The first mention of “nation” in the Bible is in Genesis 10:5. Here is how the ESV reads,
“From these the coastland peoples spread in their lands, each with his own language, … their clans, in their nations.”
If we look closely at the context, we find that these nations developed from groups of people that shared a common language. These nations also developed out of families. The fancy word for having shared ancestors is consanguinity. Nations are characterized by, among other things, language and consanguinity.
If you are a careful Bible studier you will also find out that translations sometimes don’t help us out. Take a look at this:
By these were the isles of the Gentiles divided in their lands; every one after his tongue, after their families, in their nations. (Genesis 10:5, KJV)
From these the coastlands of the nations were separated into their lands, every one according to his language, according to their families, into their nations. (Genesis 10:5, NASB)
From these the coastland peoples spread in their lands, each with his own language, by their clans, in their nations.” (Genesis 10:5, ESV)
Those bold, underlined words, “Gentiles”, “nations”, “peoples” all translate the same Hebrew word, goy. Goy designates a national political entity. It is used in Genesis 10:5, 20, 31, 32 to describe the nations formed from Noah’s sons. You can contrast goy with another Hebrew word am which is used to designate a group of people. The former is used with reference to the population of a territory while the latter stresses blood relationship.1 Gottwald comments that am is a social or cultural term while goy is a political one.2 Similarly, Wenham writes, “A “nation” (goy) is a political unit with a common land, language, and government, whereas “people” (am) primarily draws attention to the consanguinity of the group”.3 So, when Moses penned these words under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit he selected the word goy to communicate to us that when Noah’s offspring spread over the earth they formed nations, geo-political units with borders, a common language, and a common government.
The separation of these nations and dispersion over the earth happens in chapter 6 of Genesis.
“And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth.” (Genesis 11:6–9)
You should note why the Lord was doing this. The people of the earth were trying to make a name for themselves (Genesis 11:4b) by building a city and a tower that reached into heaven. You can see how pride and ambition drips from their mouths as they refer to themselves five times in v. 4. Not only that, this action directly defies God’s command to fill the earth in Genesis 9:1.
So, in another act of grace and mercy, God moved to limit the scope and impact of their sin. God explained that if He didn’t do this then “nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them” (v. 6). So we see again that separation of nations, geo-political entities that share a common language, a central government, and borders is provided by God for the good of men. This is a common grace that God has given to all mankind.
So based on what the Holy Spirit has recorded concerning Eden and Babel we can establish our first principle to guide our thinking about borders:
Principle #1: God Has Established National Borders to Limit the Spread and Impact of Sin
1 Ludwig Koehler, Walter Baumgartner, M. E. J. Richardson, and Johann Jakob Stamm. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994–2000), 183.
2 Norman Gottwald. The Tribes of Yahweh (Maryknoll NY: Orbis, 1979), 241.
3 Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15, vol. 1, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas, TX: Word Incorporated, 1998), 275.