The Theology of Genesis: Scattering of the Nations – Gen. 9-11

The end of chapter 9, along with chapters 10 and 11 form the conclusion of the initial part of Genesis. It covers the time between Noah’s exit from the Ark, and the introduction of Abraham. The primary focus on this section seems to be showing Israel’s place among the nations of the world.

The flood amounted to a reboot for the world. But it didn’t turn out any better this time than it did the first time. It was not long before sin reared its ugly head again. But, in the end, we are introduced to a man, Abraham, who God will use to begin his work in the redemption of humanity.

Estimated reading time: 12 minutes

Noah and His Sons

Genesis 9:18-28 records a curious scene. Noah got drunk and fell asleep naked in his tent. His son, Ham, took a peek at his father’s naked body and then told his brothers. His two brothers then covered their father, without looking. When Noah woke an realized what Ham had done, he cursed Ham’s son Canaan. I must confess that for many years I found this account disturbing. In our English renderings of this account, it does not seem all that big a deal.

Some have suggested that there was sexual activity involved in this encounter. But in the ancient near eastern culture, being naked was shameful. And so Ham’s actions would have brought shame on Noah. Regardless what actually happened in this encounter, it violated social taboos to such an extent that it angered Noah. And not just a little bit.

But why was Noah’s curse directed directed at Ham’s youngest son rather than Ham himself? The account gives us no clue that I am aware of. But it does set the scene for the conflict between the descendants of Canaan and the nation of Israel in the years to come.

Why this Story?

As I have expressed earlier in this series, I do believe that Genesis is inspired by God. I do not believe it is just a random series of legends collected together over time. There is a reason for the inclusion of each of these accounts. Sometimes that reason may be more obvious than other times. And this is one of those times where I am not sure just what we are supposed to take away as we read this.

But I do believe this account provides us with two bits of information that are pertinent to the overall story. The first of these is that it did not take long for sin to mar this reboot of creation. And it came from those who had experienced the world before the flood. Who had experienced God’s deliverance through the flood. Sin is a powerful foe that humanity, on their own, seems powerless to conquer.

The second potential reason for this account, as mentioned above, is that it sets the scene for Israel’s later entry into the promised land. This is the land that was inhabited by the descendants of Canaan. I do not believe that the Canaanites were being punished for what Ham, and potentially Canaan, had done. But they are described as a morally depraved people, just like their namesake’s father.

The Table of Nations

The tenth chapter of Genesis is a genealogical record of Noah’s descendants. But it is really much more than a simple family tree. While it does include individuals, it’s primary purpose is to describe the historical relationships among the nations that derived from the sons of Noah.

The Descendants of Japheth

There are fourteen names listed here. Seven of them are sons of Japheth and then seven more who were his grandchildren. None of these nations play much of a part in Israel’s story. But there are a number of them that are mentioned by the prophets as future antagonists of Israel. Gomer, Magog, Tubal, Meshek, as well as two of Ham’s sons, Cush and Put, are mentioned in Ezekiel 38. Ezekiel prophecies that in a future time these will gather their armies together to come against Israel.

The Descendants of Ham

Ham has four sons listed, with three of them having sons of their own listed. What is interesting here is that Ham’s descendants include the primary foes of Israel. The exception to that would be those that have a close relationship with Israel: Edom, Moab, and Ammon. Ham is portrayed as the villain in the previous account. And here his descendants carry on that tradition.

Cush is the name of a region to the south of Egypt in the general area of Ethiopia. But at least some portion of his family spread to the east rather than the south. Nimrod was the son of Cush. And was credited with founding the cities that formed to center of two world empires. The empires that conquered and took both Israelite kingdoms into captivity. The four cities in Shinar were a part of the Babylonian empire, with Babylon as its capital. The other was the Assyrian empire, with Nineveh as its capital. These two empires, deriving from Ham, through Cush and Nimrod, were Israel’s greatest foes and two of the three large empires mentioned in the Old Testament.

A second son of Ham was Mizraim, or Egypt depending on your translation. And this son represents the third empire that Israel contended with. The Philistines are identified as descendants of Mizraim. Canaan is the youngest son of Ham, and he has eleven sons who occupy the eastern Mediterranean region.

The Descendants of Shem

Shem is described as the younger brother of Japheth and the ancestor of all the sons of Eber. It is through Eber that Abraham and his family trace their ancestry. That would include Israel, Edom, Moab, Ammon, and whatever family comes from those Abraham left behind when he went to Canaan. This includes the family of Isaac’s wife Rebecca and Jacob’s wives, Leah and Rachel. Otherwise there seems to be little of note in the descendants of Shem.

Dividing Up the Nations

There is a passage in Deuteronomy that seems to allude back to this listing of nations.

Remember the days of old;
consider the generations long past.
Ask your father and he will tell you,
your elders, and they will explain to you.
When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance,
when he divided all mankind,
he set up boundaries for the peoples
according to the number of the sons of Israel.
For the LORD’S portion is his people,
Jacob his allotted inheritance.

Deuteronomy 32:7-9 NIV

In the Masoretic text we see boundaries being set for the peoples according to the sons of Israel. But both the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Septuagint have sons of God rather than sons of Israel. Sons of God is an expression used elsewhere to refer to angels. And if that is the original expression here, then it would indicate that the nations listed in this tenth chapter of Genesis were assigned to angels. Potentially fallen angels that were worshipped by the peoples. While Israel remained God’s chosen ones. The nations were turned over to the worship of gods. While Israel was called to worship God.

The Tower of Babel

Next to the creation and fall narrative and the flood account, the story of the Tower of Babel is likely the best known story in the early chapters of Genesis. This story is set in Shinar, often translated as Babylonia. This was one of the areas where Nimrod, one of Ham’s grandsons, had build cities (Gen. 10:8-10). Babylon was one of those cities and appears to be the setting for this story. Most English translations call the place Babel, but it is the same word that is more often translated as Babylon.

The events described here occur some time after the flood, during the life of Peleg. He was several generations after Shem, and Genesis 10:25 and 1 Chronicles 1:19 say that the earth was divided during his lifetime. It would seem to describe a time when the descendants of Noah were still living closely together and had not yet begun to follow God’s directive to fill the earth (Gen. 9:1). This could have been during the time of Nimrod during his first city building phase ( Gen. 10:8-12).

A City With a Tower

The people here decide to build a city with a tower that would reach to the heavens. The reason given here is to unify them closely together and prevent them from being scattered. This tower that they had undertaken to build was likely a ziggurat, a pyramid type structure that has been found in ancient Mesopotamia. These ziggurat’s were believed to be a way to connect the heavens, the home of the gods, with earth, the home of humanity.

Scattering the Nations

While the people were building their city and tower, the Lord came down to see what they were doing. This is not so much a reflection of God’s inability to see they activity from above, as it is a counter to what they were doing. The people were building a tower to reach the heavens. And likely to allow the gods to descend to where they were. But the God of heaven had no difficulty in reaching them without this tower. God is not confined to heaven, but is also among us, seeing all that we do.

The conclusion God draws after seeing their work is an interesting one. The united language of humanity, making them one people, would allow them to do pretty much anything. At least anything that is humanly possible. Today’s world is evidence of that. As humanity has learned again to work together, we have achieved some amazing technological advancements. And many are now saying that the human potential is unlimited, agreeing with God’s assessment.

So, in order to prevent, or at least slow down this advance, God confuses their language. No longer could the people cooperate as they once had. And the result was that work on the city and tower ceased and the people scattered over the face of the earth. The result of this was that, in the end, they fulfilled God’s command to fill the earth (Gen. 9:1), contrary to their expressed desire (Gen. 11:4).

Parallels With the Garden

The world after the flood is vastly different from the initial creation. Humanities initial home had been in the garden of God, a paradise. But the garden is lost to them. However the stories of Adam and Eve and humanity after the flood share a number of interesting parallels, especially concerning this tower that they had decided to build.

It seems clear that the rebooted creation faired no better than the original. Humanity, left to its own, was doomed to failure.

Babylon

Babylon eventually became a large empire that God used to send Judah into exile for their sin. But Babylon seems symbolically to be more than just this empire. It is where humanity attempted to reach up to the heavens, and were scattered. It was the evil empire that destroyed the nation of Judah. Likely it was a code name that Peter used for Rome. And it is the evil city that stands opposed to God’s people, and the holy city, in Revelation. Babylon comes to represent rebellion against God’s established order.

Introducing Abraham

In the earlier table of nations it is mention that one of Shem’s descendants had two sons who were alive when the world was divided. For one of the sons, Joktan, the table includes his offspring and the territory where they lived (Gen. 10:25-29). But Eber has no descendants listed, just the note about the world being divided in his time. But that changed after the account of the tower.

After the scattering of the nations, Genesis zero’s in one family. The family of Abraham. It is the story of this family that occupies the rest of the Old Testament. The rest of Genesis 11 traces the linage of Abraham from Shem, through Eber, and sets us up for the beginning of his story.

Unlike the table of nations in Genesis 10, the ancestry tree for Abraham includes the ages of each person listed. This is a similar format to what you find in chapter 5 where the linage from Adam to Noah is listed. Of note is that the life span of these men after the flood declines rapidly. Why that happens is not explained. Unless Genesis 6:3 refers to the soon to be lifespan of humanity rather than the time they have left before the flood.

The Theological Lesson

So what is there that we can take away from this passage? Much of it seems like just a meaningless list of names. And the only interesting part is about the Tower of Babel. But what could this story possibly have to teach us today?

I do think there is a rather significant lesson that is embedded here. One that appears throughout the Bible. Up to this point humanity is pictured as a united whole with a single language and culture. But afterwards humanity is divided into a myriad of nations, each with their own language, culture, and gods. And, as the story goes on in the remainder of Genesis, God takes one family and focuses his attention on them.

Israel, Abraham’s family, is called to be distinct from the other nations and cultures that come out of the scattering at Babel. But there are hints in the Old Testament prophets that what God is doing with Israel is ultimately intended to reach out to the rest of the nations. Isaiah 66:18-21 and Zechariah 8:20-23 both point to a time when people from the nations will join with Israel in their covenant relationship with God.

Reversing Babel

The outcome of the scattering of nations was a confusion of languages. A confusion that divided people. But we find a story in the book of Acts that is just the opposite. Acts 2:1-12 records the coming of the Holy Spirit at the Pentecost after Jesus’ resurrection. One consequence of this is that, at least for that moment, the confusion caused by different languages was lifted. Everyone present heard what the apostles were saying, in their own language. These were all ethnic Jews, descendants of Abraham, but it portended the work that was the come.

In the years that followed, the gospel eventually was taken to the Gentiles. These Gentiles were the other nations that were scattered at Babel. They had been separated from Israel, the people of God. But that had now changed. In Ephesians 2:11-22, Paul makes it clear that through what Christ had done on the cross, believing Gentiles had now been joined with believing Jews into one new humanity.

Babel was the culmination of the slide that started with the fall in the garden. Mankind had demonstrated over and over that, on our own, we were incapable of living in obedience to the one true God. After Babel it appears that God essentially abandoned the bulk of humanity, at least for a while, and focused on one family. Until the time was right. And then Jesus came and began the restoration of humanity. Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the work of the Holy Spirit, work to create a new humanity. One that will truly be the image of God we were created to be.

The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.

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