Genesis/Exodus Week 5
Seattle Pacific University Professor of Old Testament
Read this week’s Scripture: Genesis 7:1–11:32
The Floodwaters Come
As threatened (Genesis 6:5–7), God destroys the earth with a flood. With the exception of those aboard the divinely commissioned boat (7:1–16), the destruction is near total. We are unable to avert our eyes from the devastation as we come face to face with a sobering litany of all that perished (7:21–24). What an inglorious and unfortunate conclusion to a glorious and awe-inspiring beginning. The effects of sin overwhelm us as they threaten the created order.
However, as calamitous as the judgment is, it is not ultimate. Thus, we are heartened to hear that “God remembered Noah” and every other living being on the ark (8:1). The deity who brought about this great flood in judgment would now set about undoing its results by grace [Author’s Note 1]. At God’s instigation, the waters subside while a wind begins to blow. Before long, Noah’s boat rests on high, but dry, ground (8:1b–5).
Once again, God makes provision for life. In a relatively short period of time, the ground — though still cursed — becomes dry (8:13). Ironically, moist ground had previously provided the condition for God’s fashioning brand-new life (Genesis 2:6–7). Dry ground now symbolizes the conditions for beginning life anew in the post-flood era. God puts the accent on fertility — in other words, life — as everyone who made this momentous voyage disembarks (8:15–19). God seems to specialize in new beginnings.
Noah’s goodness (6:8, 22; 7:1, 5) extends to his worship habits, for the first thing he does upon leaving the ark is present an offering to God (8:20). Not only is the Lord pleased, but the Lord also uses the occasion to make a promise. The first part of the promise involves the ground. God would no longer treat the ground as cursed. The second part has to do with divine judgment — never again would the deity come this close to wiping out life on the earth.
As though to reinforce God’s self-pledge, it is clear that from now on the seasons would proceed in their normal sequence (8:21–22). It is not lost on us that the regularity of these seasons is required if the ground is to be worked and made productive. A terrible curse has been greatly relieved, if not eliminated altogether, thereby reminding us of Lamech’s previous prediction about his son Noah (5:29).
In the post-flood setting, we discern something old and something new. The former is illustrated by the repetition of themes previously indicated. God offers blessing and urges fertility (9:1, 4; 1:28). Likewise, human beings remain in charge of the rest of the created order (9:2; 1:26, 28). Then again, God emphasizes how much food is available to the human family (9:3; 2:16; 3:2). At the same time, along with the offering of abundant food, there are restrictions (9:4; 2:17; 3:3). The moral nature of the present situation is further noted in the post-flood era by the commentary on punishment (9:6).
A Covenant With All Living Creatures
Before we get to see how events will transpire in the post-flood age, God makes a covenant with all living creatures. It is slightly more elaborate than the promise made previously (8:21–22). But in essence God pledges an end to earth-destroying waters. A bow in the sky will symbolize God’s commitment, which will last forever (9:17). From now on, life will continue. Plus, those on the ark will supply the world’s population (9:18–19).
The freshness of this new start is indicated by the assertion that Noah was the first tiller of the ground, even though we saw that Adam and Cain were farmers before him (2:5, 15; 3:23; 4:2, 12). True to form, this “first” tiller planted a vineyard. We are at this point excited to see whether the curse on the ground has indeed been reduced or removed entirely, as prophesied by Lamech (5:29) and announced by God (8:21–22). We are not disappointed. It takes only three verbs — Noah planted a vineyard, drank of the wine, and became drunk — to demonstrate how fertile the now un-cursed or less-cursed ground is (9:20–21). That is the good news.
A New Curse
Unfortunately, there is also bad news. While Noah is sleeping off the effects of his lush harvest while lying naked in his tent, his son Ham sees his father’s nakedness, which is evidently a euphemism for some sort of untoward and completely improper behavior [Author’s Note 2].
In spite of an attempt to cover up what had happened — apparently in both a literal and a metaphoric sense — Noah wakes, realizes what has happened, and pronounces a curse. Most astounding is that Noah does not curse his son Ham, but Ham’s son Canaan (9:23–25). In this instance we recall how Cain had been disadvantaged by his parents’ behavior.
Similarly, Canaan suffers because of something his father did. The consequences of sin once more are unpredictable and cause collateral damage. The innocent are not immune to its pernicious effects. At the same time, we note the irony in that part of Canaan’s curse turns out to be Shem’s and Japeth’s blessing, even though Shem seems to get the better part of the bargain (9:26–27). We are at least a little encouraged that blessing is the last thing mentioned in this sordid episode.
A New Genealogy
Once again we encounter a genealogy (10:1–32). This one has conventionally been called the Table of Nations. Again, notwithstanding our general indifference to genealogies, we have something to learn here. In the first place, this genealogy — which relates to Shem, Ham, and Japeth, the sons of Noah — shows how God’s commitment to the continuation of life in spite of the flood is being maintained (9:8–17, 19). Not even the curse against Canaan, which was indirectly also a curse against Ham, would prevent God’s promise of ongoing life from being fulfilled.
In the second place, we conclude from the genealogy that people settling in various regions of the earth, each having their own lands, languages, families, and nations (10:5, 20, 31) help to accomplish what God wanted to accomplish in the post-flood era. This is diversity and spreading abroad of peoples that God sanctions and affirms. Is this not what God had in mind when making plans to save humankind and the animal kingdom through Noah from the outset? The answer seems clear (10:32).
However, even as we celebrate this wondrous peopling of the earth from the ark’s passengers, we are bewildered at the beginning of Chapter 11. How can it be that right after being informed of the spread of the descendants of Shem, Ham, and Japeth all over the world, each one contributing to linguistic, territorial, national, and familial, if not ethnic diversity, we are told that the whole earth had one language and few words? This makes no sense. Indeed, it has led some to propose that Chapters 10 and 11 should be reversed. But the people who put the Scriptures together almost surely understood that 10 precedes 11! Assuming that, how shall we view this jarring contradictory statement?
As we probe further we see that the people who migrated from the east to settle in Shinar put their linguistic commonality and their common setting to good use, at least as they perceived it. All these people decided to fire bricks to serve as building stones and use bitumen or tar for mortar. This is because they agreed to build a city and a very high tower.
But that prompts the question: Why? About this there is no doubt. The people at Shinar wanted to accomplish two goals: (1) make a name for themselves and (2) avoid being scattered over the face of the earth (11:2–4). How shall we assess their efforts? Arguably, making a name for oneself could be either positive or negative. Fame may morph into infamy, but it need not do so. As for avoiding being scattered, that seems more problematic. After all, according to Chapter 10, humanity being spread throughout the world appears to be an overall good. Is there something dubious involved with the people in Chapter 11?
The Fateful Tower
Our questions are answered when the Lord decides to check out what is taking place in the plain of Shinar. The deity concludes that the people’s unity — “they are one people” — and single language will likely serve nefarious purposes: “this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” (11:5–6). God’s evaluation of the people’s efforts leads to a divinely sponsored confusing of their language — the implication is that henceforth they have many languages and a slew of vocabulary (11:1) — so as to make communication difficult if not impossible.
In addition, God scatters the people over the earth. Unable to communicate and no longer in the same location, the people leave the city unfinished (11:7–8). Curiously, the incomplete city is now named Babel, symbolizing the multiplication of languages and the scattering against the people’s express wishes (11:9).
Now we can get something of a handle on the seeming contradiction between Genesis 10 (Table of Nations) and 11:1–9. It is not necessarily the case that we should read them in a linear fashion. Instead, we see that the two chapters give us differing perspectives on the same reality. Genesis 10 tells us that there is a diversity of language and a scattering into various peoples, locations, nationalities, and the like that accords with God’s plans for the world.
But Genesis 11:1–9 reminds us that humanity’s inability to communicate and the alienation that results from being scattered in judgment are no less real in our world. In a sense, Genesis 10 is what God prefers, whereas Genesis 11:1–9 is a condition afflicting the human family with which God also has to deal.
A Pattern of Sin and Judgment
Also, at the conclusion of the Babel incident we may reflect on an interesting pattern that has become evident as we survey what has transpired since human beings went against God’s will. From Genesis 3 onward, various sins have been committed, regardless of whether they have been called “sin” or not (the word “sin” does not appear in Genesis 3).
The progression (regression?) is obvious: the sin in the garden (Genesis 3); Cain kills Abel (Genesis 4); the sons of God marry the daughters of men (6:1–2); Ham looks on the nakedness of his father, Noah (9:22); the inhabitants of Shinar attempt to make a name for themselves for the wrong reasons, and try to avoid being scattered against divine purposes (11:4).
As we saw, each of these sinful incidents was followed by a divine act of judgment. In the garden, the serpent was condemned to crawl and be at enmity with the woman’s descendants, the woman was doomed to extra pain in childbirth, and the man whose job was to farm would have to deal with the cursed ground (Genesis 3). Likewise, Cain was condemned to be a fugitive and wanderer (4:12). Then again, the unholy marriage depicted in Genesis 6 led to the great flood. Though God was not directly involved, Ham’s sin against his father brought a curse upon his son (9:25–27). Finally, the folk who tried to build the city that was eventually called Babel had their languages confused and were scattered over the earth (11:7–8). Like clockwork, judgment follows sin.
But there is more. God’s judgments are accompanied by God’s grace. In fact, grace always seems to be the final word. In the garden narrative, there is an act of grace in that the sinful couple did not immediately die as threatened (2:17). In addition, God provides for the couple’s life outside the garden by offering them leather clothing (3:21). Plus, the couple’s life after Eden would include tilling the ground as had been the plan previously (3:23).
In the case of Cain, God acts graciously by not allowing him to be executed. The mark the Lord puts on Cain would serve as his protection (4:15). Obviously, in spite of the severity of the punishment in response to the unholy marriages depicted in 6:1–2, which included a diminution of the extent of life and ultimately the great flood (6:3, 7), God nevertheless provides for a new start with the family of Noah (6:8). Equally, God graciously promises not to punish humanity to that extent ever again (8:21–22; 9:8–17). It is also the case that after the flood the ground was either less cursed or not cursed any longer at all (9:20–21). There is even grace is God’s sticking with his plan to populate the earth with Noah’s descendants in spite of the cursing of Canaan as a result of Ham’s grievous sin (10:1, 32).
Babel and Grace
Only in response to the Babel episode is there no corresponding act of divine grace. What happened? Are we to believe that God got tired of being gracious? Has the pattern for some inexplicable reason broken down? Actually, a little closer look will help us to realize that precisely at this point an amazing, comprehensive act of grace comes into view. We sometimes miss this because the Babel story is followed by a dreaded genealogy, in which we typically put little stock. But we are too hasty in skimming over this. The genealogy is Shem’s (11:10), and it traces all the way to Abram (later Abraham) and Sarai (later Sarah) (11:27–30).
As we shall see, the story that features Abram and Sarai will be the act of grace that culminates in the establishment of God’s people Israel, through whom God plans to bless the whole of humanity (12:3). Incredibly, the rest of the biblical story comprises the act of grace that is a response to what happened at Babel. This includes the story of Jesus, who was Israel’s messiah and the one who embodied and fulfilled everything that God wanted to accomplish through the elect people. From the story of Abram and Sarai to the Book of Revelation, we see the act of grace on God’s part in reaction to Babel [Author’s Note 3]. We stand in awe at this prospect.
A final observation about Shem’s genealogy is in order. Shem’s name actually means “name” in Hebrew. It is the word used when the people in Shinar decide to build a city and a tower to “make a name (shem) for ourselves” (11:4). As we saw, God thwarted those efforts, presumably because the people had the wrong motives for making such a name.
Then Shem’s genealogy leads us to Abram. When Abram is first summoned by the Lord, among other things the deity promises to make Abram’s name (shem) great (12:2). Apparently, there is nothing wrong with making a name for yourself or having a great name as long as it accords with God’s ultimate purposes and as long as it is a function of the grace of God. Abram’s and Sarai’s great name will redound not to their glory, but to the glory of God as through the elect people this same God lavishes all people and ultimately the whole created order with amazing, plenteous grace.
Questions for Further Reflection: Genesis 7:1–11:32
- What should be made of the fact that this segment juxtaposes one of Scripture’s great judgment events (the flood) with a gracious gesture on God’s part to start all over?
- What are the implications of God’s making a covenant with humanity in general after the great flood?
- What should we make of the fact that, even after corruption — perhaps terrible corruption — is evident in Noah’s family after the flood, God still remains committed to humanity?
- What are the implications of ethnic or racial differences in light of Scripture’s assertion that every human being on earth descended from Noah’s family?
- We learned in Sunday school that the folk in Babel were trying to reach heaven. Does this seem to be what the text is saying? Also, is it appropriate to see the story of Pentecost in Acts 2 as “Babel in reverse”? What would lead to that characterization?
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