Sunday, May 5, 2013

Mistakes of Moses Expanded Universe: Genesis 10

Genesis 10:1-32
Here we find the so-called Table of Nations. These folks will go on to populate the whole world. There are some problems here, however. Most of the nations that can be identified in this passage are, not surprisingly, surrounding Israel. Many of these “nations” supposedly founded by these guys are not known to history or archaeology until well into the first millennium BCE, i.e. long after Moses was dead even though Moses is supposedly writing about them as though his audience is already aware of their existence.

is not happy about her entire
civilization getting left out of the Bible.
Many of these so-called nations never emerge into anything more than small city-states or nomadic tribes. Left off are explanations of how the Americas, South Asia, East Asia, Australia, Sub-Saharan Africa or even Northern Europe become vastly populated areas, some with complex civilizations like the Indus Valley Civilization (3300-1300 BCE), the Majiayao culture along the Yellow River region in China (3100-2700 BCE) or the Norte Chico civilization in Peru (3200-1800 BCE). Note that every one of these far-flung civilizations pre-date the Flood event (c. 2300 BCE). Instead, all we get are the origins for people groups that would have been known to an author living in the Ancient Near East and writing sometime in the first millennium BCE.

Genesis 10:5
It’s nice and tidy, isn’t it? The descendants of Japheth settle in the northern coastlands, divide the lands and settle according to their language, families and nations. Everything we can study and observe about anthropology, sociology and linguistics suggests that migration and settlement just doesn’t happen like this and never has. I'm sure it sounded perfectly plausible to an Iron Age audience.

Genesis 10:8-12
There are a few problems with this passage. The biggest is that it seems to have been inserted into the list here in order to find a place for the Nimrod tradition. Note that in verse 7 when the sons of Cush are listed Nimrod is curiously absent from the list, but verse 8 says that Cush was the father of Nimrod. 

Asshur is mentioned in verse 11 and Nimrod (or Asshur himself depending on translation) is said to build the Assyrian cities of Nineveh, Rehoboth-Ir and Calah. However, Asshur is named as a son of Shem, not Ham in verse 22. By all appearances there are two competing traditions for the origin of Assyria. Perhaps the competing tradition is why the writer of 1 Chronicles left all that stuff out of his version even though Micah appears to have favored the tradition that Nimrod was associated with Assyria.

The other descendants of Ham that are listed in the unbroken section of verses 6-7 and 13-20 uniformly settle in southwest Arabia, Libya, the Nile region and Canaan (surrounding the Red Sea), but Nimrod is said in this passage to found Babel and Assyria (in the Fertile Crescent) even though they are the same areas where all of Shem’s descendants will settle. Some commentators interpret this to mean that these areas were settled both by Hamites and Semites, but that doesn’t deal with why the otherwise tidy list and geographic placement gets interrupted by this Nimrod passage. Just try reading 6-7 and 13-20 while removing 8-12 and you'll see just how naturally the passage flows without those verses interrupting it. Note when you remove verses 8-12, the account of the Hamites fits the same pattern as the account of the Japhethites and Shemites.

The idea that Nimrod, described as a mighty man-hunter in the face of Yahweh, founded Babylon and Assyria and all these other various city-states seems ridiculous
Thanks to a few generations of biblically illiterate cartoon-watchers,
Nimrod has now come to mean "idiot" instead of mighty hunter.
and plays into the anti-urban and pro-agrarian/nomadic tradition seen previously with Cain’s city settlement and later typified with the city of Babel. Also, no one seems to be able to agree on who Nimrod was, what he actually did or what being a mighty hunter before Yahweh even means, since the text is hopelessly ambiguous as though it was a fragment of a larger story. Is Nimrod the warrior a rival to Yahweh the warrior?

Genesis 10:13-14
Mizraim, Ludim, Anamim, Lehabim , Naphtuhim, Parhrusim, Casluhim and Caphtorim all end in the Hebrew plural “im.” Are these groups of people or sons of Ham?

The Casluhim are said to be from where the Philistines originated. The problem is that we now know from archeology that the Philistines are associated with the foreign Sea Peoples who came in and invaded the area near Egypt around 1175 BC (according to Egyptian records) and settled the coastlands of the Levant sometime afterward. Excavations of the sites of Philistine cities have linked their culture to that of the Mycenaean culture of Crete. Moses here, however, seems to think they were an offshoot from the Egyptians, as they are identified as the sons of Mizraim (the Hebrew word for Egypt). The originator of this story was apparently living well after Moses and had no idea that the Philistines were more closely related culturally to Mycenaeans rather than Egyptians. "Moses" also apparently didn't realize the Philistines wouldn't settle this area until about 250 years after he was dead.

Genesis 10:19
This verse mentions the Philistine city of Gerar. As stated previously, the Philistines didn’t have settlements along the coastal plain of Canaan until after 1200 BC. Gerar (identified with Tel Haror) has been shown in recent excavations to have been no more than an insignificant village until the late 8th and early 7th century BC (see Finkelstein and Silberman, The Bible Unearthed pp. 37-38) and yet our author and presumably his readers seem to be able to easily identify this place. This doesn’t really make Moses, supposedly writing in the 2nd millennium BC, a good candidate for authorship here.

Genesis 10:22
Elam is said to be a son of Shem, but linguists universally agree that Elamite is not a Semitic language. That’s odd. Perhaps the the writer of this portion of Genesis was not a linguist? Well, let God be true and every man a liar, right?

Genesis 10:24
The Hebrew Masoretic Text reads “Arphaxad fathered Shelah” as shown in most translations of this verse. However, the Septuagint reads “Arphaxad fathered Cainan, and Cainan fathered Shelah.” As such Luke (3:35-36), using the Septuagint, lists Cainan as the father of Shelah in the line of Jesus Christ.  So who was Shelah’s father? Was it Arphaxad or Cainan? Does it matter? Well, what if someone didn’t like the idea that there was a competing tradition that Cainan, a Semite, was actually the father of the Canaanites? Wouldn’t that be incentive for someone who wished to avoid such associations to drop Cainan from the list?

Did the inspired writer of Luke get it right by copying from the Septuagint meaning the Masoretic Text was corrupted, or did a later copyist correct what he thought was Luke’s mistake using the Septuagint when actually it was right all along? We’ll never know and the whole incident only highlights just how potentially unreliable the text can be regardless of when the error occurred.

Genesis 10:25
Peleg means “division” and it is explained that in his days (sometime from 131 to 340 years after the Flood) the land was divided. Divided how? Geographically? Politically? By language? By canals? Is this referring to the split of languages after the Tower of Babel or the splitting of the earth into continents as suggested by some creationists? Is it merely the establishment of territorial boundaries by treaty agreements? We’ll never know. Whatever it was, it was apparently important enough to be laid down in holy writ for all time along with the names of several places we’ll likely never be able to locate, yet it wasn’t important enough for us to be given some clues to determine what in the world it means without simply guessing.

Genesis 10:30
Mesha is given as an apparently well-known place-name here and is associated with the eastern hill country of Moab. Mesha was likely named after the same 9th century BC Moabite king referenced in 2 Kings 3:4 and the Mesha Stele. If this is the case, it would put the authorship of this portion of Genesis well after the divided kingdom, not in the time of the Exodus. Of course, it’s possible this is a different Mesha. Maybe king Mesha was named after the city he was born in? Yeah, that’s it.

Sorry, Moses. It turns out the world was a bit larger than this.


  1. An educated historian is the nightmare of a literalist.

  2. The Masoretic text is always preferable to the Septuagint. The latter was, by its very name, a rush job. Luke used the Septuagint, as did all the Gospel authors, indicating that they were gentiles, and much like with the Pentateuch, their authorship is incorrectly attributed.

    1. Textual critics would disagree with you that the MT is always preferable to the LXX. Extant LXX manuscripts are older than the MT manuscripts and often preserve older readings when compared to the earliest dated material from Qumran. Deuteronomy 32:8 and much of the book of 1 Samuel appear to be more faithful to the original readings in the earliest copies of the LXX rather than the MT. This, of course, was not known until the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. That said, both suffer from a lot of obvious corruption and there is a bent toward preferring the LXX readings among those with certain religious presuppositions simply because it conforms better to the New Testament. They don't want to admit that NT writers might have been using the incorrect reading of a text to make an important theological point or when trying to manufacture some sort of prophetic fulfillment, so they double-down on the LXX.

      Deuteronomy 32:8 is a particularly interesting variant where it looks like the LXX reading is a bit better than the MT. You can see over time how scribes grew increasingly uncomfortable with the text and tried to make it conform to the theology of their day. It went from "sons of El" (a reference to the offspring of the Canaanite high god El) to "angels of God" in the LXX, which presupposes the Hebrew reading of "bene elohim". However, it became "sons of Israel" in the MT when an uncomfortable scribe slipped in a "yisra" right before "el". It's a case where you can see how the textual transmission eventually stripped away the polytheistic/henotheistic elements of the original and made it into something a good monotheist could live with. Makes you wonder how many times that happened elsewhere in the text and we'll just never know because we have nothing to compare it with.

    2. Do you actually ever go outside? ;-)