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Bible Commentaries

F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary

Genesis 11

 

 

Verses 1-4

The closing verse of Genesis 10:1-32 alluded to the distribution of the nations of the earth after the flood. The first nine verses of Genesis 11:1-32 tell us how that division came about. For some time after the flood nations did not exist. All men were descendants of Noah: a rapidly increasing family, but all speaking alike.

As time went on population increased and the urge to push outward from the original centre became irresistible. The pioneers of this movement were doubtless the more daring and forceful individuals, who soon became conscious that their migration from the centre of things might entail a loss of prestige and power. This they determined to remedy by a bold stroke.

Human history had recommenced under Noah in the mountainous region of Ararat: they now found themselves on a flat and uninteresting plain with no commanding heights. So they would build themselves a city surrounding a tower of immense height, and thus make themselves a name. When considering the last verse of Genesis 4:1-26, we noted that the name Seth gave his son was significant, for Enos means mortal and weak. He recognized man's frail mortal nature, and it is at once said that then men began to call on the name of the Lord. What is now before us is in direct contrast with that. Here were men full of self-sufficiency and self-importance bent upon making a name for themselves.

The expression, "Go to" is old fashioned. Today we should say, "Come on." They incited one another in their course of self-aggrandisement. They had left the regions where stone was plentiful so they invented brick-making, and the "slime," or "bitumen," which abounds in the Mesopotamian plain served them as mortar. The Nimrod episode had taken place somewhat earlier. That was one man exalting himself at the expense of his fellows The tower of Babel episode was mankind concerting together for their own self-glorification in the establishing of a great centre of power and influence.

It is an interesting fact that the archaeologists, who explore the ruined cities of the Mesopotamian plain, often allude to the "ziggurat" that is, a large elevated structure — around which the city was originally grouped. So the tower idea was evidently quite popular in those far-off days. They became the "high places" where idols and idol sacrifices flourished.

The tower of Babel may well have been the start of man's lapse into idolatry, for we know that in later centuries Babylon was recognized as the original home and mother of idolatry: see Jeremiah 51:7 and Revelation 17:4, Revelation 17:5.

Upon all these doings the eyes of the Lord rested. He not only saw its immediate significance but foresaw its ultimate development, as is so strikingly presented in verse Genesis 11:6. He knew the capacities with which He had endowed mankind, and the imaginations that would fill their minds as fallen creatures. Those imaginations are only evil continually, as we read in Genesis 6:5. If the human race remained in unbroken unity, to develop into hundreds of millions, all their evil imaginations would find speedy accomplishment. The Creator knew that man, His creature, had such powers and capacities as would enable him ultimately to accomplish all he imagined to do. Hence His action in confounding the language of the spreading families of mankind, thus putting a heavy brake on the wheels of man's chariot of progress.

We may pause to observe that now, for the last century or two there has been renewed effort to consolidate the human race. There have been efforts to provide a universal language. Scientific and technical knowledge is much more freely pooled, and in result things have been achieved that 200 years ago would have seemed simply incredible. The ancients entertained the imagination of men flying like birds. A century ago romances were written of men travelling beneath the seas. The imagination was there, but will it ever be translated into fact? It did not look like it! Yet the Lord had said, "Nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do." We have reached the twentieth century after Christ, and lo! these things are done.

We are living in an age when there is being unfolded before our eyes the implications of Genesis 11:6. Had it not been for the confusion of language the atom bomb would have arrived far earlier in the world's history, and mankind well-nigh destroyed itself long ago. 'The Governor of the nations acted in judgment at Babel, and we can thank Him that He did so, since an element of mercy was enfolded in His judgment.

The scattering of mankind into language groups was the inevitable result, and the building of Babel was halted. Each individual had of necessity to go with those who spoke as he did, and each language group naturally separated itself from the others, who became foreigners to it, and with whom at the outset no intelligent intercourse was possible, Hence by this one act of God, the fruit of His wisdom and power, the plans of men were brought to nothing. Their purpose had been centralization, lest they should be scattered. The Divine act produced in the simplest possible way the very thing they aimed at preventing.

We regard this as a sign given in the very early days of the present world system of how God will always react in the presence of men's evil schemes and projects. Consequently men are again and again bringing upon themselves the things they aim at avoiding. And not only so, they also produce "Babel," that is, confusion. Was ever mankind so full of ideas and theories and projects as today? And was ever the earth more filled with confusion? We may be sure that though the mills of God's. government grind slowly they grind with precision. Earth's outlook is terrifying apart from the blessed hope of the coming of the Lord.

Verse Genesis 11:10 starts the fifth paragraph or division of the book; Genesis 10:1-32 began the generations of the sons of Noah. We now come to the generations of Shem, one of the shortest of these divisions. It extends only to the end of verse Genesis 11:26, and gives us names and ages of the patriarchs descended from Shem up to the time of Abraham. As to these we have only two things to remark; the first being that, as before noted in connection with the ages of the patriarchs before the flood, there is again discrepancy between the Hebrew Scriptures and the Septuagint, as explained when we considered Genesis 5:1-32. Any chronology that may be deduced as to the lapse of time between Shem and Abraham is rendered doubtful to the extent of 650 years.

The second remark concerns verse Genesis 11:26, from which we should be inclined to assume that Abram was the eldest son of Terah, born when his father was 70 years old. But Genesis 12:1 quite definitely states that Terah died in Haran aged 205 years; verse Genesis 11:4 of that chapter states with equal plainness that Terah being dead (see Acts 7:4) Abram left Haran, aged 75 years, and not 135 years as we should have expected. The conclusion to be drawn appears to be that Terah's family commenced when he was 70 years of age, that Abram was not born till he was 130, but that he is mentioned first in verse Genesis 11:26 because Terah's other children were of small importance compared with him. These things should surely teach us that God is concerned with moral and spiritual considerations rather than those of a chronological kind.

The generations of Terah begin with verse Genesis 11:27, and do not end until we reach the death of Abraham in Genesis 25:1-34. As to Terah himself, we learn at the end of our chapter that Ur of the Chaldees was his home, and that late in his life he left Ur to go to the land of Canaan, but stopped at Haran on his way. With him he had Abram and Sarai together with Lot his grandson. Milcah, who was Nahor's wife, is also mentioned, inasmuch as her descendants come into the history of God's ways later on.

But, as we open Genesis 12:1-20, a new fact of great importance is mentioned. This migration of Terah from Ur of the Chaldees, just stated, really took place at the instance of Abram, to whom God had spoken, calling him to a life of separation from his old associations. He was to cut his links with country, kindred and even his father's house; that is, with his national, his social, and his domestic circles, in order to go to a land that God would indicate. The full significance of this will be better appreciated if, before going further, we read Joshua 24:2, then the opening of Stephen's address in Acts 7:1-60, and also Hebrews 11:8-10.

There is no mention of idolatry amongst the evils that filled the earth during the antediluvian age. By the time of Abram the post-diluvian apostasy that started with Nimrod and Babel, had developed; idolatry was overspreading the peoples, and threatening to exclude the true knowledge of God. It had got amongst the descendants of Shem and even Terah, if not Abram himself, had been infected by it. To preserve a testimony to Himself God called Abram clean out of the evil, to become a pilgrim and stranger in the earth. Mankind was already divided into nations under the Divine government: it was now to witness a division of another kind — the separation of a godly seed from the mass of the ungodly. This was a division produced by Divine grace.

To the men of Ur Abram's departure from their city with all its civilized amenities doubtless appeared as foolish an act as that of Noah had appeared, when he built his ark on dry ground — foolish indeed but unimportant and soon to be forgotten. We now look back to it, nearly 4,000 years after it happened, and realize it to have been an epoch-making event, establishing a principle of God's ways, the effect of which will abide to the end of time. From that moment God's work in the world has been based on the calling out of a people for Himself and separating them from the ungodly. From Abraham sprang the nation of Israel, who were separated under His government. Today the church is being called out and separated under His grace. In the coming age He will separate a people for millennial blessing under His Judgment.

Verses Genesis 11:2-3 show us that the man of faith, separated to God, obtains what the men of the world aim at and miss. The builders of Babel desired to make themselves a great name by concentration, and brought down upon themselves a curse, and their names have long been utterly obliterated. God made Abram's name great in his separation by faith, and through him all the families of the earth have been blessed. No name from those early ages has remained so great and famous as his. It is known and reverenced even today by millions - not only by Christians and Jews, but by Mohammedans also. The promises of these two verses have been amply fulfilled in the 4,000 years since they were spoken, and supremely so by the coming of Christ.

Verses Genesis 11:4-5 declare that though Abram was detained at Haran until the death of Terah, he did ultimately reach the land to which God called him, taking with him his nephew Lot and all their possessions. The following verses show that, having reached it, God again appeared to him, and confirmed the promise of the land to his seed as well as to himself. In that early day the descendants of Canaan, the son of Ham, who had come under the curse of Noah, were in possession of the land. Fully 400 years had yet to pass before the curse would fall upon them by Israel taking forcible possession; and meanwhile Abram- was a pilgrim in a tent, but in touch with God and building an altar to Him in the places of his sojourn. Nevertheless from that moment there can be no question as to those who are the rightful owners of that land. To Abram's seed it belongs today, though it will need an act of God to put them in possession in a lasting way, just as their ejection from it, both under Nebuchadnezzar and under the Romans, were acts of God.

Abram had been called of God and greatly blessed in responding to the call. He was pre-eminently the man of faith, yet the Scripture does not hide from us his occasional weakness and failure. God had called him to Canaan and not to Egypt. Yet when famine arose he does not appear to have asked counsel of God, but down to Egypt he went. By so doing he doubtless escaped the famine, but he ran into difficulties that he had not faith to meet. Have we not often had to discover that a way which to worldly wisdom seems eminently wise, leads us into a position of spiritual danger? In Abram's case this dawned upon him as he neared the borders of Egypt. With all its splendour and affluence the morals of Egypt were deplorably low and he sensed danger.

The simple ruse that Abram suggested to Sarai was not the telling of a downright lie, since Sarai was. his half-sister, as we find in Genesis 20:12, yet it worked disastrously. It was just that kind of half-truth, or half-lie, which so often has been a snare to true saints of God. Men of the world may do that kind of thing and apparently be gainers, but if saints of God descend to that level they are always ultimately the losers.

His first thought was for his own life, and then for Sarai's virtue. The situation developed very much as he expected, but the outcome was not at all what he expected, inasmuch as God intervened. His mistake lay just there. In this move he had left God out of his calculations, though in the main purport of his life he was a man of faith. Thus it often is with us: we may trust Him in the big things, yet forget to refer to Him in the smaller things.

The Lord intervened so drastically in the plaguing of Pharaoh's house that even that heathen monarch woke up to the facts of the situation and acted rightly. And not only so, but he also rebuked Abram. Now it is a sorry situation when a man of the world can rightly rebuke a man of faith. But so it was here, and so alas! it has too often been since. Let us all be concerned that we do not find ourselves in such a situation.

As Genesis 13:1-18 opens we find Abram returning into the south parts of Canaan and making his way back to the spot between Bethel and Hai, where he had raised an altar when first he came into the land of promise. This was the spot where he had been in touch with God and where he should have stayed instead of going down into Egypt.

Back at the old spot, we read, "there Abram called on the name of the Lord." The interrupted communion was restored, since he had got back, so to speak, to his first love. Here is a record which is intended to make us "wise unto salvation" from backsliding of a similar kind.

Now that we have Abram back in his right place, let us sum up the situation. The world system started by men realizing that they could achieve as a community what they could not as mere individuals. They aimed at glorifying themselves by the building of a city as a permanent centre of influence, and a mighty tower, which would be used ultimately — if not immediately — for idolatrous purposes, and for getting into touch with the demon powers which lay behind the idols.

Abram is called by God out of that world system. Instead of a city of bricks and bitumen he had but a flimsy tent, which could be taken down in an hour. Instead of a lofty and imposing tower he had a lowly altar, whereon were offered the sacrifices that were according to God's thoughts. And there he called on the name of the Lord, and entered into communion with Him instead of falling a prey to the deceits instigated by demons.

The world system has developed, but it has not changed its essential features. Let us see to it that we pursue a path through it in keeping with the way pursued by Abram.

 


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Bibliography Information
Hole, Frank Binford. "Commentary on Genesis 11:4". "F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/fbh/genesis-11.html. 1947.

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