corner graphic

Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible

Genesis 11



Verse 1

1. Whole earth… one language… one speech — Hebrew, as margin, one lip and one words. The whole population of the earth was one lip, and one kind of words. They were one in the manner (lip) and the matter (words) of language, that is, they had the same words for things, and the same modes of expression. There is no tautology, as in the common translation, but there are here two distinct ideas, 1) the same stock of words, and 2) the same inflexions and pronunciation. The Noachian language was probably the immediate parent of the Hebrew, Arabic, and Syriac. This primitive language has long ago vanished, but its ruins or debris are scattered everywhere, and can, with more or less certainty, be traced toward a parent formation. There are known at present, according to Kaulen, 860 languages, divided into three great families: 1) isolating, 2) agglutinative, and 3) inflective, each of the last two being regarded as derived from the next preceding; and the science of philology, by studying their manifold analogies and differences, is steadily reducing them to species and genera, all leading up to ultimate unity. The lines of variation all converge toward a distant centre, which, though it may never be scientifically reached, yet is seen by scientific faith. While languages are structurally divided, as above, they are also genealogically divided into Shemitic, Hamitic, and Aryan. This last is a provisional division, having a great number as yet unclassified. We give on pp. 156, 157, Schleicher’s genealogical tree of the Shemitic and Aryan families, the dotted lines representing the dead languages. Of course this represents the present phase of philological knowledge and opinion, and is subject to revision by the advance of science. The Hamitic family has not yet been satisfactorily analysed.


It may be mentioned that the Egyptian is considered by Max Muller as an offshoot of the original Asiatic tongue, before it was broken up into Turanian, Semitic, and Aryan.


One or two illustrations of the unity in this vast variety may suffice. The consonant t, interchanged with its cognates d and th, is the essential element of the second personal pronoun (English thou) in the principal languages of the Shemitic and Aryan families, both as a separate pronoun and as a personal termination. The Hebrew for thou is attah (masc.) and at, (fem.,) thou killest is Katalta (masc.) and Katalt, (fem.) This consonant conveys the idea of the second person through all the conjugations, or species. The same law is seen in Arabic, Syriac, Ethiopic, and Coptic of the Shemitic family. Look now into the Aryan or Indo-European family, and we find in Sanscrit, tua; in Beng., tui; Russ., tu; Greek, συ; Latin and its descendants, tu; German, Dutch, and Danish, du; Gothic and Saxon, thu; English, thou. As a personal ending it is replaced by or used in connexion with its cognate s; thus, for thou art, we have Sanscrit, asi; Russ., gesi; Greek, εις; Latin, es; German, bist, etc. All languages, as far as analyzed, may, according to Max Muller, be reduced to four or five hundred roots, or phonetic types, which form their constituent elements. These sounds are not interjections, nor imitations, but are produced by a power inherent in human nature when the appropriate occasions arise. Man instinctively uses these sounds to express certain conceptions, and they become modified by composition, inflexion, etc., so as to finally produce the infinite varieties of language. Thus the two consonants B (with its cognates P and F) and R, taken together, are instinctively used to express the idea of bearing, or sustaining; take as examples, פרה, φερω, fero, bhri, bairan, baren, βαρος, bairn, bear, burden, pario, fructus, fruit, etc.


Verses 1-9


The narrative here again doubles back upon itself to give the cause of the national divisions described in chap. 10. It reverts to an event which took place in the days of Peleg, (Genesis 10:25,) the fourth in descent from Shem. As the unity of the human race, in the strictest sense of the word, is declared by the account of the deluge, which reduced all mankind to a single family from which the whole world was repeopled, so in this chapter the unity of language is declared, and the primal cause of all the lingual diversities is set forth. The diversity of languages is a divine judgment upon human selfishness and pride, leading to manifold national misunderstandings and bloody conflicts, thus sorely hindering intellectual and moral progress, yet also serving as a providential hinderance to sin. Pride had already broken the bond of brotherly unity, and hence the human family, feeling the lack of that inward attraction, sought an outward unity. Thus ever in history is man drawn to his brother by his instincts, yet perpetually repelled from him by selfishness. Hence the vast monarchies which in all ages have striven to consolidate the race, yet have ever been distinguished by luxury, or have exploded in revolution. Hence the hierarchies, which, through bloody centuries, have blindly striven to make good the lack of love’s fusing flame by chaining men in the unity of ecclesiastical despotism. As sin vanishes, and the brotherhood of charity is restored, these differences of language will vanish also, for in the Messianic reign all “people, nations, and languages shall serve Him,” (Daniel 7:14,) an epoch foreshadowed by the Pentecostal miracle, which made every man to hear the truth in his own language.

Verse 2

2. As they journeyed — Literally, in their breaking up (their encampments;) as they struck their tents and slowly moved with flocks and herds from day to day. The word sets forth the leisurely movements of a nomadic company. It is not necessary to suppose that the whole human race were in this movement. Noah and Shem, who were probably living at the time, would hardly sympathize in the godless enterprise about to be described.

From the east — Or better, as the margin, eastward. Comp. Joshua 7:2; Judges 8:11. They slowly moved from the table-land of Armenia, eastwardly and southerly, along the Euphrates valley to the rich alluvial plain… of Shinar, the region afterwards known as Chaldea and Babylonia. Here was a fertile country in a genial climate, offering a delightful place for permanent residence.

Verse 3

3. Said one to another — Hebrews, each man to his neighbour.

Go to — An obsolete English expression, equivalent to come on.

Burn them thoroughly — In distinction from the sun-dried bricks, so common in Babylonia, which yet are very hard and durable.

They had brick for stone — Stone being the building material with which the Hebrews were chiefly familiar in Egypt.

Slime Bitumen; mineral pitch or asphalt. Although the Babylonian plain has no quarries in or near it, yet, being largely composed of fine sand and clay, it furnishes ample material for the most beautiful and durable bricks. All the splendid edifices of Babylon were built of burnt or sun-dried brick. The plain also abounds in bitumen; called naphtha, when it appears as a thin yellow fluid; petroleum, when thicker and darker; and asphaltum when solid. This substance furnishes an imperishable cement. It was used by Noah in the construction of the ark; by the mother of Moses in the manufacture of her little papyrus boat; by the Egyptians in fastening the cerements of mummies; and is now used by the natives of ancient Shinar in making the ferry boats of the Tigris, which are simply round baskets, daubed with bitumen. The asphalt springs of Is, or Hit, a small stream flowing into the Euphrates, are mentioned by Herodotus, and are thus quaintly described by an old traveller: “Near unto which town (Hit on the river Hit) is a valley of pitch, very marvellous to behold, and a thing almost incredible, wherein are many springs throwing out abundantly a kind of black substance like unto tar, or pitch, which serveth all the countries thereabouts to make staunch their barks and boats, every one of which springs maketh a noise like a smith’s forge, in puffing and blowing out the matter, which never ceaseth, night or day, and the noise is heard a mile off, swallowing up all weighty things that come upon it. The Moors call it the mouth of hell.” — Quoted in Rawlinson’s Herodotus, 1:316.

Verse 4

4. A city, and a tower — Nimrod, the beginning of whose kingdom was Babel, (Genesis 10:10,) is recognized by almost universal tradition as the leader in this movement. His name, which signifies “Let us rebel,” concisely expresses the sentiment of this verse. It was not to escape another deluge, as Josephus imagines, that a lofty tower was to be built, for, had this been the object, a mountain would certainly have been selected for its site rather than a plain; but to establish a conspicuous rallying point, and to erect a strong citadel, whereby the despotic unity at which they aimed could be enforced. They proposed to build a city and a very lofty tower, with its summit in the sky. So the Israelites spoke of the Canaanitish cities as walled up to heaven. Deuteronomy 1:28; Deuteronomy 9:1.

This hyperbolical expression, passing to the heathen nations, perhaps gave rise to the fable concerning the giants who piled up mountains to scale the heavens and dethrone Jupiter. (Homer, Odys., 11:311, etc.)

Let us make us a name — Hebrew, a Shem, perhaps in allusion to Shem who sought renown from God, and refused to engage in their impious schemes. God had promised enduring fame to him, (Genesis 9:26;) they would seek it for themselves. Despotic unity, military power and fame, with the attendant consequences of war, luxury, and slavery, these were the ends of their heaven-defying pride.

Verse 5

5. The Lord came down — God had familiarly dwelt with man before his fall, but he is here represented as living above and afar, visiting the earth only on occasions of special judgment and mercy. The language here employed is “after the manner of men;” and it is to be noted that it is not only after the manner of men of a simple and primitive age, but of a modern and cultured age as well. All our language concerning God’s actions is, and must be, tropical or figurative. To say that in this case God perceived and judged man’s sin, would sound more appropriate to those who do not think precisely and profoundly; but those who do thus think see that perceive and judge are just as tropical, when applied to God, as come down, see, and say. The tropes are more remote, but equally real.

The inspired author would teach that God does not punish without examination.

Verse 6

6. This they begin to do — This is only the beginning of their deeds, and if this daring act of impiety be not rebuked, and their far-reaching plans of centralized human power be not frustrated, nothing will be restrained from them, (Hebrews, cut off from them;) that is, there will be no bound or limit to their purposes.

Verse 7

7. Let us… confound their language — The solemn deliberation and decision of the Triune God is mysteriously intimated in this language. See note on Genesis 1:1; Genesis 1:26. So in the miracle of the Pentecost, which fore-shadowed the restoration of the unity shattered at Babel, CHRIST, at the right hand of the FATHER exalted, shed forth the SPIRIT upon the multitude from “every nation under heaven,” that is, representatives of the whole race.

The language of this verse certainly implies a sudden and miraculous, rather than a gradual and providential, action in the modification of human speech. The mode of such a miracle, as of all miracles, is, of course, inexplicable, for explanation is simply reference to some natural law, and where a miracle is concerned, causes above nature come into action. But the probable character of the miracle may be seen from considering the nature of language. All language, as shown above, can be reduced to some four or five hundred verbal roots, or consonantal combinations — for in the power to produce consonants man’s vocal organs differ essentially from those of brutes — and it was made natural, or instinctive, at creation, for man to produce these sounds to express the elementary ideas, (for example, to produce the sound st to denote fixedness, firmness, etc., as in stand, sto, ιστημι, see also on Genesis 11:1,) just as the dove instinctively coos and the cock crows to express certain emotions. These roots furnished man’s primary outfit, from which, by manifold modifications, he has developed language. Originally these modifications, to express action, passion, time, manner of action, (voice, mood, tense, etc.,) were the same for all men; but now each family of languages has its own peculiar way of expressing them. The Shemitic family conveys these ideas mainly by internal modifications, interposing sounds between the root letters, the Aryan by external modifications, prefixes, and affixes. This may help us understand where the miraculous stroke fell on human nature at the Babel catastrophe, and thus was the “lip,” the manner of expression, not the essential matter, changed. Historical and geographical philology furnish a most remarkable confirmation of the miracle of Babel. The fixedness and generic persistency of the great linguistic types point to a violent cleavage and projection asunder in the remotest past. The Finnish was in Northern Europe before the Celts arrived, and there it still is. It may perish, but it will never change to Slavonic. The Gaelic survives in a few patches of the British Islands, dwindling slowly away, but while it lives it will ever be Gaelic, it cannot develop into English. It is many centuries since the Shemitic, stretching through the Euphrates valley and the Arabian peninsula, clove the Aryan district asunder. But, as in the days of Solomon, the Sanscrit lay on the east and the Pelasgic on the west of the Hebrew, so to-day the same Sanscrit and its children live in the Indian peninsula, and the children of the Greek and Latin and Teutonic flourish in Europe, while the Arabic, in all its Shemitic integrity, lies between, neither family mingling with the other. (See Lewis, Excursus on Genesis 11.)

Verse 8

8. Scattered them — Thus, in the days of Peleg, (Genesis 10:25,) was effected the division of the nations. It is possible, however, that the Shemites were not involved in this judgment, and that the primitive Shemitic tongue, from which have descended the Hebrew, Arabic, and Syriac, was the language that came out of the ark. Jewish and Gentile traditions relate that lightning split the tower to its foundations; such embellishments of the history would, however, naturally arise from imagination. The present appearance of the Borsippa tower (see on Genesis 11:9) may have given rise to this tradition.

Verse 9

9. Babel Confusion; בבל, contracted from בלבל, derived from the verb בלל, to pour together, to confound. (Gesenius.) So the Septuagint. But the local tradition concerning the modern Babil, so generally identified with Babel, is, that it signifies the Gate of Il, that is, Gate of God. Perhaps this name was originally imposed by Nimrod in defiance, and after the judgment described in the text, it changed its meaning, since originally the tower was a symbol of human pride and subsequently of the divine wrath. This would be entirely natural, and both etymologies are equally admissible. What Nimrod meant as a monument of despotic power became a memorial of his discomfiture and shame. It would hardly seem possible that any relics of this ancient structure could now be discovered; but the researches of modern travelers render it highly probable that this edifice was afterwards completed by the kings of Babylon, who have left in the cuneiform inscriptions a record of their work. Oppert, the eminent orientalist, is confident that the modern Birs-Nimrud, at Borsippa, on the west bank of the Euphrates, about six miles from Hillah, is the ruin of this ancient tower, which, he thinks was finished by Nebuchadnezzar, whose name is found stamped upon its bricks, and upon the clay cylinders buried at its angles. It was a temple to Nebo, or Nabu, a deity of the Babylonian kings, whose names are often compounded from Nabu, as Nebuchadnezzar, which was in their orthography Nabu-kuduri-uzur.


Oppert, in his restoration of Babylon, locates this tower near the southwest corner, between the inner and outer walls. At present Birs-Nimrud is a huge pyramidal mound, 153 feet high, rising in solitary grandeur from a vast plain, appearing like a natural hill crowned with a ruin of solid brickwork which rises 37 feet from the summit. This tower-like ruin is rent about halfway down, and vitrified, as if by lightning. Immense masses of fine brickwork, which seem to have been molten, strew the mound, which square, the angles facing the four cardinal points — seems to indicate an astronomical or astrological purpose. Aside from what seems to have been the vestibule, the main ruin is about 400 feet square at the base. It was, according to Oppert, the temple of Belus, described by Herodotus (i, 181) as a square pyramid in seven receding stages, coloured so as to represent the seven planetary spheres, each stage 25 feet in height, the whole resting on a vast substructure 75 feet in height, and a stadium, or over 600 feet, square.

Nebuchadnezzar named it the Temple of the Seven Lights of the Earth, that is, the sun, moon, and planets. Herodotus says that the basement stage was coloured black with bitumen, to give it the hue of Saturn, the most distant planet known to the ancients; the next stage orange, or raw sienna, the hue of Jupiter, which was the natural colour of the burnt brick; the third was colored bright red, by the use of half-burnt bricks of a peculiar red clay, the bloody hue of Mars; the fourth was cased with golden plates, to represent the sun; the fifth stage was built of pale yellow bricks, to represent Venus; the sixth was tinted blue, the colour of Mercury, by vitrifying the bricks to a slag; and the seventh was cased in silver, to give it the colour of the moon. (RAWLINSON, Her., App., book 3.)

Oppert agrees with the Talmudists in making Borsippa the true site of the tower of Babel, and explains the word as meaning, in Babylonian, Tower of Tongues. But the most remarkable thing of all is the cuneiform inscription here found, as by him deciphered. We extract from Oppert’s note, in Smith’s Dictionary, giving a few lines of the inscription to show its character.

“Nabuchodonosor, king of Babylon, shepherd of peoples, who attests the immutable affection of Merodach, the mighty ruler-exalting Nebo; the saviour, the wise man who lends his ears to the orders of the highest god, the lieutenant without reproach, the repairer of the Pyramid and the Tower, eldest son of Nabopolassar, king of Babylon.

“We say: Merodach, the great master, has created me; he has imposed on me to reconstruct his building. Nebo, the guardian over the legions of the heaven and the earth, has charged my hands with the sceptre of justice.”

we have this account of the Borsippa edifice: “We say for the other, that is this edifice, the house of the Seven Lights of the Earth, the most ancient monument of Borsippa. A former king built it, (they reckon 42 ages,) but he did not complete its head. Since a remote time people had abandoned it, without order expressing their words. Since that time the earthquake and the thunder had dispersed its sun-dried clay, the bricks of the casing had been split, and the earth of the interior had been scattered in heaps. Merodach, the great lord, excited my mind to repair this building. I did not change the site, nor did I take away the foundation stone,” etc.

The allusion to the Babel catastrophe in the lines italicised is too plain to be mistaken. It is proper to say, in further explanation of this wonderful monument, that this famous King Nebuchadnezzar came to the throne of Babylon in B.C. 604, and built or rebuilt cities, temples, and all manner of public works, on a scale of magnificence unsurpassed in all history.

Verses 10-26

The Generations of Shem, Genesis 11:10-26.

The narrative here again doubles back upon itself, returning over a century to take a new departure from the birth of Shem’s eldest son, two years after the flood. Having described the judgment that scattered the nations, the historian now returns to give at one view the pedigree of Abraham, the heir of the promises made successively to Adam, Seth, Noah, and Shem, and the father of the covenant people. The great post-diluvian rebellion, which gave rise to all the manifold idolatries of the Gentile nations, has been described, to set forth the need of the Abrahamic call and the Israelitish election; in other words, the dark background of the picture has been painted to set forth more vividly the forms of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Judah, to whom the divine artist now turns all his attention. Abraham was the tenth, inclusive, from Shem, and the twentieth from Adam.

Important variations from the Hebrew text are here found in the Samaritan and Septuagint, similar to those described in the notes on chap. v, giving rise to two different systems of chronology, the long, or Septuagint, that of Jackson, Hales, etc.; and the short, or Hebrew Masoretic chronology, that of Usher, adopted in our English Bibles. There is also a third system, the Rabbinic, which follows the Hebrew with certain variations. These arbitrary changes made by the Septuagint translators, although the question will long remain an open one among the most judicious scholars. The Samaritan, also, adds 650 years to the period between the flood and Abraham’s call, by making six of the patriarchs 100 years older, and one of them, Nahor, 50 years older, at the time of begetting the firstborn son. But the Septuagint, in addition to this, interposes another name, Canan, (comp. Luke 3:36,) between Arphaxad and Shelah, making him 130 years old at the birth of Shelah, and also adds 100 years more to the age of Nahor at the time of the birth of Terah, thus increasing the Samaritan period by 230 years, and the Hebrew period by 880 years. By the Hebrew chronology, followed in our English Bibles, it is, then, 422 years from the flood to the time when Abraham entered Canaan, while by the Samaritan it is 1072 years, and by the Septuagint it is 1302 years. Josephus gives minute chronological data, but he cannot be fully harmonized with either of the above systems, or with himself, although it is evident that the Hebrew numbers are the basis of his calculations.

Now since we find by the Peshito and the Targum of Onkelos that the Hebrew text was the same as now up to the time of the Christian era, and since most of the variations above recounted can be accounted for by the supposition of arbitrary changes on the part of translators and transcribers, it seems wise, with our present light, to adhere to the Hebrew chronology. The reasons for so doing may be found well set forth by Murphy in his Commentary, and are also fully given in M’Clintock & Strong’s Cyclopedia, (Art., Chronology.) It is, meanwhile, to be remembered that these chronological facts, although scientifically most important, yet form no essential part of divine revelation.

10. Shem was a hundred years old, and begat Arphaxad two years after the flood — Hence he was ninety-eight years old when he came out of the ark. Comp. Genesis 5:32; Genesis 7:11, and notes. The generations to Peleg are repeated from Genesis 10:21-25.

18. Peleg Division; that is, of the peoples at Babel. At the flood the average duration of human life was shortened nearly one half: Noah, 950; Shem, 600; Arphaxad, 438; Salah, 433; etc. And now, after the Babel catastrophe, it is shortened about one half again: Peleg, 239; Reu, 239; Serug, 230. After the call of Abraham it was shortened again about one fourth: Abraham, 175; Isaac, 180; Jacob, 147. There are, then, three distinct epochs in human longevity, marked by three divine judgments: the deluge, the Babel judgment, and the call of Abram, which left the idolatrous nations to their own ways.

26. And Terah lived seventy years, and begat (began at that time to beget)

Abram, Nahor, and Haran — Although Abram is mentioned first, as father of the covenant people, as Shem is mentioned first among the sons of Noah, yet Haran was probably the oldest son, begotten when his father was 70 years old. Abram was 75 years old when he left Haran, (Genesis 12:4,) which, according to St. Stephen, (Acts 7:4,) was after Terah’s death. But Terah died in Haran at the age of 205, (Genesis 11:32.) Hence Terah must have been at least 130 years old at the time of Abram’s birth. But see note on Genesis 11:32. Nahor is here mentioned because he was the ancestor of Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel; and Haran as the father of Lot and Iscah, (Sarah,) all of whom were blended with the covenant people.

Shem was ninety-eight years contemporary with Methuselah, who was two hundred and forty-three years contemporary with Adam; so that, if we assume that the genealogy is here completely given, no generations being omitted, there was but one link of tradition through which the story of the creation and of the fall passed over the flood. Shem was, also, one hundred and fifty years contemporary with Abraham, so that the father of the faithful received from an eye-witness the narrative of the flood, and was removed but two generations from the creation; that is, he received the history of events that Adam witnessed and experienced as if from his great-grandfather. The successive links were Adam, Methuselah, Shem, Abraham, thus:


From this plan it is clearly seen that Methuselah was contemporary with Adam from A. M. 687 to 930, and with Shem from 1558 to 1656; and that Abraham was also contemporary with Shem from 2008 to 2158. Thus there was little chance for false tradition.

Verse 27

Generations of Terah,

27. This heading is properly the beginning of the history of Abraham, which gives account also of the peoples most intimately related to the covenant people. The following plan shows the genealogy of the fathers and mothers of these patriarchal nations, or tribes, as far as it is given in the sacred record:


Thus from Terah sprang not only the Israelitish nation, but also the peoples with whom their history is most intimately blended in the patriarchal times: the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, and Ishmaelitish Arabs.

Verse 28

MIGRATION FROM UR, Genesis 11:28-32.

28. And Haran died before his father Terah — That is, in the presence of Terah, or it may mean before, as a designation of time, (see Gesenius,) since the phrase refers to both place and time. If Haran were, as we suppose, the eldest son, there is a special reason why his death should here be mentioned. Terah, as the head of the family tribe, adopts Lot, his grandson, in the place of Haran, his son, as heir to the chieftainship, and then, perhaps, saddened at his loss, under a providential leading, resolves to emigrate from his native land. Abram, as we learn from Acts 7:2, had already heard a divine call to break loose from the idolatries that surrounded him, and in which it seems that Terah’s family were involved, for Joshua says to the Israelites: “Your fathers dwelt on the other side of the flood [Euphrates] in old time… and they served other gods.”

Joshua 24:2, note.

Ur of the Chaldees — Ur was a city, or district, of the כשׂדים, Kasdim, Kardi, Kurds, or Kaldees, a people not mentioned in the table of nations, Genesis 10, under this name, but whose native name, Accad, as it appears in the Babylonian inscriptions, is mentioned in Genesis 10:10, as designating a city in the land of Shinar, the beginning of the (Hamite) kingdom of Nimrod. The primitive Chaldees were an Hamitic people, descendants of Cush, famous as the builders of the first cities, inventors of alphabetic writing, and discoverers in science, especially in astronomy. The name was afterward applied (as in Daniel) to a sect of astrologers and philosophers, who inherited the science and astrologic arts of the ancient Chaldees, and transmitted them in the Cushite language, although dwelling among Shemitic peoples. These Chaldeans of the time of Daniel were thus a learned aristocracy, who had their schools, corresponding to modern universities, (Strabo, 16:1, 6,) at Orchoe and Borsippa, and also (Pliny, H. N., 11:26) at Babylon and Sippara. Chaldea is the great alluvial plain of the Euphrates and Tigris, stretching from the mountains of Kurdistan to the Persian Gulf, about 400 miles in length, and about 100 in breadth, ascending on the east to the chalky limestone wall of the great table-land of Iran, and descending on the west to the Arabian desert. Covered for many centuries with the mighty cities, and teeming with the vast populations, of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires, the whole plain fertilized through a network of canals branching from the two great arterial rivers, it is now a desert, with swamps and marshes and pools, the dwelling-place of lions and jackals and wolves, although in early spring it seems a wilderness of flowers. The great plain is ridged here and there along the courses of ancient canals, and dotted with mounds of earth-covered ruins, from which now and then a solitary mass of ragged brickwork rises into the malarious air. Ur is supposed by Rawlinson to be the Hur of the Babylonian inscriptions, the modern Mugheir, in lower Chaldea, about six miles west of the Euphrates. Orfa, in upper Chaldea, is a rival site, but this place is too near Haran, being only a day’s journey distant. On the rude bricks of Mugheir are found legends of Urukh, king of Hur, the most ancient inscriptions known, unless it be those of a king called Kadur-mapula, found in the same region, who is likely to have been the Elamite Chedorlaomer of Genesis 14. The ruins of a Chaldean temple dedicated to the moon, built in stages like the Tower of Babel, (see above, p. 162,) and composed of sun-dried and kiln-burnt bricks cemented with bitumen, are yet found at Mugheir, whose inscriptions are deemed by Assyrian scholars to show an antiquity higher than Abram’s call. This venerable temple, now nearly 4,000 years old, when it stood in massive magnificence, a monument of Chaldean idolatry, we may probably regard as the very shrine where the family of Terah worshipped; and they turned away from its splendours at the divine call to wander to a far land, there to dwell in tents for centuries, that they might learn to teach mankind the lessons of the ONE only GOD. Whether Terah himself had these higher motives is doubtful. See on Genesis 11:31.

Verse 29

29. Iscah is, by Josephus, (Ant., 1:6,) and by the Jewish writers generally, identified with Sarai or Sarah. If so, Abram married his niece, and Lot was his brother-in-law as well as his nephew. See the plan under Genesis 11:27. That Sarah was in some way descended from Terah appears from Abram’s statement to Abimelech, Genesis 20:12, “She is the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother.”

Verse 31

31. Terah took — Terah, the patriarch of the tribe, here appears as the leader of this movement. In this memorable emigration the divine and the human are seen to co-operate and interact, as in the case of all the great movements of Providence. Natural causes, and even selfish human motives, are taken up into the divine plan. So God uses the avarice of Laban (chap. 31) to bring Jacob back again into Canaan; the envy of Joseph’s brethren to plant Israel in Egypt, (Genesis 45:8;) and the tyrannical cruelty of Pharaoh to transfer them to their final home. In this history, and in the heathen traditions, we see other traces of westward movements from the Mesopotamian plain and the Asiatic table-land around the desert and down the Jordan valley to the Mediterranean shore. Warlike expeditions from beyond the Tigris. as we see from chapter 14, had already brought the kings of the vale of Siddim under tribute to the king of Elam. Shemitic tribes were at this same time pressing westward and southward into the Arabian peninsula, and the Arameans were ascending the Euphrates and settling in Eastern Syria. The migration of Terah and his tribe was thus a part of a general movement of the Shemitic people, settling towards the Mediterranean from the east, divinely guided so as to rescue a branch of that people from the prevailing idolatry, and bless, in their old age, the nations of the earth.

They went forth with them — That is, Lot and Sarai, the two just previously mentioned, went forth with Terah and Abram.

To go into the land of Canaan — There is no indication that Terah had any other than secular motives, but St. Stephen tells us in Acts 7:2, that Abram had already received a divine call. The tribe, with their dependents and cattle, moved slowly up the Mesopotamian plain, intending to advance northward, around the desert, and then south-westerly into the land of Canaan, but arriving in the vicinity of Haran, (Charran of the New Testament, the Carrhae of the Greeks and Romans,) and encamping there, perhaps the advancing infirmities of the aged Terah prevented his moving farther, and so they… dwelt there till Terah was dead. Acts 7:4. Then the migration continued, under the leadership of Abram. But more probably we are to understand the text to state that Terah started on the expedition which terminated in Canaan, that is, which Abram continued to Canaan, although Terah himself had not this issue in mind when he left Ur of the Chaldees. This harmonizes better with Genesis 12:1, “Unto the land that I will show thee,” implying that the particular land was not then made known to Abram, and also with Paul’s language, in Hebrews 11:8, “and he went out, not knowing whither he went.” Haran, or Charran, in north-west Mesopotamia, on the stream Belilk, a little affluent of the Euphrates, situated in a large plain surrounded by mountains, was a natural halting-place for caravans, being but a very little out of the direct route to Canaan, and the point whence diverged the great caravan routes to the fords of the Euphrates and Tigris. There was once here a temple of the moon goddess, as in Ur. The city is remarkable in Roman history as the scene of the defeat of Crassus. It had quite a population under the caliphs, but is now a ruined village, inhabited by a few Arabs.

Verse 32

32. Two hundred and five years — We see, from Genesis 12:4, that Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran. If now he remained in Haran till Terah’s death, then Terah must have been at least one hundred and thirty years old at the time of Abram’s birth, since 205-75=130. But this does not seem likely, since Abram regards it a miraculous thing that he should be a father at one hundred, (Genesis 17:17,) and this surprise at the divine promise is unaccountable if he were himself born when his father was one hundred and thirty. But the narrative allows us to suppose that Abram left Haran some years before Terah’s death, the history of Terah being finished up in this chapter, and the narrative then doubling back upon itself to resume the history of Abram. The only difficulty in this interpretation is, that we find St. Stephen, in his discourse, (Acts 7:4,) assuming that Abram remained in Haran till the death of Terah. In this, however, Stephen, as we see from Philo, followed a Jewish tradition, which was probably erroneous. We do not certainly know in what year of Terah’s life Abram was born.


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

Bibliography Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Genesis 11:4". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". 1874-1909.

Commentary Navigator
Search This Commentary
Enter query in the box below
To report dead links, typos, or html errors or suggestions about making these resources more useful use our convenient contact form
Powered by Lightspeed Technology