While the Old Testament revolves around the story of the nation of Israel, this does not mean that the other nations of the world are not also a concern. Actually, the revelation first given to the old covenant people of God has a lot to say about the wider world, for this wider world is part of the Lord’s plan to bring about the redemption of His creation.
One of the earliest passages to deal with the nations outside of Israel is Genesis 10, wherein we find the so-called “table of nations.” After destroying all living things, except for those on the ark (Gen. 6:1–8:19), the Lord made a covenant with creation that He would never again destroy the whole earth in a flood. In turn, human beings were tasked with doing justice and with reproducing and filling the earth (8:20–9:17). Genesis 10 lists the descendants of Noah’s sons, demonstrating how the command to reproduce was first fulfilled.
It is likely that this is not a comprehensive list of every single nation descended from Noah but only a representative group, for the peoples listed here would have been of special interest to the ancient Israelites. Genesis 10 lists seventy nations in all. Seventy is a number for completeness in the Bible; thus, it seems Moses (the author) is saying that the nations of the world in their fullness come from Noah — without having to name every single people group. Roughly speaking, the sons of Japheth include those located furthest from Israel, such as the Greeks and other Indo-Europeans. Ham fathered the peoples of Canaan, Africa, and other southern tribes. The Semitic peoples, including the Hebrews and Arabs, come from Shem (vv. 2–31).
Geographically speaking, the ancient Israelites would have been reminded that the Lord placed them in the middle of all these nations, surrounded as they were on every side. Being located in the midst of these nations, of course, was an implicit way of calling Israel to the vocation of being God’s light to the world (Isa. 42:6). From the beginning, then, the Lord was concerned that there would be a witness to His glory for all the nations, a fact confirmed when we see that a mere chapter intervenes between the table of nations and the plain revelation of our Creator’s plan to bless the whole world through Abraham and his seed (Gen. 12:1–3).