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929 Project: Genesis 10 – gotta catch ‘em all

July 26, 2018

Genesis 10 contains “The Table of Nation” – a remarkable list to enumerate all of the cultures known to Ancient Israel.  Robert Alter writes in his notes to Genesis 10 in HB-A:

As elsewhere, genealogy is adopted as a mean of schematizing complex historical evolution, and thus the terms “father of” and “begot” are essentially metaphors for historical concatenation.  The total number of figures in the Table of Nations (excluding Nimrod) comes to seventy, the biblical formulatic number for a sizeable and complete contingent of any sort.  It should be observed that representing the origins of nations as a genealogical scheme preserves a thematic continuity with the divine injunction after creation to be fruitful and multiply and sets the stage for the history of the one people whose propagation is repeatedly promised but continually threatened. 

In keeping with the universalist perspective of Genesis, the Table of Nations is a serious attempt, unprecedented in the ancient Near East, to sketch a panorama of all known human cultures – from Greece and Crete in the west through Asia Minor and Iran and down through Mesopotamia and the Arabian Peninsula to northwestern Africa.  This chapter has been a happy hunting ground for scholars armed with the tools of archeology, and in fact an impressive proportion of these names have analogues in inscriptions and tablets in other ancient Near Eastern cultures.  The Table mingles geographic, ethnic, and linguistic criteria for defining nations, and the list intersperses place-names and gentilic designations (the latter appearing first in plural forms and beginning with verse 16 in singular forms).  Some analysts have argued for a splicing together of two different lists of nations.  One may infer that the Table assumes a natural evolutionary explanation for the multiplicity of languages that does not involve an act of divine intervention of the sort that will be narrated in the next episode, the Tower of Babel.


It is a deep human characteristic to categorize all things – whether it be biological taxonomy (than you Carl Linnaeus) or a dictionary (thank you Samuel Johnson) or a classification system for books and knowledge (than you Melvil Dewey). 

This tendency was satirized by Jorge Luis Borges in in his “El Idioma Analítico de John Wilkins” (“The Analytical Language of John Wilkins”) in which Borges writes:

Esas ambigüedades, redundancias y deficiencias recuerdan las que el doctor Franz Kuhn atribuye a cierta enciclopedia china que se titula Emporio celestial de conocimientos benévolos. En sus remotas páginas está escrito que los animales se dividen en (a) pertenecientes al Emperador, (b) embalsamados, (c) amaestrados, (d) lechones, (e) sirenas, (f) fabulosos, (g) perros sueltos, (h) incluidos en esta clasificación, (i) que se agitan como locos, (j) innumerables, (k) dibujados con un pincel finísimo de pelo de camello, (l) etcétera, (m) que acaban de romper el jarrón, (n) que de lejos parecen moscas.

[These ambiguities, redundancies and deficiencies remind us of those which doctor Franz Kuhn attributes to a certain Chinese encyclopaedia entitled ‘Celestial Empire of benevolent Knowledge’. In its remote pages it is written that the animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.]

Systematization is the probable parent of another very human tendency:  the urge to collect.  By enumeration, one tickles the human desire to collect.  Here is a list of desirable objects. 

Do you want to sell twenty books?  Number them and sell them in a series. They will prove irresistible to collectors (like me!).

In a sense, this helps explain the collection that forms the Bible itself (“anything you can do, I can do meta”).  We enumerate these books as being canonical, and before you know it, they are all bundled together in a collection that makes very clear what is inside the collection and what is outside the collection.  Thus, one has the remarkable phenomenon of certain Roman Catholics on the Internet damming seemingly worthy books (such as the Apostolic Letters) merely because they are apocrypha outside Scripture.  (I merely mention this example because it is the last one I saw – one could even more easily taunt certain Protestants or Muslims or Jews.)

Such a remarkable world that we live in, that embraces so many cultures, and so many ideas, and so many books – and still finds it worthy to classify certain ones as being inside and others as being outside.

Here is more information about this series; and here is a table of abbreviations and acronyms.  Posts are backdated to match with 929 reading dates.

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