Why war? (Genesis 10)

Honesty moment: do you skip over the genealogical lists when you read the Bible? Can’t see the significance? Genesis 10 lists the names of 70 nations, but there’s an intriguing message right in the middle.

We have not seen the word “nations” in the story so far. Nations could not exist until YHWH authorized humans to have power over the lives of others as he did in Genesis 9:6. Now 70 nations rise from Noah’s three sons. Here’s the structure of the chapter:

Genesis 10
2 The sons of Japheth … 5 each with his own language, by their clans, in their nations.
6 The sons of Ham … 20 by their clans, their languages, their lands, and their nations.
21 To Shem also … 31 by their clans, their languages, their lands and their nations.
32 These are the clans of the sons of Noah, according to their genealogies, in their nations, and from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood.

The main point is that all the nations belong under YHWH’s governance as part of his kingdom. Remember the covenant God made with Noah and his sons and their offspring after them (9:9)? All the nations—all the descendants of Japheth, Ham, and Shem—belong to his kingdom. The narrator is preparing us for the story of Abraham, a descendant of Shem, but first he wants us to know that YHWH rules all nations (compare Psa 22:28; 96:10; 99:1; 2 Chron 20:6).

Well, that’s the ideal. The reality is a bit more complex. Something else is muddying the waters. While listing Ham’s descendants, the narrator deviates to tell us about a cryptic character named Nimrod (10:8-10). It’s important to our perspective: it contains the first use of the word “kingdom” in the Bible.

To understand the significance of Nimrod, you’ll need to see how the geography works. Japheth fathered the nations to the north of Israel such as Turkey. Ham fathered the nations to the south of Israel, spreading into Africa. Shem fathered the Semitic people of the Middle East. (“Semitic” is actually derived from “Shem.”)

Nimrod descends from Cush, the father of the Ethiopians. But Nimrod doesn’t settle anywhere near Ethiopia. He sets up in Mesopotamia! How does he take territory from the Semites and Japhethites? He fights for it. Nimrod was “a mighty warrior” (10:8). The same word was used of the Nephilim in 6:4. Nimrod prefers to call himself “a mighty hunter” (10:9), but he is not preying on animals. He is the first warrior to hunt down humans and create a kingdom for himself. In other words, he is the first to make war—to hunt people, take their territory, and make himself a kingdom.

In 9:6 God gave humans the power of life and death. By 10:8 Nimrod is using the power of death to subjugate others. His actions are the seeds from which the empires eventually grow: Babylon (10:10) and Assyria (10:11). Those two names became Israel’s nightmares.

Remember Lamech? He boasted of killing and YHWH did not stop him. Nimrod has a similar boast. He calls himself “a mighty hunter” yet YHWH does not intervene. People call him “a mighty hunter before YHWH” because YHWH lets him stand. YHWH has given authority for human government. Nimrod twists that authority for his own ends, and YHWH allows it. This is the problem Israel faces from the nations throughout the Old Testament period.

The nations are meant to operate under YHWH’s reign, as part of his kingdom. Instead, they resist his rule, overstep their boundaries, fight each other to gain even more power, and cause untold devastation for the people who do recognize YHWH’s authority. And YHWH lets this happen! It’s a very strange way he runs the world. How will his authority over the nations ever be re-established now?


What others are saying

Modern authors struggle to know what to do with Nimrod:

  • Wenham lists several unsuccessful attempts to identify Nimrod with Assyrian or Babylonian rulers or mythical figures, and concludes, “it may be best to regard Nimrod as an archetype of Mesopotamian ideals of kingship.” Wenham also notes that Nimrod’s name “… could be simply translated ‘We shall rebel.’
    (Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15, vol. 1, Word Biblical Commentary, Dallas: Word, 1998, 222.)
  • On the issue of Nimrod being far from the rest of the Hamites, Matthews notes “… the predecessors of the Semite kingdoms of Mesopotamia were non-Semitic, which is consistent with the table’s depiction.
    ( A. Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26, vol. 1A, New American Commentary, Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1996, 449.)
  • Westermann makes the connection that, “Nimrod was a king and his realm was a kingdom …
    (Claus Westermann, A Continental Commentary: Genesis 1–11, Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1994, 517.)
  • Hartley recognizes Nimrod as “the first empire builder.”
    (John E. Hartley, Genesis, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012, 118.)

Ancient Jewish authors generally considered Nimrod to be evil:

  • He is “Nimrod the wicked” in The Testimony of the Twelve Patriarchs (Appendix 9.3).
  • Pseudo-Philo calls him “arrogant before the Lord” (4.7) and claims that “the sons of Ham came and made Nimrod their leader” (5.1).
  • Josephus (Antiquities 1.114) gives this perspective:

He also gradually changed the government into tyranny,—seeing no other way of turning men from the fear of God, but to bring them into a constant dependence upon his power.

Nimrod’s warrior attitudes form the seeds of empire.

(Map adapted from Logos Bible software)

Read Genesis 10.



Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s