The Table of Nations - Genesis 10
What is the apparent difficulty?
The genealogy outlined in Genesis 10, summarising in abbreviated form the offspring of the three sons of Noah, is usually called the Table of Nations, as it purports to describe how the various peoples of the ancient world were inter-related with each other and with the later Hebrew nation. Traditionally this has been viewed as a self-contained early record, which was later incorporated into the book of Genesis along with other early material such as the patriarchal accounts. Within this view, it is taken that Genesis was assembled into its present form at the time of the Exodus (say around 1400 BCE), with only minor editing carried out later. However, in contrast to this, rival theories have been proposed arguing that the use of some of the national and city names indicates instead a very late date for composition. Typical estimates of this kind are in the region of 700-600 BCE, in the closing years of the kingdom of Judah. To some extent these dates are based on a particular model of construction of the Pentateuch from a variety of disparate sources over a period of centuries. The validity of this source analysis is considered elsewhere. Here, the specific claims about names of nations will be discussed.
The presence of several nations in the list has been questioned. The first to be dealt with here is Assyria and its cities.
In the interest of completeness, the relevant parts of the chapter are given:
Genesis 10:6-22 (extracts)
6The sons of Ham: Cush... 8Cush was the father [or ancestor] of Nimrod... 10The first centres of his [Nimrod's] kingdom were Babylon, Erech, Akkad and Calneh in Shinar. From that land he went to Assyria, where he built Nineveh, Rehoboth Ir, Calah, and Resen... 22The sons of Shem: Elam, Asshur...
Some translations render "and Calneh"
with "all three of them"
. Some translations render "Rehoboth Ir"
with "with its city squares"
, or slight variations of this, but these differences are not important to the point in hand. Another alternative reading of the second half of verse 10, favoured by older translations, is "Asshur went forth from that land"
suggesting a slightly different interpretation. Calah is often called Kalhu or even Nimrud. It is worth pointing out that, although there is little doubt about the identity of the cities Nineveh and Asshur, there is debate concerning Calah mentioned here. Although commonly identified with the later city, some commentators believe that the name could refer to a different site, possibly a settlement that was incorporated into the larger city of Nineveh at some stage. It is certainly worth bearing in mind that the identification of the sites is not 100% certain. However, in the analysis below it will be assumed that the later city is indeed under consideration.
A typical claim for late composition concerning this passage may be summarised as follows:
"The Genesis narrator knows of Nineveh and Calah, and it is significant that Nineveh gets pride of place in being named first. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria from 704 to 612 BCE, and the previous capital was Calah, from 883. Assyria's first capital was Asshur, from about the 14th century BCE, yet the Genesis account does not mention it. Therefore the passage dates from the last period of Assyria's history, in the 7th century BCE."|
Of course, if true it would mean that the idea that the Genesis account as a whole was assembled in the mid 2nd millennium BCE, mostly from pre-existing material, is untenable. It does not rule out the possibility that parts
of Genesis date from this early period, but at very least it would imply that a significant chunk apparently from near the start was in fact added at a much later date. Let us therefore take a closer look at the passage to see if the above claim is correct.
The purpose of the Table of Nations should be held in mind. In particular:
- The relationships portrayed represent the world as it appeared to the Hebrews, and so are intended to show movements of groups of people or language as they perceived them, rather than strict ethnic origins such as a modern anthropologist or sociologist might discuss. "Assyria" here (and elsewhere in the Bible) can refer to the land in question, the people of that land, or territories currently under their sway. It is quite typical of the ancient world that a people and the land in which they were accustomed to dwell have the same name. This is why deportation was considered such a harsh punishment, and also why from time to time the exceptions to this were explicitly noted in the Old Testament.
- Second, the Biblical writers in general were not concerned with giving a systematic history of the world. Places and people are, generally speaking, only mentioned at times when they impinge on the activities of the people of Israel. People or events that - from a world history viewpoint - were crucially important are often entirely ignored, and apparently minor items highlighted. Hence, the overwhelming majority of information about Assyria dates from the divided monarchy period, when expansionist Assyrian rulers sought territory along the Mediterranean coast. The many years of military and cultural development that led to this are not discussed.
- Third, if the passage is indeed preserved from very early times then it may reveal patterns of early migration rather than later settlement. For example, Cush is presented as son of Ham and ancestor of Nimrod, yet Nimrod is (as we have seen) associated with Babylon and Assyria, and in later years Cush was a name for Upper Egypt. Although at first sight this appears puzzling, it is possible that it preserves a record of migrations - whether peaceful or warlike - from Mesopotamia to the Nile Valley. Thus the Table would be telling us that some groups of people or families migrated west from their initial Mesopotamian base, and others expanded north into (what came to be called) Assyria.
- Finally, it is quite possible that during the process of transmission from its original conception through different stages of copying to its final written form, early names that had ceased to be meaningful to the audience were replaced by the (to the audience) contemporary versions. By analogy, a modern author might refer to a Roman army marching to "Bath" rather than "Aquae Sulis". This in no way invalidates the genuineness of the actual event.
Turning to details, notice that the two references to Assyria in the Genesis passage give quite different pieces of information. Verses 6-10 describe city-building carried out from the basis of an existing Babylonian base. This is true whichever variation of verse 10 is used - Nimrod or Asshur. 'Nimrod' cannot be identified with certainty, though the individual Enmerkar named in the Sumerian kinglist is a good candidate (among others including Sargon and Amar-Sin). The name is preserved (in the form Nimrud) in several placenames in both Babylon and Assyria. In any event, it is quite possible that he is used as a representative head for a number of Babylonian leaders who carried out this kind of building work. Nimrod is spoken of as descending from Ham, along with people-groups in Mesopotamia, Arabia, Africa and Canaan. In verse 22, Asshur is spoken of as a son of Shem, along with Elam and others including of course (eventually) the Hebrews. Hence it is the people and the land in view here, not so much the cities they dwell in. In this context it is interesting that in the Old Testament, the Assyrians and Elamites are typically depicted as having a closer relationship to the people of Israel than the Babylonians.
The implicit assumption in claim for late composition is that the earliest possible date for the passage is the 14th century BCE - hence the surprise at the city of Asshur not being mentioned. However, on the assumption that Genesis was compiled in the mid second millennium BCE, it is clear that the individual building blocks might originate substantially earlier. The account of Abraham, for example, that follows immediately after the Table of Nations, can be dated by a variety of external means to the early 2nd millennium. Therefore, it is reasonable that the period in which we should be considering the condition of Assyria and the cities mentioned is not the time of the Exodus, but rather the closing years of the 3rd millennium and opening ones of the 2nd. What is known of Assyria at this early stage?
The Assyrian kinglist takes us back before the early period of Assyrian strength - of which Shamshi-Adad 1 was a notable representative, past a period in which Assyrian was dominated by cities from southern Mesopotamia, to a time when there were "kings who lived in tents"
. The first of these is called Tudiya, and has been identified as a real individual who made a treaty with the (then-powerful) city of Ebla. Schematically we have:
|Kings who live in tents|| ||Ebla||c.2400-2050 conventional|
(Gudea - 2nd dynasty)
| ||c.2450-2300 conventional|
|Domination from Mesopotamia||Akkad|
| ||c.2350-2150 conventional|
| ||c.2150-2050 conventional|
|Trading contacts with Cappadocia|| || ||c.2000-1800 conventional|
|Early period of power|
| || ||c.1850-1700 conventional|
| ||Old Babylonian period|
| ||c.1850-1550 conventional|
|Period of weakness|| || ||c.1700-1350 conventional|
|2nd period of power|
| || ||c.1350-1200 conventional|
|Period of weakness|| || ||c.1200-900 conventional|
|3rd period of power|
(Ashurnasirpal 2, Sennacherib)
| || ||c.900-600 conventional|
In terms of city development we have the following:
|Sargon of Akkad||c.2350 BCE conventional|
(c. 2100 NC)
|Extends the city|| || |
|Manishtusu of Akkad||c.2300 BCE conventional|
(c. 2050 NC)
|Builds the Temple of Ishtar|| || |
|Gudea of Lagash||c.2200 BCE conventional|
(c. 1900 NC)
|Refers to campaigning near Nineveh|| || |
|Amar-Sin of Ur||c.2050 BCE conventional|
(c. 1850 NC)
| ||Extends the city|| |
|Shamshi-Adad 1 of Assyria||c.1800 BCE conventional|
(c. 1600 NC)
|Rebuilds Temple of Ishtar|| ||Extends the city|
|Shalmaneser 1 of Assyria||c.1250 BCE conventional|
(c. 1100 NC)
|Extends the city|| ||Rebuilds the city|
|Ashurbanipal 2 of Assyria||c.880 BCE conventional|
(c. 880 NC)
| || ||Chooses this as his capital|
|Sennacherib of Assyria||c.700 BCE conventional|
(c. 880 NC)
|Chooses this as his capital|| || |
So, all three cities were occupied from very early times. There was indeed considerable early Babylonian
effort in city construction work,d in particular at Nineveh. This was during the time when
the Assyrian kings "lived in tents", so before the time when Assyria as a nation, and Asshur as a city,
came to prominence. Shamshi-Adad's capital appears to have been sited near to but not at Asshur, and this city took over the role of capital a little after his time.
The fact that Nineveh and Calah were at much later dates chosen as capital
cities of Assyria is not relevant to the references to them in the Table of Nations. If a date for
Abraham is taken to be the early years of the the second millennium, the above tables show that this
corresponds to a transitional time for Assyria. The time of "kings living in tents" was at its close,
and more settled occupation was beginning at several places including the city of Assur. Considerable Mesopotamian
city-building in Nineveh and Calah was beginning to be duplicated at Asshur, but fuller development of this city was still in the future.
The original challenge was that the names and activities outlined in the Table of Nations indicated a very late date for this portion of the book of Genesis, in the 7th century BCE. The particular case of Assyria has been studied, and the plausibility of a date in keeping with the traditional early origins of Genesis has been shown. Thus the possibility of the Table of Nations being a genuinely early record, incorporated with other early material into what we now call Genesis, is a realistic and credible position. The idea that the internal evidence of the names precludes early composition is not valid.