NATIONS (See Gentiles; Heathen)

NATIONS. Such similar terms found in the Eng. Bible as “Gentiles,” “heathen,” “nations,” “pagans,” and “people” may more efficiently be considered together in one lengthy article. The term which usually is the most accurate tr. of the pl. of several Heb. and Gr. words is “nations” (478 times in KJV, far more often in RSV). The term “people” (q.v.) is employed frequently in the sing. to refer to the nation or people of Israel.

The Bible as salvation history declares again and again that God chose Israel “to be a people for his own possession, out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth” (Deut 7:6). Israel was to be a holy nation set apart and consecrated as priests to all other peoples (Exod 19:5, 6), who are also the object of God’s redeeming purpose. Seventy nations or ethnic groups are mentioned in Genesis 10, near the beginning of the Bible. The last book foretells that in the end time a great multitude from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues will stand before the throne of God (Rev 7:9), purchased by the blood of the Lamb (5:9). This interest in the surrounding nations is one indication of the importance of history in the Bible as a vehicle of revelation. The prominence of its accurate historical data is unique in the world’s sacred lit.


In the OT.

The third Heb. word tr. nation is לְאֹם, H4211. According to I. Mendelsohn this term originally meant a city which could field a thousand soldiers in time of war.

In the NT.

Biblical lists of nations

Both the OT and NT demonstrate a remarkable interest in the various subdivisions of mankind. The OT esp. offers a substantial amount of ethnographic information. In studying the different lists of peoples it must be remembered that these come from different ages and may have been compiled from existing sources. The Biblical evidence can now be clarified to a great extent by comparison with the mass of information available in extrabiblical lit. and archeological discoveries.

The Table of Nations


This name often is given to Genesis 10 and to 1 Chronicles 1:5-23 with its few minor variations, which provide an ethnic list of the descendants of Noah by his three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Apparently the record is limited to the nations of the then known world in the mid-2nd millennium b.c., peoples largely of the Near E with whom the Israelites might come in contact. Ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian documents reveal that the details of this table would not have been beyond the knowledge of a person educated in the court of Egypt c. 1500 b.c., as Moses was. In addition, the recurring use of the Heb. term תּוֹלְדֹ֣ת, “generations,” in Genesis suggests that the author of the book had at his disposal a series of histories of family origins, in some cases possibly written or possessed by the person or persons named in connection with the term (R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the OT, pp. 543-551). Thus the compiler of the list may have had some material handed on to him via the patriarchs that had been written in Ur or its vicinity c. 2000 b.c.

The date of the compilation of the Table may be determined more precisely by the presence or absence of certain names. The absence of Persia would be extremely difficult to explain if the list had been compiled or edited by priests in Ezra’s time during the Pers. regime. The preeminence of Sidon in Canaan and the omission of Tyre (Gen 10:15, 19) suggests a time before 1000 b.c. when Hiram made Tyre the chief city of the Phoenicians. The absence of Gebal (Byblos) as a descendant or city of Canaan may result from the rule of that city by Hurrians, Mitannians and Hittites in the mid-2nd millennium b.c. The Arkites, Arvadites and Zemarites (10:17, 18) lived in towns (Irqata, the island city of Arwada, and Sumur) just N of Tripoli on the coast of Lebanon, which had become prominent cities and seaports and were all seized by Thutmose III on his campaigns prior to 1450 b.c. (for Arvad=Ardata in Thutmose’s records see P. K. Hitti, Lebanon in History [1957], pp. 79f.).

That Heth (10:15) represents the more northerly population group in Canaan-Syria also points to the middle of the 2nd millennium when the Hittites controlled much of the area from the great bend of the Euphrates to the Mediterranean coast. W. F. Albright has observed that nearly all of the names of the tribal descendants of Aram (10:23) and Joktan (10:26-29) are archaic, not occurring in the inscrs. of the 1st millennium b.c. from Assyria and S Arabia. Also several of the names belong to types known as personal names only in the early 2nd millennium, though they may have long continued as tribal names (“The OT and Archeology,” OT Commentary, ed. by Alleman and Flack [1948], p. 139). On the other hand, some of the names which do not appear in written documents until the 1st millennium b.c. (e.g. Gomer, the Cimmerians; Ashkenaz, the Scythians; Madai, the Medes) may have been subjected to slight scribal revisions after the original writing of the Book of Genesis (R. K. Harrison, op. cit., p. 559).

The peoples and lands of the known world are divided into three main lines: the descendants of Shem in Mesopotamia and Arabia, the descendants of Ham in Africa and within the sphere of Egyp. influence, and the descendants of Japheth in the northern and Mediterranean lands. Included in the list are some of the royal cities and important centers of the day within the Fertile Crescent in Mesopotamia and Canaan. The three great ethnic areas meet in the land promised to Abraham (Y. Aharoni and M. Avi-Yonah, The Macmillan Bible Atlas [1968], Map #15).

The names in Genesis 10 are not based on any one of the several principal characteristics that distinguish a people. Rather, comparison of this list with the extra-Biblical evidence indicates that in some cases the descendants are racial groups, in others linguistic entities, and in others geographical or political units at the time of writing. Genesis 10:5, 20, and 31 say as much in declaring that the descendants of Japheth, Ham and Shem are “after their families” (מִשְׁפָּחֹ֖ות, “clans”—a racial distinction), “after their tongues” (לְשֹׁנֹֽות, “languages”—a linguistic distinction), “in their lands” (אֲרָצֹ֤ות &--;a geographical distinction), and “in their nations” (גּוֹיִֽם &--;a political distinction). As T. C. Mitchell points out, “Racial features cannot change, but they can become so mixed or dominated through intermarriage as to be indistinguishable. Language can change completely, that of a subordinate group being replaced by that of its rulers, in many cases permanently. Geographical habitat can be completely changed by migration” (“Nations, Table of,” NBD, p. 867).


A recognition of this multiple basis of distinguishing the nations enables the reader to understand why Canaan is listed as a son of Ham and not of Shem, although the Canaanites of 2000 b.c. and onward spoke a W Sem. dialect (of which Heb. itself is a subdivision). The Hamitic tribes which conquered Pal., perhaps at the beginning of the Early Bronze Age (c. 3100 b.c.), may have succumbed to the influence of Sem.-speaking neighbors, regardless of what their original language may have been.

Putting all these arguments together, M. F. Unger (Archaeology and the OT, p. 83) suggests that a very early home of the Hamitic Cushites was in the land of Shinar, the Biblical counterpart of cuneiform Ṩumer(u) or Sumer, where Nimrod raised them to prominence. From there the Cushites may well have extended their power by merchants or armies to the Yemenite region of Arabia, and then crossed the narrow Red Sea to invade the Sudan area and impose their name on that entire district. In like manner, the influx of Philistines later imprinted their name on Pal.

The events of Genesis 10:8-12 must have occurred in pre-historic times. The RSV gives the preferred tr. of v. 10, that from the land of Shinar “he (Nimrod) went into Assyria, and built Nineveh, etc.” Archeologically speaking, the only known time prior to Abraham when a non-Sem. people of lower Mesopotamia pushed N to conquer the region of later Assyria and rebuild cities was in the Ubaid period (3800-3400 b.c.). The Ubaid people were one of the first to occupy S Iraq, and theirs was the one stage of prehistoric development which extended a unitary culture over the whole of Mesopotamia. They may represent the ancestors of the Sumer. people whose civilization came into full bloom in the next millennium.


In addition to the probable identifications suggested in the previous subsection, other interesting correspondences between the names of this chapter and the forms which they assume in ancient inscrs. are discussed here.

a. Japheth. Most of the ethnic groups involved in Genesis 10:2-4 were of Indo-European stock. Gomer is identified with the Gimirrya or Gimirrai (Gr. Κιμμέριοι), who at least by the 8th cent. b.c. had invaded Asia Minor via the Caucasus under pressure of the Scythians and settled in Cappadocia. They attacked Urartu and also invaded Tabal during the reign of Sargon II (722-705) of Assyria. It is not certain whether Magog mya be represented by the barbarian land of Gagaia in the far N, mentioned in Amarna Letter #1 (1. 38), written by Amenhotep III to a Kassite king Kadashman-Enlil I.

Madai was undoubtedly the ancestor of the Medes, who inhabited the semi-arid uplands E of the Zagros mountains. They were primarily nomads from S Russia, of Indo-Iranian stock, closely related to the later Persians. Specializing in cavalry and archery, the Medes became formidable enemies of the Assyrians, who made several attempts to subdue them in the 9th and 8th centuries b.c. King Cyaxares (625-585) joined with the Chaldeans in overthrowing the Assyrian capital of Nineveh in 612 b.c. Astyages (585-550) expanded the Median empire to its greatest size, but he was defeated by his nephew, Cyrus the Great of Persia. After that the Medes became subordinate partners with the Persians in the spreading Medo-Persian empire.

Javan has been equated with the Ionians, one of the tribes of the Greeks. The Peloponnesus of Greece was the terminus of the southward movement of the Indo-European-speaking Achaean tribes known as the Mycenaeans. They began to destroy the Minoan civilization in Crete c. 1400 b.c. Their famous expedition against Troy in NW Asia Minor c. 1200 was heralded in their national epics, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Driven out by the Dorians coming from the Balkans soon after the Trojan war, the Ionians settled the W coast of Asia Minor, the Aegean islands, Attica (around Athens), and eventually Rhodes, Cyprus, and even parts of Syria. A modified Ionian dialect, Attic, ultimately became the standard for classical Gr. prose. By the 6th cent. b.c. democracies had developed among the Ionian and Attic Greeks. The outstanding defeats by the Athenians of the huge invading Pers. armies and navy (490, 480 b.c.) led to their golden age in lit., architecture and sculpture. Her wars with Sparta, however, devastated both city-states, so that Philip of Macedon was able to subjugate all of Greece c. 350 b.c. His son Alexander carried the Gr. language and culture throughout the Near and Middle E as he forged his empire, thus preparing the way for the Jewish Dispersion, and later the outreach of the Christian Gospel.

Tubal’s descendants were the Tabali who settled in E Anatolia, and the race of Meshech were the Mushki E of the upper Euphrates River. Both warred against Tiglath-pileser I c. 1100 b.c. These two peoples entered the ancient Near E from the northern steppe. The Tabali fought Shalmaneser III in the 9th cent. b.c. Archeology has confirmed that metallurgy and trade in copper and bronze vessels was one of the chief industries of these two nations (Ezek 27:13). Tiras has been compared with the Turasha known from the Egyp. records of Rameses III as one of the Sea Peoples, undoubtedly the same as the Gr. Τυρσηνοι, or Tyrrhennians, a Pelasgian race who at first inhabited the Aegean region and who some scholars think were the ancestors of the Etruscans in Italy.

Ashkenaz, of the line of Gomer, may be equated with the Ashkuz (cuneiform Ashguza) or Scythians who like the Gimirrai drove into the Near E by coming across the Caucasus range. The name Riphath has not yet turned up in any ancient inscrs. Togarmah appears in Hitt. texts as Tegarama and Takaram and in Assyrian writings as Tilgarimmu, where they are mentioned as living in the N Taurus mountains. That is the homeland of the Armenians, who trace their ancestry back to Haik, the son of Torgom; thus they may be descendants of Togarmah.

Those associated with Javan include Elishah, known as Alashiya, the cuneiform name for the island of Cyprus (Amarna Letters #33-40); Tarshish, prob. the Gr. Ταρτεσσος in Spain and/or Sardinia (where the name has been found on inscrs.); Kittim, the Gr. Κιτιον, which is modern Larnaka on the SE coast of Cyprus; and Dodanim (which according to 1 Chron 1:7, ASV and RSV, should be Rodanim), prob. referring to the people of the island of Rhodes, although possibly the Dardanians from the vicinity of Troy in NW Asia Minor are in view.

b. Ham. The problem of Cush already has been discussed. His descendants listed in Genesis 10:7 are the peoples of the shores of the Red Sea and the S part of Arabia, proceeding in general from the African to the Asiatic side and then to the interior with the mention of Dedan. Sabtah has been identified with Sabota, the chief city of the land of Hadhramaut (Hazarmaveth, v. 26) on the S coast of Arabia. Raamah is mentioned by the Rom. geographer Strabo (xvi. 4. 24) as the Rhammanites in SW Arabia. An ancient S Arab. Minean inscr. tells of a caravan of the city of Ra’amah (רעמה) near Ma’in in SW Arabia that was attacked by raiders from Sheba and Haulan. Sabtechah has not been identified. Dedan was an important tribe controlling caravan routes between S and N Arabia, centering around the oasis el-’Ula fifty m. S of Teima and 150 m. N of Medina.

Mizraim, another Hamite listed in v. 6, is the usual Heb. name for Egypt meaning “Two Districts,” prob. a reference to the two former lands of the Nile valley, Upper and Lower Egypt. About 3000 b.c. agriculturists of African origin living in the warring princedoms of Upper and Lower Egypt were united into a single realm by Nar-mer, the founder of the 1st dynasty. The Old Kingdom, Dynasties III through VI (2700-2200), is known as the great pyramid age and saw the beginning of religious writings (Pyramid Texts) and wisdom lit. (proverbs of Ptah-hotep).

Abraham’s sojourn, and likely Joseph’s rise to power as the royal vizier (according to one interpretation of the chronological data of Exod 12:40 and 1 Kings 6:1), date to the Middle Kingdom, dynasties XI-XII (c. 2050-1780). Around 1850 b.c. Senwosret III brought all of Egypt once again under central authority from the great landed local princes (W. C. Hayes, The Scepter of Egypt [1953], p. 196; cf. Gen 47:18-26) and campaigned in Nubia and in Canaan as far N as Shechem (ANET, p. 230). During part of the second Intermediate Period (1780-1570) the Hyksos, who were largely Canaanites with a mixture of Hurrians, took over Lower and Middle Egypt and perhaps began the oppression of the Israelites. The “new king” of Exodus 1:8-12 may have been a Hyksos ruler because he did not recognize Joseph’s fame and admitted that the Israelites were more numerous than his people. The New Kingdom, dynasties XVIII-XX (1570-1090), included the time of Moses and the writing of Genesis. It was the third great age of Egyp. civilization. Ruling from Thebes, the 18th dynasty pharaohs conquered Palestine and Syria as far as the Euphrates. In order to build the great military bases in the Delta necessary to support these campaigns, they continued the enslavement of the Israelites. The early date for the Exodus would have Moses lead Israel out of Egypt early in the reign of Amenhotep II, son of the mighty Thutmose III (1504-1450). Rameses II (1304-1234) in the 19th dynasty restored Egyp. control of key cities in Pal. and fought the Hittites to a standstill in mid-Syria.

In Genesis 10:13 the Ludim associated with Mizraim already have been discussed. The Anamim are unknown, unless Albright’s suggestion is correct that they were a people of Cyrene mentioned in a cuneiform text from the time of Sargon II as the A-na-mi (JPOS, I [1921], 191f.). The Lehabim are equated by many with the Libyans, not elsewhere mentioned in Genesis 10. K. A. Kitchen (NBD, p. 865) argues well that the Naphtuhim were people of the Nile delta or of the oases W of the Nile valley. This identification would be appropriate in conjunction with the Pathrusim (10:14), who were the inhabitants of Upper Egypt. The name is attested in Assyrian inscrs. as Paturisi. The Casluhim are not known outside the OT.

The Philistim are of course the Philistines. This race of invaders from Caphtor (Amos 9:7)—from either Crete or the islands of the Aegean Sea region—migrated to the E Mediterranean littoral, occupied the S Palestinian coast, and built up five strong city-states (Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gaza, Gath, and Ekron). Genesis 21 and 26 record contacts between Abraham and Isaac and Philistine rulers of Gerar named Abimelech early in the 2nd millennium b.c. Since they were not warlike, they may have been associated with Minoan merchants from Crete who are thought to have established trading colonies at various spots along the Mediterranean coast. At the time of the Exodus the Israelites avoided the coastal route known then as the “way of the...Philistines” (Exod 13:17), because of Philistine settlements, prob. near Gaza. They apparently were not subdued by Joshua’s invasion (Josh 13:2, 3), and later they harassed the Israelites during the time of the Judges. Additional bands of Philistines coming by land and by sea together attempted an invasion of Egypt which Rameses III repulsed c. 1188 b.c. The reason, then, for classifying them with Mizraim may be geographic, since the Philistines had been settling along the coastal highway to Egypt.

Phut (Gen 10:6) or Put is most likely the region of Cyrenaica along the Mediterranean coast of Libya, called Puta in the inscrs. of Darius I (K. A. Kitchen, NBD, p. 1066), where the people were white-skinned. Some scholars have suggested, however, that Put is another spelling for Pw(n)t of Egyp. texts, where the land referred to seems to be Somaliland in E Africa.

Certain aspects of the Canaanite history and culture have been discussed previously, but it remains to look further at the other nations listed with Canaan. Heth (v. 15) was identified above with the Hittites of c. 1450-1200 b.c. who ruled a large part of W Asia from their capital at Boghaz-koy in Anatolia. It is equally possible that a much smaller, non-Indo-European people is in mind, such as the “children of Heth” of Genesis 23:10 residing in Hebron, who would be much too early and too far S to be part of the Hitt. kingdom. E. A. Speiser (Genesis, Anchor Bible, p. 69) connects Heth with the Hurrians who were so prominent a part of the population of Pal. and Syria in the middle of the 2nd millennium b.c., and he states forthrightly that the Jebusites (10:16) were the ruling Hurrian element in Jerusalem during the Amarna age (c. 1400 b.c.), and, we may add, to the time of David.

The Amorites are known to have spoken a W Sem. dialect. Their classification here as Hamites, however, seems to be from a geographical standpoint with Canaan, for their sizeable kingdoms in Mesopotamia had been destroyed by Moses’ time. The earliest known Amorites according to the Drehem texts from the Ur III period are pictured as herdsmen, engaging in an active and well-ordered livestock commerce with the Sumerians. The Sumer. term MAR.TU designated seminomads from the N Syrian steppe. The Amorites seem to have been native to the Jebel Bishri region, the mountains near Palmyra (Tadmor). There was before 2000 b.c. a continuing movement of tribesmen between this Syrian homeland and Sumer via a route along the Euphrates (G. Buccellati, The Amorites of the Ur III Period [1966]).

This powerful group of tribes established kingdoms early in the 2nd millennium b.c. all the way from Kadesh-on-the-Orontes in Syria to the Zagros mountains E of the Tigris River. They were in control of the city of Mari on the Euphrates c. 2000 b.c., and by 1800 they ruled in Babylon. They had rapidly assimilated the Akkad. culture and founded the dynasty of the famous Hammurabi.

Apparently the Amorite influx into Trans-Jordania and Canaan dates back to the 21st and 20th centuries b.c., contemporary with Abraham’s arrival (Gen 14:13; 15:16). They are mentioned in the Egyptian Execration Texts and pictured in the Beni-hasan tomb paintings (c. 1900 b.c.) as bearded itinerant merchant families bringing their wares on asses into Egypt to get food, wearing striped woven garments, and carrying musical intruments and weapons. They likely fit in with the Hyksos in the latter’s control of Palestine and Egypt. The Hyksos names Hur and Jacobhur have an Amorite ring. The Israelites under Moses demolished the Amorite kingdoms of Sihon and Og in Trans-Jordan, and Joshua found Amorites to be still firmly entrenched in parts of Canaan. They generally preferred the hill country in Pal.

The Girgashites are not known as a people from extra-Biblical sources, but the personal names Grgš, Grgšy, and Grgšm occur frequently in the vowelless texts from Carthage and Ugarit. This fact seems to indicate that the Girgashites were related to the Phoenicians or Canaanites. The racial background of the Hivites is unknown, but geographically they come under the heading of Canaan. According to Judges 3:3 their center was in the Lebanese mountains. If “Hivite” is an alternate spelling for “Horite” (involving the change of one Heb. consonant in the middle of the name), then the Hivites as well as the Horites can perhaps be identified with the Hurrians known from many ancient inscrs. Probably migrating from the mountains of Armenia, the non-Sem. Hurrians became an important power in the upper Mesopotamian region by the middle of the 2nd millennium b.c. The common people of the kingdom of Mitanni seem to have been Hurrians, though its rulers were Indo-Iranian, judging from their personal names. The Patriarchal narratives of Genesis reflect many customs and laws practiced by the Hurrians as revealed by the Nuzu tablets. This is not surprising when one realizes that the Hurrians dominated the area from Nuzu, Assyria and Mari in the E to the Orontes River in the W, including Padan-aram where Laban lived and followed many of their same customs. The early intrusion of the Hurrians into Pal. and their importance there is noted in the frequent Egyp. designation, during the 18th dynasty, of Canaan as Huru. The ruler of Jerusalem in the Amarna Letters has a Hurrian name, ’Abdu-Heba (ANET, p. 487ff.), and the Jebusite Araunah (2 Sam 24:16) has a Hurrian name or title. Because of their prominence in the Near E during the 2nd millennium b.c. one would expect the Hurrians to be listed in some way in this Table.

The Arkites, Arvadites and Zemarites have been described above. The name of the Sinites survives in Nahr as-Sinn and Sinn ad-darb along the coast of Lebanon. Tiglath-pileser III (745-727) mentions this city together with other tributary Phoen. vassals. The Hamathite resided in the large city of Hamath-on-the-Orontes, the center of an Amorite kingdom in the Amarna period.

While the Sumerians are not included as a people in Genesis 10, allusion is made to their country in the term “the land of Shinar” (v. 10), as noted previously. All succeeding civilizations in Mesopotamia are based on the culture of the non-Sem. Sumerians. Coming perhaps by sea from a mountainous area to the E or N, they had settled the Tigris-Euphrates valley from the Persian Gulf to the site of modern Baghdad centuries before 3000 b.c. Their own peculiar genius gave birth to the world’s first actual civilization. They invented writing, which first appears at Erech c. 3500-3200 in the form of cylinder seals and then pictographic tablets of stone and clay. They also developed the basic principles of personal property rights under law, the sexagesimal number system which still is used today in telling time and in the 360-degree circle, and a great lit. The history of Sumer as a nation lasted from 3000 to c. 1900 b.c., depending on the date when the 3rd dynasty of Ur fell before the attacking Elamites and Amorites. This may be the reason why Sumer is not listed in the Table of Nations. Nevertheless, the Sumer. language continued to be used until the 3rd cent. b.c. in religion, science, law, and business (just as Lat. was in the W after fall of the Rom. empire).

c. Shem. Under this heading only a few names can be identified with reasonable certainty. Elam was the eastern neighbor and rival of Mesopotamian nations since the dawn of history. G. L. Archer recognizes that the classification of Elam as Sem. has been challenged on linguistic grounds, since Elamite or Susian was not a Sem. language (nor is it related to Sumerian, Hurrian, or Indo-European). Language is no infallible indicator of ethnic relationship, and besides, Sargon of Agade brought in Sem.-speaking troops when he conquered Elam c. 2200 b.c. (SOTI, p. 203). The grouping in Genesis 10:22 under Shem is chiefly a matter of geographical and political considerations.

The name of Asshur lives on in the nation of the Assyrians. This hardy people of mixed Sem. and non-Sem. stock lived along the upper Tigris River. Linguistically they belonged to the eastern branch of the Sem. family of languages. They began to achieve political importance soon after 2000 b.c., and by 1900 Assyrian traders had established nine commercial colonies in Anatolia, the most important being at Kanesh. Shamshi-Adad I gradually extended his kingdom c. 1800 b.c., his two sons ruling at Mari until that city was captured by King Hammurabi of Babylon. With the rise of the Mitanni and Hurrian peoples in the Upper Euphrates region, the influence of Assyria had declined by the time of Moses. Various Assyrian rulers recovered some of the former territories from time to time, but the zenith of their power did not come until after 900 b.c. For nearly 300 years their kings were to march against Israel and Judah, acting as the unwitting agent of God’s judgment against His sinning people.

One would expect that Arpachshad (אַרְפַּכְשַׁ֖ד), the father of Eber from whose name the term “hebrew” may have come, would bear a truly Sem. name. Instead, this name continues to defy linguistic analysis (see Speiser, Anchor Bible, p. 70). Several theories have been proposed, such as the one which would connect the name with the cuneiform Arrapḫu, Gr. Arrapachitis, prob. modern Kirkuk. This does not properly account for the last three consonants in Heb. Another solution is to see the end of the name, -kšad, as a corruption of keśed, kaśdîm, the “Chaldeans,” and thus referring to Babylonia (Sumer and Akkad), otherwise strangely absent from this entire list (GTT, pp. 9f.).

The city of Babylon was mentioned as early as 2300 b.c. After the fall of the Sumer. capital of Ur c. 2000 b.c. Babylon grew into a small independent kingdom under an Amorite dynasty founded by Sumu-abu. His famous successor, Hammurabi, in the 18th cent. extended his rule over all of Sumer, Assyria, and Mari, finally overcoming the Elamite kingdom of Rim-Sin at Larsa. His celebrated law code gives evidence of an advanced and wellordered civilization. His dynasty came to an end with a Hitt. raid c. 1600 b.c., which opened up the way for the Kassite mountaineers to take over the whole territory of Babylonia for the next several centuries (G. L. Archer, “Peoples of Bible Times,” Holy Bible, Family Heritage Ed., World Pub. Co. [1968], p. 30). Again, the non-existence of the Babylonians as a nation at the time of Moses may account for their not being mentioned by their usual name in the Table of Nations.

Aram was the progenitor of the Arameans, Aram.-speaking tribes who orbited around the middle Euphrates region, occupying Haran already by the time of Abraham (c. 2000 b.c.). Aramaic, a W Sem. language, was spoken by Laban as early as the 19th cent. b.c. (Gen 31:47). The earliest non-biblical evidence for the Aram. language consists of certain Aram. words in Ugaritic texts from the 15th cent. b.c. Inscriptions from the dynasty of Sargon of Agade (Akkad) and the Ur III dynasty (c. 2400-2000 b.c.) mention a settlement called Aram(e/i) in the E Tigris region N of Elam and ENE of Assyria. This may be considered as a proto-Aramean group, which would correspond to the listing of Aram with Elam and Asshur (Gen 10:22; K. A. Kitchen, “Aram,” NBD, p. 56). Twelve Aramean tribes related to Nahor, Abraham’s brother, are listed in Genesis 22:20-24. The last named, Maacah, appears to be mentioned c. 1830 b.c. in the later Egyp. Execration Texts as already in N Trans-Jordan (B. Mazar, “Geshur and Maacah,” JBL, LXXX [1961], 21f.). Thus the Arameans gradually pushed westward toward the Mediterranean.

They lacked the capacity for empire building. In the 12th and 11th centuries b.c. Syria had a jumble of Aramean city-states, which never united for long in a larger kingdom. Carchemish, Haran, Pitru (Pethor, the home of Balaam the prophet), Arpad and Aleppo were such Aramean states in the N, while S of these were Hamath, Zobah, and Damascus. David conquered a number of the small Aramean countries during his reign. Damascus enjoyed a brief period of importance under Aramean rulers such as Ben-hadad and Hazael until it was sacked by the Assyrians in 732 b.c. The Aram. language, however, simpler in structure and more easily written, replaced the Assyrians’ cuneiform as the lingua franca of the Near E from the 8th cent. until the conquest of Alexander late in the 4th cent. b.c.

Uz (cf. Job 1:1, 15-17; Lam 4:21) was a land located somewhere in the Syrian or N Arabian desert S of Damascus and N of Edom. Hul and Gether are unknown. Mash also was located in the Syro-Arabian desert on the E side, according to Assyr. records (Mas’a, Mas’ai, ANET, pp. 283f.).

The genealogy from Shem to Abraham is given more fully in Genesis 11:10-26. For the problem of the meaning of Eber as the socalled eponymous ancestor of the Heb. people and the possible relationship between Eber and the Habiru (’Apiru) see Hebrew, Hebrews.

The reference to the division of the earth in the days of Peleg (Gen 10:25), when the nations were divided (lit., “separated,” נִפְרְד֧וּ) in the earth after the Flood (v. 32), seems definitely to be to the confusion of languages that occurred at the tower of Babel described in detail in Genesis 11:1-9. The name of Joktan is unknown outside the Bible, as well as most of the Arabian tribes associated with his name. Hazarmaveth, Sheba and Havilah have been discussed before. On the location of Ophir see Ophir.

Lists of non-Israelite nations.

There are twenty-two lists which name from two to ten of the peoples who occupied Pal. prior to the Israelite conquest and settlement. The common enumeration lists seven “nations”: the Amorites, Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites, Jebusites and Girgashites—in this approximate order of prominence. The first two are fairly certain to be general terms for the well-known ethnic blocks, and perhaps also the Hittites, if there were Hitt. enclaves in Pal.; and the Hivites if that name represents the Hurrians. The Perizzites can hardly have been a major nation since they are not named in Genesis 10. Yet they remained a distinct tribe in the mountains of Pal. down to the time of Solomon (1 Kings 9:20, 21). They may have been of Hurrian stock, because a Hurrian messenger of the Mitannian King Tushratta bore the name of Pirizzi (Amarna Letters #27, 28).

Either the Canaanites (e.g., Gen 12:6) or the Amorites (e.g., 15:16) may stand for the entire population of Pal., since these two peoples seem to have had the majority of the inhabitants of the land. Canaan often is used as a land name as well as forming a gentilic, but there is no geographic term “Amor” as such in the OT. As E. A. Speiser concludes, one may posit as a general hypothesis that “Canaan” started out as a geographic name, but took on extra duty for ethnic and even linguistic (Isa 19:18) purposes, whereas “Amorite(s)” was never employed beyond its original ethnic use (“Man, Ethnic Divisions of,” IDB, III, 237).

Numbers 13:29 outlines the geographical division of several of the important peoples of Pal.: “The Amalekites dwell in the land of the Negeb; the Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites dwell in the hill country; and the Canaanites dwell by the sea, and along the Jordan” (RSV). A very interesting reference to the Amorites and Hittites occurs in Ezekiel 16:3 where it is stated of Jerusalem, “Your origin and your birth are of the land of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite, and your mother a Hittite,” apparently referring to its aboriginal pagan settlers.

OT lit. abounds in descriptive and poetical references to the nations with which Israel had contact during its history (e.g., Ps 83; Jer 25:12-33; Ezek 27). At no point can it be demonstrated that either in the names of the peoples or of their rulers or of the events or customs associated with them is there a clearcut historical or factual error.

The Jews of the Diaspora.

In Acts 2:9-11 is found a list of the Jewish pilgrims from the various countries of their dispersion after the time of Alexander the Great. These have come to Jerusalem for the annual Feast of Weeks or Pentecost. The foreign Jews were amazed at each hearing the Galilean Jews praising God, not in their native Aram., but in his language or dialect (διαλέκτῳ) to which he was born. They themselves enumerated the peoples from Persia and Mesopotamia to Asia Minor and from there to N Africa—interrupted only by Judea (v. 9) and “visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes” (v. 10, NASB)—ending with the inhabitants of the islands (“Cretes”) and desert regions (“Arabians”), as in Isaiah 11:11; Jeremiah 25:22-24. Most of the pilgrims would have spoken as a second language the common Gr. dialect (the Koiné) except those from the eastern lands (Parthians, Medes, Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia) who would be more familiar with Aram. See Diaspora.

Jewish Attitudes toward the nations

The Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants.

The attitudes of the Israelites toward the heathen evolved in the course of their history around two primary facts in the affirmation of their faith. First, God chose Abraham (Isa 51:2) and made a covenant with him for the benefit of the nations. Second, Israel’s deity, Yahweh, is the only God. The Israelites found themselves unable to keep a balance between these two theological poles. The tension pulled them into a religious nationalism and Jewish exclusivism. Yet God had spoken to Abraham, “In thee shall all families of the earth be blessed” (Gen 12:3 KJV). This promise, almost with the added force of a command, was repeated over and over again to the patriarchs (Gen 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14). It is the basis for the covenantal relationship established on a national scale with the redeemed Israelites as they gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai: “Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod 19:5, 6). “A kingdom of priests”...“among all peoples”—thus did God consecrate Israel for service to bear a witness among the nations and to bring their neighbors to worship Him.

Repeatedly through the prophets God reminded the nation of Israel of His purpose. But a prophet such as Jonah and the people as a whole were deaf to their covenantal responsibility (Isa 42:19). Yet God kept on calling: “‘You are my witnesses,’ saith the Lord, ‘and my servant whom I have chosen’” (Isa 43:10). God announced His coming to gather all nations and tongues that they might see His glory, and that He would send His remnant to the nations that had not heard of His fame in order to declare His glory among them (Isa 66:19).

The Levitical code.

In turning his back on the nations round about, the pious Jew could always appeal to the holiness code which commanded him to be holy as Yahweh is holy and not to defile himself with any of the unclean practices of his idolatrous neighbors (Lev 11:43-47). So corrupt had the peoples of Canaan become by the period of Moses and Joshua that in the holy war declared on those peoples by God Himself none were to be spared. Israel on her part was to make no alliance with her Canaanite neighbors because of the danger of apostasy (Exod 34:11-16; Deut 7:1-11).

The postexilic reaction.

Because of their disobedience to the prohibition against intermarriage with those of other nations, the Israelites returning from Babylon were severely reprimanded by Ezra and Nehemiah (Ezra 9; 10; Neh 13). They were to be a separate people, with no “mixed multitude” (Exod 12:38) allowed to come into the forecourt of the Temple. The development of this exclusivism is strikingly portrayed in the events of Acts 21:27-22:22, when Paul was nearly mobbed to death by the Jewish crowds in the Temple area because they suspected he had defiled the holy grounds by bringing a Gentile to the Temple.

Yet God had not abandoned His plan of universal blessing and redemption for peoples of all races. The postexilic prophets continued to proclaim His desire to make the nations His people as well: “And many nations shall join themselves to the Lord in that day, and shall be my people” (Zech 2:11); “For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name is great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts” (Mal 1:11).

The Christian mission

Isaiah had prophesied of the role of the Servant of the Lord regarding the nations when he sang: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold...he will bring forth justice among the nations...He will not fail or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law” (42:1-4). God announced through the prophet that He would give that individual as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations (42:6). It was too small a task merely to raise up the tribes of Jacob; He would give him as a light to the nations so that His salvation might reach to the end of the earth (49:6).

During the earlier days of His public ministry Jesus Christ ordered His apostles not to go in the way of the Gentiles but only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matt 10:5, 6). After the officials of the Jewish people made obvious their rejection of Him as the promised Messiah, He began to prepare His disciples by parable, by example and by declaration for the larger outreach foretold by Isaiah (cf. Matt 12:17-21). In the parable of the dragnet fish of every kind were gathered from the sea, a symbol of all nations (Matt 13:47-50). He was willing to help the Canaanite or Syrophoenician woman on the basis of her persistent faith, even though He repeated His policy, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-30). He clearly stated in Jerusalem to the Pharisees, “I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they shall hear My voice; and they shall become one flock with one Shepherd” (John 10:16 NASB).

In His Olivet discourse Christ taught His disciples that the Gospel of the kingdom would be preached in the whole world for a witness to all nations before the end would come (Matt 24:14). In His final parable the Lord Jesus depicted all the nations gathered before the Son of man for judgment. At that time He will separate them from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats (Matt 25:31-33). That the basis of judgment is individual response to His Gospel as revealed in compassionate service to the unfortunate, and not ethnic relationship, is clear in what follows (vv. 34-46).

The apostles and early Christians were led to follow the order of this strategic plan by circumstances and the direction of the Holy Spirit, as the history of the spread of the Gospel is unfolded in the Book of Acts. The example of the Apostle Paul is primary for the subsequent mission of the Church—“to the Jew first and also to the Greek,” for he was under obligation both to Greeks and barbarians as well as to the Jews (Rom 1:13-16; cf. 15:15-21; 16:25, 26). His final words to the leaders of the Jewish community in Rome clearly declare that the salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles, and that they will listen (Acts 28:25-28).

In the eschatological day John sees in vision members of every nation upon earth assembled around the throne of God in triumph and praise (Rev 5:9; 7:9). The nations will be healed (22:2), and they will walk by the light of the glory of God and the Lamb, with the kings of the earth bringing the glory and the honor of the nations into the holy city, the new Jerusalem (21:24, 26).


H. H. Rowley, The Missionary Message of the OT (1944); S. Amsler and S. Bickel, “Nations,” A Companion to the Bible, ed. by J. J. von Allmen (1958), 300-305; E. Jacob, Theology of the OT (1958), 217-223; J. Jeremias, Jesus’ Promise to the Nations (1958); J. Simons, GTT (1959); E. A. Speiser, “‘People’ and ‘Nation’ of Israel,” JBL, LXXIX (1960), 157-163; E. J. Hamlin, “Nations,” IDB (1962), III, 515-523; T. C. Mitchell, “Nations, Table of,” NBD (1962), 865-869; J. B. Payne, The Theology of the Older Testament (1962), 180-194, 474-478, 496-498; E. A. Speiser, “Man, Ethnic Divisions of,” IDB (1962), III, 235-242; E. A. Speiser, Genesis, The Anchor Bible (1964); K. L. Schmidt, “Ethnos, etc.,” TDNT, II, 364-372; H. Strathmann and R. Meyer, “Laos,” TDNT, IV, 29-57; G. L. Archer, Jr., “Peoples of Bible Times,” The Holy Bible, Family Heritage Ed. (1968), 27-32.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


See nodetitle; Goiim; HEATHEN; TABLE OF NATIONS.