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The whole earth.] The then known world with all its human inhabitants. One language and of one speech.] Heb. Of one lip, and one (kind of) words. Murphy renders, “Of one lip and one stock of words,” and remarks, “In the table of nations the term ‘tongue’ was used to signify what is here expressed by two terms. This is not undesigned. The two terms are not synonymous or parallel, as they form the parts of one compound predicate. ‘One stock of words,’ then, we conceive, naturally indicates the matter, the substance, or the material of language. This was one and the same to the whole race. The term ‘lip,’ which is properly one of the organs of articulation, is, on the other hand, used to denote the form, that is, the manner of speaking, the mode of using and connecting the matter of speech, the system of laws by which the inflections and derivations of a language are conducted.… By a combination of terms expressing the two elements which go to constitute every organic reality.” Many have held that this original language was Hebrew, but recent researches in comparative philology have shown that all the languages of the world can be traced to one original tongue, which though not identical with the Hebrew has a close affinity with it.
Genesis 11:2. As they journeyed.] Heb. In their breaking up. The word is used of the breaking up of an encampment of wandering tribes for the purpose of removing from place to place. “They” refers to “the whole earth” mentioned in the previous verse—the whole race of man. From the east.] “Eastward “is proved to be the meaning of the phrase by Genesis 13:11, where Lot is said to journey from Bethel to the plain of the Jordan, which is to the east. The human race, consisting it might be of five hundred families, journeys eastwards with a few points of deflection to the south, along the Euphrates valley, and comes to a plain of surpassing fertility in the land of Shinar (Murphy). A plain in the land of Shinar.] Probably the same as Babylonia. Herodotus describes the neighbourhood of Babylon as a great plain.
Genesis 11:3. And they said one to another.] Heb. A man said to his neighbour. Go to.] “A mere hortatory interjection, equivalent to our idiom, ‘come, let us’ do so and so” (Bush). The phrase suggests a resolute will and temper—a stern purpose to oppose the will of God. Let us make brick.] “The noun and verb here are kindred to each other in form. The noun is plural, meaning bricks, and the verb means to make bricks; both of these forms are from the word meaning to be white, referring to the whitish clay of which the bricks were made” (Jacobus). The plain abounded in clayey soil, but was deficient in stones. Burn them thoroughly.] The common custom was to dry the bricks in the sun, but these are to be burnt so as to make them more durable. Many of these have been found in the ruins of Babylon. “When any considerable degree of thickness was required, the practice in the Babylonian structures seems to have been, to form the mass with sun-dried bricks, and then invest it with a case of burnt bricks” (Bush). Slime. Heb. Bitumen. The LXX has ἄσφαλτος. This was a kind of mineral cement of a pitchy nature. “Layard observes that the cement in the ruins is so tenacious that it is almost impossible to detach an entire brick from the mass” (Alford).—
Genesis 11:4. Whose top may reach unto heaven] Heb. And his head in the heavens. Such an expression is hyperbolical in other portions of Scripture, but here it seems that they indulged the hope that the heavens might be thus reached. The heathen fable of giants attempting to scale the heavens is probably a dim tradition founded on this fact.—Let us make us a name] Hence their purpose was not to provide against another deluge, but to transmit their fame by such a bold and gigantic undertaking to future generations.—
Genesis 11:5. And the Lord came down] Speaking after the manner of men to denote the Divine interference. The Heb. has Jehovah both in this and the next verse.—
Genesis 11:6. Behold the people is one] “One race with one purpose” (Murphy). They were a unity as a State, embodying one great idea.—They begin to do] Heb. This is their beginning to do. Such was their undertaking.—
Genesis 11:7. Confound their language] “The term here rendered confound means to pour together, in a way to produce confusion of sounds or dialects” (Jacobus)—That they may not understand one another’s speech] Heb. One another’s lip. “This is the immediate result of diversifying the formative law of human speech, even though the material elements were to remain much the same as before.” (Murphy)—
Genesis 11:9. Therefore is the name of it called Babel] “This name is connected with the Hebrew verb meaning to confound, and would mean properly confusion. But the native etymology is Bab Il—the gate of Il or El—“the gate of God.” This may have been a name given to it by Nimrod (Smith), signifying his proud and atheistic designs, but afterwards applied (the same name) to express the confounding result more emphatically” (Jacobus).—
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Genesis 11:1-9
THE BUILDERS OF BABEL
It is a melancholy fact that the evil of our nature tends continually to increase, and assume a sad variety of forms. As men abide under the power of evil they wax worse and worse. We have an instance of this downward tendency in the builders of Babel. Since the flood the course of sin may be thus traced:—
(1) In the form of sensual indulgence. The type was drunkenness, of which Noah has given a sad example.
(2) Disregard of parental authority. Ham is a typical example of the loss of reverence towards those who are entitled to claim it by the ordinance of Providence.
(3) In the form of ambition. We have the type in the builders of Babel. Their work was an embodiment of the most daring form of human iniquity, while their frustrated purpose vindicated the supremacy of the Divine rule. The builders of Babel raised a monument of human sin and folly. Let us consider the forms of evil which are illustrated by their work.
I. The love of glory. By the building of a city and tower they intended to make for themselves a “name.” They would indulge the passion for fame at all costs, and, therefore, engaged in these gigantic labours to secure that end. Such was clearly their motive. It is not likely that they built a city and a high tower to provide against the calamity of another flood, for we can scarcely suppose that they were so foolish as to think that any adequate provision could be made; and even had they thought so, we can hardly imagine that they would have built it upon a plain. Nor is it probable that they intended to set up an idol’s temple. They undertook this stupendous work for the glory of their own name, and not for that of an idol. Babel contained the germ of the worship of humanity rather than the ordinary forms of idolatry. These men wanted to raise a monument to their own glory. This has ever been the cry of ambitious men—to make a name. There is a healthy form of ambition when a man allows a noble purpose to be dominated by conscience. To the firmness and determination which comes from an ambition so regulated we owe some of the greatest reforms in social manners, politics, and religion. But with ordinary human nature, ambition takes the worst forms. Men make their own greatness and fame the principal concern of life, till the pursuit of these becomes an absorbing passion by which they are so blinded that they defy the Supreme Ruler of all, and presume to His place. What an example have we of human ambition in that thirst for universal dominion which has infected all nations from the earliest times, and still rages throughout the world! To this may be traced many of the evils that afflict society—chiefly war, with all the awful calamities which it brings. This sin of ambition issues in most powerful evils, as it is, for the most part, the temptation of strong characters.
1. The boldest schemes of ambition are generally the work of a few. One man, such as Nimrod, conceives an ambitious scheme and gathers a few like-minded with himself around him. These influence the many, who possess no ability to take the lead, and who are, therefore, ready to obey the command of superiors. The people do not originate the great ideas and schemes which rule the world. They adopt those of others. History illustrates the good and evil forms which this fact assumes. The builders of Babel saw their own glory reflected in the many who assisted in carrying out their schemes.
2. Such ambition involves the slavery of the many. The multitude rush eagerly to carry out the designs of a few bold and clever minds, but end in becoming their slaves. The ambition of the great often results in the death of liberty.
II. False ideas of the unity of the race. God’s purpose was that men should spread over the world, and become influential and great by conquering difficulties, and subduing all things to their use. This would seem to have the effect of dividing the human family, and in the end causing a loss of the sense of unity. Hence the builders of Babel thought that they would prevent such a result. They would devise means by which the people should be one—a compact brotherhood. But the Divine idea of the unity of the human race was far different. God’s plan was to secure unity by diversity, as He does throughout all His works in the natural world. He intended that the true unity of humanity should be spiritual—an invisible tie by which men are bound to Himself and to one another by the bonds of faith, obedience, and love. These ambitious men had false ideas as to what constituted the true unity of the race.
1. They thought that it was external. Hence they built a “city” and a “tower.” They provided that they should dwell together, bound by the ties of a common interest. They sought, by means wholly external and artificial, to make themselves one people—a compact body, with a strong defence against all disasters. Men have ever sought to make themselves great by the city and the tower.
2. They held that the individual must be sacrificed to the outward grandeur of the State. This is the genius of all Babel-building, to make the city supreme, and to sink the individual. All must be sacrificed to one idea: the nation—State—Constitution. It is not within the province of worldly ambition to recognise the sublime importance of the individual soul. Hence the conflict between the policies of statecraft and the interests of true religion. This exaltation of the State above the individual has
(1) A political form. The great nations of antiquity strove for universal dominion, and in the pursuit of it trampled upon the dearest interests of men. Ancient Rome sought to make mankind one by the power of the sword. Whatever evils might be inflicted upon humanity, the city and the emperor must be great. The rage for conquest and dominion must end in the glorification of the few and the degradation of the many.
(2) An ecclesiastical form. In the history of Christianity we can trace the attempt to magnify the Church at the expense of the individual. The Church must be maintained in outward grandeur and influence, though to secure that end souls must be held in the bondage of error and superstition. The Roman pontiffs presumed to govern the Church from an earthly centre, and to subject all Christendom to their dominion. This is in direct contradiction to the teaching of Christ, which asserts that the Church is to be governed invisibly by the Holy Spirit. That Spirit guides believers as a community, bearing the witness of God to the children of the world, but at the same time enters into each man by himself, making the individual soul his temple. Ecclesiastical-Babel builders attempt to destroy the Divine order by their glorification of what is external, and does not belong to the real essence of Christian life.
III. Presuming to place themselves above Providence. In their wild ambition, they designed a tower whose top should “reach to heaven.” This was an attempt to cast off the control of Providence and to become a Providence to themselves. It was, in effect, presuming to the place of the Most High. Such is the pride of men. They cast off the rule of God, seek to pierce the very heavens, and to acknowledge nothing above themselves. When God is shut out from the direction of human affairs, then there is no limit placed to man’s blasphemous presumption except the arrest of it by Divine judgment.
1. God interferes in all matters which threaten His government. It is true that God continually governs mankind; yet there are certain junctures of human history in which His interference is specially manifest. God reigns in nature, which, in its ordinary course, reveals His power as much as any miracles; still, a miracle affords a distinct evidence of the working of a will. So in this instance, when the pride of man presumed so far, God manifestly and distinctly interfered. In language accommodated to our human modes of thought and expression, the Lord said, “Let us go down, and then confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech” (Genesis 11:7). God is jealous of His honour, and to presume to that is to tempt justice.
2. God often interferes effectually by unexpected means. He confounded the language of these builders of Babel. They might have had, even in their presumption, a vague suspicion that God would be able to overthrow their work. But they could hardly have imagined that an arrest would have been put upon their labours in so extraordinary a manner as the confusion of their speech. God has many ways by which He can bring men to a sense of His Divine sovereignty. He can reach men in the very depths of their nature by sudden and unexpected means. These foolish builders imagined that they were safe in the unity of their speech, yet it was here that they were vanquished.
IV. A premature attempt to realise that better time coming for humanity. By means of their gigantic work the builders of Babel sought to promote unity, peace, and harmony among their fellow-men. These were objects in themselves good, but they attempted to secure them by improper means. They tried to realise the gifts of a later and better age. Men shall be one, and live in peace; but for this blessed condition of humanity we must be content to wait. The Bible teaches that there is a bright future for the race. When the kingdom of God is fully established amongst men, unity and peace will prevail. That blessed idea was for a moment realised when the Spirit was given on the day of Pentecost (Acts 4:32). Socialism has endeavoured to bring about this state of things, but the time is unripe. Such systems for the improvement of mankind only lay hold upon fragments of the truth. There is a unity possible for humanity, but it is inward, not outward; something out of sight—purely spiritual. Christianity can alone secure this blessing for mankind. As the hand and the foot have no direct connection, but each is connected with one centre of life, so when men have deep and intimate relations with Christ they have the most real union among themselves. The gifts of Christianity are one faith and love, making mankind one. The Christian idea of history is, that God intends, by means of Christ, to build the human race into a true unity, and every attempt to gain that glorious end, apart from that idea, is vain. The setting up of the kingdom of God on earth is the grand consummation for which all spiritual men yearn, but that can only be accomplished by spiritual laws. The work of all Babel-builders is doomed to perish.
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Genesis 11:1. The possession of a common language is a great promoter of unity of thought and purpose.
What mankind was in regard to unity of language is what God designs them to be in Gospel times, but in a deeper and more real sense. It is the work of Christ to make men one in faith, hope, and love. Such a unity of conviction, feeling, and aspiration would teach men to speak the same thing (1 Corinthians 1:10).
It is worthy of remark that the modern researches into language have recognised the original affinity of most known languages to one common original speech. The sundering and parting of the nations is God’s own work. As labour was the penalty for the sin of Paradise, so is separation the punishment for this sin of pride. In both cases, however, was the punishment at the same time a blessing.—(Calwer.)
Sin perverts the sweet blessing of one speech to conspiracy against God. (Hughes.)
Genesis 11:2. Men easily discover a place whereon to erect the monuments of their ambition. They are permitted to defy heaven, though that liberty be an awful gift.
Wickedness dwells where it finds a fitting place for its purpose.
It is not difficult to suggest a number of reasons to show that the land of Shinar was the centre from whence a thorough and entire distribution of the human race over the face of the whole earth could be most readily and conveniently made; and as the Valley of the Euphrates was the route which, of all others, was the best suited to conduct the founders of post-diluvian society to the place so peculiarly fitted for their subsequent dispersion, we are warranted in supposing that the stranding of the ark occurred at some spot in the vicinity of that valley, from whence the descent was easy, and free from the immense difficulties that must have impeded the passage down the declivities of the lofty Agridagh.—(Bush.)
The preference for the hill-country does not appear to have belonged to the young humanity. Under the most obvious points of view, convenience, fertility, and easier capability of cultivation seem to have given to these children of nature a preference for the plain. Zahn gives extracts from Hippocrates and Herodotus in proof of the singular productiveness of this land of the palm, where the grain yields from two hundred to three hundred fold. Thence came luxury, which was followed by the cultivation of the paradisiacal gardens (gardens of Semiramis) and a life of sensuality, together with a sensual religious worship.—(Lange.)
Sinners make the gifts of nature to minister to impiety and pride.
Men rebel against God, even where His plentiful goodness is most manifest.
Genesis 11:3. Sinners encourage each other in their rebellion against God.
The arts of life and the free productions of nature may be pressed into the service of iniquity.
Moses would intimate that they were not prompted to the work by the facilities that offered themselves, but that they were disposed to contend with great and arduous obstacles—a circumstance that went to enhance the greatness of the crime, for how could it be that they should thus wear and exhaust themselves in this laborious exercise unless because they had set themselves in a frenzied opposition to God? Difficulty often deters us from necessary works, but they, without stones or mortar, do not scruple to attempt an edifice that should transcend the clouds! Their example teaches us to what lengths ambition will urge men who give way to their unhallowed lustings.—(Calvin.)
Genesis 11:4. Their only object was to found a universal monarchy, by which all the families of the earth, in all future ages, might be held in subjection. A very little reflection will convince us that such a scheme must of necessity be founded in ambition; that it required union, and of course a city, to carry it into execution; that a tower or citadel was also necessary to repel those who might be disposed to dispute their claims; and that if these measures were once carried into effect, there was nothing in the nature of things to prevent the accomplishment of their design.—(Fuller.)
It can scarcely be doubted that the ancient heathen fable of the attempt of the giants to climb the heavens owes its origin to some distorted traditions relative to this fact. The memory of the design of the builders of Babel being handed down in its native boldness of expression to nations unacquainted with the Mosaic history and with Eastern language, who were also fond of the marvellous and skilful in fable, would very naturally give rise to the story of the Titan’s war with heaven and the discomfiture which followed.—(Bush.)
For the distinction and pre-eminence of a “name” men will toil against all difficulties. They scruple not to presume to the habitation of God if they may thus exalt themselves.
The wildest schemes of ambition are consistent with a calm deliberation of purpose. These men could carefully design and plan a city and a tower.
Their declared object was to make to themselves a name. This was the proud aim of heathenism—to attain to glory without God, by human wisdom and might. The nations henceforth walk in their own ways (Acts 14:16), until, from their vain and scattered attempts, they are re-united in Jerusalem in the Pentecost—a specimen only of what remains to be realised.—(Jacobus.)
To make themselves a name, men are ready to dishonour the name of God.
The Babel-builders opposed the design of God in scattering them over the face of the earth, but God has many ways of accomplishing His will.
No name which men can make, without the help and approval of God, can be lasting.
Genesis 11:5. The language which de scribes the ways of God to man must be accommodated to our infirmity and imperfect knowledge. We are taught thus to study simplicity in describing the Divine operations.
However long God may delay, yet He will surely interfere with the designs of evil men.
All human history shows a Providence, but there are marked epochs when God distinctly appears. There are events which summon the attention of men to the Power above them.
Sinners sometimes imagine that God is far from the world, but there are times when the conviction is forced upon them that He is near.
The children of men, whether for weal or woe, must in the end be brought face to face with God.
There is something here characteristic of the times after the deluge. The presence of the Lord seems not to have been withdrawn from the earth before that event. He walked in the garden when Adam and Eve were there. He placed the ministers and symbols of His presence before it when they were expelled. He expostulated with Cain before and after his awful crime. He saw the wickedness of man, and the land was corrupt before Him.… In all this He seems to have been present with man on earth. He lingered in the garden as long as His forbearance could be expected to influence man for good. He at length appointed the limit of one hundred and twenty years. And after watching over Noah during the deluge, He seems to have withdrawn His visible and gracious presence from the earth. Hence the propriety of the phrase, “The Lord came down.” He still deals in mercy with a remnant of the human race, and has visited the earth and manifested His presence in a wondrous way. But He has not yet taken up His abode among men, as He did in the garden, and as He intimates that He will sometime do on the renovated earth.—(Murphy.)
It was not merely the “city” and the “tower” which God came down to see, but rather the apostacy, rebellion, and pride of which they were the outward manifestations. God proceeds from the work to the doers of it. The Divine judgment comes home to the individual.
1. The wickedness of these confederates: they were all sons of Adam, apostate, perishing, in his image.
2. The weakness of them. They were but sons of the dust who thus set themselves to build against God. Jehovah descends to take notice of these, who are but as the dust of the balance before Him.—(Hughes.)
Genesis 11:6. In like simplicity is depicted the self-willed, God-defying spirit of combination and ambition which had now budded in the imagination of man. The people is one, one race with one purpose. And they have all one lip. They understand one another’s mind. No misunderstanding has arisen from diversity of language. This is their beginning. The beginning of sin, like that of strife, is as when one letteth out water. The Lord sees in this commencement the seed of growing evil. All sin is dim and small in its first rise; but it swells by insensible degrees to the most daring and gigantic proportions. And now nothing will be restrained from them which they have imagined to do. Now that they have made this notable beginning of concentration, ambition, and renown, there is nothing in this way which they will not imagine or attempt.—(Murphy.)
God is represented as taking counsel with Himself. He acts not from mere will, but from eternal reasons—“after the counsel of His will.” Deliberation suits the majesty of the Supreme Ruler.
Men would carry out many evil designs to a successful issue if they were not restrained by the Providence of God.
The depravity of human nature is under control during the course of the present moral government of God. Were every man permitted freely to carry out all the evil in his heart, society could not exist.
In God’s dealings with mankind the facts of human nature are accepted.
The ironical element in the rule of the Divine righteousness appears again in the history of the tower building, after its grandest display in the primitive time. It is just from the false striving after the idol of an outward national unity, that God suffers to go forth the dispersing of the nations. Without doubt, too, is there an ironical force in the words, “and now nothing will be restrained from them.”—(Lange.)
Proud and presumptuous undertakings are a scorn and derision to God.—(Hughes.)
Genesis 11:7. God has many ways—and often unexpected ones—of bringing the counsel of the wicked to nought.
The judgment might have been executed upon the works of these daring men, but God chose rather to afflict themselves by bringing disorder into their own powers. God has access to the innermost recesses of man’s nature.
The Providence of God often takes away from men the gifts which they have abused. Men are punished in those instruments which minister to their iniquity.
Whatever was the precise change wrought in human language, it was with the express object of making the builders unintelligible to each other—so as to break up their unity of action. The Scripture gives us here the only history of the division of mankind into peoples by means of different tongues. And the Scripture also tells us how, under the Gospel, national distinctions were broken down in order to introduce a universal Church (Acts 8:14).—(Jacobus.)
Hence we perceive that the interposition of Providence in confounding the lip of mankind, is the historical solution of the enigma of philology, the existence of diversity of language at the same time with the natural persistency of form, and the historical unity of the human race. The data of philology, indicating that the form is the side of language needing to be touched in order to produce diversity, coincide also with the facts here narrated. The preternatural diversification of the form, moreover, marks the order amid variety which prevailed in this great revolution of mental habitude. It is not necessary to suppose that seventy languages were produced from one at the very crisis of this remarkable change, but only the few generic forms that sufficed to effect the Divine purpose, and by their interaction to give origin to all subsequent varieties of language or dialect. Nor are we to imagine that the variant principles of formation went into practical development all at once, but only that they started a process which, in combination with other operative causes, issued in all the diversities of speech which are now exhibited in the human race.—(Murphy.)
The confusion of tongues has done much towards separating the families of mankind. Each nation becomes bound up in its own interests, and strange or hostile towards all others. Difference of language makes men barbarians towards one another.
Herein God opposeth Himself to the sons of Adam. They aim at getting a name, and to prevent dispersion. God is resolved to make them that they shall not understand their own names, nor the speech of their neighbours.—(Hughes.)
The spirit of hatred was the cause of the sundering and scattering of the human family; the spirit of love can alone make them one.
The division of languages, though an obstacle to schemes of human ambition, will not be suffered to be an obstacle to the triumph of the cause of God. Of this, God Himself gave a proof and pledge, in the miracle wrought on the day of Pentecost—the counterpart of the miracle at Babel. The separation of nations will not hinder the unity of faith. At this very time, the increasing facility of intercourse, the increasing use of our own tongue over vast continents in the East and West, and the familiar mingling of natives of various lands, are rapidly diminishing the difficulties which differences of language occasion; and whether, literally, these differences are to disappear, or are merely to become innocuous, assuredly, in the end, there shall be one “lip,” and one Lord, and one heart for all.—(Candlish.)
Genesis 11:8. The effect of the Divine interposition is here noted. And the Lord scattered them abroad. Not understanding one another’s mode of speech, they feel themselves practically separated from one another. Unity of counsel and of action becomes impossible. Misunderstanding naturally follows, and begets mistrust. Diversity of interest grows up, and separation ensues. Those who have a common speech retreat from the centre of union to a sequestered spot, where they may form a separate community among themselves.… The dispersion of mankind at the same time put an end to the ambitious projects of the few. They left off to build the city. It is probable that the people began to see through the plausible veil which the leaders had cast over their selfish ends. The city would be abandoned to the immediate party of Nimrod. Its dwellings would probably be too numerous for the remaining inhabitants.—(Murphy.)
Human plans are confounded that the Divine order may proceed from them. Such is the course of the world’s history.—(Krummacher.)
Human iniquity may be overruled for good. God is ever, in the course of His providence, bringing good out of evil. He makes the “wrath of man to praise Him,” and when the “remainder” of that wrath can but issue in a purpose only evil He “restrains” it, so that becomes ineffectual.
How liable are the schemes of ungodly men to be interrupted and defeated in the midst of their execution. The builders of Babel had made considerable progress, and were, doubtless, anticipating the satisfaction they should experience in its completion. But they were arrested in mid career.… The eager aspirants for happiness form their plans; they prosecute their designs; they advance in their prospects; partial success animates them to more diligent exertions; but sooner or later God stops them in their progress, and either dashes all their labours to the dust, or says to them, “Thou fool, this night shall thy soul be required of thee.” Consider, too, the means which God took to effect His purpose. They were the most unlooked-for that could be imagined. And thus does God interpose to disappoint the expectations of worldly men! He has ten thousand ways to render their plans abortive, or to embitter to them the very things in which they have sought their happiness. We have laboured for honour and distinction. He suffers us, perhaps, to attain our wishes, and then makes our elevation a source of nothing but disquietude and pain. Many have looked for enjoyment in the acquisition of a partner, or a family, who after a time would give the world, perhaps, to loose the indissoluble knot, or to have been written childless in the earth. In short, the Governor of the universe is never at a loss for means to confound the devices of the wise, or frustrate the counsels of the ungodly.—(Bush.)
All systems of philosophy—so-called—which through the pride of the human intellect have presumed to subvert God’s truth, or impiously to intrude within that shadow of mystery which He has cast around His throne, shall be brought to nought, and the Babel speech of error be confounded.
O, sons of earth! attempt ye still to rise,
By mountains piled on mountains, to the skies!
Heaven still with laughter the vain toil surveys,
And buries madmen in the heaps they raise.—Pope.
Traditions relate that the tower was demolished by the lightning, with terrible tempest. Yet it has been supposed that the immense pyramidal tower built thereabouts by Nebuchadnezzar was erected on the site and ruins of this tower. In the ruins that are now found in that vicinity there is the appearance of a conflagration, the bricks seeming to have been run into solid masses by the action of extreme heat. A Jewish tradition given by Bochart declares that fire fell from heaven and split the tower through to its foundation. The distance of the modern Birs Nimrud from Babylon is the great difficulty in the way of its identification. Yet the Birs temple gives us the best idea of the ancient Babylonian temple tower, and may show us the probable character and shape of the building, at least better than any other ruin.—(Jacobus.)
ILLUSTRATIONS ON CHAPTER 11
REV. WM. ADAMSON
Motive in History! Genesis 11:1-9.
(1) It has been suggested by Hopkins that the primal disobedience of Adam and Eve is stated not to show forth its strangeness, but to disclose—in the several scenes which were its immediate consequents—the wondrous affectionateness of Him who had been disobeyed. And this is done with the pen of a master. And so with the homicide of Cain, and the vices of the antediluvians; they are used as a foil to bring out a vivid illustration of the Divine gentleness. It is true that these all reveal to us that God is a consuming fire towards sin, and wilful, obstinate sinners; but even these revelations are like the dark background which the artist places to set out more conspicuously his “designs of fair colours.”
(2) Why may we not suppose that the same paramount purpose stands out in bold relief all along the Mosaic book, and thus includes the Babel narrative? The Divine goodness appears like a rainbow spanning the dark cloud of human pride and ambition. There is the “Tongue Tower” ruin, but it lies in Genesis 9:0 as the plant lies, out of whose root springs a more vigorous stem and beautiful flower than before the wind and storm broke its first shoot. It reminds us of the savannah of the west which the fire has scorched—upon whose brown bare bosom the showers of rain fall, to make the wilderness and solitary place glad, and the blistered desert to bloom as the rose. Divine gentleness revealed! Such is the primary (we do not say the only) motive in Genesis 9:0.
“Then let us sing, our shrouded way thus wending,
Life’s hidden snares among,
Of mercy, and of judgment sweetly blending
Earth’s sad but lovely song.—Macmillan.
Word-Witnesses! Genesis 11:1-9. The long-lost records of Babylonia and Assyria promise, when fully examined, to throw a flood of light not only upon Divine Revelation, but upon the history, religious and social status of great primeval nations, whose names, and some of whose acts, are mentioned in Scripture. Very much, Professor Porter, has yet to be done by the traveller and the excavator before the sources of information contained on sculptured slabs and inscribed tablets have been reached. When that is done, a still more difficult task will remain in the classification of the materials and the deciphering of the records. But we look forward hopefully, and may confidently anticipate the most complete success. Testimony clear and indisputable will then be furnished to the matchless truthfulness of the Word of God by the ruins of
“Bel’s cloud-capt tower, her gorgeous palaces,
Her solemn temples, her ‘Tongue-Tow’r itself.”
Genesis and Chaldean Legions! Genesis 11:1-9.
(1) Before the Chaldean discoveries by Smith, those who wished to believe the Genesis narrative a myth roundly asserted that it was a chimera of some crazed mind, or the creation of some corrupt one. No sooner, however, was the discovery made, and the correctness of the cuneiform inscription cipher attested, than the same enemies, whose wish was father to the thought, asserted that the Chaldean accounts were legendary, and that the Genesis narrative was also legendary because derived from these same Chaldean historical myths.
(2) The simple brevity of the history in Genesis is familar; whereas, Gardiner points out that the Chaldean inscriptions are obscure, verbose, and swelling out at every point with the monstrosities of early mythology. It is as if a modern scholar should sit down to pick out the grains of truth in the prehistoric myths of ancient Greece, and having set them down soberly, should then be told that his work must itself be legendary because derived from legendary sources.
(3) Even though Abraham did analyse these Chaldean legends with matchless skill and penetration, and drew from them for our use the simple history out of which they had gradually grown, this would not affect the truthfulness of his work. And if we add that Abraham (or Moses) was divinely inspired to recover the original truth from this mass of legend, the truthfulness and trustworthiness of the Genesis narrative is placed beyond dispute.
“Whence, but from heaven, could men unskilled in arts,
In several ages born, in several parts,
Weave such agreeing truths.—Dryden.
Babel Bricks! Genesis 11:2-4. These emigrants to Shinar were evidently dissatisfied with a patriarchal life, and desirous of founding a great monarchy. I. Ambition, or the Perversion of the divinely-implanted principle, “Excelsior.” It
(1) cautions us to beware of our own hearts, and
(2) counsels us to be careful of the Divine Will. II. Assumption, or the Pre-supposition of man’s independence of God. It
(1) cautions us to remember our entire dependence, and
(2) counsels us to regard the Divine pre-eminence as essential to our happiness. III. Association, or the Persuasion that human unity means human perpetuity. It
(1) cautions us against forgetting that God must come into any scheme after unity, and
(2) counsels us about fulfilling the Divine Ideal of unity in Him. Lessons:
(1) Moral Towers of Babel (great or small) should be erected in God’s name, and carried through in God’s strength;
(2) Moral Towers of Babel (great or small), if not so attempted and accomplished, tend to dishonour God’s name, and to disown God’s strength;
(3) Moral Towers of Babel (great or small) thus dishonouring Him, are sure, sooner or later, to be overthrown by God, who has all forces at His command; and
(4) Moral Towers of Babel (great or small) conceived in God’s name, constructed by God’s strength, and contributing to God’s glory, are certain of the Divine permission and permanence. Thus,
“Scripture, in this life-history, unfoldeth
Some lessons sweet to me;
God’s goodness in reproof my eye beholdeth,
And His severity.”
Shinar Site! Genesis 11:2.
(1) Noah’s sons would come down from the high lands of Armenia and settle in the warmer plains below. Journeying from the valley of Araxes, they would travel along the eastern side of the Koordish mountains, without finding a good place to cross them until they were almost as low down as Babylon. That is the course which the caravans take from Tabreez at this day. Coming to Kermansheh, they would turn short about, and pass through the mountains towards Bagdad. Thus between the Tigris and Euphrates we have the land of Shinar, where Nimrod built Babel or Babylon.
(2) “Descending,” as Wylie observes, “from the lofty mountains which form the northern rampart of Asia Minor, the Tigris and Euphrates hold on their course to the south till they arrive on the rich and level plains around the ancient city of Bagdad. Here they unite their streams, and flow through a valley which bears marks of having, in ancient times, been perhaps the richest and loveliest region on the earth, and which is still surprisingly fertile, though quite neglected. There may have been design on the part of Nimrod in seeking to establish his empire’s metropolis in the region where Paradise was supposed to have stood. Design or no design, Nimrod’s
“Cities have been, and vanished; fanes have sunk,
Heaped into shapeless ruin; sands o’erspread
Fields that were Edens; millions, too, have shrunk
To a few starving hundreds, or have fled
From off the page of being.”—Percival.
Brick-Bitumen! Genesis 11:3.
(1) There are ruins of huge temple-towers at Erech or Warka. The Warka temple is built of sun-dried bricks laid in mud mortar, with layers of reed put in from time to time to hold the mass together. The bricks are small and inferior; but they have the name and titles of the king stamped on them.
(2) The wood being chiefly palm, and there being probably some superstitions in regard to using them for building purposes, the builders had to find some other materials upon which to work. Stone there was none, and they did not seem to know how to make lime-mortar. But they had excellent clay for brick-making, and knew the art of the brick-kiln.
(4) Bitumen is a black, slimy, viscous substance found in springs, coming up out of the earth. In this the bricks were laid. At the present day it exists in abundance. The Arabs collect it, and sell it at Mosul for building purposes, and for lining boats. Old boats plastered with bitumen, such as those of the present, have been found buried under the soil in Babylonia. Thus Nature, while ministering to man’s necessity, makes him the pen by which to write for future generations, upon the mysterious mud, the solemn lesson that
“All things have their end;
Nations and cities, which have diseases like to men,
Must have like death that we have.”—Webster.
Slime-Symbolism! Genesis 11:3.
(1) Jukes says that this slime was the sulphureous compound formed from the corruption of animal and vegetable substances. Well does it represent that dangerous element—so ready to burst out into a blaze—that cement of self-love and lust of power, by which mystic Babylon is now held together.
(2) It is remarkable that this slime is easily melted again, though intensively adhesive and tenacious, rendering it difficult to loosen the bricks. How powerful and tenacious is the system of Papal Babylon, defying all human efforts to disintegrate it. Nevertheless, the fire of Divine judgment, kindled by the breath of Infinite holiness, will one day dissolve the slime, so that the whole fabric will crumble.
(3) As surely as the awful foreshadowings of Jehovah upon the material Babel have been realised to the very letter, as hundreds of modern travellers have perceived, so certainly those terrible forewarnings of coming overthrow of the mystical Babel shall be fulfilled; for
“Babel, as smitten with the curse of God,
Shall fall in ruinous heap, and sink—as sinks
A millstone in the mighty waters—down
Into a dreadful chasm of fire.”
Sin Fecundity! Genesis 11:4.
(1) Pascal says that it is astonishing that the mystery which is farthest from our knowledge—the transmission of original sin—should be that without which we can have no true knowledge of ourselves. It is in this abyss that the clue to our condition takes its turnings and windings, insomuch that man is more incomprehensible without this mystery than this mystery is incomprehensible to man.
(2) Apply these two profound sentences to Genesis 9:0. Without a belief in the Scripture doctrine of “original sin,” how can we understand the fall of Noah, and the subsequent national, individual corruption at Babel? Grasping the truth that sin is transmitted from mind to mind, as diseases are to the body, it furnishes a clue to the pride, passion, and presumption of the Babelites in their heaven-defying, God-dishonouring structure.
(3) There is certainly evil, says McCosh, in our world; whence came it? We know not. The man of science is often telling us in his realm of scientific disclosures, that the fact is “so-and-so,” but he has to add, “How it is so, I cannot tell.” The profound theologian, St. Augustine, asks, “Where is evil, or whence comes it, since God the Good has created all things?” A quaker poet replies:
“No victory comes of all our strife;
From all we grasp, the meaning slips;
The Sphinx sits at the gate of life,
With the old question on her awful lips.”
Birs Nimrud! Genesis 11:4. This ruin stands six miles south west of Hillah, i.e., six miles from the Euphrates. Nebuchadnezzar’s inscription has been found, in which he says that he built it on the ruins of the Tower of Babel. Smith reads an Assyrian fragment of writing in columns to this effect—that the wickedness of men caused the gods to overthrow tower; that what they built in the day the God overthrew in the night; and that in His anger He scattered them abroad, and confused their counsel. It is remarkable that the Jews have a tradition that fire and earthquake were agencies of its ruin. Certainly it is rent in two nearly the whole way down, and bears traces of fire. Rawlinson says that it consisted of seven stages of brickwork of different colours, as black, orange, red, gold plating, etc. Bochart says that fire from heaven split it through to its foundation. From the fact that the angles face the cardinal points, it is evident that the temple towers were used for astronomical observation, to gaze upon
“That wondrous blaze; ten thousand trembling fires,
And dancing lustres, where the unsteady eye,
Restless and dazzled, wanders unconfined
O’er all this field of glories.”—Barbauld.
Tongue Tower! Genesis 11:6. The building of the Tower of Babel, and the confusion of tongues, was so wonderful an event in itself, and produced such an event upon the human race, that, if it was a fact and not a myth, one would expect its leading incidents to be preserved with great tenacity in primeval traditions. And such is the case. The narrative in Genesis 11:0 is brief, but graphic. It contains a number of striking particulars, such as building with brick, the use of bitumen for mortar, the site of the tower, the name of the place, and the dispersion of mankind from that central region.
(2) But for that brief record, it is doubtful whether man would ever have dreamt of explorations there. Now, the Scripture narrative has not only given the key to where the hidden treasure may be, and to what the hidden treasure may prove, but it has originated and whetted the keen scientific appetite for exploration there. Thus the ruins of the “Tongue Tower” (Barsippa) have been found, with inscriptions recording the sin of the people, their uniting to build the tower, the anger of God, the confusion of their speech, and the scattering of the people. And the awe-struck spectator hears from their broken, voiceless lips that—
“Even as from man his future doom proceeds,
So nations rise or fall, according to their deeds.”—Southey.
World-Evil! Genesis 11:6.
(1) According to Scripture, moral and physical evil has intruded into our world. We have traces of it before man was created, in the fall of angelic beings who are ready to tempt Adam and Eve. From the very day when man fell, we have a contest going on in our world. We do not assert, with some of our older divines, that pain and death came upon the lower animals because Adam fell. But it is a noticeable fact, pointed out by McCosh, that death has reigned all along since living beings appeared, even over those who have not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression, on that earth on which man has sinned. Our world is thus of a piece in itself, and its history is consistent throughout. Our whole experience testifies to the truthfulness of the historical record.
(2) It does not startle us, therefore, to read the Divine statement from the lips of Jehovah-Jesus in the Eternal Trinity, that, once started on a career of God-defiance, the Babel-builders would go on to deeper depths of viciousness. Their power to increase in evil was greater on account of their being able to converse in one language; therefore, the Divine goodness and gentleness of the Speaker—the Lord Jesus, who ever represents these features in the Eternal Trinity—is manifest in the decision come to, that the one language should be split up into various streams flowing over the world of humanity. It was Infinite wisdom and love turning the evil that is in the world to good account—bringing, so to speak, good out of evil.
“Round every thorn in the flesh there twineth
Some wreath of softening bloom.”—Macmillan.
Divine Order in Confusion! Genesis 11:7.
(1) The confusion of tongues was not at random. It was a systematic distribution of languages for the purpose of a systematic distribution of man in emigration. The dispersion was orderly, the differences of tongue corresponding to the differences of race. By these were the Gentiles divided in their lands, everyone after his tongue, after their families in their nations.
(2) From the earliest period there has been manifested, in the history of scientific progress, an invincible faith among scientific men that the facts of nature are capable of being arranged in conformity with laws of geometry and algebra. In other words, all have a profound conviction of the existence of what Argyll calls “The reign of law,” i.e., order in the midst of apparent confusion and aimlessness.
(3) There is no illogical course in arguing that those who believe in God as the Creator of order in nature have a right to conclude that He preserves the same order in history. The cataclysms in nature have an order and object; why not then the castastrophes of history. There is Divine order in the midst of historical confusion, as palpable and manifest as in that of science. Looking back upon the pathway which history has trodden, we can perceive traces of design—powerful evidences of an Infinite aim—order in the midst of confusion. Over the wheels of history, as over the wheels in Ezekiel’s sublime vision, is the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.
“Ye nations, bend, in reverence bend,
Ye monarchs wait His nod,
And bid the choral song ascend
To celebrate your God.”—White.
Language-Lesson! Genesis 11:7.
(1) It has been reached that certain medicines are administered to produce one disease, or unnatural condition of the system, in order to remove another. The evil, says Macmillan, which has deranged the body, in many instances can only be cured by another evil that will temporarily derange it. A very popular mode of taking the pain out of a burn is to expose the injured part as long as possible to the fire. It is well known that the only safe way of restoring animation to a frost-bitten limb is by rubbing it with snow, or putting it in ice-cold water. It is the bitter medicine of homœopathy and allopathy—speaking generally—which cures the bitter disease. May it not be so in the Divine healing of sin-sick humanity? The confounding of the language at Babel is generally and rightly regarded as a punishment for man’s pride. But the error lies in limiting this as the only assignable reason why Jehovah administered the nauseous draught. The “tongue travail” of humanity in all ages has proved a medicine—bitter, if you like, but still a medicine. Here homœopathy and allopathy meet and fraternise. We see them in the hands of the Great and Good Physician administering the bitter draught of confusion, in order that the tongue may recover its original purity.
“The Last Day only, all God’s plan revealing,
Shall teach us what we owe
To these blessed remedies, thus concealing
Themselves in marks of woe.”
Shinar Sand! Genesis 11:8. The very garden of Asia, it has lost much of its glory. More than half the plain is a dry desert; though once it was made fruitful by being watered all over. The people dug canals from the Euphrates to the Tigris, and from these other little branch canals, till the whole country was covered with them, and every part watered abundantly. Then it was all one garden of cultivation; full of people and great cities—rich in grains and fruits—and everywhere grown with palm trees. Now it is all a desert. All over it you can see the remains of old canals and watercourses which once made it fruitful. The lines of embankment sometimes look like ranges of low hills from their size. Where it is not a sandy desert the country is in great part a reedy marsh, where the rivers have broken from their natural beds, and overflowed great tracts of land. The marshes are almost up to the walls of Bagdad—and growing worse from year to year; a possession for the bittern, and pools of water: silent teachers of the great truth that—
“When nations go astray, from age to age
The effects remain—a fatal heritage.”—Southey.
Heathen Testimony! Genesis 11:8. “Until a few years back,” Rawlinson remarks, “there was no confirmation of the book of Genesis earlier than the time of Alexander the Great.” Now, however, a flood of light is thrown on it by the cuneiform inscriptions. It is highly probable that much more of the earlier part of Genesis will be found in these Chaldean texts. Fragments have been found of the account of the Creation, and building of the Tower of Babel; and there is reason to believe that these are only parts of a series of histories, giving full accounts of these early periods. The fragments, however, relating to the Tower of Babel are unfortunately very scanty. They confirm the statements of Greek writers, according to which the Babylonians related that the gods destroyed the tower by winds.
“Fools, and blind! When, planned by Baalim,
The city of confusion rear’d its brow
Towards heaven, a whisper of God’s voice perplex’d
The builders’ language and their works at once.”—Bickersteth.
Babel Bane and Blessing! Genesis 11:9. We have I. Bane.—This lies in
(1) Human Pride;
(2) Human Passion; and
(3) Human Presumption. II. Blessing.—This lies in
(1) Divine Power;
(2) Divine Purpose; and
(3) Divine Prevision. The cause of the division of languages lies in an operation wrought upon the human mind, by which the original unity, thought, feeling, and will was broken up. The one primitive language, Fausset thinks, is now lost—dispersed amid the various tongues which have severally appropriated its fragments—about to rise again with re-united parts in a new and heavenly form, when Jehovah will turn to the people a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of Jehovah to serve Him (see Zephaniah 3:9) with one consent. And the Lord, says Zechariah, shall be King over all the earth. In that day there shall be one Lord, and His name one.
“God reigneth, and the earth is glad! her large, self-conscious heart,
A glowing tide of life and joy pours through each quickened part;
The very stones ‘Hosannah’ cry.”—Macmillan.
Divine-Design! Genesis 11:9.
(1) Most persons have seen the beautiful “Venus’ Flower Basket.” It is now somewhat common in museums and private collections; but few, perhaps, have minutely examined its structure. This structure, so marvellous in the mechanical and æsthetic principles embodied in it, is the skeleton of a sponge—a soft, slimy, almost structureless creature, which we find it difficult to believe in as a veritable animal. Yet it is the law of this creature—developed from a little oval or sac-like germ, destitute of all trace of the subsequent structures—to produce this wonderful framework. No sane mind, Dawson remarks, can for a moment doubt the action of a Creative Intelligence, or declare that all is due to a fortuitous concourse of atoms.
(2) As students of nature thus reason and conclude from nature’s phenomena recorded in geological strata, so the students of theology have a right to argue and maintain from history’s phases detailed in the strata of Scripture that there is Divine design. And this even in the confusion of Babel. The scattering of the human race from the central home of Eden has produced singular results; a growth of results so intricate and exquisite unique, that we are practically shut up to the conclusion that history, as nature, is under the moulding hand of God, who doeth all after the counsel of His own will.
“O, look with pity down
On erring, guilty man; not in Thy names
Of terror clad; not with those terrors arm’d
That monstrous Babel felt, when fear struck dumb
The scattered nations of the race of Ham.”
Babel! Genesis 11:9. Traveller after traveller confesses the overpowering sensation of reverential awe which possesses the mind when contemplating the extent and magnitude of the ruins. The grey osiers growing on the river deepen the dreariness of the scene, like flags of distress on a sinking vessel; while the majestic reed-lined stream, wandering solitary amid the maze, seems to murmur something about the time when these ruins were giant palaces and towers, and when this dreary solitude was the abode of gay and thoughtless crowds set on universal empire. The meditative mind—amid such mouldered and mouldering piles—reads more plainly than ever a sentiment which is true alike of individuals, cities, and empires, “Be sure your sin will find you out.” Like the builders of Babel, we are prone to quaff the cup of pride; therefore their fate cautions us of the danger of such a course.
“We fain would eat the fruit that is forbidden,
Not heeding what God saith!
But by these flaming cherubims we’re chidden
Lest we should pluck our death.”
Babel and Pentecost! Genesis 11:9.
(1) That day when the cloven tongues came down, and the first missionaries of Jesus spoke suddenly in many languages, was the beginning of a work which will never stop until the Gospel has made all men one again—one in heart and hope—one in the name of the Lord Jesus. “We do not mean,” says Green, “that the Gospel teaches all men the same language; though it is true that there are some words which the Gospel carries to every land and people and tongue.
(2). A Hindu and a New Zealander met upon the deck of a missionary ship. They had both been converted from their heathenism, and were brothers in Christ. But they could not speak to each other. They pointed to their bibles, shook hands, and smiled in one another’s faces; that was all they could do apparently. At last a happy thought occurred to the Hindu. With sudden joy, he exclaimed, “Hallelujah!” The New Zealander, in delight, cried out, “Amen!”
(3) Those two words, not found in their own old heathen tongues, but given to them by the Gospel, were to them the beginning again of “one language and one speech.” In the Patmos vision of the harpers by the glassy sea, we have the song of the mighty multitude of the redeemed from every kindred and people, and nation and tongue, in one united Church. It is a harmony of exultant praise over the realisation of the longed-for unity of God’s people. “The holy Church throughout all the world doth acknowledge Thee; Allelujah! (Revelation 15:0)
“Melodious language, wherein every thought
Finds utterance, o’erspreading the circling globe,
A language worthy of the sons of God.—Bickersteth.
Genesis 11:10. These are the generations of Shem] The genealogies are here only given in part, the writer’s object being to trace the pedigree of Abram from Shem.—
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Genesis 11:10-26
THE GENERATIONS OF SHEM
“These are the generations.” This is the usual phrase, employed in several places in this book, to mark a new development in the history. Here, it marks the beginning of the fifth document, in which the generations of Shem are recorded. As is often the case with such genealogies, some links are wanting, but a sufficient number are given to indicate the general course of the history. The details of the record are governed by the main purpose of the historian, which was to introduce us to Abraham through the line of Shem. The object of the Bible is not to satisfy a minute and prying curiosity, but to put us in possession of the great facts upon which the doctrines of salvation are based. We learn from this document:—
I. The line in which the knowledge of the true God was preserved. Shem was destined to preserve the name of God through all the corruptions of the old world. The knowledge of God might have perished from the earth, had not one people been selected to preserve it. The wisdom of God therefore provided a home for the safe custody of His truth and the maintenance of His worship. This was necessary because the nations had now begun to depart from the living God. Not content with ungodliness, they fell into positive error—into all the absurdities of polytheism and idolatry. The hope of the human race henceforth centres in the chosen people. It is because of the precious interests of this hope that the Bible confines itself mainly to the history of one people, which though insignificant in themselves, were truly great on account of the purpose of their existence. The very phrase, “The King of the Jews,” shows that the Messiah King was to arise out of that nation. The Bible is not a history of all men, but a history of the kingdom of God, and therefore the heathen nations gradually drop from the sacred page, and only appear at distant intervals when they come in conflict with the chosen people. All things in Scripture are subordinated to its main purpose. We learn also—
II. The direction of the stream of history towards the Messiah. If we can say that “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Revelation 19:10), we may also affirm that the spirit of sacred history centres in the same testimony. In the records of the chosen people, we can discover a movement towards a sublime end. The promise of a Messiah was at first vaguely given, but in process of time it grew clearer in outline, and richer with concentrated blessing. It increased in definiteness until “God was manifest in the flesh.” “God calmly and resolutely proceeds with His purpose of mercy. In the accomplishment of this eternal purpose He moves with all the solemn grandeur of long suffering patience. One day is with Him as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. Out of Adam’s three sons He selects one to be the progenitor of the seed of the woman. Out of Noah’s three sons He again selects one. And now out of Terah’s three is one to be selected. Among the children of this one He will choose a second one, and among his a third one before He reaches the holy family. Doubtless this gradual mode of proceeding is in keeping with the hereditary training of the holy nation, and the due adjustment of the Divine measures, for at length bringing the fulness of the Gentiles in the covenant of everlasting peace.”—(Murphy.) We learn further—
III. The gradual narrowing of human life. As a judgment upon the sin of the old world, God determined to contract the duration of human life. That judgment was not inflicted at once. The threatened limit was but slowly reached. God is not in haste to inflict penalty. His justice proceeds with a solemn majesty of movement. In this history, which shows how the span of life is gradually narrowing, it would appear as if the old energy does but slowly leave the children of men. “In the manifold weakenings of the highest life endurance, in the genealogy of them, there are, nevertheless, distinctly observable a number of abrupt breaks—
(1) from Shem to Arphaxad, or from 600 years to 438;
(2) from Eber to Peleg, or from 464 years to 239;
(3) from Serug to Nahor, or from 230 years to 148; beyond which last, again, there extend the lives of Terah, with his 205, and of Abraham, with his 175 years. Farther on we have Isaac with 180 years, Jacob 147, and Joseph 110. So gradually does the human term of life approach the limit set by the Psalmist (Psalms 90:10). Moses reached the age of 120 years. The deadly efficacy goes on still in the bodily sphere, although the counter-working of salvation has commenced in the spiritual.”—(Lange.)
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Genesis 11:10-11. The general title is expressed thus, “These are the generations of Shem.” Of these Moses was speaking, Genesis 10:0, so far as Peleg, whose name being given him upon the occasion of dividing the earth; by way of parenthesis, he includes the history and cause of this earth’s division, in the former part of this chapter. He now returns to draw up the line full unto Abram, about which this title is set in the front. Consider the use of all these mentioned in the title.
1. To point out where the Church of God was after the flood.
2. To show God’s Providence in singling out some generations in the world for His Church, these and not others.
3. To make known to us the state of the Church either for truth or for corruption at this time.
4. To continue to us the right chronology of the world, not for speculation only, but for pious practice to us, upon whom the ends of the world are come.
5. To make us better understand some passages of the prophets mentioning these persons or their conditions.
6. To show us the true line of Christ, and to confirm the New Testament given by Him. Every generation in the Church from the flood is but to bring Christ nearer.—(Hughes.)
A second Kenan is inserted after Arpakshad in the Septuagint, and in the Gospel according to Luke. But this name does not occur even in the Septuagint in 1 Chronicles 1:24, where the genealogy of Abraham is given. It is not found in the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Targums, or the ancient versions. It does not appear in Josephus or Philo. Neither is it found in the Codex Bezae in the Gospel of Luke. It must therefore be regarded as an interpolation.—(Murphy.)
Genesis 11:28. Ur of the Chaldees] “Ur in Heb. means light, and was probably so called from the Persian idolatry of fire worship, prevalent among this people. Abram was called by God out of this region of idolaters, to be a follower of the true God” (Jacobus).—
Genesis 11:29. The father of Iscah] This name is nowhere else mentioned. Jewish traditions consider it as identical with Sarai, one name having been borne before she left Chaldea, the other afterwards. Alford thinks that this view is inconsistent with what is stated in Genesis 17:17, and remarks that “Marriage with near relatives was the practice of Terah’s family” (Genesis 24:3-4; Genesis 28:1-2).—
Genesis 11:30. But Sarai was barren] Inserted as bearing upon the following history.—
Genesis 11:31. And Terah took Abraham his son] “Terah was an idolater (Joshua 24:2), so that this, his journey, can hardly be supposed to have been an obedience on his part to that Divine intimation which we learn from the subsequent Jehovist account, was made to his son” (Alford).—They came unto Haran] The Greek has Charran (Acts 7:2). Terah intended to go to Canaan, but stopped here, probably on account of increasing age and infirmity.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Genesis 11:27-32
THE DAWN OF ABRAM’S HISTORY
Here we have the commencement of the sixth document, indicated by the usual preface, “These are the generations.” This portion is intended to bring Abram before us, and therefore goes to the roots of his history, showing us from what a source so eminent an example of righteousness sprung. The history is brief, but it may be considered as a condensed outline of Abraham’s life. Here we find him—
I. Possessed of great moral courage. Terah, the father of Abram, was an idolator (Joshua 24:2). Both himself and his children were ignorant of the true object of worship, or if they had any knowledge of this, they did not retain that knowledge, but suffered themselves to be led away by the impiety around them. Such is the hole of the pit from whence this sublime character was digged. Abram is the next great name in the sacred record to Noah, and their moral histories are very similar. Noah passed through the flood, and through an age of extraordinary wickedness to the victory of faith; and Abram passed through heathenism to become the chief example, in those early times, of belief in God. Abram had the moral courage to leave these idolatrous associations. In Genesis 11:31 Terah, his father, is represented as the leader of the migration to Canaan. But it is probable that the history in Genesis 12:0 is anticipated, and that Abram listening to the Divine call, persuaded his father also to obey. The courage of the father of the faithful influenced all his family, and they were ready to follow the leading of the Providence of God to better things. The great moral revolutions of the world have been brought about by the influence of men to whom God had spoken. By obeying the early suggestions of the Divine Spirit, men have been led on to glorious results, of which at the first they had no suspicion. Here also we find Abram—
II. Under the shadow of a future trial. (Genesis 11:30.) Sarai’s barrenness was, no doubt, a great trial to him, in that early age when men naturally desired a numerous offspring. But in his subsequent history this circumstance was not only a natural cause of regret, but it raised a difficulty in the way of his faith. This fact stood in his way, and for long years he had to endure the conflict of hoping against hope. The shadow of a coming trial now rested upon Abraham in order that his faith might prove itself strong by encountering difficulties.
SUGGESTIVE COMMENTS ON THE VERSES
Genesis 11:27. The present paragraph is of special interest for the coming history. Its opening word and (A. V. now), intimates its close connection with the preceding document; and, accordingly, we observe that the one is merely introductory to the other. The various characters brought forward are all of moment. Terah is the patriarch and leader of the migration for part of the way. Abram is the subject of the following narrative. Nahor is the grandfather of Rebekah. Haran is the father of Lot, the companion of Abram, of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, and grandmother of Rebekah, and of Iskah. Iskah alone seems to have no connection with the subsequent narrative.—(Murphy.)
Small hath the line of the Church been from the beginning, in comparison with the line of the world.—(Hughes.)
If we seek for the origin of some of the greatest religious and social revolutions which the world has known, we often find it in a small group of men.
Genesis 11:28. Properly, in his presence, so that he must have seen it; it does not, therefore, mean simply in his life-time. The first case of a natural death of a son before the death of his father, is a new sign of increasing mortality.—(Lange.)
Death is described as the land “without any order,” and truly without any order does he snatch away the sons of men. He strikes down the children before the face of their parents.
Providence ordaineth the land of the nativity of some to be the place of their expiring.—(Hughes.)
Genesis 11:29. Sarai was, according to Genesis 20:12, the daughter of Terah by another wife than Abram’s mother, and was ten years younger than her husband (Genesis 17:17).—(Alford.)
1. The subject spoken of, Sarai; she that was to be the mother of the Church, of whom, purposely, the Spirit writeth this which followeth to show forth the power of God.
2. The condition spoken of her—under two expressions.
(1) She was barren, i.e., naturally she was so, and that from her youth and first marriage—the fitter object for God to work upon by His power.
(2) To her was no child. That is, hitherto she had no child, when she was now taking her journey with her husband and grandfather. God records the trials of His saints, not for their reproach but for His own glory.—(Hughes.)
Long and silent trials are often the portion of the greatest saints.
Genesis 11:31. It is evident from Genesis 12:1, that this expedition was undertaken in consequence of the Divine call to Abraham to come out from a land of idolaters; but from the deference paid to the head of a family, Terah is here represented as chief in the movement, though really acting in obedience to the monitions of his son. Nahor and his wife Milcah, it would appear, were unwilling to go, at least at present; yet as we find them in the course of the history settled at Haran, and Abraham and Isaac sending to them for wives, we may conclude that they afterwards “repented and went.” Thus the whole of Terah’s family, though they did not go to Canaan, yet were probably preserved from Chaldean idolatry, and fixing themselves in Haran, maintained for a considerable time the worship of the true God. The narrative suggests to us, that while the most exemplary marks of respect are due from children to parents, yet parents themselves may sometimes be called to follow their children as leaders, when they have obtained clearer light as to the path of duty, and go forth at the evident call of God. But even in such cases a proper spirit of filial reverence will give as much precedency as possible to parental actions.—(Bush.)
A godly man in the performance of the highest duties will consider the claims of natural propriety. St. Paul does not scruple to refer the Corinthians to the teaching of nature, and to urge them to have regard to what is seemly.
Religious duty can be performed so as not to interfere with the claims of natural relationship.
Terah’s migration to Canaan—
(1) Its spirited beginning;
(2) its failure to go on. Abraham and his kinsmen—
(1) He was probably the author of the movement;
(2) they, probably, the cause of his tarrying in Haran.—(Lange.)
St. Paul tells us that Abraham went forth “not knowing whither he went.” Here it is stated that the “land of Canaan” was the object and purpose of this migration. So it was in the Divine destination, but not as a definite resolve of their own. The historian evidently writes from the standpoint of subsequent facts. They went forth under the leading of Providence, having just light enough for each successive portion of the journey—the end not yet revealed. Faith asks not to see the whole of its course spread before it, but only light enough to take the next step. He who gives that faith will take care of the whole course, and secure the success of the end.
They came to Haran, and dwelt there. Broken down with fatigue, he halts for a season at Haran to recruit his wasted powers. Filial piety, no doubt, kept Abram watching over the last days of his venerable parent, who, probably, still clung to the fond hope of reaching the land of his adoption. Hence, they all abode in Haran for the remainder of the five years from the date of Abram’s call to leave his native land.—(Murphy.)
Genesis 11:32. Time and place are appointed to die as to be born in. It is good to be ready in every place.—(Hughes.)
Terah was two hundred and five years old. If Abram, therefore, was seventy-five years old when he migrated from Mesopotamia, and Terah was seventy-five years old at his birth, then must Abraham have set forth sixty years before the death of Terah. And this is very important. The migration had a religious motive which would not allow him to wait till the death of his father. As Delitzsch remarks, the manner of representation in Genesis disposes of the history of the less important personages before relating the main history. The Samaritan text has set the age of Terah at one hundred and forty-five, under the idea that Abraham did not set out on his migration until after the death of Haran. The representation of Stephen (Acts 7:4) connects itself with the general course of the narration.—(Lange.)
Terah, like Moses, failed to enter the Land of Promise. God had provided for him a better country, where the purposes so incompletely fulfilled here will reach completion. There are no broken and rudimentary structures in the city of God.
We are forcibly reminded of our pilgrim state by the fact that many of God’s people have died on journeys. However imperfectly we may have realised our ideal of life, it is well to be prepared for that last solemn journey which we must take alone, and where no help can avail but the rod and staff of God.
The history here given of the post-diluvians has a striking resemblance in structure to that of the ante-diluvians. The preservation of Noah from the waters of the flood is the counterpart of the creation of Adam, after the land had risen out of the roaring deep. The intoxication of Noah by the fruit of a tree corresponds with the fall of Adam by eating the fruit of a forbidden tree. The worldly policy of Nimrod and his builders is parallel with the city-building and many inventions of the Cainites. The pedigree of Abram, the tenth from Shem, stands over against the pedigree of Noah, the tenth from Adam. And the paragraph now before us bears some resemblance to that which precedes the personal history of Noah. All this tends to strengthen the impression made by some other phenomena already noticed, that the book of Genesis is the work of one author, and not a mere pile of documents by different writers.—(Murphy.)
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Genesis 11". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29