The fourth book begins with the title, “These are the generations of the sons of Noah: Shem, Ham, and Japheth” (Gen 10:1). So this book will be about the descendants of Shem, Ham, and Japheth. But interestingly in the opposite order: Japheth, Ham, and Shem from those furthest from Israel to those closest to Israel. Israel descends from Shem through Peleg. But the Shemites (Semites, those who are Semitic peoples) genealogy here traces through Peleg’s brother Joktan. The comment “for in his days the earth was divided” (Gen 10:25) refers to the split of the descendants of Shem between elect descendants of Peleg and non-elect descendants of his brother Joktan. This book is about the non-elect descendants of Noah through his sons Japheth, Ham, and Shem. The next book will tell us about the elect line of Shem through Peleg.
Book Four continues with the same pattern as earlier books. Gen 10:2-32 consists of three genealogies with commentary and Gen 11:1-5 is the story of building the tower of Babel. So this entire section we have been calling narrative. Gen 11:6-7 is the poetry and Gen 11:8-9 is the epilogue.
Like the other genealogies we have encountered, noticing the patterns will help us. There are fourteen nations from Japheth (seven times two), thirty from Ham, and twenty-six from Shem for a total of seventy nations. Seventy is a highly symbolic number (being seven times ten) suggesting that the genealogy is highly stylized to make a point through numbers. The text is also in a framework. Each one begins, “The sons of [Japheth, Ham, or Shem]” and each one ends in a similar way “each with his own language, by their clans, in their nations” (Gen 10:5), “by their clans, their languages, their lands, and their nations” (Gen 10:20 and 10:31). Thus the genealogy will divide these descendants by their politics, language, geography, and ethnicity. Some of these names are people groups, others are people, and some are place names. “Sons of” or “fathered” may indicate political, linguistic, geographical, or ethnic relationships. Two names are repeated Havilah and Sheba. These places may have elements descending from Cush and Joktan. Waltke, citing others, makes these observations. The whole table has a framework, beginning with “Sons were born to them after the flood” (10:1) and ending with “These are the clans of the sons of Noah, according to their genealogies, in their nations, and from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood” (Gen 10:32).
Japheth’s genealogy is stylized around sevens. He has seven sons and seven grandsons mentioned. This suggests order. The commentary, “From these the coastland peoples spread in their lands” (Gen 10:5) means to stress their distance from Israel.
The sons of Ham are closer to Israel. There are five sons of Cush and two grandsons through Raamah for a total of seven. This suggests order. Egypt has seven sons (do not count the Philistines as the mention of them is parenthetical) again suggesting order. But Canaan, the son of Ham cursed by Noah in the poetry of the last book, has eleven sons suggesting disorder.
There are two portions of commentary in the Ham section. The first says, “Cush fathered Nimrod; he was the first on earth to be a mighty man. He was a mighty hunter before YHWH. Therefore it is said, ‘Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before YHWH.’ The beginning of his kingdom was Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. From that land he went into Assyria and built Ninevah, Rehoboth-Ir, Calah, and Resen between Ninevah and Calah: that is the great city” (Gen 10:8-12). This is an interesting addition. Nimrod is not numbered among the seven sons. Cush fathered Nimrod could mean, as with all genealogies in Scripture, Cush is the ancestor of Nimrod. He is a mighty man or champion warrior king reminiscent of the giants. His kingdom included Assyria (Ninevah as the major city) and the land of Shinar (including Babel). That is, his kingdom included the two nations (the Assyrians and Babylonians) that would take Israel and Judah into captivity. And Babylon (the land of Shinar, Gen 11:2) is where the Tower of Babel was being built. Thus this addition would be a great assurance to the people during captivity.
The other commentary in the Ham section says, “Afterwards, the clans of the Canaanites dispersed. And the territory of the Canaanites extended from Sidon in the direction of Gerar as far as Gaza, and in the direction of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, as far as Lasha” (Gen 10:18d-19). This commentary deals with the more immediate concern of Genesis about the Canaanites who are under the curse of God and prepares us for the episodes with Sodom and Gomorrah. It is clear based on both comments that the descendants of Canaan are closer than Japheth to Israel and that they are the source of Israel’s biggest strife.
The third section includes text before the standard “The sons of…” It says, “To Shem also, the father of all the children of Eber, the elder brother of Japheth, children were born” (Gen 10:21). Perhaps we should see the number twelve (like the twelve tribes of Israel). Especially when we remember the elastic use of the word “sons” (as this opening phrase alerts us “the father of all the children of Eber” since Eber is not his immediate son but a descendant), Peleg would be the twelfth son of Shem (or better yet Peleg is the fourteenth distinct name if you count Shem and Japeth in Gen 10:21). And for the sons of Eber through Joktan (including Joktan) there are fourteen (seven times two) . This suggests order. So the three sections of the genealogy considered together serve to highlight the disorder of Canaan.
We have already discussed the first comment in the third section “for in his days the earth was divided” (Gen 10:25) though I will have more to say later about it. The second comment in this section is: “The territory in which they lived extended from Mesha in the direction of the Sephar to the hill country of the east.” This just means to communicate that they are close to Israel geographically but separated from Israel. This genealogy serves to tie the non-elect Shemites to the story of the tower of Babel.
But while these peoples would all have their own languages this was not originally the case. The narrative tells us that the whole earth had one language and the same words (Gen 11:1). And they decided to build a ziggurat tower climbing into the heavens. So YHWH came down to them in judgment. The stated reason for building the tower was: “let us make a name [Shem] for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth” (Gen 11:4). God was going to make a name (shem) for His people of the line of Shem. But these non-elect descendants of Noah tried to make a name for themselves.
One must confess that this book is one of the hardest in Genesis to understand. The poetry is the most difficult. The increased use of parallelism tips us off that this is poetic. One people//one language. This is only the beginning of what they will do//Nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Let us confuse their language//so they may not understand one another’s speech. The middle pair seems to be the focus. What exactly does it mean that God says, “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” (Gen 11:6)? It reminds us of the language of the epilogue in Genesis 3 (complete with God’s discussion with His “us”). We, God says in His heavenly council, need to stop man before he does something to keep salvation from being possible.
The epilogue begins and ends saying, “YHWH dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth” (Gen 11:8) and “from there YHWH dispersed them over the face of all the earth” (Gen 11:9). The comment in the middle “they left off building the city therefore its name (shem) was called Babel, because YHWH confused the language of all the earth” is interesting. Babel sounds like babbling — confusion. They had set out to make a name (shem) for themselves but the city gets the name (shem) of confusion. Their plans were frustrated. They never finished the city…as St. Augustine said, “the city never reached the kind of completion that the pride of impious men had dreamed.” Or as Waltke puts it, “The Tower of Babel story lampoons this boast [that Babylon is the religious center of the world]. To its founders “Babel” meant “gate/residence of the gods.” but the narrator parodies that significance by a Hebrew by-form bll, meaning “confused” (cf. English, “a babel of voices”). Its builders think their temple tower reaches into heaven; it is so low that the Lord has to descend from heaven just to see it!” (178). It is not finished because it can never get them to God.
Chronologically the narrative of Gen 11:1ff, poetry and epilogue belong before the royal genealogy. Thus Ephrem the Syrian, as quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (same source as the Augustine quote above) , said, “Because of their new languages, which made them foreigners to each other and incapable of understanding one another, war broke out among them on account of the divisions that the languages brought among them. Thus war broke out among those who had been building that fortified city out of fear of others. And all those who had been keeping themselves away from the city were scattered throughout the entire earth. It was Nimrod who scattered them. It was he who seized Babel and became its first ruler. If Nimrod had not scattered them each to his own place, he would not have been able to take that place where they all had lived before.” This is an interesting attempt at harmonizing the genealogy and the rest of the book. While we should avoid assuming that Ephrem is correct in the details, his impulse is right. We need to remember that the reason the descendants of Japheth, Ham, and Shem in the genealogy live in different places is the result of being dispersed throughout the land after the attempt to build the city and tower of Babel. This division of the land between the seventy nations took place when Peleg was living (“for in his days the earth was divided”) and divided Peleg from his brother Joktan (because Joktan was associated with the tower). And it is in this context that Nimrod conquered the lands of Babylon and Assyria and built his empire and built cities in the image of the original Babel. The text is dischronologized because of the structure of the genealogy and the overall structure of title, genealogy/narrative, poetry, epilogue.
The concern of this book is the salvation of the nations. They have been given their inheritance and are governed by God, whether they admit it or not. And the poetic curse is designed to pave the way for their future salvation through the seed of Abraham. This is the salvation accomplished by none other than Jesus Christ. As the author of Revelation tells us, “By your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev 5:9) and we see that all authority over every tribe, people, language, and nation had been given to the beast (Rev 13:8) and that an angel had “an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people” (Rev 14:6). The similarity to our book in Genesis is not accidental. For one thing, tribe is the same word as clan. The salvation Jesus accomplished is for the elect of every tribal/clan/political faction, every tongue, every people/nation, and every ethnicity. And this is what the epistles of Paul mean when they say things like “The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people” (Titus 2:11). Paul does not mean that Jesus has saved everyone but that the salvation accomplished by Jesus Christ was for all kinds of people — people of every clan, language, people, and ethnicity (Jews and Gentiles/nations). (translation used was ESV with minor changes)