Genesis 10 and 11 cover about 300 years of history after the flood. In these chapters God, as it were, paints the background and sketches the general outline of the coming history. God gives his church a glimpse and a taste of the glorious and wonderful portrait of Christ and his plan for the church. After these chapters a veil is pulled over the picture, and the full portrait of Christ is not fully revealed until God reveals him to the apostle John on the island of Patmos, who writes what he sees in the book of Revelation. Until then, God leaves the broader picture, and directs his people to the fine details of salvation in the history of Abraham, Israel, and finally the birth of Christ.
In these two chapters, God gives us the names of the descendents of Shem, Ham, and Japheth. With these names and a prophecy of the role of these families in the overall plan, he gives us a hint of a great plan and purpose in his great masterpiece. Through details that appear to us to be obscure and insignificant, we are made to understand that everything – absolutely everything – is a carefully designed part of a glorious whole.
Having seen something of the power and majesty of God in the flood and previous history, the church waits with eager anticipation, excitement, and baited breath to see what God will do next. The promise of salvation in the seed of the woman was clearly far more glorious than man had ever dared to imagine. Today we know so much more, and yet we are told that “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him” (1 Cor. 2:9). Paul, who had been given to see so much of this plan, rejoices in the work God has given as he says, “Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ; And to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ”(Eph. 3:8–9). Such a wonder is this plan of salvation that even “the angels desire to look into” these things (1Pet. 1:12).
In the last article we discussed the matter of Nimrod and Babel. We saw how God used Nimrod’s sinful rebellion to serve his purposes in the divisions of the nations from which a diverse church will be gathered. The families continue to grow and spread into the world, but this growth is not left to chance and random development. Rather, the diversity from which God gathers his church belongs to a well-orchestrated plan directed by the providence of God. We see something of this plan when God inspires Noah to speak prophetically concerning his sons: “God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant”(Gen 9:27). In this article we will follow the families of Japheth as they populated regions into what is today Europe, Russia, and India. In the next article we plan to follow the families of Ham and discuss how Noah’s prophesy on Ham’s son Canaan is fulfilled.
The Bible does not give very many details about the descendents of Japheth and the nations arising from them because the focus of all history is upon Christ, who will be born from the line of Shem. After Christ ascends into heaven, the attention is turned again to the descendents of Japheth. The majority of the world’s growing population is not addressed again until Pentecost and the New Testament church is commanded “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). With this preaching, God has gathered a church “and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation” (Rev 5:9). The church is described as a beautiful building and as a body with many different parts. Beauty and diversity of members is an essential part of the church, and it is in these verses of Genesis 10 that we learn how God begins to fashion these parts long before he gathers his elect people from their generations.
We read at the beginning of Genesis 10, “The sons of Japheth; Gomer, and Magog, and Madai, and Javan, and Tubal, and Meshech, and Tiras. And the sons of Gomer; Ashkenaz, and Riphath, and Togarmah. And the sons of Javan; Elishah, and Tarshish, Kittim, and Dodanim. By these were the isles of the Gentiles divided in their lands; every one after his tongue, after their families, in their nations” (Gen 10:2–5) . Gomer settled first to the north of the Black sea, and as with most of the families who wandered out into the new world after Babel, competition for the best places drove them from place to place.1 Eventually most of them settled in the areas of Lydia and Cappadocia. Some went farther into areas that now are France and Spain, and later into the British Isles. According to the ancient historian Josephus, a branch returned to the area of Asia Minor and came to be known as the Galatians. Because of the restless and warlike nature of the descendents of Gomer, they left their mark on much of Europe. Gomer’s son Ashkenaz, gave rise to the earliest settlers of Germany and Scandinavia, and may also be the early ancestor of the Saxons. It is possible that the name “Europe” has been derived from that of Gomer’s second son “Riphath.” The people of Togarma are mentioned twice by Ezekiel in 27:14 and 38:6 as traders who brought horses from the north. The people of Armenia claim to be descended from Targom.
Little is known for certain about the decendents of Magog, but the fragments available suggest that the population of Russia may have descended from him. The ancient traveler Marco Polo surmised that the word “Mongol” was originally attached to Gog and Magog. Ezekiel in chapter 38:2ff mentions Gog as the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal. The Russians derived their name from the Hebrew word translated as “chief prince.” In its earlier history, the Russians were known as the Muscovi.
Scholars are more certain about the decedents of Madai and Javan. Four sons of Javan are named in Genesis 10, and scholars are pretty well agreed that the Persians, Italians, and Greeks are descended from these sons. Ezekiel says in chapter 27:7 that blue and purple stuffs were brought to Tyre from the “isles” or coasts of Elishah. The shells from which this purple dye is made are found in abundance along the coast of southern Greece.
We see then that the decedents of Japheth were enlarged geographically. They became the dominant population in all the regions of what is now Europe and Asia. They scattered into the different regions of the earth, and established nations and diversities of people and language that God would be pleased to gather into a church when the fullness of time came. These are the people who at the time of Christ became united within the Roman Empire and the objects of the New Testament church’s missionary work. In this way they begin to “dwell in the tents of Shem” because they are gathered into the church, the body of Christ that God began in the line of Shem. This work of gathering people from every tribe tongue and nation continues today as God’s word goes out to all the nooks and crannies of the world. At the same time, God gathers his people in the way of covenant homes.
Noah had three sons, and each son was given a particular place and role in the work of God as he gathers a church unto himself. Dr. Custance proposes that the enlargement of Japheth came in the way of exploiting the pioneering service of the descendents of Ham. He finds evidence in archeology that the descendents of Ham were always the first to explore and settle new regions, but that the Japhethites followed and took over what Ham had established. A more modern example of this pattern is the life that the native Americans had established in the new world and how the European explorers and settlers depended upon the resources that they had established for life in America before taking over the country for themselves. Dr. Custance gives numerous examples of how the descendents of Ham demonstrated exceptional skills and ingenuity for survival in new and unsettled regions of the world and how their foothold prepared the way for the descendents of Japheth. History has demonstrated that the descendents of Japheth lacked these skills and would have been unable to survive in the wilderness on their own. Instead of survival skills, they were given the skills of managing, developing, building upon, and exploiting the service of other people.
Dr. Custance develops this idea extensively and demonstrates how the characteristics of each of the three sons of Noah were used by God to carry out his plan of salvation. The Hebrew language and strong religious conviction of the descendents of Shem were employed by God for revelation to Abraham and the writing of the Old Testament. The reflective and philosophical nature of descendents of Japheth is displayed in the Greeks, whose language is used by God for further revelation in the New Testament. The descendents of Ham demonstrate a more concrete and practical view of things necessary for survival and life on this earth, and their role of service becomes a pattern for all of us as members of the body of Christ as we serve Christ by serving one another.
As God unfolds his plan, he brings up from time to time a trilogy of Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Dr. Custance points out five examples. 1) Abraham had three wives who were descendents of Shem, Ham, and Japheth respectively: Sarah, Hagar, and Keturah. 2) The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke suggest this pattern as well. Matthew begins with the genealogy traced back to David and Abraham and is full of references to the Old Testament. Mark portrays our Lord as a servant and does not include a genealogy. It is a gospel of doing and activity. Luke was a Greek and the genealogy he records goes back to Adam. His gospel narrative was written for the Gentiles. 3) Three delegations of people came looking for the Lord: the shepherds, the wise men, and “certain Greeks” John 12:21. 4) In the book of Acts, we read that the gospel was preached first to the Jews 2:22. The gospel also went out to Cornelius (10:34), a descendent of Japheth, but between these two, Philip brings the gospel to an Ethiopian (8:35). 5) At the cross, Dr. Custance writes, “The moral responsibility was accepted by Israel (Matt. 27:25; the physical burden of carrying the Cross was placed upon a Cyrenian, a child of Ham (Luke 23:26); the responsibility for execution was assumed by Japheth, who in the soldiers completed the sentence which only the Roman authorities could perform (Matt. 27:26).”
I find this theory about how God used the various characteristics of the three sons of Noah to prepare for the gathering of a diverse people into the church to be intriguing and thought-provoking. Apart from the direction of God’s word, we are inclined to think in evolutionary terms of survival of the fittest and superiority of races, but in the light of God’s word we see instead an interrelation between the strengths and weaknesses of people whom God used to populate the earth and bring the gospel to every region. Each of the three sons were specially prepared with unique qualities to serve in the plan of God to gather his church. What God says in 1 Corinthians 12:22-25 about individual people in the church can also be said about nations: “Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary: And those members of the body, which we think to be less honourable, upon these we bestow more abundant honour; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness. For our comely parts have no need: but God hath tempered the body together, having given more abundant honour to that part which lacked: That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another.” Instead of national or racial pride, we need to understand that each of us is dependent on others so that no one can boast that he is more important. Each is prepared to fill a particular place in the body of Christ.
1 Most of my information for the next two articles comes from the first volume of Dr. Arthur Custance’s work, The Doorway Papers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975). Custance was a biblical scholar who studied language and anthropology and published his work in a series of 60 papers.