This chapter gives more particularly of what was said in general of the three sons of Noah in chapter 9:19, that “of them was the whole earth overspread.” We also see the fruit of the Lord’s blessing in chapter 9:1, when He told Noah’s family to “replenish the earth.” This chapter is the only certain account that exists concerning the origin of the nations of the earth.
The chapter begins with details about Japheth’s family, either because he was the eldest son of Noah, or because his family lay remotest from Israel and had the least interaction with them at the time when Moses wrote. The tribes that descended from Japheth are spoken of very briefly. They settled in “the isles of the Gentiles” (verse 5). All places beyond the sea from the land of Judah were called “isles” (Jer. 25:22); and this helps us understand the promise in Isaiah 42:4, which says that “the isles shall wait for his law,” to be referring to the conversion of the Gentiles to the faith.
One of the notable descendants of Ham was a man named Nimrod (verse 8). He was a great man in his day. While other men were content to be upon the same level with those around them, and rule in their own homes, Nimrod resolved to lord it over his neighbors. It is said that he was a great hunter. At that time, hunting was the method of preventing the hurtful increase of wild beasts. This required great courage, and it gave an opportunity for Nimrod to command others and attach a number of followers to himself. From such a beginning, it is likely that he began to rule, and to force others to submit to him. Like a true tyrant, he invaded his neighbors’ rights and properties, and persecuted innocent men; he endeavored to make all his own, by force and violence. He carried on his oppression and aggression in defiance of God Himself. He set himself up as a great ruler, and founded a monarchy which was the terror of the mighty, and seemed to be on the verge of ruling the whole world. But not only was Nimrod a great builder, he was also a great builder of cities. Not surprisingly, his name means “rebellion.” Indeed, tyrants to men are rebels to God. But the days are coming when such people will no longer be spoken of with praise; instead, they will be branded with infamy, as is done in the impartial record of the Bible.
In verses 15-19, we read of the posterity of Canaan; they were numerous, rich, and pleasantly situated. But the Canaanites were under a Divine curse that was well-merited, for they were a very wicked group of people. It was for this reason that the Lord later drove them out of their land and gave it to the Israelites as their Promised Land. Those who are under the curse of God often thrive and prosper in this world; but His curse always works truly and terribly, sooner or later. The Canaanites possessed a better land than either Shem or Japheth; and yet the latter had a better lot, for they inherited the blessing of the Lord.
Among the offspring of Noah’s son Shem, we come across a man called Eber (verse 24), whose name is the origin of the name of the Hebrews. Eber himself was probably a man who was well-known for his commitment to Jehovah in a time of general apostasy, and for being a great example of piety to his family; and so the name was probably retained among his descendants, after the confusion at Babel, as a special token of God’s favor to him. When Moses wrote the Book of Genesis, the Hebrews were a poor and despised group of slaves; but since they were the Lord’s people, it was an honor for a person to be a part of them. Truly, a family of saints is more honorable than a family of nobles. Goodness is true greatness.
Verse 25 tells us that Eber had two sons, the name of one being Peleg, “for in his days was the earth divided.” Some interpret this division of the earth to be speaking of the present-day continents breaking apart from one another after the Flood; but this is not likely, since the forces that would be necessary for such a catastrophic geologic event would be just as disastrous as the forces necessary to trigger the Flood itself. Rather, the reference to the dividing of the earth in this passage is probably talking about the division of the families of the earth according to their various language groups at the tower of Babel, which we will read about in chapter 11.
How graciously, Lord, did You watch over the Promised Seed, in the family of Shem – from whom, in human flesh, our Lord Jesus descended! And how graciously have You been pleased to note the features of Your people in every age, by that uniform mark by which they are known – namely, that of a poor, afflicted people. While the posterity of Ham are said to be the Nimrods of the earth, the blessed offspring of Shem are among the bondslaves in Egypt. Lord, may this teach us how much better it is to be poor and humble, while belonging to the people of God, than to be related to nobles and yet be void of faith. Amen.
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map of the expansion of Noah’s descendants modified from the work of French geographer Élisée Reclus