1.12 The Table of Nations
Gen 10 traces the origins of the nations to the three sons of Noah. From Josephus until well into the 19th Century, this list was considered complete and accurate for all peoples on earth, including the Far East and the New World. Later scholars limited its reliability to Middle Eastern nations, or denied its accuracy altogether.
The traditional view is that the three races of mankind derive from the three sons: Japheth, father of the northern nations and the Caucasian race; Shem, the progenitor of eastern nations and the Semites; and Ham, the ancestor of the southern nations and the Negro race. Yet, as noted above, Ham is also the ancestor of non-Negro Canaanites. Furthermore, most commentators went beyond this simple outline and attempted to map each Biblical name with a contemporary tribe or ethnic group. The complexity of this effort can be seen, for example, in the article on Wikipedia called "Sons of Noah". Similarly, old Bibles from the 19th Century sometimes have colored maps showing the "Table of Nations". Many of the identifications are fanciful:
"The list is not organized racially or linguistically, but rather territorially and politically; and it is not always certain whether the names refer to land (eg. vs. 4) or people (eg. vs. 7).” (Interpreters 1-Vol Commentary, p.9)
There is also confusion about the identity of Cush. While his name literally means "black," and he is generally considered to be the father of the Ethiopians, a number of his descendants built Mesopotamian and Arabian cities. This has led to the conclusion that there were two Cush's -- the one mentioned in Gen 10:6-7 as a son of Ham is not the same Cush in 10:8 who was the father of Nimrod.
The temptation here is to get lost in all the geographic details, which are irrelevant to the meaning of the chapter. The truth is that we cannot with any accuracy map current world populations to their Biblical origins. The more important fact is that the division of the peoples is "by their clans and languages, in their territories and nations" (Gen 10:20). Note the prominence of family and language as criteria of identification. Race, in terms of skin color, is not mentioned. Nor is there any negative language about any nation, even though some of them were later enemies of Israel. Indeed, Nimrod, a son of Cush, is the only person in the list who is singled out for praise (Gen 10:8-9). At this point in the narrative, the Bible is still speaking from the perspective of "the unity of mankind."