A Perspective on Genesis 8:15 – 12:3
From the call of Noah To the call of Abram
Written by Martin Ellgar 2010
The book of Genesis begins with the story of creation and without breath is followed by the story of the flood. Within these first eleven chapters is a prologue to the history of Israel as a nation and the beginning of the salvation story for all humankind. These early chapters are a succinct explanation that provided answers for an ancient people, and yet they continue to provide answers for the problems of life today. Through the use of narratives, explanations were given of how things began, and more importantly their relationship to each other.
The author of Genesis has traditionally been attributed to Moses. Although, throughout the history of Israel there is evidence to suggest that editors and other writers have contributed in some way to the book of Genesis. Genesis has been written from the perspective of Israel. It has been written as a product of their life experiences and interaction with the God that revealed himself to them. The various context of Israel’s spiritual growth and awareness of God has been: during their time in Egypt, their Exodus and period of wandering in the wilderness, their occupation of Canaan, the period of Judges, Kingship, Exile, and possibly the post-Exilic period. All these periods have impacted in some way to the writing of the book of Genesis.
Genesis above all reveals through narrative form the nature of God, the nature of humankind, and their relationship to each other.
The Hebrew language of the Old Testament has developed to be a language well suited for story telling. Through skill and artistry from the story teller, the imagination of the listener is encouraged to build a picture of the story. Such an outcome is far greater and richer than the sum of the words. Like seeds in a field the words can burst forth and provide a rich harvest of imagery that tells a story from which wisdom can be gleaned. And so it is with the pre-history of Israel as found in the Book of Genesis, it is full of rich imagery to reveal the nature of God, humankind and their relationship to each other.
Genesis 8: 15-22 (New International Version)
Text and Commentary
15 Then God said to Noah,
16 “Come out of the ark, you and your wife and your sons and their wives.
17 Bring out every kind of living creature that is with you—the birds, the animals, and all the creatures that move along the ground—so they can multiply on the earth and be fruitful and increase in number upon it.”
God calls Noah to leave the ark. The ark has been a place of refuge, a temporary home during the period of judgment and flood. God has preserved a remnant of all life through the faithfulness of Noah. The flood waters in a sense have washed away the sins of the world leaving faithful Noah like a seed in the watered ground to produce a new people of faith in God.
Noah’s ark as a place of refuge has a special resonance with the people of Israel. The land of Egypt at one time also served as a place of refuge for the people of Israel. At that time, there was a great famine in all the world (Gen. 41: 57), and God called Israel to go to Egypt where there was enough food (Gen. 46: 3-4). In faith, Israel took all that belonged to him and journeyed to Egypt. Like a procession into an ark, Israel took all his possessions, all his livestock, and all his off spring (Gen.46: 5-7) to the place of refuge.
God calls Noah to leave the ark for the purpose of repopulating the earth that had been devastated by the flood. He calls Noah so that his faith may be planted like a new seed in the ground and produce faith in all his offspring, in all the people of the earth.
Also, God calls Noah to bring out the animals so that they too may flourish upon the earth. God’s desire is for all his creation to flourish upon the earth. Noah’s calling is also the calling extended to all of humankind since he is the ancestor of us all in both flesh and in spirit. The calling is to be a good steward of God’s creation.
18 So Noah came out, together with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives.
19 All the animals and all the creatures that move along the ground and all the birds—everything that moves on the earth—came out of the ark, one kind after another.
The ark was rested on the ground and the earth was completely dry (Gen. 8: 14). However, Noah waited in faith and patience for God to call him out of the ark before going forth to resettle the earth. He knew from experience to listen to the word of God for it is reliable and the right time would come to leave the ark. So Noah came out with his family and all the living creatures that were with him one kind after another.
The exodus from the ark is a reminder of Israel’s exodus from the land of Egypt. Moses led a large procession of men, women, livestock, flocks, and all they had out of Egypt to worship their God at Mt. Sinai (Ex. 12: 31-42). God’s purpose in part for calling the nation of Israel out of Egypt was to worship him at Mt. Sinai. Through the worship of God, Israel would become a special people unto him, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Ex. 19: 5-6) whereby they would give life to the other nations. Their worship of God would become as a witness to the other nations of the goodness of God and thereby bringing them into faith of the one true God. God’s plan is to give abundant life and salvation to all people which are channelled through faith in him.
Not only did God call Noah and his family to come out of the ark but also the animals and all living creatures. A procession of animals followed Noah’s family out of the ark. The repeat mention of the animals coming out of the ark gives recognition of their importance. It implies that humankind together with all animals share in God’s plan for salvation of all his creation. It reveals God’s concern for the welfare of all his creation that they flourish upon the earth.
The following verse seems to be out of place as Noah takes some of the animals for a sacrifice. Remember, that these verses were written in the context of Israel’s experiences with God, especially through their experience with him in Egypt and the Exodus. Animal sacrifice in the name of a god was a common practice amongst the people of the region. Israel in their gratitude to God gave back a portion of all the animals as a burnt offering making a pleasing aroma to God.
20 Then Noah built an altar to the LORD and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it.
Noah built an altar to God and sacrificed burnt offerings on it, in part as a response of gratitude and thanksgiving. Noah’s altar of sacrifice was an acknowledgement of God’s faithfulness in his covenant (Gen. 6: 18). God was faithful in his promise to protect and restore his life and all who were with him on the ark.
As it was with Noah, God promised Israel to deliver him and his family from famine and to bring them out of Egypt at the right time (Gen. 46: 3-4). God has delivered on his promise to both Noah and Israel, and has shown that he is faithful and can be trusted.
21 The LORD smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.
22 “As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest,
cold and heat,
summer and winter,
day and night
will never cease.”
The NIV translation provides the word pleasing for the Hebrew word niyhoah which has a literal meaning savour of rest. The Hebrew word can imply that the aroma was to give rest to the recipient. Therefore, considering the context of the text a better rendering would read, “The Lord smelled the soothing (or calming) aroma and said in his heart:”
The flood was a consequence of the wickedness of all people on the face of the earth. The Lord was grieved and his heart was filled with pain that he had made humankind. Through the flood God brought about the judgement upon them and destroyed all living things on earth other than the remnant saved through Noah (Gen. 6: 5-8). It was for good reason that Noah built an altar for a burnt offering, not only to give thanks for his salvation, but also to provide a soothing aroma for a grieving Lord.
The heart was considered the seat of the emotions. It was a place where love, happiness, and courage were found. Fear, sorrow, and grief were also there. The heart was also recognised as the place where the human will and determination of purpose originated. When the Lord smelled the soothing aroma and spoke in his heart, he was moved by the events that had occurred and in his remorseful heart was determined to change things for ever.
The Lord’s depth of emotion and determination is evidenced by the five fold repeat of “Never again”.
“Never again will I curse the ground because of man,” (Gen. 8: 21a).
“Never again will I destroy all living creatures,” (Gen.8: 21b).
“Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood;” (Gen.9:11a)
“Never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.” (Gen. 9: 11b).
“Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life.” (Gen. 9: 15b).
God promises to provide continued life despite the wickedness of humankind. His promise of life is not only for all people but also for all creatures as portrayed in the seasons of seed time and harvest. God will never again disturb the natural order of his creation while the earth endures. All seasons will continue and that means continued life for all creatures. The renewing of the seasons is surely testimony to the faithfulness of God in his determination of will and purpose to provide life to all his creation.
“Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood.” (Gen. 8: 21). This is God’s perspective upon humankind. In part, God looks upon the destructive side of humankind, and yet he also knows the good that people can achieve, as per example the faithfulness of Noah and others throughout the history of Israel. God’s focus is on the wickedness of humankind since this aspect has the potential to destroy all life. Human history is full of genocide and events of mass destruction of every kind. Species of flora and fauna have been wiped out because of people. God sees that humankind is unable to learn from its mistakes and continues in wickedness. It is born with a will and purpose towards selfishness that leads to harming others. God’s creation continues to suffer because of the wickedness of humankind. God’s first response to the wickedness of humankind was the judgment and destruction of life through the flood waters. However, his new approach is to preserve and give new life to his creation even in the midst of wickedness.
1 Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.
God gave a blessing to Noah and his sons that was appropriate for the situation at hand. The earth had been devastated. God’s blessing was to promote life and to fill the earth again with people. Through God’s blessing of Noah’s sons all people on earth are related to each other in some way and share in a common ancestor in Noah.
2 The fear and dread of you will fall upon all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air, upon every creature that moves along the ground, and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hands.
3 Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.
In the one verse, in one breath there is both curse and blessing. The consequences of sin are far reaching. It brought the flood and devastation to the earth. Furthermore, there was no going back to the way things had been. Like in the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve had sinned, the consequences of their sin had barred the way back to the Garden of Eden (Gen 3: 23-24). For Adam and Eve it meant that they had to face the challenges of a changed world.
The fear that all living creatures have of humankind and their tendency to run away and hide can be seen as a consequence of human wickedness. It is as if all living creatures had never forgotten the flood and the cause of it, nor the potential that people have to destroy life.
In a changed world God graciously provides so that humankind can adapt and meet its challenges in order to have life. God provided for Noah and his sons. They were now permitted to eat meat as a means for survival. Previously, God had graciously provided for Adam and Eve. He made for them garments to cover their nakedness and shame as they left the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3: 21). The wearing of cloths and the eating of meat can be seen as a curse and blessing. As a curse, it is a reminder of the sins of the forefathers. As a blessing, it shows God’s graciousness to restore life to humankind albeit in a more challenging world.
4 “But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it.
Many people during this time believed that the blood of an animal contained its life. The blood contained the essence of the living creature, its nature and its strength. To eat the meat with its blood would be consuming the very life of the animal. It would mean transforming into the likeness of that animal, and bearing its nature. Eating the blood of a hostile or sick animal could mean taking on that very nature or sickness. (See commentary John 6: 53-59). God has made humankind in his image, to bear his likeness and nature. In a sense humankind has the lifeblood of God running through their veins. Therefore, it would be offensive to God to be anything less than human.
5 And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man.
Although, every living thing has been given to humankind as food, yet its lifeblood with all its essence of life still belongs to God. God demands an accounting of all blood shed from both animal and human. God’s demand reverberates the initial call of humankind, and that is to care for all of God’s creation and cause it to flourish.
6 “Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed;
for in the image of God
has God made man.
This verse is very much the nucleus of the book of Deuteronomy. It contains law and gospel, curse and blessing. The law in this verse is a reminder of the Law that Moses gave to the people of Israel, as a gift from God. The Law was given as a restraint to the wickedness of humankind. It was given as a way to promote life and wellbeing.
To obey the Law of God is the beginning of being human. God made humankind and made them in his image. Simply, God made humankind with a nature to be gracious, with a nature like himself. Therefore, God calls humankind to go beyond keeping the law, and extend themselves to be gracious. In this manner they truly become human and express the very image and likeness of God. The Christian perspective sums it up very well as spoken by Jesus, “Love your enemies” (Luke 6: 27).
7 As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it.”
Despite the sinfulness of all people, God continues to bless them and give them life, and that is his nature.
The preceding verses 1-7 reveal more than the sum of the parts. Together, they speak about a greater responsibility of humankind towards God’s creation. God has blessed humankind to populate and fill the earth, and with in it he has given them everything. The giving of everything is the giving of responsibility to nurture and care for the creation that God has given them to enjoy. This includes all living things and especially the nurture and care of all people. The blessing to populate and fill the earth means to flourish. It is a blessing which goes beyond nurture and care. Despite the wickedness of humankind, God’s blessing is his endeavour to cause all people to flourish. It is his graciousness. Humankind who is made in the likeness and image of God are to be gracious and selfless in the care of God’s creation. Humankind has been given the responsibility to cause God’s creation to flourish. The first expression of the responsibility towards God’s creation is written in Genesis 2:15, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it”.
8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him:
9 “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you
10 and with every living creature that was with you—the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you—every living creature on earth.
11 I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.”
The covenant that God was making with Noah and his descendants is better understood through the context of the covenant that God made with the people of Israel at Mt. Sinai (Exodus 19: 3-6). As with all covenants it is an agreement between two parties. Usually, the covenants of the ancient Near East were made between master and servant, king and people, and between a god and people. Both parties brought something to the covenant. The agreement made at Mt. Sinai was between God and the people of Israel. God agreed to be Israel’s special saviour and provider as long as Israel remained a kingdom of priests, a holy nation unto God (Exodus 19: 3-6). Moses spoke the words of God to the people of Israel. He gave them the Law from God as part of the covenant (Exodus 20). The Law was to be used as a framework in which Israel could remain a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
The part that God brought to the covenant with Noah was that he would never again bring flood waters to destroy the earth as a consequence to the wickedness of humankind. Without the context of the covenant at Mt. Sinai it would be difficult to find the contribution from Noah and his descendants. Their responsibility is to cause God’s creation to flourish. For that to happen, all people need to abide in the Law, the framework of acceptable behaviour that God gave through Moses to the people of Israel.
God spoke to Noah and his sons concerning the covenant. The covenant was not only with them but also with all the living creatures on earth. Once more, the continued inclusion of “all the living creatures on earth” in the covenant can only emphasise God’s concern for the well being of all his creation. God spoke to Noah and his sons since they have the responsibility to cause God’s creation to flourish.
12 And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come:
13 I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth.
14 Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds,
15 I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life.
16 Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”
17 So God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth.”
God seals the covenant with a sign of his enduring commitment. This sign is a rainbow in the clouds. The word rainbow is translated from the Hebrew word qeset which means a bow. The word was commonly used in conjunction with an archer, a warrior. Through the various preceding verses an image is compiled of God as a warrior. As a warrior in battle, God has brought death and destruction upon all the earth because of the wickedness of humankind. His arrows of death have rained upon the earth piling up into flood waters. God’s remorse was great. Never again would he use the flood water to destroy all life. In his remorse, he put away his bow of destruction and hung it in the heavens for all to see. The bow in the clouds is a sign that God is no longer a warrior against humankind. Moreover, it is a sign that God has changed the way in which to deal with the wickedness of humankind and to bring them life.
The alternative way that God had chosen was to provide humankind with the Law as a means to govern themselves and to provide life through it. God’s intention was to use people instead of his bow to deal with their own wickedness. People are to give judgement and enact the Law as a means of curtailing wickedness and providing life to each other. From a Christian perspective, the gift of the Law through Moses was only the beginning in dealing with the wickedness of humankind. It became an inadequate means in dealing with sin and providing everlasting life. Through its failings God continued to work to bring about further change in order to bring life to all people. The solution is seen in Jesus, the Son of God who descended from heaven and fulfilled the Law on behalf of all people so that they may have life through him now and forever.
18 The sons of Noah who came out of the ark were Shem, Ham and Japheth. (Ham was the father of Canaan.)
19 These were the three sons of Noah, and from them came the people who were scattered over the earth.
There is some degree of argument amongst scholars whether Shem or Japheth was the eldest of the three sons. Usually, the procedure was to present the sons of a family in order of age beginning with the first born. In the Table of Nations Genesis chapter ten, Japheth’s family tree is presented first followed by Ham and then Shem. It was expected that the eldest son would have more knowledge, wisdom, and strength than the younger one and therefore be of most benefit to his father. He would appear at his father’s right hand side in the place of honour. For example, when God sent Samuel to Jesse of Bethlehem to anoint one of his sons king, Jesse presented his eight sons beginning with the eldest to the youngest, David (1Samuel 16: 1-13). Shem is presented first amongst the brothers in this text and therefore concerning this commentary Shem will be considered as the eldest son. No matter how the family wheel of fortune was spun, Ham remained the hub of the wheel. His position in the family has significance which will be revealed in the forth coming commentary.
At this point it will be necessary to bring some meaning to the names of Noah’s sons. An understanding of their names will help to interpret their place in the narrative. Names were given for various reasons. They may reflect the parents hope or despair; they may be chosen to honour their gods, or reveal the child’s nature and character. A given name also gives identity as well as relationship within that tribe. The name Shem in Hebrew means name. In Noah’s blessing of Shem he said, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem.” Since Shem is favourably mentioned in association with God, then his name could reflect his nature as one who seeks a good reputation. That is, Shem endeavours to make a good name for himself. He honours his father as he does his God. The name Japheth means to open or enlarge, and its meaning has significance further on in the text. Although, there are references made to the name Ham its meaning is difficult to find. There are some references made in association with the land of Egypt. Some descendants of Ham had settled in that region and for a while it was therefore known as the ‘Land of Ham’ (Psalm 78: 51; 105: 23, 27; 106: 22).
There is one more name to be considered amongst the sons of Noah. The word sons in Hebrew can also include the grandsons, of which Canaan was a grandson of Noah. The context of the narrative at hand together with a Hebrew understanding of the name Canaan needs to be considered. The combination brings the meaning of Canaan to mean, to subdue. That is, the nature of Canaan was to conquer and subdue others to his will. The editorial addition in verse eighteen (Ham was the father of Canaan) has the effect of Ham sharing in the nature of Canaan. On its own the meaning of the name Ham is nondescript but takes on meaning through the association with his son Canaan.
From the three sons of Noah the world was populated. Since the text is in part a prologue to the history of Israel, and at the same time a summary of how the world was perceived at the time of Moses, then two general points can be made from the text. First, it describes a relationship. All people of the world are related to each other through the sons of Noah. Generally, in tribal cultures family and ancestral relationships share their wealth and support each other in times of need. To be in a family means to support each other to the point of causing them to flourish. So it was intended by God that all people of the world care for each other so that all may flourish because all people are in one family with Noah. The second point reveals that all people share in the nature of the sons of Noah. Each person shares in the good and the bad as seen through the sons of Noah.
20 Noah, a man of the soil, proceeded to plant a vineyard.
21 When he drank some of its wine, he became drunk and lay uncovered inside his tent.
22 Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside.
23 But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it across their shoulders; then they walked in backward and covered their father’s nakedness. Their faces were turned the other way so that they would not see their father’s nakedness.
Noah was a tiller of the soil, a farmer. The description of Noah as ‘a man of the soil’ also underscores his other attributes other than his agricultural skills. It also points to his continued righteousness and faithfulness towards God. He continued the responsibility that was first given to Adam in the Garden of Eden. God’s purpose of placing Adam in the Garden of Eden was to work it and take care of it (Gen. 2: 15). That is, to cause God’s creation to flourish. And so it was with Noah, that he caused God’s creation to flourish. In that sense, he became the new ‘Adam’, the new father of all the people on earth.
Through a straightforward reading the narrative is simple enough. That is, Noah plants a vineyard and becomes drunk from its wine. During his period of drunkenness his grandson takes advantage of him and makes him look foolish. Shem and Japheth come to the rescue and cover up their father’s shame.
A closer study of the text reveals much more. Noah began to plant a vineyard. Besides soil and climate, further conditions were necessary for the planting of a vineyard. They were peace from enemies, prosperity, and settled habitation. Often a reference to a vineyard in the Bible has come to symbolise those very conditions (1Kings 4: 25; Mic. 4: 4; Zec. 3:10). In time, Noah was given peace, prosperity, and through his many descendants began settled habitation. From the time of the flood, it can be said that Noah was the first who began a ‘vineyard’ that is, to build a city.
It is written that Noah became drunk from some of its wine. The appearance of drunkenness and shame was also upon King Solomon during the period of the kings. Israel’s prime period of peace, prosperity, and settled habitation was during the reign of King Solomon. Israel had peace on every side (1Kings 4:24). Within this period of peace and prosperity, King Solomon built the temple to the Lord and the royal palace with all its lavish furnishings (1kings 9:10). The queen of Sheba came to see his splendour (1Kings 10: 6, 7). He received tribute from all over his kingdom, from merchants, traders, kings, and governors of the land (1Kings 10: 14). The splendour, the glory, and the power that King Solomon achieved must have been ‘intoxicating’. As Solomon grew old the pleasures of his kingdom turned his head away from the Lord his God to following the gods of his many wives (1Kings 11: 4). It appeared as if Solomon was ‘drunk’ from the glory and power that came from his kingdom that is, from his ‘vineyard’. In this state, it was as if he had forgotten himself and forgot that it was the Lord his God that made it all possible.
As a result of Solomon’s foolishness, God raised up an adversary, Hadad the Edomite (1Kings 11: 14) to take away most of his kingdom. There was a rebellion. Jeroboam who was one of the royal officials also rebelled against Solomon (1Kings 11:26). The rebellion was God’s purpose to humble David’s descendants, but not for ever (1Kings11: 39).
Solomon’s rise and fall in his kingdom can be translated to the drunkenness of Noah. Then if that is the case, Noah like Solomon forgot the Lord for a while and therefore suffered the consequences. Noah became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent. Noah like Solomon suffered a rebellion. While he was drunk he was stripped naked of his royal robes and left uncovered like a slave. The language used concerning Noah’s state was also expressed by Israel in their lamentations:
Rejoice and be glad, O Daughter of Edom,
you who live in the land of Uz.
But to you also the cup will be passed;
you will be drunk and stripped naked.
O Daughter of Zion, your punishment will end;
he will not prolong your exile.
But, O Daughter of Edom, he will punish your sin
and expose your wickedness (Lam. 4: 21, 22).
Israel laments for freedom and looks forward to a time when Edom too will become drunk in their glory and power, and then will be subjected to rebellion. Edom too will be stripped naked and become a slave.
Noah faced a rebellion from his grandson Canaan. Canaan’s name was appropriately given revealing his nature that is, to subdue and conquer others. Ham, the father of Canaan went to tell his brothers what he had seen. It is difficult to determine to what extent Ham was involved with the rebellion. Since he was bypassed in the blessings from Noah, it can be readily assumed that Noah was not happy with him, and therefore not deserving of a blessing. Noah’s judgment upon Canaan also included Ham. It maybe that Ham was too weak as a father and served his son Canaan. The nature of Ham can also be seen in Eli in the story with his two wicked sons. The priest Eli had two sons that dishonoured the Lord. He knew what they were doing and they did not listen to their father’s counsel. God’s judgment upon the two sons also included their father Eli who was expected to be the head of his house and to maintain order (1Samuel 2: 12-36).
But Shem and Japheth took no part in the rebellion. The NIV translation rightly begins verse twenty three with the conjunction ‘but’, and should be read emphatically to herald the coming salvation through Shem and Japheth. They took a garment and placed it across their shoulders like a yoke placed across oxen; they picked up their father’s burden in order to restore him. The following collection of words from the text: his two brothers outside, they walked in backward, their faces were turned the other way, they would not see their father’s nakedness; these words portray the distinguished efforts of the two brothers. They went to great lengths to distance themselves from the rebellion by going to their fathers rescue and to restore him to his rightful position as king of his city, his vineyard. Covered again with the robe of royalty and office, Noah passed judgment upon his sons.
24 When Noah awoke from his wine and found out what his youngest son had done to him,
25 he said,
“Cursed be Canaan!
The lowest of slaves
will he be to his brothers.”
26 He also said,
“Blessed be the LORD, the God of Shem!
May Canaan be the slave of Shem.
27 May God extend the territory of Japheth ;
may Japheth live in the tents of Shem,
and may Canaan be his slave.”
28 After the flood Noah lived 350 years.
29 Altogether, Noah lived 950 years, and then he died.
When Noah regained his strength, he immediately dealt with his rebellious grandson, Canaan. He cursed Canaan and blessed Shem and Japheth. A blessing or a curse was believed to have its fulfilment at some time. It was thought of as a very serious proclamation whereby the giving or taking away could make or break a person. The curse upon Canaan willing him to be the lowest of slaves was the opposite to the meaning of his name and the centre of his nature. The curse translates to mean to subdue the one who subdues. Noah’s curse upon Canaan was not so much an act of revenge since he could have punishment Canaan even unto his death. Instead, the judgement of Canaan was to seek reform so that Canaan’s nature would in time be changed for the better.
Noah blessed Shem. Of the brothers, Shem was the only one mentioned in association with the Lord. The blessing suggests that Shem had a faith in the same God as Noah. Noah recognised the value of a faith in the Lord as surpassing that of territory. He knew that faith allows God to lift that person up to a place of refuge even if all the land be flooded. Noah encouraged Shem to continue with his faith in the Lord.
Noah blessed Japheth with territory. Japheth name means the one who enlarges. The meaning of the name in conjunction with the blessing results in an encouragement to continue to enlarge upon the territory that he already has. The blessing continues, and Japheth will live in the tents of Shem. In Hebrew, the words to dwell in someone’s tent can also mean to inherit their territory and their wealth. The greater part of Shem’s wealth was his faith in the Lord. Noah’s hope for Japheth was that in time he too would have faith in the God of Shem.
Canaan was to be a slave to both the household of Shem and Japheth.
Even a slave who has a lowly position in the master’s household can receive in part the benefits of the master’s prosperity. A slave’s well being was often determined by their master’s well being. The master and slave relationship is aptly described in the faith of a Canaanite woman who sought healing for her daughter from Jesus. Her reply to Jesus’ initial refusal was, “Yes Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” (Matthew 15: 27). Jesus responded to her faith and healed her daughter. Canaan will be serving and living in the tents of his two brothers who have and gained faith in the Lord. Noah’s hope for Canaan was that in time Canaan will receive the faith of his brothers.
Ham did not receive a blessing from Noah probably because of his role in the rebellion. Nonetheless, since his lot was tied to Canaan his son so also will be his future.
Noah’s curse and blessings upon his sons was to ensure that all his descendants will inherit faith in the Lord, the God of Shem and Noah. After the flood, Noah lived another 350 years. In that time he would have seen his descendants move out to fill the earth, and seen the building of many cities and kingdoms.
1 This is the account of Shem, Ham and Japheth, Noah’s sons, who themselves had sons after the flood.
2 The sons of Japheth: Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech and Tiras.
3 The sons of Gomer: Ashkenaz, Riphath and Togarmah.
4 The sons of Javan: Elishah, Tarshish, the Kittim and the Rodanim.
5 (From these the maritime peoples spread out into their territories by their clans within their nations, each with its own language.)
6 The sons of Ham: Cush, Mizraim, Put and Canaan.
7 The sons of Cush: Seba, Havilah, Sabtah, Raamah and Sabteca. The sons of Raamah: Sheba and Dedan.
8 Cush was the father of Nimrod, who grew to be a mighty warrior on the earth.
9 He was a mighty hunter before the LORD; that is why it is said, “Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the LORD.”
10 The first centers of his kingdom were Babylon, Erech, Akkad and Calneh, in Shinar.
11 From that land he went to Assyria, where he built Nineveh, Rehoboth Ir, Calah 12 and Resen, which is between Nineveh and Calah; that is the great city.
13 Mizraim was the father of the Ludites, Anamites, Lehabites, Naphtuhites,
14 Pathrusites, Casluhites (from whom the Philistines came) and Caphtorites.
15 Canaan was the father of Sidon his firstborn, and of the Hittites,
16 Jebusites, Amorites, Girgashites,
17 Hivites, Arkites, Sinites,
18 Arvadites, Zemarites and Hamathites. Later the Canaanite clans scattered
19 and the borders of Canaan reached from Sidon toward Gerar as far as Gaza, and then toward Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, as far as Lasha.
20 These are the sons of Ham by their clans and languages, in their territories and nations.
21 Sons were also born to Shem, whose older brother was Japheth; Shem was the ancestor of all the sons of Eber.
22 The sons of Shem: Elam, Asshur, Arphaxad, Lud and Aram.
23 The sons of Aram: Uz, Hul, Gether and Meshech.
24 Arphaxad was the father of Shelah, and Shelah the father of Eber.
25 Two sons were born to Eber: One was named Peleg, because in his time the earth was divided; his brother was named Joktan.
26 Joktan was the father of Almodad, Sheleph, Hazarmaveth, Jerah,
27 Hadoram, Uzal, Diklah,
28 Obal, Abimael, Sheba,
29 Ophir, Havilah and Jobab. All these were sons of Joktan.
30 The region where they lived stretched from Mesha toward Sephar, in the eastern hill country.
31 These are the sons of Shem by their clans and languages, in their territories and nations.
32 These are the clans of Noah’s sons, according to their lines of descent, within their nations. From these the nations spread out over the earth after the flood.
Chapter ten is commonly referred to as the ‘Table of Nations’. It is far from complete to be used as a source to determine a nation’s ancestry. Only a few of Noah’s grandsons are listed with their sons. Shelah is listed in the ‘Table of Nations as the only son of Arphaxad, grandson of Noah. But in Gen. 11:13 states that Arphaxad had other sons and daughters besides his son Shelah. Probably many of Noah’s sons had other sons and grandsons that were not listed on the Table of Nations. When one considers that the Old Testament of the Bible is a document of Israel’s early history and beliefs, then it is remarkable that not even Israel’s ancestry is listed back to Noah. That subject is dealt with in the later part of chapter eleven.
Noah’s ‘family tree’ looks incomplete as if there had been a division, a rebellion, or devastation within the family. Following Noah’s curse and blessing upon his sons, the reader would be waiting to find out the son’s fates. The so called, ‘Table of Nations’ needs to be seen in the light of Noah’s curse and blessing upon his sons. Then as expected, chapter ten naturally begins with, “This is the account of Shem, Ham and Japheth, Noah sons”.
Japheth who had been blessed with so much appears to have so little according to the ‘Table of Nations’. Ham whereas was cursed to be a slave and appears to have more than the other two brothers. Shem with his faith and alliance in God appears not to have faired any better than Japheth. Noah’s curse and blessing upon his sons appears to have been ineffectual or still waiting for its fulfilment.
From a Christian perspective, Noah’s curse and blessing has found its fulfilment through Jesus Christ. It is probable that some descendants of Shem at the time of Jesus would have received faith in Jesus. They in turn would have witness their faith in Jesus to others including the descendants of Japheth. Ham who is counted in the midst of his two brothers would also have his descendants receive faith in Jesus. As a result, the tyranny of Ham would be transformed through faith in Jesus and that person would become a willing servant in the name of Jesus. Through faith in Jesus the tyranny of sin that is in all people is transformed making a person more like Jesus. Such a person lives life that is more selfless, loving, and giving life to others.
As it appears, the ‘Table of Nations’ is a snap shot of an aspect of human nature. It reveals the striving nature of Ham that can to some degree be found in all of us with the desire to conquer and make a name for oneself. The table shows the ruthless success of Ham and his descendants in establishing city states and kingdoms. It is an aspect of human nature that is generally applauded by others as a mark of success. Instead of Noah’s ‘family tree’ looking like a cohesive unit of descendants, it looks more like it has been devastated by sin through the effort in making a name for oneself. That very nature of humankind is revealed in the story of the fall of the first man and woman, Adam and Eve. There in the Garden, the serpent deceived them saying that if they ate of the forbidden fruit they too would be like God (Gen. 3: 5). The desire to make a name for oneself is no less than the desire to be like God. That is, to share in the attributes of God, to have a sense of immortality, power and glory. The cost of their endeavours to be like God changed them and the world forever. There was no going back to the world that they had known in the Garden.
In the middle of the chapter ten, in the middle of the ‘Table of Nations’, in the midst of the descendants of Ham is an adjunct story about Nimrod. He is the epitome of the nature of Ham and to all those who aspire to be like him. Cush was an ancestor of Nimrod rather than being his immediate father (vs. 8a). This interpretation would allow Nimrod to be a timeless character in revealing the renowned nature of Canaan, of Ham, and of humankind. Nimrod made a great name for himself, he grew to be a mighty warrior on the earth (vs. 8b). He conquered and established cities in the land of Babylonia and Assyria. His fame grew so much so that many people who admired his attributes honoured him with a proverb, “Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the Lord” (vs. 9).
From the human perspective Nimrod appeared to be a hero, but not before the Lord. God used Nimrod and others like him as his instruments of judgement upon king and people. Nimrod in a way established the two kingdoms of Assyria and Babylon that God eventually used to bring judgement upon the wickedness of Israel. Assyria and Babylon in turn hunted and carried away the people of Israel into exile like a hunter carrying away it’s kill.
Noah’s eldest son, Shem is last in the description in the ‘Table of Nations’. Being the eldest son, by right of descent he should have been first. But from the narrative point of view it seems right as the call of Shem’s descendant, Abram and his story follows. Midway between Noah and Abram at the time of Peleg a comment is made that is worthy of note. The name of Peleg means division because in his time the earth was divided (vs. 25). Noah and Shem were still alive at the time of Peleg; in fact most of Peleg’s ancestors were still alive in his time. Then ‘in his time’ can collectively mean the whole world from the time of the flood. The world was divided. All people are descendant from the one man, Noah and yet instead of unity there is division in the world. Israel knows only too well of its own pain in a divided family and kingdom. Ten of the twelve tribes of Israel divided to form the northern kingdom, while Judah and Benjamin formed the southern kingdom. Rebellion and division can occur in any family and from the nearest of kin, because that is part of the nature of humankind. The results can leave a ‘family tree’ looking bare and forlorn.
As part of the history narrative of Israel, the family tree of Noah concluded with an account of Shem. Later, a more detailed account of Shem shows the line of descendants to Israel’s great patriarch, Abram. The two accounts of Shem flow naturally together in the narrative but are abruptly divided by a unique story commonly known as ‘The Tower of Babel’ (vs. 1-9). The insertion of this unique story gives cause to pause and examine the situation to find a suitable meaning of its placement in the narrative of Israel.
The nature of the story, ‘The Tower of Babel’ reflects the nature of Ham. More has been revealed about the nature of Ham and his descendants than his other two brothers, Japheth and Shem. For example, there was Ham’s son, Canaan who had rebelled against Noah. Nimrod another descendant had ruled over conquered people and built cities in foreign lands. Furthermore, the setting of this story is in the territory of Ham. Wherever Noah’s three sons are listed, Ham is listed between them dividing the brothers. Noah’s curse and blessing upon his sons, has Ham dwelling amongst his brothers. Ham’s presence amongst his brothers can be extended to a presence of his nature amongst all the descendants of the three brothers as well as being a part of all of us. Therefore, the placement of the story in the greater narrative is in part a reminder to Israel as it is also to all people that the nature of Ham is within all of us to a greater or lesser degree. The nature of Ham has commonly been seen as a nature of rebellion. It pays to consider that the nature of rebellion is often an action responding to unresolved human needs and wants. God does consider the human condition and works towards resolving it in time. In the meantime, the story also reveals God’s response to the actions of the people albeit a rebellion. As with all responses to the human condition God reveals through it his own nature and relationship towards humankind.
At one time the ancient story, ‘The Tower of Babel’ probably included real events, places, and names. The story was probably originally created to help explain in part the beginning of all languages. Because of its placement in the greater narrative of Israel it therefore transcends its own time of creation and used instead to help reveal a spiritual truth within the surrounding narrative. The accounts of Noah’s sons each conclude saying that the peoples spread out into their territories, clans, nations, and each with its own language. As verse one begins with “Now the whole world had one language and a common speech” immediately places this story outside the time and events of Shem. It is a story introduced to describe in part the nature of humankind and the nature of God that leads to the call of Abram. Therefore, it needs to be examined and retold with a perspective that includes all humankind before God.
1 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.
At one time, the first family would naturally have had one language. Through their descendants that one language would have become the language of the first clan and nation. Their one language would have consisted of a set of words to name all things in their environment, and to describe and explain the nature of things around them. Therefore, a common and shared knowledge would have produced a common speech. For example, in their speech concerning; hunting, farming, or matters pertaining to life and death, right and wrong, heaven and God would have been expressed from a common knowledge and thought. They had one language and a common speech. They were in fact one people, one family.
2 As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.
It was through a shared need together with the power of one language and a common speech that the people moved eastward.
After the flood, God blessed Noah and his sons to be fruitful, to increase in number and to fill the earth (Gen. 9:1, 7, 19; 10: 32). Noah became the centre from which his sons and all people radiated out to fill the earth. There is a definite sense of movement away from the centre according to the will and blessing of God.
That movement of people eastward is in contrast to the people radiating out from the centre marked by Noah. The movement east is an indicator that the people as if of one mind have chosen to move contrary to the will and blessing of God.
The people who moved eastward found a plain in Babylonia and settled there. According to the ancient culture and religions of Assyria and Babylon to move eastward was to move toward the rising sun, to meet the deity of the sun. Amongst the pantheon of deities, the main responsibility of the sun god was to deal with justice and equity. With one mind all the people moved eastward as if they had a common cause to present to the god of justice and equity.
The direction eastward is also mentioned in the dramatic scenes in the Garden of Eden. It becomes an important insight towards understanding this narrative. After God had banished Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden he sealed the way to the tree of life. He placed on the east side of it cherubim with a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way (Gen 3: 24) to the tree of life. Whether it was towards the rising and flaming sun or the cherubim with the flaming sword both would seem impossible to look at and reach. Yet the people desired to move eastward in search for the ‘tree of life’.
3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar.
They are of one thought and desire. The making of bricks has been a common labour for slaves and prisoners throughout the ages. It was a hard and crippling work left for the poorest of people. The people of Israel would remember quite well how they were once slaves under Pharaoh in Egypt making bricks for his buildings programme (Exodus 5). And yet these people on the plain in Shinar were prepared to work like slaves to achieve their common desire.
The tone of the verse “They used brick instead of stone, and tar instead of mortar” contains a sense of surprise and bewilderment. In part, it shows a movement away from using the familiar resources of stone and mortar to making bricks. Stone and mortar were generally the building materials for the early worship sites found on hill and mountain tops of Mesopotamia. This movement to brick and tar is coupled to the movement away from the will and blessing of God. It also expresses their determination to fulfill their need and goal.
4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
Like the steps of a ziggurat the narrator builds up to a climax to reveal the desire of the people and their purpose for building the city with a tower. The narrator begins at ground level at the building site at Shinar. The progression is upwards from making bricks, to building a city and finishing it with an impressive tower. At the very top of the tower resides the hope of all the people. They have freely and collectively agreed to make bricks and build a city with a tower. They have freely agreed to work like slaves to fulfill their desire. They have in effect enslaved themselves to their own purpose in life.
A tower of a city can fulfil a number of purposes. It can be a watch tower used to alert the inhabitants of the city against an approaching enemy. The strength of the tower can be used as the final place of refuge should the enemy breach the city walls. Finally, a tower like a ziggurat was usually dedicated to and used in the worship of a deity. Their chosen god would reside in a temple dwelling at the top of the ziggurat and oversee their kingdom from there.
The tower that the people were building on the plain in Shinar was unusual in one sense that it was not dedicated to a deity of the pantheon. There is no name of a deity mentioned in the text. Therefore, the relentless drive to build a tower can mean that they were building it for themselves to satisfy their own needs. Its grandeur would indeed be a testimony to the power and glory of humankind.
Their intention for the tower to reach the heavens would mean penetrating the realm of the gods. The ancient people believed that it was in the stratosphere of the heavens that the gods resided and ruled over the land and all the people. They understood that the gods had a life of leisure rather than of toil as they were subjected to. It was into this realm that the people wanted access into.
The desire and purpose of the people was to make a name for themselves and not to be scattered over the face of the whole earth. In part, they wanted to be great like Nimrod and to live in the memories of people through the ages. In essence their desire was to have a taste of immortality, to be like a god and have all the blessings that come with it.
Once again, returning to the Garden of Eden to examine and compare the scenes of drama that took place there. Adam and Eve portray the very essence of all human nature. Their desire was to be like God (Gen. 3: 5). It was through this same desire that the serpent in the garden used to tempt Adam and Eve to achieve their goal. The consequence was sin and their down fall (Gen. 3: 1-11). After that, God barred the way for Adam and Eve to reach the tree of life. Had they eaten from the tree of life they would have lived for ever; just like God (Gen 3: 22).
The goal of the people was to ascend into the heavens to plead their case before the gods. Their desire as the tower indicated was to be seated and counted amongst the gods in the heavens. Their case was to present before the gods their earthly achievements that they hoped would be worthy of a great name for themselves, and of divine election and immortality.
They did not want to be scattered over the face of the whole earth. Something that is described with a face personifies that thing. For example, to seek the face of God is primarily to seek the presence of God and his blessing (Ps. 27: 7, 8; 105: 3, 4). When God sends his spirit to renew the face of the earth (Ps. 104: 30), he is restoring creation and lifting its continence. Therefore, when all the people did not want to be scattered over the face of the whole earth means that they no longer wanted to be in the presence of God’s earthly creations.
God had made Adam and Eve the first of all people from the earth, and made them to work and nurture all his creation (Gen. 2: 15). Adam and Eve like all the people on the plain in Shinar wanted to abdicate from their responsibility of loving each other and taking care of God’s creation.
God had made Adam and Eve in his image, in his likeness (Gen. 1: 26). He made them to be like himself in nature. The nature of God is love and is often expressed in creating. That is, to make things new, and to nurture so that all creation will be fruitful and increase in number. That can only happen through the love that is in God and through him imparting that same love in his creation of humankind. Therefore, the true nature of humankind ought to express the nature of God.
Humankind was made from the dust of the earth. They were fashioned in clay by the hand of God and made in his image, to be like him in nature. Perhaps more was imparted to humankind than was originally intended. Perhaps, the hand of God had left a lasting impression upon humankind with the possibility of being a god themselves. At times humankind wears the nature of God like royal robes when it cares for each other, and yet feels incomplete and longing to transcend to a throne of glory. All the people as if they were as one person wanted to be truly a god, to have immortality, to live forever. They endeavoured to make a great name for them self in their quest for divinity. Through this great work as if a work of a god they would present it to the gods in heaven for a verdict of acceptance to be amongst them.
5 But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building.
The building project of the people was neither complete nor ready for presentation and examination. Yet God came down from heaven to pass judgement.
6 The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.
Many people including families, clans, tribes, nations have come together in one place on the plain in Shinar. They have come together through their common desire and language to make a great name for themselves in order to achieve the everlasting attributes of the gods. They desired the godly attributes of power, glory, immortality, and a daily life free from toil.
The Hebrew word basar in this verse has been translated as meaning, impossible. It can equally be translated as meaning, to gather the harvest. It would be a better translation to read the remainder of the text as, “then nothing they plan to do will be without a result”.
The problem for God was not that the people were building a show case city to impress the gods in order to achieve the prize of immortality. The problem was enslavement of self and others towards the making a great name for oneself. It is this problem of enslavement that God deals with here and throughout the ages.
At one time, Israel was enslaved to Pharaoh of Egypt. They made bricks for Pharaoh for his majestic buildings programme. Pharaoh desired that his name would be great in all the land together with the hope of being lifted to the status of a god. On hearing the cries of the people of Israel, God endeavoured to set them free from slavery. God through Moses led the people out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. As a result, Pharaoh’s ambitions and building programme were drastically changed. His seeds of ambitions did not come to fruition or the harvest he expected because of God’s intervention.
7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
From the Christian perspective, it is the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), one God that came down from heaven to deal with this problem on earth. At the time of the kingdom of Babylon where this drama took place, then it would have been believed that the gods of the heavens came down. Nonetheless, it is an epic story that has been used and incorporated in the Holy Scriptures to tell of how God deals with a problem on earth.
The very tool and gift from God that united people everywhere was used by God to bring about disunity. Language is a tool that can readily unite a people in survival, work, worship, in common thought and goals. God comes down to restore his creation to the order that it was intended. He changes the initial tool and gift in order to set a people free from slavery. The outcome of multiple languages forms boundaries that naturally bring problems of inter-communications, misunderstanding, distrust, and isolation. This is God’s judgement that all people suffer the confusion of languages. But foremost, the outcome is also God’s grace to all people. It has become a means to hinder others from enslaving people. As clothing upon our bodies is a constant reminder of God’s judgement and grace because of the sin in the Garden of Eden, likewise are multiple languages a constant reminder of God’s judgement and grace upon humankind for their sin on the plain in Shinar.
8 So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.
Through the difficulty of communicating with each other they stopped building the city. Their time and effort in pursuing a name for themselves mounted to nothing. Then as today, God comes down to examine our ambitions to make a name for our self. He examines whether one has become enslaved to ambition or worse has enslaved others towards their own goal. God’s judgement and grace was not to bring their foolish ambition to nothing but his aim was to set them free for better things.
9 That is why it was called Babel because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
The place where God confused the language of the whole world is repeated in v.8 and v.9. The repetition implies an emphasis and calls for a closer look at the location of judgement. The city and tower that the people were building were located on the plain in Shinar, in the east. It was also in the east; in Eden that God planted a garden (Gen. 2: 8). In the beginning, God would walk in the garden during the cool of the day and conversed with Adam and Eve (Gen. 3: 8-9). For a while it was a place and time that the first people met with God. Even on the plain in Shinar the people expected to meet with God. In both these places there are other similarities to consider for example: the people endeavoured to become like a god, that God passed judgement on them, and that they were expelled from the land. The same desire and problem of wanting to be like a god arose in the place with God, in the Garden of Eden as it did also in the place without God, in the city of Babel. God continues to examine human efforts in their desire to make a name for them self either as a corporate body or as an individual.
After the flood, Noah became the centre from where all people were scattered over the face of the whole earth through the blessing of God. Now, Babel has become a centre from which people were scattered over the face of the whole earth, not because of God’s blessing but through his judgment. The two centres of choice, one of blessing and the other of curse confront people everyday and everywhere in their dealing with each other and with God’s creation.
“From there”, also implies that the people were scattered from the ‘gate of God’. The city of Babel was meant to be the gateway to God. The gate of a city or town was often used as a public place where people could gather to deal with legal matters. The city elders would be called to pass a judgement on a dispute, a crime, or any other legal matter that needed an independent and fair judgement according to the law. This is well illustrated in the marriage of Boaz to Ruth (Ruth 4: 1-12). Therefore, it can be said that the deity came down to sit at council with all the people at the gate of God to examine their claim. The people came to meet with the deity to present their marvellous city in the hope of being accepted into the circle of the gods. In the fair judgement of God they were all sent away in confusion.
The city that was built on the plain in Shinar was called Babel. To its builders and the inhabitants of Babylonia, the name Babel meant gate of god. That was exactly what they were building, a tower to reach the gate of god. As true to God’s word and the confusion of languages the meaning of Babel has changed. Babel is no longer thought of as a place but as a verb meaning a confusion of sounds. The outcome at Babel was similar to the events in the Garden of Eden. After God drove out Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden he placed on the east side of it cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life (Gen. 3: 24). In a sense the confusion of languages guarded the way back to Babel, the gate of God. The purpose was not so much as to hinder the people in finding the physical location of Babel, but to hinder their endeavours in making a name for themselves and enslaving each other to their desires.
This epic story is placed between the two accounts of Shem who was considered the faithful son of Noah. It appears as a necessary reminder to the people of Israel as it is to all faithful people of today, that they too are subjected to the same desire to make a name for themselves. It is a reminder to make the right choice between blessing and curse.
Out of an act of grace, God intervened early before the completion of the city and tower to set the people free from self inflicted slavery. He set them free and returned them once more to where they would receive the blessing of God. That blessing would come through the care of all his creation, especially for each other.
From the Christian perspective there is an irony to this epic story. Jesus, the Son of God descended from heaven and brought salvation to all people on earth. Through his life, death and resurrection Jesus has demonstrated the love of God towards all people. This love has given forgiveness for all sin and for all people before God. Furthermore, to all people who have believed in Jesus, he has adopted them into his family (John 1: 12). They have become the sons and daughters of God (Romans 8: 17). In other words, through Jesus they have received the status of a god having a life everlasting with Jesus in the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, it is no longer necessary to work towards a sense of immortality. Jesus has set all people free to continue to love and care for each other as he has demonstrated through his life on earth. Although, the desire to make a name for one self continues that desire can be channelled towards making a name for one self in the love and care of others as demonstrated by Jesus in his life.
10 This is the account of Shem.
Two years after the flood, when Shem was 100 years old, he became the father of Arphaxad.
11 And after he became the father of Arphaxad, Shem lived 500 years and had other sons and daughters.
12 When Arphaxad had lived 35 years, he became the father of Shelah.
13 And after he became the father of Shelah, Arphaxad lived 403 years and had other sons and daughters.
14 When Shelah had lived 30 years, he became the father of Eber.
15 And after he became the father of Eber, Shelah lived 403 years and had other sons and daughters.
16 When Eber had lived 34 years, he became the father of Peleg.
17 And after he became the father of Peleg, Eber lived 430 years and had other sons and daughters.
18 When Peleg had lived 30 years, he became the father of Reu.
19 And after he became the father of Reu, Peleg lived 209 years and had other sons and daughters.
20 When Reu had lived 32 years, he became the father of Serug.
21 And after he became the father of Serug, Reu lived 207 years and had other sons and daughters.
22 When Serug had lived 30 years, he became the father of Nahor.
23 And after he became the father of Nahor, Serug lived 200 years and had other sons and daughters.
24 When Nahor had lived 29 years, he became the father of Terah.
25 And after he became the father of Terah, Nahor lived 119 years and had other sons and daughters.
26 After Terah had lived 70 years, he became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran.
After the intermission, the main story continues as signalled by the reference to the flood. The account of Shem that followed the intermission provides a sense of continued blessing following the drama at the city of Babel. The post flood narrative in part describes a time of repopulating the earth according to the blessing of God.
These verses are a detailed account of Shem and his line leading to Abram. It provides the ages of when sons were born and died. They together with the mention, that they had other sons and daughters unite this text with an earlier one. With a simple ‘cut and paste’ the account of Shem would neatly join onto the account of Adam’s line (Gen. 5: 1-32). Both together provide a continuum of descendants from Adam to Abram. From the perspective of Israel this account forms the foundation of their story and connection to God through their history.
This continuum of Adam’s line to Abram appears in the Bible as if it has been rendered apart and apportioned to different parts of the book of Genesis. Like enclosing bookends they contain between them the narrative of sin, the judgement of the flood, and God’s continued grace. The propensity for people to sin is in their nature and always threatens to tear apart God’s plan of salvation and blessing for all people. The account of Shem with its unique location in the book of Genesis allows the story of Israel and God’s plan of salvation to continue.
Death came into the world from the time of the original sin in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2: 17). Furthermore, from the time of the Flood humankind suffered a steady decline of longevity that only added to their demise. The average age of the pre- flood patriarchs was about 900 years. At the end of the continuum of descendants Abram lived only 175 years. God’ plan for salvation through the people of Israel was threatened by the downward spiral of longevity as a result of sin and its effects.
27 This is the account of Terah.
Terah became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran. And Haran became the father of Lot.
28 While his father Terah was still alive, Haran died in Ur of the Chaldeans, in the land of his birth.
29 Abram and Nahor both married. The name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife was Milcah; she was the daughter of Haran, the father of both Milcah and Iscah.
30 Now Sarai was barren; she had no children.
31 Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Haran, they settled there.
32 Terah lived 205 years, and he died in Haran
In the story of salvation through the people of Israel, the line of descendants from Noah has finally come to the family of Terah. Abram was one of the sons of Terah who was married to Sarai. Throughout the account of Shem the listed descendants all had other sons and daughters. In the midst of fertility, Sarai was barren; she had no children. Verse thirty describing Sarai’s condition is succinct and conclusive as if passing a judgement upon the end of a line of descendants. This is the first mention of infertility since the days of Noah and the flood. Since the beginning of humankind, death, brevity of life, and now infertility has followed threatening the existence of humankind.
According to tradition, Moses wrote the Book of Genesis at Mt. Sinai where the people of Israel had gathered to worship God. Part of the writing of the Book of Genesis was to pen the early history of Israel and the beginning of the salvation story. With the mighty hand of God, he brought a captive people out of the land of Egypt under the faithful leadership of Moses. God brought them to Mt. Sinai to become a nation of priests amongst the other nations. The multitudes of people at Mt. Sinai were the many descendants of Abram as they were of the one time barren Sarai.
From the perspective at Mt. Sinai, Moses saw the mighty hand of God intervene in human affairs so that the story of salvation could continue. The account of Noah’s descendants since the time of the flood is in part a story of demise of the human condition. Abram and his barren wife Sarai appear to be the end of a line of descendants that were required for the continuation of the salvation story. From a multitude of ancestors it has come down to a single barren person to end the hope of salvation for all people. In a sense it was in the “eleventh hour”, in the hour of desperation that God intervened to bring about a different outcome.
1 The Lord said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.
2 “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you;
I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
God intervenes and calls Abram. From what appears impossible to people only gives opportunity for God to reveal himself and his intentions towards all people. God chooses Abram and Sarai to continue the salvation story. He calls Abram to leave his country and go to the land that he will show him. On the journey God promises to make Abram into a great nation, to make his name great, and to be a blessing bearer to others. God’s promise is a surety and he will intervene were necessary to bring it to fulfilment. The once barren Sarai will give birth to a great nation.
It has been the endeavour of humankind to make a name for one self, some more than others. The process has sometimes led to self enslavement and the enslavement of others to their desire. Now, God continues to intervene and promises to make Abram’s name great. Not in the fashion of human desire and process, but created by God not to enslave but to be a blessing to others.
God continues to bless and promise Abram that all who hinder him will be cursed. That is, all who hinder God’s plan of salvation will be dealing with God himself. God promises to intervene wherever and whenever his plan of salvation for all people is threatened.
Concluding Theological Perspectives
Genesis 8: 15 → 9: 19
Under the sign of the rainbow, God graciously provides for continued life in a changed world. In the post-flood period, a grieving and remorseful God establishes a new covenant with all of creation. It is a covenant not just with humankind but also with all living things. From the perspective of God, all his creation has an equal importance to life and well being. God desires that all his creation flourish upon the earth.
As part of the post-flood covenant, God puts away his dreadful weapon of mass destruction and instead hands to humankind the responsibility of judgment between themselves. Despite humankind propensity to wickedness God has given them the responsibility of causing all life to flourish on earth. The covenant infers to the one that God gave to Moses and the people of Israel at Mt Sinai. The covenant is a framework through which life can be sustained and flourish in a changed world. God continues to invest in the new seed, in the descendants of Noah, the man of faith.
Genesis 9: 20 → 11: 9
After a while, humankind desires more from life than just their daily routines and toil, and that applies to both corporate and individual desire. They endeavour in some way whether large or small to make a name for themselves, at least to live in the memories of people as someone great. The text reveals a parallel meaning with ‘making a name for oneself’ and ‘wanting to be a god’. They share similar attributes: of wanting to live in the memories of people, seeking glory and power, attaining to eternal life, and freed from daily toil. Such ambition can lead to self enslavement and of others towards one’s desires. When that happens care and love towards all of God’s creation especially towards each other is exploited, ravaged, or at least ignored to its peril.
It is not the way to God’s blessings. He comes down to intervene. For the perpetrators of enslavement God’s intervention can be seen as judgement and punishment. They may be confused by the unwelcome events and intervention but nonetheless, God’s intervention is an act of grace for all concerned. It is through his grace that God intervenes to return and restore all people back into his image as he had made them, back to being human again. It is when people express love towards each other and towards all of God’s creation that they are truly human expressing the nature of God.
Genesis 11: 10 → 12: 3
The demise of the human condition is revealed through the various tables of descendants. The ‘Table of Nations’ resembles a family tree that appears decimated. The account of Shem spirals down revealing the brevity of life that faces all people. Finally, the account of Terah reveals that infertility has impinged upon humankind. From the time of the call of Noah to come out of the ark to the call of Abram, humankind has worked themselves, once more, to a point of extinction.
God intervened in the ‘eleventh hour’ and through his grace he called Abram. Through Abram, God planned to build a nation of faithful people that would demonstrate the true meaning of being human, being imbued with the nature of God. This holy people would live a life of love to each other and care for all of God’s creation so that it would flourish and praise God.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and sin is the beginning of history. Generally, history features milestones where humankind has caused devastation of some kind towards God’s creation. For the people of Israel, sin against God was discovered when the Law was first given by Moses to the people of Israel at Mt. Sinai. The Law of God revealed the inadequacies and the failings of humankind towards each other and all of God’s creation. It is sin where people do not love each other, it is sin when God’s creations disappear from the face of the earth, and it is a sin that when God’s creation is abused, it is an abuse against God himself. Sin changes the world forever, there’s no going back to how things were before.
In a changed world God intervenes. It is in his nature of love to keep on nurturing his creation, to revive it, and to help it to cohabit in an ever changing world, even cause it to flourish. God’s benevolence is not always recognisable for what it is and his actions can appear to people as unrecognisable, unexpected, surprising, and even confusing. The product of God’s grace is given from his love and understanding of his own creation. God knows our needs. He calls people made in his image to go forward bearing love to each other and to all creation. They may appear in the community as a builder like Noah, or a faithful son like Shem, or a husband like Abram.