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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Genesis 11

 

 

Verses 1-9

THE SIN OF THE NATIONS (11:1-9).

We are now to be shown why the nations divided up into different languages with the consequent suspicions, hatreds and warfares which resulted. Overall it will be seen as a result of puffed up pride and deliberate rebellion against God. (This chapter is only seen as a new chapter in our Bibles. In the record it was simply a continuation of the narrative). God has not been mentioned in Genesis 10 except as a superlative (Genesis 11:9). The nations have grown without God. Now we are to see that the situation in Genesis 10 was caused by Yahweh as a result of man’s sinfulness and rebellion.

Genesis 11:1

‘Now the whole earth was of one language and one speech.’

It is noteworthy in Genesis 10 that, although there was no suggestion of splitting nations according to language, reference to differing languages is made in Genesis 10:5, Genesis 10:20, and Genesis 10:31. That was in preparation for this chapter, as was the diversity of nations. Clearly to begin with, all the sons of Noah spoke the same language. The writer is asking, what then was the cause of the later distinctions?

Genesis 11:2

‘And it came about as they journeyed East that they found a plain in the land of Shinar and they dwelt there.’

“They” simply refers to those who made the choice to go. There is an interesting comparison here with Cain. It was Cain who left the mainstream of those who worshipped Yahweh and set up a ‘city’, in his case of tents, in order to demonstrate his independence and for mutual protection, and in order to build an alternative lifestyle and civilisation. Here we are clearly to see a group of Noah’s descendants doing the same, but with less excuse for they have not yet been branded as outcasts. They made a free choice. The writer saw their aim as being to find somewhere where they could establish themselves in independence of God.

The land of Shinar is where Nimrod will later come in search of glory and conquest (Genesis 10:10). It is the name of Babylonia proper. This will be the beginning of the symbol of Great Babylon which is later seen as the ultimate in rebellion against God (see Revelation 17-18).

Genesis 11:3

‘And they said to one another, “Go to, let us make brick and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone and slime for mortar.’

There is the idea here that they build with perishable materials, material that will not last, although they themselves no doubt saw it as a great advance. This may well be intended to signify the first invention of such building methods, and be seen by the writer as a sign of man’s inventiveness replacing God’s provision. It is part of their rebellion. But he knew that brick and mortar would not have the durability of stone.

Genesis 11:4

‘And they said, “Go to, let us build ourselves a city and a tower whose top may reach to heaven, and let us make us a name lest we be scattered abroad on the face of the earth.” ’

The building of a city is a sign of self sufficiency. They are banding together rather than depending on Yahweh. They no longer wish to depend on His protection, but will protect themselves. Great cities were later compared to prostitutes because they offered illicit enjoyment and took men’s minds away from God.

“A tower whose top may reach to heaven”. This is a graphic way of saying a very high tower (see Deuteronomy 1:28), but it probably contains in it the idea of connecting with the gods. It was not the height of the tower but the type of tower that was significant. It was almost certainly a ziggurat. These buildings, which became a regular feature of life in Mesopotamia, were stepped buildings which were meant to represent a mountain, and at the top of it was a sanctuary. It was felt that the gods dwelt on mountains, so that provision is being made for them to dwell in the city. Thus this represented idol worship. The tower, like the city itself, is seen by the writer as a further sign of rebellion against Yahweh, replacing Him with more amenable gods who will act according to their will.

“Let us make us a name lest we be scattered abroad.” Their aim was to fill the surrounding people with fear so that they might be free from attack. Their expectation was that their strength in gathering together, and the fearful tower in their midst, which would convince people that the gods were with them, would be sufficient to prevent any attack. Thus they would be safe and would not become scattered. They should have been concerned for the name of Yahweh, but they were only concerned for their own name. This contrasts with Genesis 4:26. They have repudiated His name.

Genesis 11:5

‘And Yahweh came down to see the city and the tower which the children of men built.’

The words are deliberately ironic. They are telling us that the city and tower were so small that God could not see them from where He was and so had to come down to have a look, and a laugh. ‘He who sits in the heavens will laugh, Yahweh will have them in derision, then will he speak to them in his wrath, and vex them in his sore displeasure’ (Psalms 2:4). The whole Psalm is apposite here.

“The children of men”, stressing that they are but human beings after all and not gods. Their pitiable buildings are not a threat to God, only to themselves.

Genesis 11:6-7

‘And Yahweh said, “Behold, they are one people, and they all have one language, and this is what they begin doing. And now nothing that they purpose to do will be withheld from them. Go to, let us go down and there confound their language that they may not understand one another”s speech”.’

Yahweh would work on the principle of divide and conquer. Having begun in this way these men will continue with greater and greater rebellion, and lead others astray with them. So the best way to limit this was to confound their language so that men would not necessarily understand each other.

“Go to, let us go down ---”. Further deliberate irony. These men in their pride, arrogance and self-confidence had encouraged each other twice with ‘go to’ (let us get on with it), now it is Yahweh’s turn to say the third ‘go to’. Three is the number of completeness so that the third encouragement completes the scenario. When He acts it brings things to their conclusion.

“Let US go down --”. Yahweh will take His angels with Him to have a look (see 1 Kings 22:19 on; Job 1:6). Compare 1:26 where the angels were first called on to behold the creation of man. Now they must witness his humiliation. These men are to be a spectacle to the heavenly beings who surround the throne of God. They seek to build a mountain to serve gods. Let those who alone populate the heavens behold their folly.

This statement of Yahweh, communicated to some godly man, is the basis of this covenant record. It is a word spoken by Yahweh in a theophany and thus preserved for that reason.

Genesis 11:8

‘So Yahweh scattered them abroad from there on the face of all the earth and they ceased building the city.’

We must notice carefully what happened and what did not happen. There is no suggestion that the tower fell down. No cataclysmic event is described. They do not suddenly start to speak different languages.

“Yahweh scattered them abroad”. It is not difficult to see how. Other men, seeing what they are about, attack them before it is too late, as Nimrod would later (10:10). (Alternatively there may have been climactic storms and lightning striking the city which caused them to flee in terror, or disease and pestilence and famine may have caused their flight. Whatever it was they fled never to return). Thus their efforts have proved in vain and they are scattered. The final result will be that their languages will begin to change until they are dialects, and will continue to change even more and establish more advanced systems, until they are unrecognisable to each other.

Genesis 11:9

‘Therefore its name was called “Babel” (similar to ‘balel’ - to confound) because Yahweh there confounded the language of all the earth, and from there Yahweh scattered them abroad on the face of the earth.’

Bab - el means literally ‘the gate of god’ (compare Babylonian ‘bab ili’) but the writer makes a play on words to change it to signify confusion. The gate that these men thought would lead them to the gods resulted only in their confusion. So as the writer looks back on what happened he recognises what its final consequences were.

There is a partially parallel account of this event elsewhere where Ur-Nammu (3rd millennium BC) is seen as commanded by the gods to build a ziggurat, but the gods are then offended and throw it down, confusing men’s languages and scattering them over the earth. The throwing down of the tower is clearly an addition to the story suggesting that the Ur Nammu version is later than an earlier account on which Genesis is based. Unlike this story with its deep undertones that was but an example of the irascibility of the gods.

The final result is that mankind is to be scattered and split up. By their act of independence unity and brotherhood is gone. The world is no longer one.


Verses 10-27

The Birth of Abram (Genesis 11:10 b to 27a).

The genealogy that follows links Abram back to Shem. This was why God was to be blessed with regard to Shem (9:26). It would be through him that God’s man for the times would come. There is a chosen line reflected throughout chapters 1-11, and it leads up to Abram.

Genesis 11:10 b

‘Shem was a hundred years old and begat Arpachshad two years after the flood. And Shem lived after he begat Arpachshad five hundred years and begat sons and daughters.’

The pattern of the genealogy is different from that in Genesis 5. This stresses that these genealogies were not an invention of the writer but based on material handed down from different sources with differing patterns. It was he who built those earlier records up into the account we now have, without altering the basic records except in order to make a continuing narrative.

The narrative uses round numbers. The significance of numbers in the ancient world lay in their intrinsic meaning, rather than their numerical meaning. ‘A hundred years’ signifies that the time of Arpachshad’s birth was right. It was in the fullness of time. It is ten intensified.

(Using other information (Genesis 5:32 and Genesis 7:6) and adding two years we would come to 102. To suggest that there is a conflict is to discount the fact that the figures could exclude or include parts of years respectively. The traditions of the inclusion or exclusion of part years changed from age to age. The writer is not trying to reconcile the numbers but taking them as they are written. Using part years they can be reconciled, but that is not the point. The numbers are probably not intended to be taken literally anyway).

Shem lives another 500 years making 600 in all. This is probably intended to draw attention to his covenant connections and also to the fact that he does not achieve 700, a divinely perfect age. As a sinful man he must come short. (We could go further and suggest that 1 is the number of unity showing that at the time of Arpachshad’s birth the world was united, that 5 is the number of covenant showing that Arpachshad is the child of covenant, and it may well be right. Numbers were used in this way in ancient times. But we would not wish to press it).

The patriarchs that follow are listed with ages gradually decreasing, a further indication of the fact that man is fallen and must die, and ever more quickly. The names are mainly clearly of a Mesopotamian background. Eber reminds us of the Habiru, Peleg reminds us of the irrigation canals (palgu), and possibly of Phaliga on the upper Euphrates, Serug reminds us of Sarug, west of Haran, Nahor reminds us of Nahiri, near Haran, Terah reminds us of Turahi on the Balikh, Haran reminds us of Haran itself which was the seat of the ancient moon cult.

That these patriarchs lived lives of great longevity we need not doubt but as we have pointed out elsewhere The Use of Numbers in ANE it is very questionable whether the numbers are intended to be taken literally.

The line of ten patriarchs is probably to be seen as a selection of patriarchs numbering ten to represent completeness, rather than indicating the complete line, as with the list in Genesis 5 and in the king lists of other nations. We must admit to grave doubts as to whether Shem was alive when Abram made his great venture of faith, for if he was he would have been the family patriarch and would need to be consulted on ‘family’ matters, and his name would appear in the colophon. It is rather Terah who appears as the head of the family. And if these great men of faith were still alive, why are they never mentioned in any way?

Genesis 11:26-27 a

‘When Terah had lived seventy years he begat Abram, Nahor and Haran. Now this is the history of Terah.’

The age at which Terah bore his children is an intensification of seven. It was a divinely perfect result. Thus ends the final tablet of Genesis 1 - Genesis 11. The epic is complete and prepares the way for the future that is to come.

This brief tablet is the only tablet in the first part of Genesis not based on a covenant word. The reason why it was preserved was that Abram was God’s covenant man. And indeed if Abram was the one who put together this epic this would explain why he concludes it with his genealogy.

The question of the basis of Abram’s faith has to be accounted for. While it was true that he had vivid experiences of God, we can ask what originally turned his thoughts in Yahweh’s direction when his father Terah was a worshipper of other gods and brought them up to worship them? Joshua states quite clearly to the people of Israel, “Your fathers dwelt of old time beyond the River (the Euphrates), even Terah the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, and they served other gods.” Furthermore he gave his son the name Abram ‘my father is Ram’. What then caused this great change in Abram’s life, whereby he turned from the gods his father worshipped to worship Yahweh, and why too were these tablets preserved and carried about in trying circumstances?

The answer to all these questions possibly lies in the fact that Terah as head of the family possessed the family covenant records and that Abram took these records and read them and came to faith in Yahweh. Then what more likely that he should put them together to form an epic on the pattern that we know of from the Epic of Atrahasis, which itself was probably based on earlier epics including the accounts of Creation and the Flood with which Abram was familiar. Someone with a Mesopotamian background did this. Who more likely than Abram?


Verses 27-29

The Call of Abram (Genesis 11:27 to Gen_12:9)

Genesis 11:27-29

‘Terah begat Abram, Nahor and Haran, and Haran begat Lot. And Haran died in the presence of his father Terah in the land of his nativity, in Ur of the Chaldees. And Abram and Nahor took wives for themselves, the name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife Milcah, the daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah and the father of Iscah.’

Like Noah (Genesis 5:32),Terah has three sons, seen as a sign of completeness. The detailed information given in this section is typical of the Ancient Near East as introductory to the covenant that follows. It stresses the importance of Abram

Haran dies comparatively young, but before he dies Haran begets Lot. The mention of Lot here is because he represents Haran in the family. The seed has not died out. Haran’s daughter Milcah marries Nahor. We have no further mention of Iscah, but the mention here demonstrates a good knowledge of the family records.

The names of Terah, Abram, Nahor and Haran can all be paralleled in the area in the third and second millennium BC. (Not of course as representing these individuals but as typical names of the period).

It is quite clear that the family home is Ur of the Chaldees. The family are not just semi-nomads wandering from place to place, they are inhabitants of Ur, although probably even at this stage with large herds and flocks. Ur of the Chaldees was an important and highly sophisticated city of ancient origin, where the brothers would have access to a good education.

But they were probably not full city-dwellers as such. Ur’s principal deity was Nannar, the moon god, who was also worshipped at Haran, and probably worshipped by Terah. This worship in fact included a number of degrading elements which Abram would have found disturbing. The description ‘of the Chaldees’ was probably added much later to identify which Ur it was (there were a number of Urs - for Ur means ‘city’).

There is clear evidence that in Ur there was a belief in the afterlife. In the royal ‘death pits’ servants had gone into these royal burial places, had taken up their positions and had then drunk poison from cups, sometimes golden ones. This could only have been because they were expected to serve their masters in the life to come. But we must not read too much into this. We do not know what kind of ‘life’ they expected and there is no specific mention in the patriarchal narratives of such a belief.

It is interesting that details of Nahor’s wife’s relationship are given and not those of Sarai even though later she is described by Abraham as ‘the daughter of my father but not the daughter of my mother’ (Genesis 20:12). This again may have been in order to emphasise that Haran was fruitful even though he died comparatively young. Or it may be because Sarai was barren. While it is clear later that Sarai is an outstandingly beautiful woman, she bears the shame of unfruitfulness. Rebecca, the later wife of Jacob, was descended from Milcah (Genesis 22:20-24).

The inter-marrying suggests a sense of exclusiveness, confirmed when a wife is sought for Isaac from within the ‘family’. Sons of Terah could not just marry anybody. Such marriage practises are confirmed elsewhere.

Later narrative (Genesis 31:53), where the God of Abraham is distinguished from the god of Nahor (Yahweh was not ‘the god of their father’), suggests that Nahor continued to worship his father’s gods (see also Joshua 24:2). He was not affected by his brother’s conversion.

We note that Ur of the Chaldees was destroyed around 1950 BC. This therefore points to the fact that these events took place before then. Possibly God’s command to Abram was also a warning of what was to come on Ur.


Verse 30-31

‘And Sarai was barren. She had no child.’

The matter is stated quite starkly to explain why no information is given as to Abram’s seed. Abram and Sarai stood out from the others in that they had no children, which in those days was a matter of great grief and shame. It also caused problems in the matter of inheritance (15:3). It is quite possible that this was seen by his family as being the result of Abram not worshipping the family gods. But the writer clearly has future events in mind. The starkness here brings out the wonderful joy when this is at last remedied.

Genesis 11:31

‘And Terah took Abram, his son, and Lot, the son of Haran, his son’s son, and Sarai, his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife, and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldees to go into the land of Canaan. And they came to Haran and dwelt there. And the days of Terah were two hundred and five years. And Terah died in Haran.’

The repetition of detail is typical of ancient narrative. The description of Sarai is interesting. Not Terah’s daughter but his daughter-in-law. She was childless! How deeply this was felt. Not even her outstanding beauty could make up for that. Alternatively it may stress her status, not just a daughter but the wife of Abram. Haran is well attested to as an ancient city existing well before this time and being on a regular trading route.

We do not know what caused Terah to determine to go to Canaan. Was it the constant urging of his son Abram who had received a divine command (Genesis 12:1)? But when they arrived at Haran Terah decided to stay. Perhaps it was too nice a place to leave, or perhaps it resulted from his zeal for the moon god. So he exercised his authority as ‘prince’ of the family. Thus they settled down there and made it their home to such an extent that it was later looked on as their motherland (Genesis 24:4; Genesis 29:4).

We are not told at this stage what Nahor did, but certainly later he is found at Haran. The writer is not concerned with the motives and doings of Terah and Nahor. His thoughts are centred on Abram. For the covenant around which the document is written (Genesis 12:1-3), which is the reason for the writing of the record, is with Abram.

“And the days of Terah were two hundred and five years. And Terah died in Haran”. Such is the detail of Terah’s life. He bore children and he died. He never reached Canaan, never even realised what he was missing, - to be a part in the greatest adventure of all time, the beginning of the long history of salvation, and to miss out. How easy it is to fail to recognise our opportunity! But the days in Haran were beneficial to Abram for he established his independence and built up his own family tribe and wealth (Genesis 12:5). When it seems to us that God’s plans for us have come to a stop we must take the opportunities that are on our doorstep.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Genesis 11:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/genesis-11.html. 2013.

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