Genesis 10

Another genealogical listing, detailing how Noah’s descendents multiplied and populated the planet (as it was known at the time of writing, editing, and redacting). Three times in this chapter (verses five, twenty, and thirty-one) it is listed that the titular head whose descendants formed “nations” each had their own lands and languages, yet we are already familiar with the famous story in the very next chapter of the Tower of Babel wherein it is claimed that all the people on Earth spoke the same language and hence were able to participate in that grand but ill-planned (due to hubris, apparently) building project. Ours, however, is an interpretative position that does not demand perfect consistency, and so we can take such a detail as a charming instance of wabi-sabi: imperfections making the whole more beautiful (and adding that the aesthetic’s emphasis on impermanence can be applied to exegeses given that we do not expect further textual adjustments at this point in history). What, then, might be taken from this list?

The groupings of peoples and places as explanatory devices for the world during Genesis’ penmanship and compilation is interesting as far as it goes, and somewhat instructive in the categories by which ancient writers thought (e.g. placing political allies into linked descendant lines), but my imagination was caught by the first sentence of verse five. After giving the children and grandchildren of Japheth (one of Noah’s sons) in verses two, three, and four, verse five then begins with “From these the maritime nations branched out.” I think here of the eastern Mediterranean and its many seafaring cultures, techniques, and technologies. My mind wanders to the Phoenicians and the Ancient Greeks, to triremes and colonies, and it does not matter to me that my chronology in this is entirely misshapen: historical thrills need not align. I conjure up distant pasts, associate entire nations of incredibly diverse individuals with broad strokes painted by oceanic adventure and the spirit which drives onwards. This sort of uncritical connection between area of residence and personality traits is of course completely inappropriate in nearly every context but there it is in the storytelling, and we know that this format is hardly unique to biblical tales (just think of Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965), where entire planets are described in these terms). Our brains function in this way for reasons that were seemingly once evolutionarily advantageous, but need to be socially re-adapted now.

Still, there is something to the mode of thought expressed by this portion of Genesis. We want to know, we want answers and reasons, we want patterns that can be applied and then forgotten, we want to divide up the environments around us to make them simpler to comprehend and thus easier to manage. We are compelled towards organization. Human nature, it would appear; or anyway the human condition. Where do these reflections take us? Only by knowing who we are might we become capable of being otherwise. Our modern societies and global interactions call for mindsets and approaches that do not – cannot – view relations in these reduced and assigning by default formats. Reading of, and thereby realizing, the way our forebears conceptually mapped their settings allows us to take the first steps away from in-group/out-group modes and into an openness which is surely called for today. These myths still speak; not as history but rather as accidental fables, teaching the opposite lesson they were intended for: people and places are far more complex than we are prone to suppose, and a good explanation will not be an easy one. That, I think, is something for which we can be grateful.

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