When Columbus arrived at the coast of America he never dreamed that his discovery would affect the world of the bible. In the 16th century, it was believed that all the nations on earth were descended from Noah as told in the table of the nations in Genesis 10. The repopulation of the earth after the flood came through the sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth and their wives. The descendants of Noah fulfilled the command of the creator and filled the earth (Gen 1:28).
From where did the list of nations come? It is a unique catalogue of peoples and nations composed in the days when King David began his reign. A simple grouping was made, first of nations friendly to Israel, with commercial or ethnic ties; these were placed as descendants of Shem. Second were enemies of Israel, all descendants of Ham, the son Noah cursed (Gen 9:22-25). Finally, all the remaining, indifferent or neutral, were grouped as offspring of Japheth.
Bumping into a problem
This tripartite division had geographical significance. North and West of Israel, Asia Minor and the Mediterranean islands were called ‘Japheth’. The South, the area of Egypt, and its surroundings, were considered ‘Ham’. The East, in Mesopotamia and neighbouring regions, were designated ‘Shem’. Proximity among nations was considered in terms of being related ‘brothers’, ‘half-brothers’, ‘nephews’; major and minor distance in time constituted ‘fathers’, ‘sons’, ‘grandsons’.
The list in Genesis 10 mentions only people of black and white races. Nothing is said of other ethnic groups because the author of the list knew only the Near East of his time. Ancient Israel was also strongly nationalistic; its religious isolationism and danger of apostasy led to little interest in much contact with other nations. Seventy was a good number for totality, universality, and perfection. Why bother with any more.
Danger in literal reading
The thought behind the table of nations was not understood at the time of Columbus. Those found in America were not Asian and could not be descendants of any of Noah’s three sons. A fierce debate broke out in Europe as some tried to defend the rights of Indian people to be considered part of the family of truly human beings, and those who wanted to impose their biblico-theological argument that Indians did not belong to the human race.
A mother to all
In 1531, the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared to one of the strange beings with coppery skin, half-naked, communicating in incomprehensible language, and living in a primitive state who were at the centre of a debate about whether they had authentic human souls and deserved Christ’s redemption. Unashamedly, the Mother of God acknowledged as her children those the European community had difficulty accepting as their brothers and sisters.
Pope Paul III followed with the definitive statement that the Indians are real human beings capable of receiving the Catholic faith, and cannot be enslaved or induced to embrace the Catholic faith by any means other than the proclamation of the divine word and the example of a holy life (Sublimis Deus, 1537).
Biblical interpreters now imagined that the natives of the new world must have been connected to a son of Noah, and their ancestors arrived shortly after the deluge. That might have been their thought, but there is no doubt that Our Lady of Guadalupe opened the table of nations to the shores of America.
What can the old list teach anew?
The page is an authentic theology of the community of people; it teaches the diversity of humanity as a rich variety of ‘nations, language, territories and respective lineages’ (Gen 10:5, 20, 31).
The diversity of cultures and languages is not a consequence of sin or the lack of human intelligence, but God’s blessing, the multi-faceted beauty of creation. No language or culture is more superior, to impose its dominion on others, for that is contrary to the natural order which is a community of distinct peoples and different cultures interacting with one another.
The most important doctrine of the passage is the equality of nations. No one of them is considered the eye of the list. Israel does not appear at the centre, nor is it even prominent. Only an ancestor, Heber, is mentioned, from whom the Hebrews could have descended.
Israel was grateful that its God had noticed them, the least among the nations, elected through the free and gracious action of Yahweh to be of service to all the families of the earth (Gen 12:3).
The fundamental unity of all peoples is taught, united in blood as one family, loved by God and sibling to one another, whatever language, custom, or colour.
The whole human race has the same origin and destiny. A 3000-year-old document speaks to one family still, after centuries of horrendous crimes, racial and religious enmities, genocides, all unrelated to the unity of the human race that Noah taught his sons.
All of this prepares for Jesus’ coming. He sent out another 70 messengers (Luke 10:1). This was to be the number of nations to which the Christian faith had to be proclaimed. As long as the villages, towns, cities and countries do not rejoice in the Good News of Jesus, these 70 missionaries will fall short of what has been commanded them. The church is always a pilgrim church on mission, not discriminating against its audience, but preparing for the day when all the nations of the earth will know and love the Lord —and one another in that Lord.