This is the account of Shem, Ham and Japheth, Noah’s sons, who themselves had sons after the flood.
Genesis 10:1 (NIV)
I have always loved handwritten notes and letters. It’s a little joy of mine. I have a fondness for it because it is like a small, personal work of art. “Line” is one of the foundations of art, and a person’s handwriting is, in essence, “lines” in someone’s uniquely personal style; something they took the time and energy to create, address, and send. I always consider it a gift.
I remember during adolescence, in the junior high and high school years, notes were an integral part of social dynamics and relationships. Notes were written during class, then folded and passed to the intended recipient. Sometimes it would be delivered by a third party. Notes passed back and forth between individuals of the opposite sex were particularly important. Notes from the person you were dating were especially important, as were notes passed to individuals you liked and would like to know even better.
Looking back, these notes also provided an unsuspecting lesson in learning how to interpret the written word. I not only took the words at face value, but I was always trying to decipher a girl’s motivations (“Does she like me?”), her mood (“Are things okay? Am I in trouble?”), and any hidden messages (“Hang on, I think someone else told her to write this.”).
Along my life journey, I’ve found that these same lessons for deciphering the layers of meaning beneath the literal, written words, is crucial for unlocking some of the mysteries and connections of the Great Story. Today’s chapter is a prime example.
Today’s chapter, on the surface of things, is a simple list of the descendants of Noah’s three sons. It’s one of those chapters that most people skip over. I get it. I always used to do that, too. Then, like a middle schooler trying to discern why a note from this girl was handed to me in the first place, I began trying to find the reason for these boring genealogies to be included in the story at all. Let me give you a few nuggets I found buried this morning.
First, today’s chapter starts with the phrase “This is the account”. This phrase is used ten times in the book of Genesis. This was the ancient author’s section break, telling the reader we’re moving into a new section. I also have to remember that numbers were very important to the Hebrews. Ten is a number associated with completeness so, of course, there are ten sections in the book.
Genesis means beginnings, and in the first eleven chapters the author is trying to describe the primeval origins of humanity. So today’s chapter is all about how the known peoples of the earth sprang from Noah’s three sons. It starts with three (a number associated with the divine, a trinity), and lists 70 total descendants (7 times 10, both of these numbers are associated with completeness). When scholars plot these peoples on a map, they generally spread out in three regional areas.
There are connections in this list to other stories in the Great Story. There are a ton of them, but one example is Tarshish which is listed as one of the maritime descendants of Japheth. Tarshish was an actually city, generally believed to be in southern Spain. It was to Tarshish that the prophet Jonah booked passage when he was fleeing from God’s command to go to Nineveh (also listed in today’s chapter). As you can see on the map, Tarshish was the furthest away from Nineveh a prophet of that day might go in the opposite direction.
There are also connections to this very day. The descendants of Shem are considered the semitic people, “semite” being a form of “shem-ite.” It is from Shem that the Hebrew people are descended. When Jewish people are attacked or maligned, we call it “anti-semitic.”
Finally, Shem is the third son listed and the ancients listed sons in birth order because humanity always favors the first-born son. Yet, it is through the youngest son that God’s people will spring. This is a recurring theme throughout the Great Story in which God chooses the youngest, least, weakest to perpetuate the story. It’s a subtle way of God telling us “My ways are not your ways,” or as Jesus put it, “God has hidden things from the wise and learned (the most prominent in human terms), and revealed them to children” (the least prominent and most overlooked).
In the quiet this morning, I’ve had fun recalling hand-written notes passed to this awkward, insecure boy by girls with beautiful, flowing handwriting and adorned with little flowers. I’ve also been reminded that one does not take the time and energy to write something without understanding that the thing they are writing is important for someone to read and know. As I traverse this chapter-a-day journey, I’m reminded that every chapter holds meaning, even the seemingly meaningless ones. Some days, finding the motivation and meaning is as difficult as an adolescent boy trying to penetrate the heart and mind of an adolescent girl, but it’s always worth the effort ;-).
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.