This section has two sections. The table of Nations, and the tower of Babel. It serves three purposes. First, it defines Israel’s relationship to other notations. Second, it explains the diversity in languages. Third, it shows further sinning, and shows that the sins brings further divine judgment. The flood was extreme judgment, but as sin carries on, so does judgment. Finally, it lays the groundwork for Gods redemptive work to begin in earnest with the calling of Abraham.
Notice a few details, and then we’ll have a quick application. We see a complex family tree woven. People are spreading out again. The world breaks up (there’s a curious statement about the earth being divided. Some believe that the world was all one continent at one time, and point out that America and Europe look like pieces of a puzzle that should fit together). People are multiplying.
Now, what’s going on with this genealogy, what are we learning.
First, we see that people are being obedient, and we see that people are moving around. This is a geography lesson for Israel.
But second, this is more than a geography lesson. God is showing something about who he favors, and who he doesn’t in terms of his redemptive purposes. Notice the placement of the family lines. In genesis, the genealogy of the non elect is always placed before the chosen line. There is a theology lesson at work. Cain’s genealogical story (the list of descendants) is told before Seth’s; Ishmael’s comes before Isaac, Esau’s before Jacob’s. With that in mind, notice that Japheth and Ham comes before Shem. But notice something else. There is a tension being hinted at between Shem and Ham that will play out through the story. In Chapter nine, Ham was set in opposition with Shem. “Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said, "Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers." He also said, "Blessed be the LORD, the God of Shem; and let Canaan be his servant. May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem, and let Canaan be his servant." (Gen 9:23-28). The choice of Shem and his descendants over Ham and his hinted at in the cursing of Canaan in chapter 9. It is confirmed here.
Notice the things we see about the descendants of each line. Among the descendants of Shem are the Aramean’s, who were close with the patriarchs, and from whom the patriarch chose wives for their sons, and of course, Israel. However, among the descendant of Ham are the Canaanites, and the Egyptians, Babylonians, and Assyrians, the bitterest enemies of Israel. Notice the prominence that they get. This hints that they are the ones to keep our eye on as the villains. While the descendents of Japheth get 4 verses, they get 15 (indicating the importance of these people to the story. The descendants of Japheth are distant people, with whom Israel has little contact. Magog (Russia), Medea (the Medes-Northern Iran), Javan (The Greeks). They are not the main players in Israel’s story, while Babylon, Egypt, Canaan, and Assyria are big time villains.
All of this is to say, the lists may contain more than we expect. We tend to blip over them, but there are nuggets built into the genealogies that we may not expect.
What’s next? More sin. One of the things that has stood out to me is that first chapters highlight the need for God to act. Every time you turn around, man is rebelling. It’s sin… O wait… more sin and rebellion… repeat loop. Now, at wit the tower of Babel, we see more rebellion. Once again human sinfulness is on display, as the peoples of the earth seek to trespass into God’s domain, by building a skyscraping temple. They are seeking to give themselves a name. An identity. To gain standing, to reach into the sky and thumb their nose at God, and once again, it brings judgment. Furthermore, in direct disobedience to God, who told them to fill the earth, they are trying to stay clustered. God doesn’t allow it. He confuses the languages and causes people to scatter.
Now keep in mind here, that God is saying something to the ancient world through this passage. The tower that would have been in everyone’s mind would have been a Ziggurat, and ancient temple with stairs. The idea was that the foundation was in the underworld, and the top was in the heavens. It was a gate for the gods to come to man. A way for man to get to God or the gods, and be seen by God or the gods. But Genesis says "that didn’t work". God still has to come down… they can’t reach him. And instead of being a gate to God, it becomes a place of confusion and folly. As Babylon’s ruined Ziggurat becomes a display of human impotence before a holy God.
Last of all, we find the genealogy of Shem, culminating in Abraham. This is the line of the promise. Shem, Peleg, Serug, this is the line that is to carry God’s redemptive purposes forward. But notice what happens by the end of it. Abraham is in Ur, a place marked by idol worship. Joshua reminds the people of Israel later that Abraham was an idolater when God called him, and what’s more, the line has ended. It’s the ultimate dark statement. “Now Sarai was barren; she had no child.” It’s the end of the road. She’s barren. God’s work is finished. That’s how the beginning of the story ends. With barren Saria and Abram. No kids, no future. Abram is in Haran, and has not made it to Canaan, things have hit a dead end. Which is what makes the opening of chapter 12 so sweet.