10:1 The family records of Noah’s sons is the fourth of eleven (Hb) toledoth sections in Genesis (2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 11:10,27; 25:12,19; 36:1,9; 37:2). The purpose of this section is twofold: to show that Noah’s sons fulfilled the command to be fruitful, multiply, and spread out over the earth (9:7), and to distinguish the “unchosen” lines of Noah’s descendants (the Japhethites and Hamites) from the line that would be both the recipient and the agent of God’s special blessing to the rest of humanity (the Shemites). Gn 10:1-32 lists a total of seventy descendants in the family lines of Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Seventy, a multiple of two numbers that suggest completeness (seven, the number of days of creation week; ten, the number of fingers), would have suggested to ancient Israelites a satisfying completeness to the quantity of persons and nations that came into being after the flood. This is labeled a list of clans, languages, nations, and lands (vv. 5,20,31; cp. Rv 14:6). Thus some of the names refer to the regions where that person’s descendants settled; some refer to people groups.
10:2-5 Fourteen of Japheth’s descendants are listed here. Peoples of the coasts and islands refers to people living in areas reachable by ship, especially in the Mediterranean basin. The fact that each group had its own language suggests that this listing refers to the situation after the Tower of Babylon event (11:1-9).
10:6-7 Thirty of Ham’s descendants are included in this list. The geographic or ethnic identifications of most of the names have been lost in history, but they are associated with regions in Africa and Arabia. Mizraim is the Hebrew word for Egypt. Havilah probably refers to a different geographic region than the Havilah of 2:11. Two different persons by the name of Sheba are listed in Genesis genealogies (v. 28; 25:3); Dedan is also found in 25:3. It is best to understand each of these as different persons, and the founders of different people groups.
10:8-12 Nimrod . . . began to be powerful in the land, that is, he was successful as an aggressive empire builder. Like many other ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian kings, he was also famous as a powerful hunter. Nimrod’s origins are from Cush, that is, Africa; his empire was Asian, stretching across the Tigris-Euphrates river basin. The order of place names suggests that Nimrod’s empire expanded from south to north, and included Babylon and Nineveh, the capital cities of two of Israel’s most formidable future enemies. Shinar corresponds to the ancient regions of Sumer and Accad; Erech to ancient Uruk; Calah to Nimrod; Rehoboth-ir may be ancient Asshur.
10:15-20 The most complex portion of the Hamite list is the Canaan branch, with eleven named descendants or people groups. The relative size and detail reinforces the significance of the Canaanites for later Israelite history. This genealogical section indicates that many of the earliest inhabitants of Canaan were non-Semitic peoples.
10:21-31 The genealogy of Shem, portions of which will be repeated in 11:10-17, represents the “chosen” line of Noah’s descendants. From Shem’s line will come Abraham, the Israelites, and ultimately Jesus. Larger and more complex than the Shemite genealogy in chap. 11 (26 vs. 12 names) this presentation differs from the other mainly in that it includes the “unchosen” branches of Shem’s lineage, especially that of Joktan with his thirteen sons. The mention of all the sons of Eber brings attention to the point in Shem’s line where the “chosen” branch splits from the rest of the family. The word Hebrew is often understood to be derived from Eber’s name.
Names in the Shemite genealogy that scholars have linked to various people groups or locations include Elam, modern southwest Iran; Asshur, along the Tigris river in Iraq; Aram, eastern Iraq near the Iranian border; Uz, the Arabian peninsula or Edom; and Mash, central Asia Minor. All of the thirteen sons of Joktan that can be confidently connected to a location are associated with locations in the Arabian peninsula.
The name Ophir may not be connected with the Ophir mentioned elsewhere in Scripture (1Kg 9:28; Jb 22:24; Ps 45:9) since the latter name appears to be a distant location, possibly in Africa or India. Joktan’s Havilah should not be equated with Cush’s Havilah, though the two share the same name.
10:21 The phrase Japheth’s older brother is difficult in the Hebrew: several other versions (KJV, NKJV, NIV) understand it to mean that Japheth was the older brother.
10:25 A wordplay exists between the name Peleg and the verbal phrase “was divided.” Both are based on the Hebrew sound sequence p-l-g. Exactly what is meant by the earth was divided is uncertain. It may be a reference to the tower of Babylon event (11:9), a devastating earthquake, a large Mesopotamian canal project, or a political division.