The genealogies of Ham and Shem conclude with nearly identical statements:

These are the sons of Ham, according to their families, according to their languages, by their lands, and by their nations. (10:20 NET)

These are the sons of Shem according to their families, according to their languages, by their lands, and according to their nations. (10:31 NET)

Ham (10:20): לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָ֖ם לִלְשֹֽׁנֹתָ֑ם בְּאַרְצֹתָ֖ם בְּגוֹיֵהֶֽם  
Shem (10:31):לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָ֖ם לִלְשֹֽׁנֹתָ֑ם בְּאַרְצֹתָ֖ם לְגוֹיֵהֶֽם  

The NET translation reflects the difference in nations as "by their" and "according to their."

The meanings are similar but why are the nations of Shem summarized differently than Ham?

  • 1
    What makes you think the end-meaning is any different? If I were to group some population statistics 'by country', and 'according to country', the two would be exactly the same. At least in English, it's just a slightly different phrase meaning exactly the same thing
    – Steve can help
    Mar 20, 2017 at 16:32
  • 2
    @SteveTaylor There are 4 aspects, families, languages, lands, and nations. Since 3 are written exactly the same, the question is what is conveyed by choosing to write 4th differently. Mar 20, 2017 at 16:48
  • For Gen 10:20 and Gen 10:31, the terms “by”, in”, “within”, “according to” seem to be used based on the particular Bible/translation being read. While NET uses those you noted, other Bibles use different words. See biblehub.com/genesis/10-20.htm & biblehub.com/genesis/10-31.htm Mar 21, 2017 at 18:38

1 Answer 1


Much ink has already been spilled and many quills broken on this inconsistency in the MT, but the result has been only contrived explanations.

As Steve Taylor notes, the inconsistency does not have any semantic importance.

The difference between ב and ל is a difference of preposition usage. The use of ב is a earlier usage. The use of ל is both OT and post OT. Each of these prepositions is used in so many different contexts that is is not possible to pin down an intended difference in meaning between בגויהם and לגויהם in Genesis 10.

The ל in לגויהם of verse 31 could be a copyist mistake. The reasoning is as follows:

  1. The chapter has three instances of בגויהם and only one of לגויהם
  2. The Onkelos targum for this לגויהם is "בעממיהון" with a ב as in the previous instances of בגויהם. The Jonathan Ben-Uziel has a ל but it is a later targum and the version that we have could have been "corrected"
  3. Jedidiah Norzi (the "Minhat Shai") claims an OT manuscript called the Hilleli Copy (העתק הללי) reads בגויהם in verse 30, that is ב and not ל
  4. There are four ל's in verse 30 preceding לגויהם, three of them in word initial position. This raises the likelihood of a copyists elision of a ל to the begining of the final word in the phrase.
  5. The change from ב to ל does not change the meaning significantly, increasing the likelihood that the change could go unchallenged
  6. The LXX has ἐν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν αὐτῶν for both verse 20 and verse 31

There is no "Dead Sea" version of these verses to use for comparison AFAIK, but I do not have access to the 2010 edition of Emanuel Tov's Revised Lists of the Texts from the Judaean Desert.

AFAIK the SP also has a ל in verse 31, which might be an argument against this being a copyists mistake.

  • Your last point: "The change from ב to ל does not change the meaning significantly..." What is the difference between the two? Mar 20, 2017 at 22:33
  • @RevelationLad I edited my answer to address your question.
    – user17080
    Mar 21, 2017 at 7:43
  • Thank you. My personal opinion, given the attention to detail and the fact the texts were regularly used (not put away on a library shelf) argues against "the copyist did it" theory. Rather the change however minor is intentional from the origin. Perhaps it is only to create a distinction between Shem and Ham since Shem will be the lineage of Abraham, David, and ultimately Jesus. Mar 21, 2017 at 20:09

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