What is a nation?

What an old-fashioned question! In a globalised world, hasn’t the concept of a nation become threadbare and obsolete? Among academics and the political class, the nation-state is seen as a fairly recent innovation and one whose purpose has already failed in modern history. They argue that nation-states emerged in the American and French revolutions, spread in the 19th and 20th centuries across Europe, especially after Versailles, and then spread to the developing world in the wake of empire. However, the nation-state has seen its place eroded by the growth of international institutions and multinational companies, the advance of international law and the spread of global communications. Nations have served only to fuel violent nationalism, so the argument goes, in which case we are better off sitting loose to our national identity and pooling our sovereignty for the sake of a wider peace.

This is the argument of the liberal secularist establishment. It is based on two false assumptions. First, that the nation-state began around 1780, and is an entirely secular concept. It is assumed that by ‘nation’ we mean simply a defined territory, with a citizenship that forms the ‘body politic’, that sovereignty is vested ultimately in the people, and that nationhood consists purely in terms of political power, economics and the workings of government. Second, it assumes that nations spawn nationalism and that the wretched wars of the twentieth century that tore Europe apart in two world wars are the inevitable result. I will try to show over several blog posts that both these assumptions are wrong, and that the biblical concept of nationhood is much, much older than the French revolution.

I wish to argue that there is a biblical concept of nationhood that is part of God’s creation order, that it is a much richer idea than the secular nation-state and not to be confused with it, and that nations are still part of God’s plan and (surprisingly) will be part of the New Creation. Understanding nationhood is essential, among other things, to understanding Christian mission.

So, let’s start by returning to the Book of Genesis! Genesis 10-11 are rather neglected in the early chapters of Genesis. Of course Chapters 1-3 grab our attention with their explanation of human origins, the definition of human dignity in the image of God, and the explanation of the origin of evil in the fall in chapter 3, with all its ramifications being worked out through the rest of the Book of Genesis. We can also become so understandably fascinated by the flood that we miss the chapters that follow it. Genesis 10-11 add one final element into the first history: the idea of nationhood, its dangers as well as its blessings. These two chapters tell us how to understand the world as a patchwork of nations, each nation having its own divine purpose as part of the cultural mandate of Gen.9:1. Just as we must read Gen. 1-2 with Gen. 3, so we must read Gen. 10 alongside Gen. 11.

First, Genesis 10 lays out a Table of Nations descended from the sons of Noah. There is plenty going on here. Some nations were named after an individual, such as Gomer (from whom the Welsh may derive their name Gymru), and others were known by a more generic plural such as the Jebusites, showing that different nations are shaped by different histories and ancestor myths. We know many of the nations listed because they feature in the Bible’s storyline. A total of 70 (or 72) nations are listed, a symbolic number suggesting completeness. Among them there is a surprising inclusion, and a glaring omission. The Philistines are mentioned, but Israel is not. The origin of the Philistines is explained in 10:13, as a nation they did not exist at this point, while other nations in the table disappear from view as history progresses. Israel is not mentioned, to make it clear to Moses’ readers that Israel is one nation among many, and a nation born out of God’s redeeming grace. So the Table of Nations is telling us that nations emerge from other nations and begin to prosper, but can just as quickly decline and die. It is a dynamic rather than static list, which is more true to the realities of history. It gives us an account of the early world as filled with classifiable, known nations. This was always God’s plan for the world.

The Table of Nations also contains an important fourfold formula in 10:5, 20, 31. ‘These are the sons of…by their clans, their languages, their lands and their nations.’ It acts in the same way as the ‘evening/morning’ phrase in Gen. 1, adding structure and grandeur to the Table. But most of all, it defines what a nation is. Each formula lists three elements that constitute the final element, a nation. ‘Clan’ suggests the idea of blood line, and each clan member would know their family line. There is no less interest in family history today, and where someone from another nation marries into the family line, they enrich that line but become part of it, as Ruth did (Ruth 1:16-17). ‘Language’ is also crucial to each nation, as it is the basis of a shared national conversation. If two people from opposite ends of the same island can have a shared cultural conversation and fully understand each other, then that defines the extent of one nation. Finally ‘land’ in the sense of a defined homeland is also crucial. As a nation shares one climate and learns to live in a way appropriate to that climate, so the land and climate will define their national character. Even when dispersed across the world, an ethnic minority will have a love for their homeland and it will continue to define them. So these three elements, clan, language and land, are used in Genesis 10 to define the biblical concept of nationhood. What is more, 10:32 says that this definition serves all the nations of the earth that spread out after the flood to fulfil the creation mandate. It is universally normative for our understanding of nationhood. Notice also that there is no mention of ‘race’ in Genesis 10. Race is not a biblical concept but comes from the Enlightenment and is another concept that needs to be rethought. Genesis 10 is not in any way interested in defining the physical appearance or skin colour of different nations. We are not divided into different, separate races, but are one human race. The growth of racism is closely related to secular anthropology of the 19th century, and the Christian church needs to rid itself of such ideas and begin to teach the same to society around it.

Implicit in Genesis 10 is the idea that the nations, in spreading across God’s earth, were also intended to worship him. Life is to be lived out under God, whose image we bear. Genesis 11 records what happened when the early nations rejected the worship of God. They replaced God with a great idol, the building of the utopian city of Babel (Babylon), a demonstration of the hubris of empire and the oppression that goes with it. By their own dominance, the tower builders tried to build their dream, probably by the oppression of those who actually did the work, using one language to create one unified system that would proclaim the victory of the human race without God. They thought they could build a tower to the heavens, and make a great name for themselves. But God had to come down to see it (what a come-down!) and he quickly frustrated their schemes by the confusion of language. God intervened partly to judge them for their evil, but also to stop the spread of that evil. They were scattered as an act of preventative grace, to return them to their creation mandate of filling the world with a diversity of nations. As there is unity and diversity in the Godhead, so we should expect a similar unity in diversity in his plan for many nations with many languages.

If we are to understand nationhood biblically, we need to balance Genesis 10 and 11 carefully. We should not dismiss nationhood as the source of all the evils of nationalism, as it is clearly God’s plan for his world. At the same time, we must learn the stark lessons of Babel. Nations are good: they were created by God and are under his sovereign control. Nations are bad: they are captivated by self-centred pride and sinful ambition that builds empires of arrogance and oppression. As Don Carson puts it in Christ and Culture Revisited:

‘Christians cannot long think about Christ and culture without reflecting on the fact that this is God’s world, but that this side of the fall this world is simultaneously resplendent with glory and awash in shame, and that every expression of human culture simultaneously discloses that we were made in God’s image and shows itself to be mis-shaped and corroded by human rebellion against God.’

In my next post I will look a little more closely at Genesis 11 and its lessons for today.


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