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Bible Commentaries

Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable

Genesis 11



Verse 1-2

Some of the Hamites migrated "east" (specifically southeast) to the plain of Shinar (cf. Genesis 10:10). This was in the Mesopotamian basin (modern Iraq).

"In light of such intentional uses of the notion of "eastward" within the Genesis narratives, we can see that here too the author intentionally draws the story of the founding of Babylon into the larger scheme at work throughout the book. It is a scheme that contrasts God"s way of blessing (e.g, Eden and the Promised Land) with man"s own attempt to find the "good." In the Genesis narratives, when man goes "east," he leaves the land of blessing (Eden and the Promised Land) and goes to a land where the greatest of his hopes will turn to ruin (Babylon and Sodom). [Note: Idem, " Genesis ," p104.]

"Following the Ararat departure, the people migrated southeast to the lower Euphrates valley. Genesis 1-11then has come full circle from "Eden" to "Babel," both remembered for the expulsion of their residents." [Note: Mathews, p467.]

Verses 1-9

2. The dispersion at Babel11:1-9

This pericope is a flashback that explains the division of the earth in Peleg"s time ( Genesis 10:25). The main emphasis in this section is not the building of the tower of Babel but the dispersion of the peoples. We can see this in the literary structure of the passage. [Note: Ross, Creation and . . ., p235. Cf. J. P. Fokkelman, Narrative Art in Genesis , p22; Wenham, Genesis 1-15 , pp234-38; and Waltke, Genesis , pp176-77.]

A All the earth had one language ( Genesis 11:1)

B there ( Genesis 11:2)

C one to another ( Genesis 11:3)

D Come, let"s make bricks ( Genesis 11:3)

E Let"s make for ourselves ( Genesis 11:4)

F a city and a tower

G And the Lord came down to see ( Genesis 11:5; cf. Genesis 8:1)

F" the city and the tower ( Genesis 11:5)

E" that the humans built ( Genesis 11:5)

D" Come, let"s confuse ( Genesis 11:7)

C" everyone the language of his neighbor ( Genesis 11:7)

B" from there ( Genesis 11:8)

A" (confused) the language of the whole earth ( Genesis 11:9)

When people attempted to preserve their unity and make a name for themselves by building a tower, Yahweh frustrated the plan and scattered everyone by confusing the language that bound them together.

"The tower of Babel story is the last great judgment that befell mankind in primeval times. Its place and function in Genesis 1-11may be compared to the fall in Genesis 3and the sons of God episode in Genesis 6:1-4, both of which triggered divine judgments of great and enduring consequence." [Note: Wenham, Genesis 1-15 , p242.]

This story explains to God"s people how God scattered the nations and why. In judgment for trying to establish a world state in opposition to divine rule (human government run amuck), God struck the thing that bound people together, namely, a common language. Chronologically the Babel incident preceded the dispersal that Moses described with genealogies in chapter10. One writer argued for the identification of the tower of Babel incident with the demise and dispersion of the last great Sumerian dynasty centered at Ur. [Note: Paul T. Penley, "A Historical Reading of Genesis 11:1-9: The Sumerian Demise and Dispersion under the Ur III Dynasty," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society50:4 (December2007):693-714.]

"By placing the Tower of Babel incident just prior to the patriarchal stories, the biblical writer is suggesting, in the first place, that post-Flood humanity is as iniquitous as pre-Flood humanity. Rather than sending something as devastating as a flood to annihilate mankind, however, God now places his hope in a covenant with Abraham as a powerful solution to humanity"s sinfulness. Thus problem (ch11) and solution (ch12) are brought into immediate juxtaposition, and the forcefulness of this structural move would have been lost had ch10 intervened between the two." [Note: Hamilton, pp347-48. See J. Sasson, "The "Tower of Babel" As a Clue to the Redactional Structuring of the Primeval History 1-11:9]," in The Bible World: Essays in Honor of Cyrus H. Gordon, pp218-19.]

"As it is presently situated in the text, the account of the founding of Babylon falls at the end of the list of fourteen names from the line of Joktan ( Genesis 10:26-29). At the end of the list of the ten names of Peleg"s line, however, is the account of the call of Abraham ( Genesis 11:27 to Genesis 12:10). So two great lines of the descendants of Shem divide in the two sons of Eber ( Genesis 10:25). One ends in Babylon, the other in the Promised Land." [Note: Sailhamer, The Pentateuch . . ., p134.]

Verse 3-4

The motivation for building a city was to make the builders a name (cf. Psalm 14:1). Later God would "make a name" for Abram ( Genesis 12:2-3). The object of this endeavor was to establish a center by which they might maintain their unity.

"A defensive wall is the hallmark of a city (see Genesis 4:17). Cities in the ancient Near East were not designed to be lived in but were intended for religious and public purposes." [Note: Waltke, Genesis , p179.]

God desired unity for humankind, but one that He created, not one founded on a social state. [Note: Mathews, p473.] They wanted to "empower" themselves. Both motive and object were ungodly. God had instructed man to fill the earth ( Genesis 1:28), to spread over the whole planet.

The builders of the "tower" seem to have intended that it serve as a memorial or landmark, among other things. It was probably a ziggurat used for religious purposes.

"Mesopotamian religion claimed that their cities were of divine parentage. A symbol of this obsession with divinity among the Mesopotamians was the ziggurat (Akk. ziqqurratu) that was erected as early as the third millennium B.C. The ziggurat was a step-ladder edifice, made up of mud bricks, whose bottom was square or rectangular. The precise meaning of the structure is unknown, though it is widely agreed that it formed a stairway between the gods and earth (cf. Genesis 28:12). At the foot of the ziggurat as well as the pinnacle was a temple area serving as a habitation for the god. Ziggurats may have been considered an earthly imitation of the heavenly residence of the gods." [Note: Ibid, pp470-71. Cf. Waltke, Genesis , p179.]

Verse 5-6

The builders undoubtedly expected to ascend to heaven to meet God. Instead God descended to earth to meet them. If God had allowed this project to continue the results would have been even worse and more serious than they were at this time. The sin of the builders was their refusal to obey God-given directives.

"Depraved humanity are united in their spiritual endeavor to find, through technology, existential meaning apart from God and the means to transgress its boundaries. Unless God intervenes and divides them by confounding their speech, nothing can stop human beings in their overweening pride and their desire for autonomy." [Note: Waltke, Genesis , p182.]

The construction of cities by itself was not sinful. God chose Jerusalem for His people, and He will create the New Jerusalem for believers to inhabit. It is the pride and security that people place in their cities that God disapproves.

Verse 7

God"s soliloquy in this verse mimics the language of the tower builders in Genesis 11:3-4 (cf. Genesis 1:26). The tower was so puny that He had to come down to see it (cf. Isaiah 40:22). The confusion of language probably involved more than just the introduction of new words.

"If language is the audible expression of emotions, conceptions, and thoughts of the mind, the cause of the confusion or division of the one human language into different national dialects might be sought in an effect produced upon the human mind, by which the original unity of emotion, conception, thought, and will was broken up. This inward unity had no doubt been already disturbed by sin, but the disturbance had not yet amounted to a perfect breach." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 1:174-75.]

Some scholars believe that this judgment also involved the implantation of ethnic and racial distinctions in humankind. The Table of Nations in chapter10 may imply this. [Note: See Merrill, "The Peoples . . .," p22.]

Verse 8

The resultant confusion led to a scattering of the people over the "whole earth" (cf. Genesis 11:9). God did not allow human rebellion to reach the level that it did before the Flood. God forced people to do what they refused to do voluntarily, namely, scatter over the face of the earth.

Some interpreters take the confusion of languages to have been a local phenomenon only. One writer believed lightning struck the tower of Babel and the confusion of speech that followed resulted from a scrambling of the electrical circuits in the brains of those struck. [Note: James E. Strickling, "The Tower of Babel and the Confusion of Tongues," Kronos (Fall1982), pp53-62.] This is an interesting idea but impossible to prove. Most interpreters, however, regard this event as the source of the major language groups in the world today.

Verse 9

"Babel" sounds like the Hebrew word for "confuse" (balal), and it means "the gate of gods" in Akkadian.

". . . Genesis 11:1-9, the tower of Babel story, is a satire on the claims of Babylon to be the center of civilization and its temple tower the gate of heaven (E[numa]E[lish] 6:50-80): Babel does not mean gate of God, but "confusion" and "folly." Far from its temple"s top reaching up to heaven, it is so low that God has to descend from heaven just to see it! ( Genesis 11:4-9)." [Note: Wenham, Genesis 1-15 , pp. xlviii-xlix.]

This was the original Babylon that forever after was the city most characterized by rebellion against God"s authority. It stands as a symbol of organized rebellion against God elsewhere in Scripture (e.g, Revelation 17 , 18). [Note: See Everett H. Peterson, "Prehistory and the Tower of Babel," Creation Research Society Quarterly19:2 (September1982):87-90.]

"Man certainly did not expect his project to take such a turn. He did not anticipate that the name he wanted to make for himself would refer to a place of noncommunication." [Note: J. Ellul, The Meaning of the City, p18.]

The story of Babel is important for several reasons.

1. It explains the beginning of and reason for the various languages of mankind.

2. It probably explains the origin of the "races" within humankind.

"The separate language groups no longer could inter-marry freely with the rest of mankind. As in-breeding and lack of access to the larger pool of genes occurred, ethnic characteristics developed. Furthermore, each local environment tended to favor selection of certain traits, and eliminate the others. Ethnic characteristics, such as skin color, arose from loss of genetic variability, not from origin of new genes through mutation as suggested by evolution.

"The concept of race is an evolutionary idea ... ( Acts 17:26). All humans possess the same color, just different amounts of it. We all descended from Noah and Adam." [Note: A plaque explaining an exhibit at the Institute for Creation Research Museum, Santee, Calif, which I observed on May21 , 1997.]

"The Bible doesn"t tell us what skin color our first parents had, but, from a design point of view, the "middle [color]" makes a great beginning. Starting with medium-skinned parents (AaBb), it would take only one generation to produce all the variation we see in human skin color today. In fact, this is the normal situation in India today. Some Indians are as dark as the darkest Africans, and some-perhaps a brother or sister in the same family-as light as the lightest Europeans. I once knew a family from India that included members with every major skin color you could see anywhere in the world.

"But now notice what happens if human groups were isolated after creation. If those with very dark skins (AABB) migrate into the same areas and/or marry only those with very dark skins, then all their children will have very dark skins. (AABB is the only possible combination of AB egg and sperms cells, which are the only types that can be produced by AABB parents.) Similarly, parents with very light skins (aabb) can have only very light-skinned children, since they don"t have any A or B genes to pass on. Even certain medium-skinned parents (AAbb or aaBB) can get "locked-in" to having only medium-skinned children, like the Orientals, Polynesians, and some of my ancestors, the Native Americans.

"Where people with different skin colors get together again (as they do in the West Indies, for example), you find the full range of variation again-nothing less, but nothing more either, than what we started with. Clearly, all this is variation within kind....

"What happened as the descendants of medium-skinned parents produced a variety of descendants? Evolution? Not at all. Except for albinism (the mutational loss of skin color), the human gene pool is no bigger and no different now than the gene pool present at creation. As people multiplied, the genetic variability built right into the first created human beings came to visible expression. The darkest Nigerian and the lightest Norwegian, the tallest Watusi and the shortest Pygmy, the highest soprano and the lowest bass could have been present right from the beginning in two quite average-looking people. Great variation in size, color, form, function, etc, would also be present in the two created ancestors of all the other kinds (plants and animals) as well.

"Evolutionists assume that all life started from one or a few chemically evolved life forms with an extremely small gene pool. For evolutionists, enlargement of the gene pool by selection of random mutations is a slow, tedious process that burdens each type with a "genetic load" of harmful mutations and evolutionary leftovers. Creationists assume each created kind began with a large gene pool, designed to multiply and fill the earth with all its tremendous ecologic and geographic variety. (See Genesis , chapter1.)" [Note: G. Parker, pp111 , 113-14. See also Ham, et al, pp15-16 , 131-55. See ibid, pp19 , 197-207 , for discussion of how animals could have reached remote parts of the earth.]

"Many thinkers labor under the illusion that evolution is an empirical science when in fact it is a philosophy." [Note: Norman L. Geisler, "Beware of Philosophy: A Warning to Biblical Scholars," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society42:1 (March1999):7.]

3. The Babel story demonstrates the inclination of fallen man to rebel against God and to try to provide for his needs in his own way rather than by trusting and obeying God.

4. It illustrates that rebellion against God results in (a) broken fellowship with God and Prayer of Manasseh , and (b) failure to realize God"s intention for man in his creation, namely, that he rule the earth effectively.

5. It provides the historical background for what follows in Genesis. Abraham came from this area.

"Irony is seen in the beginning and the ending of this passage. The group at Babel began as the whole earth ( Genesis 11:1), but now they were spread over the whole earth ( Genesis 11:9). By this time the lesson is clarified: God"s purpose will be accomplished in spite of the arrogance and defiance of man"s own purposes. He brings down the proud, but exalts the faithful.

"The significance of this little story is great. It explains to God"s people how the nations were scattered abroad. Yet the import goes much deeper. The fact that it was Babylon, the beginning of kingdoms under Nimrod from Cush, adds a rather ominous warning: Great nations cannot defy God and long survive. The new nation of Israel need only survey the many nations around her to perceive that God disperses and curses the rebellious, bringing utter confusion and antagonism among them. If Israel would obey and submit to God"s will, then she would be the source of blessing to the world.

"Unfortunately, Israel also raised her head in pride and refused to obey the Lord God. Thus she too was scattered across the face of the earth." [Note: Allen P. Ross, "The Dispersion of the Nations in Genesis 11:1-9 ," Bibliotheca Sacra138:550 (April-June1981):133. See also Sailhamer, " Genesis ," pp103-4.]

Verses 10-26

F. What became of Shem11:10-26

"The Babel account ( Genesis 11:1-9) is not the end of early Genesis. If it were, the story would conclude on the sad note of human failure. But as with earlier events in Genesis 1-11 , God"s grace once again supersedes human sin, insuring the continued possibilities of the promissory blessings ( Genesis 1:28; Genesis 9:1).... The scaffolding of human pride would be dismantled by the erection of the Shemite line that culminates in obedient Abraham, who likewise is found in the region of Shinar. Abraham would prove to be the nations" deliverance." [Note: Mathews, p487.]

"Without the blessing of God the situation of humanity is without hope: that seems to be the chief thrust of the opening chapters of Genesis." [Note: Wenham, Genesis 1-15 , p. li.]

In contrast to the genealogy in chapter5 , this one emphasizes life and expansion rather than death, even though longevity was declining. [Note: For short histories of the prepatriarchal period of ancient Near Eastern history, see John Bright, A History of Israel, pp17-37; or Siegfried Schwantes, A Short History of the Ancient Near East.] This genealogy starts with Noah"s son Shem whom God blessed, and it concludes with Abram whom God purposed to bless. This is the line of Israel"s ancestors. It is a vertical list of the type used in the ancient Near East to document legitimate claims to thrones or inheritances. [Note: Ross, Creation and . . ., p249.] This genealogy, as the one in chapter5 , appears to be complete. The purpose of the genealogy is to connect Abram to Noah and to give background information essential for understanding the story of Abram that follows. [Note: Mathews, p488 , included a helpful chart of the20 generations from Adam to Abram.]

". . . the author"s aim is to show that God"s promise concerning the seed of the woman cannot be thwarted by the confusion and scattering of the nations at Babylon." [Note: Sailhamer, The Pentateuch . . ., p136.]

"If the message of Genesis is essentially one of redemption, Genesis 3-11explains why man needs salvation and what he needs to be saved from. Chaps1-2 , in describing the original state of the world, also describe the goal of redemption, to which ultimately the world and humanity will return when the patriarchal promises are completely fulfilled." [Note: Wenham, Genesis 1-15 , p. lii.]

"An extensive statistical analysis of the life-spans of the patriarchs, as given in Genesis Chapter5,11 , shows that statistically the life-span can be considered constant before the Flood, while after the Flood the data can be fitted by an asymptotic exponential decay curve. Also, it is concluded that as for the life-spans reported in Genesis Chapter11 , the data in the Masoretic text are the authentic ones; those in the Septuagint have been tampered with. Moreover, it is statistically unlikely that there are gaps in the genealogies in Genesis Chapter11." [Note: William L. Seaver, "A Statistical Analysis of the Genesis Life-Spans," Creation Research Society Quarterly20:2 (September1983):80.]

The genealogies in Genesis 11:10-26 and 1 Chronicles 1:17-27 are identical, but the one in Luke 3:34-36 inserts the name Cainan between Arpachshad and Shelah. The inclusion of Cainan may indicate that Luke used the Septuagint to compose his genealogy since this name appears in this translation but not in the Hebrew Bible genealogies. Cainan appears elsewhere in Luke"s list as Adam"s great-grandson ( Luke 3:37-38), so this may be a scribal error. [Note: See M. S. Mills, "A Comparison of the Genesis and Lukan Genealogies (The Case for Cainan)" (Th.M. thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1978).]

Most scholars regard "Eber" ( Genesis 11:14) as the individual from whom the Jews received the name "Hebrew." Adam, Noah, and Abram all fathered three named sons linking them as saviors of humanity. In Abram"s case these sons (descendants) were Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph.

The genealogy of Shem ( Genesis 11:10-26) in this pericope prefaces the story of Abram ( Genesis 11:27 to Genesis 25:11). This structure serves as a prototype for the narrative that follows in Genesis. Similarly the genealogy of Ishmael ( Genesis 25:12-18) introduces the story of Jacob and Esau ( Genesis 25:19 to Genesis 35:29), and the genealogy of Esau ( Genesis 36:1-43) introduces the story of Joseph ( Genesis 37:2 to Genesis 50:26).

"With Genesis 11:26 the scene has finally been set for the patriarchal history to unfold. The opening chapters of Genesis have provided us the fundamental insights for interpreting these chapters properly. Genesis 1revealed the character of God and the nature of the world man finds himself in. Genesis 2 , 3portrayed the relationship between man and woman, and the effects man"s disobedience has had on Prayer of Manasseh -woman and divine-human relations. Chap5 sketched the long years that passed before the crisis of the great flood (chaps6-9), which almost destroyed all humanity for its sinfulness. The table of the nations (chap10) started the process of Israel"s geographical and political self-definition with respect to the other nations in the world, but Genesis 11:1-9 reminded us that the nations were in confusion and that mankind"s proudest achievements were but folly in God"s sight and under his judgment.

"However, according to Genesis 11:10-26, just five generations after Peleg, whose lifetime according to Genesis 10:25 saw the confusion of languages at Babel, Abram arrives. As Genesis 12:3 will declare, it is through him that all the families of the earth will be blessed. Man is not without hope. The brevity of this genealogy is a reminder that God"s grace constantly exceeds his wrath. He may punish to the third or fourth generation but he shows mercy to thousands ( Deuteronomy 5:9; Deuteronomy 7:9)." [Note: Wenham, Genesis 1-15 , pp253-54.]

The chronological framework for the patriarchal stories (Abraham through Joseph) rests on two important texts.

1. 1 Kings 6:1 states that the Exodus took place480 years before the fourth year of Solomon"s reign (i.e, 967 B.C.). This makes the date of the Exodus close to1446 B.C.

2. Exodus 12:40 records that "the sons of Israel lived in Egypt" 430 years before the Exodus , or about1876 B.C. This is the probable date when Jacob"s family moved to Egypt (ch46).

From these two texts we can calculate other dates in the patriarchal period. [Note: For a helpful survey of the recent history of scholarly opinion regarding the historical reliability of the patriarchal narratives, see Kenneth L. Barker, "The Antiquity and Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives," in A Tribute to Gleason Archer, pp131-39; Emil C. Wcela, "The Abraham Stories, History and Faith," Biblical Theology Bulletin10 (October1970):176-81; and Nahum M. Sarna, "Abraham in History," Biblical Archaeology Review3 (December1977):5-9.]

The historicity of the patriarchs continues to be a matter of scholarly debate. The problem is the lack of explicit reference to the patriarchs in nonbiblical literature and in archaeology. Scholars who reject the biblical testimony as unauthentic have been labeled "minimalists," and those who belive the Hebrew Bible credibly supplements nonbiblical material are known as "maximalists." I am one of the latter believing that the biblical records reliably testify to historical individuals and events recorded in this section of Genesis. [Note: For a good discussion of the historicity of the patriarchs and the authenticity of the patriarchal accounts, see Kenneth A. Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26 , pp24-55 , or Wolf, pp113-17.]

"It is ... not because scholars of to-day begin with more conservative presuppositions than their predecessors that they have a much greater respect for the patriarchal stories than was formerly common, but because the evidence warrants it." [Note: H. H. Rowley, "Recent Discovery and the Patriarchal Age," in The Servant of the Lord and Other Essays on the Old Testament, p318.]

"It is beyond question that traditional and conservative views of biblical history, especially of the patriarchal period, will continue to be favored by whatever results accrue from ongoing Ebla research." [Note: Eugene H. Merrill, "Ebla and Biblical Historical Inerrancy," Bibliotheca Sacra140:550 (October-December1983):318. See also Giovanni Pettinato, "The Royal Archives of Tell Mardikh-Ebla," Biblical Archaeologist39 (May1976):44-52.]

Patriarchal Chronological Data [Note: From Eugene H. Merrill, "Fixed Dates in Patriarchal Chronology," Bibliotheca Sacra137:547 (July-September1980):248.]


Birth of Terah

Genesis 11:24


Birth of Abram

Genesis 11:27


Abram's departure from Haran

Genesis 12:4


Abram's marriage to Hagar

Genesis 16:3


Birth of Ishmael

Genesis 16:16


Reaffirmation of covenant

Genesis 17:1


Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah

Genesis 19:24


Birth of Isaac

Genesis 21:2-3; cf. Genesis 21:5


Death of Sarah

Genesis 23:2


Marriage of Isaac

Genesis 25:20


Birth of Jacob and Esau

Genesis 25:26


Death of Abram

Genesis 25:7


Marriage of Esau

Genesis 26:34


Death of Ishmael

Genesis 25:17


Jacob's journey to Haran

Genesis 28:2


Jacob's marriages

Genesis 29:23; Genesis 29:28; Genesis 30:4; Genesis 30:9


Birth of Judah

Genesis 29:35


End of Jacob's14year labor for his wives

Genesis 29:30


Birth of Joseph

Genesis 30:23


End of Jacob's stay with Laban

Genesis 31:41


Jacob's arrival at Shechem

Genesis 33:18


Rape of Dinah

Genesis 34:1-2


Marriage of Judah

Genesis 38:1-2


Selling of Joseph

Genesis 37:2; Genesis 37:28


Joseph imprisoned

Genesis 39:20; cf. Genesis 41:1


Joseph released

Genesis 41:1; Genesis 41:46


Death of Isaac

Genesis 35:28


Beginning of famine

Genesis 41:54


Brothers' first visit to Egypt

Genesis 42:1-3


Judah's incest with Tamar

Genesis 38:18


Brothers' second visit to Egypt

Genesis 43:1; Genesis 43:15; Genesis 45:6; Genesis 45:11


Jacob's descent to Egypt

Genesis 46:6; cf. Genesis 47:9


Death of Jacob

Genesis 47:28


Death of Joseph

Genesis 50:22

Verse 27

1. Terah and Abram"s obedience11:27-12:9

All that Moses wrote in this pericope ( Genesis 11:27 to Genesis 12:9) deals with Abram and his future in the Promised Land. Abram obeyed the Lord"s command to relocate to a land that God would give to him and his descedants with the promise that he would become a blessing to the rest of the world. Abram"s example of obedience is a model for all believers to forsake all else to obtain the promised blessings of God and to serve Him by becoming a blessing to others.

"Within the book of Genesis no section is more significant than Genesis 11:27 to Genesis 12:9." [Note: Wenham, Genesis 1-15 , p281.]

Verse 27

A. What became of Terah11:27-25:11

This is the sixth and central (most important) of the11 toledot sections in Genesis.

A major theme of the Pentateuch is the partial fulfillment of the promises to the patriarchs. The promises in Genesis 12:1-3; Genesis 12:7 are the fountainhead from which the rest of the Pentateuch flows. [Note: See Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 16-50 , p169.] Walter Kaiser labeled the three things promised Abram as an heir, a heritage, and an inheritance. [Note: Walter Kaiser, Toward an Old Testament Theology, pp35 , 84-99.] David Clines called them posterity, relationship with God, and land. [Note: David Clines, The Theme of the Pentateuch, pp29 , 45-60.] J. Dwight Pentecost and Robert L. Saucy referred to them as seed, blessing, and land. [Note: J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come, pp65-94; Robert L. Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism, p42.]

God progressively revealed more information about each of these promises. He gave more information about the land promise in Genesis 13:15; Genesis 13:17; Genesis 15:7-8; Genesis 15:18; Genesis 17:8; Genesis 24:7; Genesis 26:3-4 (plural "lands"); Genesis 28:4; Genesis 28:13; Genesis 35:12; Genesis 48:4; and Genesis 50:24. Repetition of the seed promise occurs in Genesis 13:15-16; Genesis 15:5; Genesis 17:2; Genesis 17:5-10; Genesis 17:13; Genesis 17:16; Genesis 17:19-20; Genesis 18:18; Genesis 21:12; Genesis 22:17-18; Genesis 26:3-4; Genesis 26:24; Genesis 28:13-14; Genesis 32:12; Genesis 35:11-12; Genesis 46:3; and Genesis 48:4; Genesis 48:16.

"A line of successive representative sons of the patriarchs who were regarded as one with the whole group they represented matched the seminal idea already advocated in Genesis 3:15. Furthermore, in the concept of "seed" were the two aspects of the seed as a future benefit and the seed as the present beneficiaries of God"s temporal and spiritual gifts. Consequently, "seed" was always a collective singular noun; never did it appear as a plural noun (e.g, as in "sons"). Thereby the "seed" was marked as a unit, yet with a flexibility of reference: now to the one person, now to the many descendants of that family. This interchange of reference with its implied corporate solidarity was more than a cultural phenomena [sic phenomenon] or an accident of careless editing; it was part and parcel of its doctrinal intention." [Note: Kaiser, Toward an . . ., pp88-89.]

The promise of universal blessing recurs in Genesis 18:18; Genesis 22:18 (to Abraham); Genesis 26:4 (to Isaac); and Genesis 28:14 (to Jacob). God reiterated His purpose with additional detail to Abraham in Genesis 13:14-17; Genesis 17:1-21; and Genesis 22:15-18; to Isaac in Genesis 26:3-5; Genesis 26:24; and to Jacob in Genesis 28:13-15; and Genesis 35:9-12 (cf. Genesis 46:1-4).

"While this promissory triad of blessing, seed, and land is the thematic cord binding the Book of Genesis , we find that the counterthemes of fratricide, violence, uncreation, and expulsion are the literary-theological foil for the promissory blessing." [Note: Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26 , p59.]

Genesis 12-50 focuses on the promise of posterity (an heir, seed), though the other promises receive much attention. Exodus and Leviticus deal more with the promise of worldwide influence (relationship with God, heritage, blessing), and Numbers and Deuteronomy emphasize the promise of real estate (land, inheritance, and rest).

In Genesis 12-25 the problems of possessing the land and obtaining an heir dominate the story of Abram"s life. How will Abram obtain the promised land, and who will be Abram"s promised heir? These are the great questions that the thoughtful reader continually asks as he reads the story of Abram. At least one of these questions is central in every incident in Abram"s life that God has chosen to record in Genesis. These questions form the unifying theme of the Abram narrative. [Note: See Larry Helyer, "The Separation of Abram and Lot: Its Significance in the Patriarchal Narratives," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament26 (June1983):77-88; Claus Westermann, "Promises to the Patriarchs," Interpreter"s Dictionary of the Bible Supplement, pp690-93; Dixon Sutherland, "The Organization of the Abraham Promise Narrative," Zeitschrift fr die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft95:3 (1983):337-43; Whybray, p55; and Wenham, Genesis 1-15 , p262.]

One writer called the form in which Moses revealed Abram"s story an "obstacle story."

"Few literary techniques have enjoyed so universal and perennial a vogue as the obstacle story. It is found in ancient and modern literature from the Gilgamesh epic and the Odyssey to the Perils of Pauline and the latest novel. Its character is episodal in that it is not self-contained but finds its raison d"etre in its relation to the larger story or narrative of which it is a part. Its purpose is to arouse suspense and sustain interest by recounting episodes which threaten or retard the fulfillment of what the reader either suspects or hopes or knows to be the ending of the story." [Note: Peter E. Ellis, The Yahwist, the Bible"s First Theologian, p136.]

Twelve crises arise as the story of Abram"s life unfolds. Each of these must be overcome and is overcome by God who eventually does provide Abram"s descendants. Each of these problems constituted a challenge to Abram"s faith. Is God faithful and powerful enough to provide what He promised? In the end we can see that He is.

Each problem Abram encountered is typical of problems that every believer has to deal with in seeking to live by faith. Consequently each episode in Abram"s life teaches us something about God"s power and faithfulness and should enable us to live by faith more consistently. Moses originally recorded these lessons for Israel"s benefit so the Israelites would emulate Abram"s faith. Abram was not without his flaws, and his failings prove as instructive as his successes, as is true of all biblical characters.

The problems Abram"s faith encountered were these.

1. Sarai was barren and incapable of producing an heir ( Genesis 11:30).

2. Abram had to leave the Promised Land, which God had told him he would inherit ( Genesis 12:10).

3. Abram"s life was in danger in Egypt ( Genesis 12:11-20).

4. Abram"s nephew (heir?), Lot, strove with him over the land (ch13).

5. Abram entered a war and could have died ( Genesis 14:1-16).

6. Abram"s life was in danger from retaliation in the Promised Land ( Genesis 15:1).

7. God ruled Eliezer out as Abram"s heir ( Genesis 15:2-3).

8. Hagar, pregnant with Abram"s son (heir?), departed ( Genesis 16:6).

9. Abimelech threatened Sarai"s reputation and child (heir?) in Gerar (ch20).

10. Abram had two heirs ( Genesis 21:8-11).

11. God commanded Abram to slay his heir (ch22).

12. Abram could not find a proper wife for his heir ( Genesis 24:5).

". . . the narrator has skillfully woven this material together in such a way as to involve the reader/listener in a drama of increasing tension between, on the one hand, the promise of Yahweh that Abram would have an heir and, indeed, would become the father of many nations, and, on the other, the threat to the fulfillment of this promise by a series of crises." [Note: Helyer, p80. See Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26 , p90 , for a diagram of the chiastic structure of the Abraham narrative.]

Verse 27


One of the significant changes in the emphasis that occurs at this point in Genesis is from cursing in the primeval record to blessing in the patriarchal narratives. The Abrahamic Covenant is most important in this respect. How Abram"s family gained and provided these blessings unfolds. Israel could, and we can, identify with their experiences.

"Chapters1-11are set in Babylonia; chs12-36 are set in Palestine; chs37-50 are set in Egypt. (The same kind of tripartite geographical focus emerges from Exodus: 1] Exodus 1:1 to Exodus 12:36, in Egypt; 2] Exodus 12:37 to Exodus 18:27, to Sinai; 3] Exodus 19:1 to Exodus 40:38, at Sinai.) In other words, each part of the Mediterranean world is highlighted in some part of Genesis. The crucial center section of Genesis (chs12-36) is bracketed geographically by two sections of the Near Eastern world with whose history that of Israel would be constantly interlocked....

"In chs1-11we read of individuals who had land, but are either losing it or being expelled from it. In chs12-50 the emphasis is on individuals who do not have land, but are on the way toward it. One group is losing; another group is expecting.

"Genesis is moving us progressively from generation (chs1-2), to degeneration (chs3-11), to regeneration (chs12-50)." [Note: Hamilton, pp10 , 11.]

Chapters1-11present a structural pattern that carries over into the rest of the Pentateuch.

"The importance of Genesis 1-11for the rest of the Pentateuch can be seen in the fact that its narrative structure provides a pattern by which the author often shapes subsequent pentateuchal narratives. Thus the order and arrangement of the Creation accounts in Genesis 1-2exhibit the same pattern as the description of the building of the tabernacle ( Exodus 25-31); the tabernacle is portrayed as a return to the Garden of Eden. The instructions given to Noah for building the ark foreshadow those given to Moses for building the tabernacle. Furthermore, one can demonstrate that whole sections of laws in the Pentateuch have been grouped and arranged in patterns that parallel the narrative structure of Genesis 1-11." [Note: Sailhamer, The Pentateuch . . ., p39.]

"The ancient oriental background to Genesis 1-11shows it to be concerned with rather different issues from those that tend to preoccupy modern readers. It is affirming the unity of God in the face of polytheism, his justice rather than his caprice, his power as opposed to his impotence, his concern for mankind rather than his exploitation. And whereas Mesopotamia clung to the wisdom of primeval Prayer of Manasseh , Genesis records his sinful disobedience. Because as Christians we tend to assume these points in our theology, we often fail to recognize the striking originality of the message of Genesis 1-11and concentrate on subsidiary points that may well be of less moment." [Note: Wenham, Genesis 1-15 , p. l.]

Some notable changes take place in the second part of Genesis , though both parts begin with a creation initiated by the word of God ( Genesis 1:1; Genesis 12:1). Instead of the genealogies being prominent and the stories secondary, as in chapters1-11 , the reverse becomes true now. God retreats farther into the background of the events recorded than was the case earlier, and there is corresponding emphasis on the personalities of the patriarchs. The promises to the patriarchs form the central theme of this section, especially those concerning descendants, land, and divine blessing. There also seems to be increasing depth in the moral awareness of the patriarchs as generation follows generation from Abram to Joseph. [Note: Ibid, p258. See also Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26 , p25]

Verses 27-32

Abram"s ancestors11:27-32

"The function of this genealogy is not so much to connect Abraham with the preceding events, as the previous genealogies have done, but to provide the reader with the necessary background for understanding the events in the life of Abraham. The list includes eight names. All the individuals named are relevant for understanding the events of the following narrative except "Iscah" ( Genesis 11:29). The inclusion of this otherwise insignificant name in the list suggests that the author is seeking to achieve a specific number of names. Thus far in the Book of Genesis , the author has followed a pattern of listing ten names between important individuals in the narrative. In this short list only eight names are given, hence if we are expecting ten names, the number of individuals in this list appears to be short by two names. By listing only eight names, the author leaves the reader uncertain who the ninth and, more importantly, the tenth name will be. It is only as the narrative unfolds that the ninth and tenth names are shown to be the two sons of Abraham, "Ishmael" ( Genesis 16:15) and "Isaac" ( Genesis 21:3)." [Note: Sailhamer, " Genesis ," p109.]

Abram evidently grew up in the city of Ur. A few scholars believe that the Ur in view was located just east of Haran, near the top of the Fertile Crescent. [Note: E.g, Beitzel, pp80-81.] However most hold that it was the Ur in southern Mesopotamia. Since the Chaldeans later lived in southern Mesopotamia, this seems to be the correct site.

"Ur is well known as an important center in the land of Sumer; it reached its zenith under the kings of the third dynasty of Ur, who around2060-1950 B.C. [Abram was born ca2166 B.C.] revived for the last time the ancient cultural traditions of the Sumerians. The names of several of Abram"s relatives are also the names of known cities: ... Terah ... Nahor ... Serug ... Haran ... and Laban the Aramean, Jacob"s father-in-law, was from the city Haran in Paddan-aram. All these are places around the river Balih in northern Mesopotamia. Haran and Nahor are often mentioned in the Mari documents of the eighteenth century B.C, and cities named Tell-terah and Serug are known from later Assyrian sources." [Note: The Macmillan Bible Atlas, p28.]

A later writer probably added the reference to the Chaldeans in Genesis 11:28 since the Chaldeans did not enter Babylonia until about1 ,000 B.C. [Note: Wenham, Genesis 1-15 , p272; Mathews, 11:27-50:26 , p100.]

"The movement between Ur and Haran becomes easy to understand when we recall that Ur was the greatest commercial capital that the world had yet seen . . . ." [Note: W. F. Albright, "Abram the Hebrew: A New Archaeological Interpretation," Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research163 (October1961):44. See The Macmillan Bible Atlas, map25.]

God first called Abram to leave his home when the patriarch still lived in Ur ( Genesis 12:1-3; cf. Genesis 15:7; Nehemiah 9:7; Acts 7:2). Abram"s family members were polytheists ( Joshua 24:2).

"Several of Abram"s relations have names that suggest adherence to lunar worship (cf. Sarah, Milcah, Laban), a cult that was prominent in Ur and Harran [sic Haran]." [Note: Wenham, Genesis 1-15 , p252. Cf. Joshua 24:2.]

Abram married his half-sister, Sarai, which was not contrary to God"s will at this early date in history (cf. Leviticus 18:9; Leviticus 20:17; Deuteronomy 27:22). Endogamy is the practice of marrying within a family group. God"s call was pure grace; there is no evidence in the text that God chose Abram because he merited favor. God was beginning to form a family of faithful followers for Himself. He called them to leave this urban center in trust and obedience. Abram"s exodus from his homeland and Israel"s exodus from Egypt were two key events in the formation of national Israel.

Abram"s family stayed in Haran for some time ( Genesis 11:31-32).

"The difference between Terah and Abraham was one thing only: a response of faith to God"s call." [Note: George Van Pelt Campbell, "Refusing God"s Blessing: An Exposition of Genesis 11:27-32 ," Bibliotheca Sacra165:659 (July-September2008):282.]

When the patriarch Terah died, Abram continued his trek toward Canaan in obedience to God"s call.

"Like Nuzi, Haran was also part of the Hurrian Mitanni Empire whilst the Hurrians were at the height of their power, so that the tablets discovered at Nuzi would also reflect the way of life in Haran. In this manner, scholars have ascertained from a careful study of the Nuzi tablets that they are very helpful in explaining many of the Biblical episodes relating to the Patriarchs, which had hitherto been somewhat puzzling.

"Although the Bible indicates that Abram eventually left Haran ( Genesis 12:4), the Patriarchs nevertheless kept in close contact with that city. Abram sent his servant back to Aram-naharaim, the region in which Haran was situated, in order to find a wife for his son Isaac ( Genesis 24:2-10). Isaac later told his younger son Jacob to flee to his uncle Laban in Haran, in order to escape the wrath of his brother Esau, whom he had tricked out of his birthright blessing ( Genesis 27:43). Jacob indeed fled to Haran, subsequently marrying there his cousins Leah and Rachel ( Genesis 29:1-30).

"The influence of Hurrian society on the Patriarchs was undoubtedly very strong, not only because of the origins of Abram in Mesopotamia, but also because all the Patriarchs maintained contact with the area. This is borne out by the fact that many of the incidents in the Biblical narratives relating to the Patriarchs in reality reflect Hurrian social and legal customs, and prove beyond reasonable doubt that the Patriarchal way of life had its roots in Hurrian society." [Note: Stuart West, "The Nuzi Tablets," Bible and Spade10:3-4 (Summer-Autumn1981):66.]

Archaeologists have dated the Nuzi tablets four or five hundred years after the patriarchs, but they reflect customs that had been prevalent for centuries. [Note: See M. J. Selman, "The Social Environment of the Patriarchs," Tyndale Bulletin27 (1976):114-36.] We should be careful not to overemphasize the influence of Hurrian civilization, however. [Note: Ephraim Speiser did this in his commentary on Genesis.]

"In the period (the first part of the Middle Bronze Age [ca2000-1750 B.C.]) Palestine was receiving an infusion of population as semi-nomadic groups infiltrated the land. . . .

"That these newcomers were "Amorites," of the same Northwest-Semitic stock as those whom we have met in Mesopotamia, can scarcely be doubted. Their names, so far as these are known, point unanimously in that direction. Their mode of life is splendidly illustrated by the Tale of Sinuhe, but especially by the stories of Genesis -for it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the migration of Israel"s ancestors was a part of this very movement. These people brought to Palestine no fundamental ethnic change, for they were of the same general Northwest-Semitic stock as were the Canaanites." [Note: Bright, pp48-49.]

Major Historical Periods of the Promised Land

Stone (Neolithic) Age

to ca4000 BC (?)

Copper (Calcolithic) Age

ca4000-3150 BC (?)

Early Bronze Age I

3150-2850 BC

Early Bronze Age II

2850-2650 BC

Early Bronze Age III

2650-2350 BC

Early Bronze Age IV

2350-2200 BC

Middle Bronze Age I

2200-2000 BC

Middle Bronze Age IIA

2000-1750 BC

Middle Bronze Age IIB

1750-1630 BC

Middle Bronze Age IIC

1630-1550 BC

Late Bronze Age I

1550-1400 BC

Late Bronze Age IIA

1400-1300 BC

Late Bronze Age IIB

1300-1200 BC

Iron Age I

1200-1000 BC

Iron Age II

1000-586 BC

Babylonian/Persian Period


Hellenistic Period I (Ptolemaic and Seleucid)


Hellenistic Period II (Hasmonean)

152-37 BC

Roman Period I (Herodian)

37 BC-AD70

Roman Period II


Roman Period III


Major Historical Periods of the Promised Land (cont.)

Byzantine Period (Christian)


Arab Period (Moslem)


Crusader Period (Christian)


Mameluk Period (Moslem)


Turkish Period (Moslem)


British Mandate Period (Christian)


State of Israel Period (Jewish)

1948 - today


Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Genesis 11:4". "Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable". 2012.

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