Genesis 10: The Table of Nations – Ham (6-20)

By Mary Jane Chaignot

The genealogy of Noah's son, Ham, follows. He had four sons whose names comprise a geographic area running south to north. Three of his sons, Cush, Mizraim, and Phut describe areas in Africa. Cush probably refers to northeast Africa; some think it refers to Ethiopia, though many of his grandsons lived in Arabia. Mizraim is the traditional word translated as "Egypt," whose relation to the Israelites is legendary. Phut is sometimes thought to include parts of Egypt, but scholars are more likely to think it includes Libya and other areas lying northwest of Egypt, possibly even Somalia. Canaan, the fourth son, encompasses modern Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. Together they cover much of Africa, Arabia, and Mesopotamia. These would become, for better or worse, Israel's neighbors.

Whereas Japheth's heirs were few in number, Ham's descendants are greater with more details given. Altogether, Cush had six sons, though only one is elaborately described. The first five, Seba, Havilah, Sabtah, Raamah and Sabteka are simply listed. From what scholars have determined, all these are Arabian-sounding names. Raamah also had two sons, Sheba and Dedan, whose names are listed without further comment. Yet, Sheba was a major trading port in southwestern Arabia. The Sabeans hailed from Sheba. There is another Sheba in the lineage of Shem. Scholars think this might suggest the conflation of the two lines in southern Arabia. Sheba, of course, has been immortalized by the queen who visited Solomon. Dedan was located in Northwest Arabia, near Edom.

Suddenly the tedious listing of names is interrupted by a fuller description of Cush's sixth son, Nimrod, who is described as "a mighty warrior upon the earth." That description has led scholars to speculate about his origins. Recently, the name has been associated with Marduk, the Babylonian god as well as Ninurta, the god of hunting and war. Some have wondered if an historical figure might be in mind. Various kings have been suggested, but none with great merit. It is possible that Nimrod was simply the epitome of what people hoped for in a king. Mesopotamian kings were renowned for boasting about their achievements as builders, hunters, and warriors. It is interesting that the text reads, "He became a mighty warrior…." It suggests that he became mighty as he expanded his territory.

He is further identified: "He was a mighty hunter before the Lord." Scholars do not think "before the Lord," refers to the God of Israel. It is more likely a superlative or a quoted proverb. On the other hand it could suggest that God was always involved in the development and lives of the nations, and that God was aware of Nimrod's successes. It probably means that Nimrod was unlike any other. One of Nimrod's major accomplishments was the formation of several major kingdoms, namely, Babylon, Uruk, Akkad and Kalneh. Babylon was the capital city of northern Mesopotamia for over 12 centuries. Uruk was a Sumerian city whose ruler was Gilgamesh. Akkad became a center after Uruk and was the home of Sargon I in the 24th century BCE. Little is known about Kalneh.

Nimrod also founded many other cities throughout Assyria, which indicates the influence of Babylon in that region. He is the first to amass a small empire. Nineveh, Rehoboth Ir, Calah, and Resen (between Nineveh and Calah). Nineveh would become the capital of Assyria. The other three were cities in close proximity. Together they formed a great metropolis.

Egypt's sons are all associated with that country. The cities do not seem to be listed in any geographical order.

And that brings us to Canaan, the fourth son, the one cursed by Noah. His sons' names are well known to the Israelites. Sidon was a major Phoenician port city and probably refers to that whole area. The Hittites had settled in the hill country of Canaan long before Abraham would come to the area. They spread over much of Asia Minor. Thousands of clay tablets have been found near their capital in the center of Asia Minor. The tablets have provided a treasure trove of information about this period.

The following list of people refers to those who settled in the area of Palestine. The Jebusites were located west of the Jordan River and occupied Jerusalem during the time of David. The Amorites were east of the river. In 2000 BCE they occupied parts of Syria and Lebanon. From there they moved into major areas of Mesopotamia, and it was only a matter of time before they were assimilated into Canaanite culture. The exact location of the Girgashites is unknown. The Hivites, however, settled from Shechem through Lebanon, which is in the middle of Palestine. The remaining five names refer to Syrian cities. With the exception of the Hamathites who occupied the major city of Hamah, 130 miles north of Damascus, the remaining names are unknown.

Because Canaan would eventually become the land of promise, more information is given about its boundaries. It went all the way from Sidon in the northwest to Gerar in the southwest and as far as Gaza, the Philistine city. The eastern boundary would include such cities as Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, the cities along the southern portion of the Dead Sea. Scholars are unsure about the location of Lasha.

This section would not be complete without further mention of "Canaan's curse." Genesis 9:25 states, "Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren." Though abhorred by modern scholars, historically, people believed this curse justified the subjection of the Canaanites. Without being clear on the actual offense, historians have assumed that this was the first example of their corruption and reason enough for them to lose their land to the Israelites. Several Old Testament passages (Gen. 15, Lev.18, and Deut. 12) suggest they were morally impure. It set the scene for the conquest of Canaan by Joshua. God was on the side of the Israelites and against the Canaanites.

Yet it should be noted that this was Noah's curse and not God's doing. Since God makes no comment, it cannot be said that God ever confirmed that He agreed with it. That hasn't stopped commentators from arguing backwards, though, saying that since Canaan was cursed, he must have done something to deserve it.

Despite the ambiguity, legends arose claiming God cursed Ham, who was then "smitten on his skin." However, Genesis 9 never says anything about dark skin. By the 7th century CE, however, things were worse. In medieval Europe, the thinking was that the Hamites (with their darkened skin) comprised the serfs, while the nobles were associated with the Japhethites, and the free men were descended from the Shemites. Based on these Biblical passages, Christians thought that this system was essentially the fulfillment of prophecy. Yet, there must have been occasional discomfort with these designations because there are also writings that decree the Hamites would receive a greater reward in the afterlife.

Still, it was not long before all sorts of transgressions were ascribed to the Hamites who were "blackened by their sins." The result was that the conflation of dark skin and slavery occurred. This set the scenario for the slave trade of the 18th and 19th centuries. Slaves were taught that their subservient status was in accord with God's will. To resist would be akin to fighting against God and risking eternal life. Obviously, slave owners were only too happy to assume their role in maintaining this twisted theology.

Needless to say, African churches never adopted these teachings. They taught that the curse of Ham really only applied to Canaan. It was biblically fulfilled when the Israelites (Shemites) and Philistines (Japhethites) occupied Canaan. Additionally, as a tribe/nation the Canaanites didn't really exist after 150 BCE. Whatever descendants were left would have been scattered throughout the region.

However, these teachings have persisted. Modern day literalists have still been known to preach about this idea. It should again be emphasized that nothing in the Bible, the Talmud, or Jewish writings suggest that black skin is a result of a curse. And there is even less biblical warrant for thinking "a servant of servants" was intended to last through the millennia. Martin Luther King probably said it best. He called this whole concept "blasphemy" that flies in the face of "everything that the Christian religion stands for."