Genesis 10 presents a genealogy of Noah’s descendants which also serves as an etiology, an origin story, for the nations of the world. Many of Noah’s descendants have names that correspond to nations that existed in the time that the Torah was written down. This genealogy emphasizes the shared roots of all humankind, while also explaining how and why there are so many different peoples.
But anyone who’s ever taken a high school history class knows that country names and borders shift. The eastern Roman empire became Byzantium which became the Ottoman empire, and is now Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece, Egypt and much of the Middle East; the former USSR is now 15 separate countries. Every time an empire or a country breaks apart or merges with a neighbor, new maps have to be drawn and the final tally of nations must be adjusted.
Shifting borders is not only a modern phenomenon. Empires rose and fell in the ancient world. As they expanded, they introduced new peoples and cultures to their subjects.
The rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud lived in an ever-expanding Sasanian empire which at its height stretched from modern day Azerbaijan to Yemen, and from India to Egypt. They were in communication with their colleagues in Roman Palestine, part of an ever-expanding Roman empire. Rooted in these imperial contexts, the rabbis would have learned of new nations and peoples as each was conquered and integrated into these empires. But these new nations were not listed explicitly in Genesis 10!
What to do? One possibility would have been to add in missing descendants or to reject the existence of these “newly-discovered” nations as independent peoples. Instead, they interpret the text carefully and creatively to include their new knowledge. Those of Noah’s descendants whose names were obscure are now understood to refer to contemporaneous peoples and places. Some of their interpretations address locations in the Roman empire:
It is written: “The sons of Japheth were Gomer and Magog and Madai and Javan and Tuval and Meshech and Tiras” (Genesis 10:2). Gomer, that is Germamya; Magog, that is Kandiya; Madai, that is Macedonia; Yavan, in accordance with its plain meaning (i.e. Greece).
According to Steinsaltz, Germamya seems to be a region of northern Assyria, near Armenia, while Kandiya is a reference to the land of the Goths in Asia Minor. The other names in this list are also matched with additional places and peoples.
Still other nations of Genesis 10 are taken to refer to locations within the rabbis’ own Sasanian empire:
“And Sabtah and Raamah and Sabteca” (Genesis 10:7). Rav Yosef taught: These are the inner Sakastan and the outer Sakastan (a province in the empire’s southeast).
The rabbis understand Torah to be both eternal and flexible, expansive enough to address new discoveries and new challenges — including the discovery of new peoples.
Interestingly, European Christian missionaries did the exact same thing when they first encountered the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas, returning to Genesis 10 to figure out how they fit into Noah’s descendants. Some missionaries even suggested that the indigenous peoples of America were descendants of some of the lost tribes of Israel! But that’s a story for another day.
Read all of Yoma 10 on Sefaria.