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Genesis Lesson Eleven | 10:1–11:9

Genesis Lesson Eleven | 10:1–11:9

Prayerfully read Genesis 10:1–11:9 at least two times and then read the following notes.

Context: Setting the Table

After a creational prologue (1:1–2:3), the “history of the heavens and the earth” (2:4–4:26) relates God’s provision for his image bearers and their subsequent rebellion. The second section, the “book of the generations of Adam,” (5:1–6:8) sets forth the line of Seth. The third section, “the family history of Noah” (6:9–9:29), tells of the great flood and God’s covenant with Noah. This fourth section, “the generations of the sons of Noah (10:1–11:9), begins with the “table of nations” and continues with the story of the Tower of Babel, setting the stage for the call of Abram.

Content: Reading the Text

(10:1–32) The Table of Nations
(10:1) Introduction
(10:1) This fourth of the ten sections of the book of Genesis tells the story of the dispersion of the nations and sets the stage for the call of Abram to follow. The birth of sons after the flood, not only to Shem, but also to Ham and Japheth, represents God’s blessing on all of Noah’s descendants (Genesis 9:1).
(10:2–6) The Sons of Japheth
(10:2–6) These verses record 14 “sons” in all for Japheth, each of which represents a people group, or nation, with which the children of Israel were familiar.
(10:5) The repeated reference to “nations” (“Gentiles” and “nations” translate the same Hebrew word) is why 10:1–32 is often known as the “table of nations.” As this records the division of peoples based on their “tongue” or language, it is clear that the events in 11:1–9 took place chronologically prior to the division of the nations described in 10:1–32.
(10:7–20) The Sons of Ham
(10:7–20) These verses record 30 “sons,” or nations that were descendants of Ham. As Nimrod was a particular ruler, rather than the founder of a “nation,” he is generally excluded from this total.1
(10:8–9) While there is nothing that is said about Nimrod in these verses is explicitly negative (“before the Lord” could even be interpreted in a positive sense), the following story of the Tower of Babel raises questions about Nimrod’s rise to power. The ancient kings of Babylon and Assyria were well known for their hunting exploits, real and exaggerated.
(10:9) “Lord” occurs exactly seven times in 10:1–11:9.
(10:13) Both the “-im” endings found in 10:13–14 and the “-ite” endings found in 10:16–18 are typical ways in Hebrew to refer to people groups, similar to the way we use words like “Spaniard” in English.
(10:15) The reference to Sidon without Tyre is an important indication of the antiquity of this list. While Tyre eclipsed Sidon in importance later on (by about the tenth century BC), earlier records make no mention of it.2
(10:19) This is “the first definition of the not-yet-promised land in Genesis.”3 It serves to set the context for the narratives of the patriarchs to follow.
(10:21–31) The Sons of Shem
(10:21–32) These verses record 26 “sons,” or nations that were descendants of Shem. Israel itself, of course, is not mentioned.
(10:21) The Hebrew grammar of the phrase translated as “the brother of Japheth the elder” is somewhat ambiguous. It could be taken as asserting either that Shem was the elder brother of Japheth or that Shem was the brother of Japheth the elder. English translations differ. In either case, as Genesis 9:24 makes clear, Ham was the youngest.
(10:25a) While the “table of nations” goes on to give the descendants of Joktan, none are listed for Peleg. Unlike all the other “nations,” Peleg and his descendants represented the chosen line through which the seed of promise would come. His genealogy, which leads to the birth of Abram, is picked up in 11:10–26.
(10:25b) The verb translated as “divided” and the name Peleg sound very similar in Hebrew.
(10:32) Conclusion to the Table of Nations
(10:1–32a) It has long been recognized that we are intended to count 70 nations in this table, a “round” number often used to represent a totality in Hebrew. It is not a coincidence that the house of Jacob in Genesis 46:27 and Exodus 1:5 also total 70—it is just one hint among many that God had not forgotten his promise that the call of Abram would be the means of blessing the nations through his descendants. In light of what follows in the book of Acts, it is also unlikely to be a coincidence that Jesus is said to send out 70 disciples as his representatives (Luke 10:1).4 Though the day of Pentecost was yet to come, Jesus was already hinting that his representatives are to go forth into all the nations.5
(10:1–32b) Genesis makes it clear that all of humanity, including those nations that the ancients Israelites saw as their enemies, shared a common ancestry in Noah. “This conviction, incidentally, is strikingly inconsistent with the particularistic fancies of the ancient Egyptians, who exclusively reserved for themselves the designation “men,” while regarding all other peoples as descended from the enemies of the gods.”6
(11:1–9) The Tower of Babel
(11:1) As mentioned earlier, this narrative takes place before the dispersion of the nations described in 10:1–32. This is significant for two reasons: (1) While the forcible dispersion of the nations was a result of God’s judgment, the dispersion itself was part of God’s plan to “replenish the earth” and represented his creational blessing, not the outworking of the curse. (2) As we will see next week, by placing the genealogy and then call of Abram immediately after the tower rebellion, it is made even clearer that the call of Abram is God’s plan to deal with the rebellion of humanity as a whole.
(11:2) The mention of “Shinar” links the story of the tower builders back to the career of Nimrod described earlier.
(11:4) The builders of Tower of Babel sought to establish a “name” for themselves by their own effort. Rather than trusting God’s plan for “replenishing the earth,” they rebelliously decided to protect themselves and their future in their own way.
(11:7) The word translated as “confound” in this verse quite literally confounds the intention of the tower builders. It uses the same letters as the word translated as “build” in verse 3—in reverse order!
(11:9) “The people wanted to make a name for themselves, and, indeed, they did, but it is a name of shame.”7
(11:1–9) In describing the events of Pentecost (Acts 2), Luke is describing the undoing of the division of the nations at Babel.8 The sign of tongues meant nothing less than that the blessing that God had all along promised to bring to the nations through the descendants of Abraham had finally arrived! Whereas the judgment at Babel resulted in the choosing of a particular nation (the descendants of Abraham), to the exclusion of all others, the outpouring at Pentecost resulted in the inclusion of all nations in the new-creational humanity that is even now being formed by the Spirit as the body of Christ, the promised seed of Abraham (Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 2:15; Revelation 5:9). All nation-states, including our own, are representatives of the temporary disunity of the old-creation, a disunity that is even now being done away with in Christ. Central to the message of the gospel is the reality that all who are in Christ are now one people who must worship God with one voice because that is what the Old Testament promised (Romans 15:5–12). Though we must continue to respect our earthly rulers (Romans 13), we must never forget that our true citizenship is already in heaven (Philippians 3:20). While we must always be thankful for the influence of Christianity on particular nations, including our own, we must understand that there can be no such thing as a “Christian nation.” The outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost represents the beginning of the end for each and every nation-state in this present world-order, America no less than North Korea.

Credo: Believing the Truth

As the sad ending of Noah’s life showed, the flood that had given mankind a new start had yet not given new hearts to God’s image bearers. God’s story of redemption was only just beginning. Before God could redeem a people to himself out of every kindred and tongue and people and nation, there had to be kindreds and tongues and peoples and nations. Before Abram’s Seed could be a blessing to the nations, there had to be nations to be blessed. Yet while the scattering of the nations preserved humanity from self-destruction until the coming of the promised day of redemption, this division would only be temporary. There would come a day when the Spirit would be poured out, enabling the long-divided nations to worship God with one voice as one people—just like God intended from the very beginning.

Conduct: Reshaping Our Walk

In what ways might we be tempted to forget that all nations, including our own, are ultimately part of the old-creational division of the nations that is altogether set aside for all who are “in Christ”?

Examples: Assuming that God is on “our side” in disputes with other nations of this present world order; Believing the lie that we need political power to accomplish God’s new-creational purposes.

In what ways are we, like the rebellious tower-builders, tempted to find our sense of security in the “name” we think we can make for ourselves?

Examples: Building our sense of status on our career ambitions and financial success; Making the pursuit of our ambitions and goals our ultimate priority.

1. Cassuto 1984, 2.177
2. Sarna 1987, 76
3. Wenham 1987, 226
4. The fact that some manuscripts (followed by some English translations) of Luke 10:1 read 72 rather than 70 is quite possibly connected to the fact that the Greek Old Testament adds two additional names in Genesis 10:1–32. In either case the point is the same.
5. Hamilton 1990, 348
6. Sarna 1989, 69
7. Hamilton 1990, 357
8. Heiser 2017