Gomer to the Gomerians who are modern Germans. Others claim that Gomer is the ancestor originally settled in Italy. Regardless, there is a Persian tradition that Gomer lived to the ripe old age of 1000.

He had three sons: Ashkenaz, Riphath (spelled Diphath in 1 Chronicles), and Togarmah. Ashkenaz' descendants were originally thought to be Scythians, but since the 11th century, they have been identified with Germany. Little is known about Riphath. Togarmah appears in both Armenian and Georgian history as the ancestor of the people who live there. They are thought to be the ancestors of Turkish speaking people.

Japheth's second son is Magog. The term might mean "from Gog," but no one is certain. Both Gog and Magog are referenced in apocalyptic accounts found in Ezekiel 38-39 and Rev. 20:8. Because of this association, they are usually spoken of together. In Revelation, they are metaphors for God's enemies.

Josephus claimed the descendants of Magog were the Scythians, the people north of the Black Sea. Others claim that Magog was the forefather of the Goths. This, however, is derived from linguistic similarities. Still others think descendants of Magog settled in Scandinavia after the flood. Swedish documents claim Magog had five sons. Irish documents claim he had three sons. Indeed, Queen Christina Alexandra of Sweden (ca 1626-89 CE) numbered herself as the 249th on a list of kings going all the way back to Magog.

In Islamic tradition, Gog and Magog are also paired and do nothing but make mischief. They are humans who were harassing the city of Jerusalem. A metal wall was installed to keep them at bay. The wall would be removed in the last days.

Less is known about Madai, the third son of Japheth. It is believed his descendants were connected to the Medes that appear in Assyrian documents around the mid-ninth century BCE.

Like Gomer, Javan (the fourth son) gets more attention. The word "Javan" equates with Ionian, which is the Hebrew word for Greece. His descendants might be the Ionians, an eastern Greek tribe. Greek mythology, however, claims their forefather, Ion, is the son of Apollo. Many people think these terms (Ion and Javan) are synonymous, making both theories plausible. Biblically speaking, Javan is found in the 8th and 11th chapters in the apocalyptic book of Daniel, where references to the king of Greece are thought to refer to Alexander the Great.

Javan's four sons are also named. Their names, however, are all locations along the NE Mediterranean Sea and Anatolia. Elishah is the site of modern Cyprus. Tarshish refers to the southern part of Turkey. Kittim also refers to modern Cyprus. And Dodanim (Rodanim, according to 1 Chronicles) is progenitor of the island of Rhodes, located west of modern Turkey. It is midway between Cyprus and Greece. He has been connected with figures from Greek mythology, Aegean names on an Egyptian list, or notable Hittite allies. He also had three sons, the last of which was made prince of the Japhethites at the Tower of Babel.

The fifth son of Japheth was Tubal. He was connected to tribes populating the Iberian Peninsula, which is modern-day Spain and Portugal. Meshek was the sixth son. It is thought that the tribes of Anatolia were named after him, or that he was the ancestor of the Georgians. His descendants were sometimes referred to as the Sea Peoples who sailed along the Mediterranean Sea. 

The seventh son of Japheth was Tiras. His descendants have been associated with the Thracians. Little is known about the Thracians until the 8th century BCE. Others believe that Tiras was also connected to the Sea Peoples in the 13th century. Later sources say that Tiras was Persian. Unfortunately, his name does not appear in any Old Testament texts or in any Mesopotamian sources, so much of this is conjecture.

According to the text "from these the maritime peoples spread out into their territories by their clans within their nations, each with its own language." It should be apparent by now that much of this historical lineage includes both conjecture and overlap. If anything, it suggests that these tribes were connected and interrelated. Most notable, perhaps, is that Japheth had seven sons, with a total of seven named grandsons. Seven, of course, indicating completion.