This is part one of a two part series.
If you have ever read Genesis 10, you have probably wondered why it is in the Bible. It is, after all, a chapter comprised entirely of names. Even if you have the determination to properly read the entire chapter, you probably begin to zone out after the first paragraph of reading about "this person who descended from this person who descended from this person," etc.
There is nothing wrong with asking why Genesis 10 is in the Bible. In fact, it is a very proper question— a question that should probably be asked of every chapter in the Bible. Asking the "why" question forces you to seriously think about what you are reading. After all, the purpose of the text is the very heart of all biblical interpretation.
I will readily admit that Genesis 10 isn't what you would call "fun" reading. It isn't a novel, and isn't designed to keep your interest.
Consider for a moment that one reason you might find Genesis 10 difficult is because of the way you tend to approach Scripture. When you read Scripture, do you immediately ask how the text applies to you? If yes, then you should instead first ask: "How does this passage apply to its original audience?" It is only when you ask this second question that you can accurately answer the first question. Knowing the cultural context of Genesis 10, then, is vitally important to understanding the chapter.
Moses, the author of Genesis, lived about 1500 years before Christ. When Moses wrote Genesis, his audience would have been familiar with many of the names in the chapter. In particular, they would have recognized the names of the descendants of Egypt, or, as some translations read, Mizraim (Genesis 10:6). The Israelites had, after all, lived in the land of Egypt for hundreds of years.
The people of Israel would have also been familiar with all of the “ites” listed in verses 16 through 18 (the Jebusites, Amorites, Girgashites, Hivites, etc). In fact, all of these "ites" were living in the Promise Land when Moses wrote Genesis. The generation after Moses would have been equally familiar with these "ites" since they were the ones who conquered the Promise Land, rooting out many of the "ites" that were living there in the process.
Moses himself was obviously familiar with all the names that he listed in Genesis 10. Though the authors of Scripture sometimes write about things they do not fully understand, Moses would have been familiar with the general layout of the nations and the people who had founded them. Moses, after all, was raised in Pharaoh’s house (Exodus 2:10) and was also a well-educated Egyptian (Acts 7:22).