Beginning of Nations

In Genesis 9 God blessed Noah and his sons to be fruitful and multiply so as to fill the earth (verses 1, 7). Genesis 10, commonly known as the Table of Nations, records the scattering of the post-Flood human race into different nations occupying different parts of the earth (verses 5, 20, 31-32). Genesis 11:1-9 explains how the scattering actually happened. It did not happen voluntarily. In fact all the people, who then spoke the same language and had the same culture, were determined not to be scattered. To ensure that they did not scatter they not only built a city but also the well-known Tower of Babel. This went against God’s purpose for blessing Noah and his sons to be fruitful and multiply.

We are not told exactly why the building of the tower could ensure that they would not scatter, except that by building the tower they would “make a name” for themselves. But we can infer by imagining why having “made a name” for themselves by building the tower, they would not scatter. For the glory of having “made a name” for oneself has always been an obsession of fallen humanity. So when they had a share in the glory of having built the magnificent tower, they were not likely to give it up by going elsewhere.

In order for God to fulfill His goal for humanity to fill the earth, He confused their language so that one group could no longer understand another group and they were thus forced to go their separate ways. This scattering also served another purpose. God said, if as one people speaking the same language they could accomplish such a feat, “nothing that they propose to accomplish will be impossible for them.” This statement highlights the creative and innovative potential of the God-like abilities of human beings when they could communicate with one another and cross-fertilize one another’s minds. It is made in the context of a sinful human race bent on opposing God and His purpose. Sooner or later they would do something that would be self-destructive. We just need to look at what has happened in modernity, where the cross-fertilization of human minds is unprecedented in human history. We have considered the havoc wreaked by industrialization. But we have not mentioned the threat of a nuclear war.

Nationhood and Nation-building

We now take a closer look at Genesis 10 to see what the Bible means by the term “nation.” For the Bible has much to say about God’s will for a nation, that is, God’s idea of nationhood. But before we can apply this teaching we need to ensure that how we understand the word “nation” today is close enough to what the Bible means by the term. In the process we also consider the terms “race” and “ethnicity.” All three terms are familiar English words, but discussing what they mean can be a complicated matter. For our purpose we will not discuss how these terms have been understood, but focus on how they should be understood in light of Genesis 10. This also avoids making an already complex subject more complicated.

Genesis 10:32 summarizes the whole chapter: “These are the clans of Noah’s sons, according to their lines of descent, by their nations. And from these (clans) the nations were spread out over the earth after the flood” (cf. Genesis 9:19). This verse teaches two things about nations. Firstly, all nations originated from Noah, and thus all post-Flood human beings are descended from one man. Hence in terms of biological descent there is only one human race. The other meaning of “race,” as in “Malay” or “Chinese,” is not based on biological descent, even though officially a person’s race is determined this way. For if a man says his race is Chinese because his father is Chinese, why then is his father Chinese? If he says it is because his grandfather is Chinese, why then is his grandfather Chinese? We can keep asking this question until we come to Noah. Was Noah Chinese?

“Race” in this second sense refers to a group’s physical characteristics, especially skin color, hair type and facial features (Manickam 2008: 718). People from the same immediate biological lineage tend to have the same racial (physical) characteristics, as these are genetically determined. If every descendant of Noah had the same skin color, hair type and facial features, this concept of race would not have arisen at all. Actually we are intuitively aware that race is about physical characteristics and not biological descent. For we may find ourselves saying to someone whose parents are both Chinese, “But you do not look Chinese; you look Malay!”

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica (Van den Berghe, 1991: 336), racial characteristics have “no inherent significance, but only such significance as is socially attributed to them in a given society.” When social significance is attached to a racial group, affecting how it is treated or how it treats others, it is racism. The ugliness of racism is well recognized; even racists denounce racism, except their own. Though racial characteristics are recognized in the Bible (Jeremiah 13:23), no social significance is given to them and the concept of “race” as a social category is absent (cf. Sadler 2005: 147-51). Instead, as we shall see, the more recent concept of “ethnicity” can be inferred.

According to Genesis 10:32 the first nations were formed from clans, that is, according to immediate biological lineage. This was how nations began as a result of the confusion and hence division of languages, which presumably was according to clan lines. But it does not mean that in the Bible the term “nation” applies only to nations formed based on biological lineage alone (cf. Block 1986: 493). For the nation of Israel, which God intended as a model nation, incorporated even right at the beginning people who were not descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (see Exodus 12:38, 47-49; Numbers 9:14; Leviticus 19:33-34; Deuteronomy 14:28-29; 31:9-13; for a discussion of the status of these “resident aliens,” in contrast to that of “foreigners” and “temporary residents,” see Baker 2009: 176-89).

This is where the concept of ethnicity comes in. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica article cited above, “if a group were socially defined in terms of sharing a common language, a common set of religious belief, or some other cultural characteristics—without physical considerations—then it would be an ‘ethnic group.’” In other words, while race refers to a group’s physical characteristics, which are innate, ethnicity refers to a group’s cultural characteristics, which are acquired. This understanding of ethnicity is well illustrated in the Federal Constitution of Malaysia, which defines a “Malay” basically as “a person who professes the religion of Islam, habitually speaks the Malay language, conforms to Malay custom” (Article 160.2).

Though “race” and “ethnicity” are distinct they are often confused as though they mean the same thing, for people of the same race tend to have the same ethnicity. This is because traditionally people of the same biological lineage (having similar racial characteristics) tend to live together, speaking the same language and practicing the same religion and custom. This explains why terms like “Malay” and “Chinese” can refer to either race or ethnicity.

Since the same term can be understood as race or ethnicity it adds to the confusion. This confusion complicates ethnic relations and thus national integration as it allows racism to get into the picture. It leads to ethno-centrism, which prejudices one against others based on culture (read: race), and to a negative form of nationalism. “Nationalism,” understood as devotion to the nation in protecting and promoting its aims, interests and identity, including freedom from foreign control, is not necessarily bad. But this negative form of nationalism confuses not only ethnicity with race, but also nationality with ethnicity, and thus becomes racially exclusive. The devotion should rather be to nation-building (as discussed below), a positive form of nationalism.

People of the same clan, living within the same territory, and speaking the same language (Genesis 10:5, 20, 31) naturally develop a common culture that is different from that of another clan living in a different territory and speaking a different language. So what distinguished one nation from another in Genesis 10 was what we call ethnicity. Thus Genesis 10:32 teaches, secondly, that a nation is formed based on ethnicity, or more accurately, a common language and culture (cf. Hays 2003: 59). For this reason, a word that refers to ethnicity, such as “Chinese,” may also refer to nationality. But since people do emigrate from their homeland, an ethnic Chinese may not be a Chinese national, but instead be a Malaysian or Indonesian in nationality.

Differentiating ethnicity from race has far-reaching implications for nationhood. For while race is exclusive because physical characteristics are innate, ethnicity is inclusive because cultural characteristics are acquired. So an ethnic group can be multi-racial as people of different races can acquire the same language and culture. And since a nation is formed based on acquired characteristics it is also inclusive. This explains why the nation of Israel could incorporate people of a different biological lineage. But just having the same language and culture is not enough for a group to be considered a “nation,” whether in the Bible or in today’s world.

Let us first consider how the term “nation” should be understood in today’s context. Hugh Seton-Watson (1977: 1) in his classic book on the subject defines a nation as “a community of people, whose members are bound together by a sense of solidarity, a common culture, a national consciousness” (vs. Smith 2004: 129; cf. Conversi 2006: 23-24). And “national consciousness,” at the least, is the awareness that one is part of something more than one’s race or ethnicity. To Frantz Fanon (1966: 162-163), a highly regarded postcolonial thinker, this awareness includes the sense that all the people in one’s country share a common destiny as well as have a share in building up that destiny. It is thus “the all-embracing crystallization of the innermost hopes of the whole people” (121). But not every individual in a country needs to have this consciousness first before the country is considered a “nation.” According to Seton-Watson (1977: 5), “a nation exists when a significant number of people in a community consider themselves to form a nation, or behave as if they formed one.”

Does this understanding match the concept of nation in the Bible? Yes, for the following reasons (cf. Roshwald 2006: 14-22; 2007: 242-51; Hastings 1997: 14-19). Due to kinship ties it is natural for members of a clan to feel that they are an integral part of the group. We can expect each of the nations in Genesis 10 to manifest this sense of solidarity (cf. Kreitzer 2008: 133-34). Also, since the sense of solidarity was based on kinship ties, and not on something loose and temporary like common interests or even common goals, the people would be aware that they had a common and shared destiny. Hence we can expect each of the nations in Genesis 10 to also manifest such a national consciousness.

In any case, anyone reading the Old Testament can see that ancient Israel obviously demonstrated not only a sense of solidarity (Judges 19:27-30) but also a national consciousness (1 Samuel 8:1-5). It was undoubtedly a “nation.” This was the case even before Israel had a king, what more after (cf. Grosby 2002: 13-27; Rivers 2005: 125-29; note that what Rivers means by “ethnicity” is actually race).

Finally, since the common culture that binds a nation can be a hybrid culture that transcends the specific cultures of distinct ethnic groups, a nation “can be formed from one or more ethnicities” (Hastings 1997: 3). Therefore a nation can be multi-racial as well as multi-ethnic, as long as in addition to a common (national) culture, there is also a sense of solidarity and a national consciousness among the people. A national culture can be developed as a result of living together within the same territorial boundary; a sense of solidarity can arise from an awareness of the challenges facing the country; a national consciousness can be awakened on the basis of a shared history and a shared destiny.

To fulfill the Noahic Covenant, a multi-ethnic country lacking a common culture, or a sense of solidarity, or a national consciousness has to work at nation-building at this basic level, in addition to building a national civilization that is as consistent with God’s will as possible. God’s idea of nationhood involves both. For a civilization consistent with God’s will is one that seeks to uphold justice for all, regardless of race and ethnicity. And this is not possible unless the people have enough in common so that they can feel they are an integral part of something bigger than their racial or ethnic group, and that their welfare depends on the welfare of all other groups (cf. Jeremiah 29:7). When we consider the Mosaic Covenant we shall see what a national civilization consistent with God’s will actually look like.

To better understand the meaning of a nation we need to contrast it with a “state.” A nation, a socially unified group of people occupying the same territory, naturally needs some form of legal and political organization to function properly; otherwise it lacks law and order (Judges 21:25). A state is “a legal and political organization with the power to require obedience and loyalty from its citizens” (Seton-Watson 1997: 1), and to claim “the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within [its] territory” (Weber 1991: 78). Strictly speaking, the State corresponds to the whole group of people (the citizens) thus unified, but the term is often used to refer to just the sub-group (the Government) that exercises the power.

A state may actually cover a country that is not (yet) a nation. Often it covers one nation (the “nation-state”), which may be multi-ethnic, as in the case of Malaysia. It may cover multiple nations, as in the case of the United Kingdom. And a nation may be divided between different states, as in the case of North and South Korea. The government, one of the seven influential spheres of culture, is a legal and political apparatus that can enhance nation-building. Or it can do the reverse.