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Deeper Commentary

 

11:1 The whole earth was of one language and of one speech- "Language" could possibly refer to one language root. I have suggested that the Genesis history concerns the eretz promised to Abraham, and the peoples living upon it. This is not to say that there were not other peoples living elsewhere on the globe, with their languages. But those in the eretz had one language root; and this was miraculously broken up into various dialects to the point of being confusing. The Hebrew for "speech" here is not the same word used for "speech" later on in this record - this word can more suggests a purpose/desire, often a wrong one. The implication is that this one desire was to build the tower of Babel;  the confounding of languages affecting all inhabitants of the earth shows that all the families of the earth were either in the Babel region or represented there. Truly it was a tower "which the children of men builded" (Gen. 11:5), bound together in unity by a common allegiance to this renowned king of Babylon.

 

11:2 It happened, as they travelled east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar, and they lived there- Moses' words in Genesis deconstruct later Babylonian myths. Perhaps the clearest case of this is in the record of Babel. The Babylonian myths boasted of the building of the city of Babylon and its tower / ziggurat. The tower of Babel was built in a plain (Gen. 11:2); and both Strabo and Herodotus mention that Babylon was built in a wide plain. The record of the tower being built with bricks is so similar to the Babylonian Epic Of Creation, Tablet 6, lines 58-61, which held that "For a year [the gods] made bricks" to build the ziggurat of Babylon. Their myths claimed that after the deluge, humanity came to Babylon and the Anunnaki deities, who had supported Marduk in his battle, built the city. But Gen. 11:5 labours that it was "the sons of men" who built Babel. Cassuto describes the Genesis record as "a kind of satire on what appeared to be a thing of beauty and glory in the eyes of the Babylonians" (Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary On The Book Of Genesis (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1992) Vol. 2 p. 227).

The 'coming down' of Yahweh to destroy man's evil intentions at Babel, points forward to His future intervention to judge the wickedness of men.   The record of this in Gen. 11 is set against the background of Gen. 10. "As they journeyed from the east...they found a plain..." (Gen. 11:2) is in the context of the record of the growth and rapid expansion of the tribes of the eretz in Gen. 10. We recall that Adam was banished eastwards from Eden; this impression of eastward movement may suggest they were getting further and further from the sanctuary in Eden, and also moving eastward from Ararat ['holy mount']. I have suggested that the ark rested on mount Zion; eastward from there would lead to Babylon, or Babel.

"Travelled" means specifically to take up tent pegs, and the word is used multiple times later in the Pentateuch for the travellings of the Israelites in the wilderness. And it was at exactly that period when Moses was composing the Pentateuch, with the nomadic Israelites as the primary audience. The warning was not to commit idolatry as these earlier rebels had done; and to accept that keeping on a journey was part of God's plan, rather than seeking to remain in one place. And in essence, that lesson needs to be learned by us today.

They halted their migration in a plain, the Hebrew suggesting a flat area bounded by rivers- which would fit Babylon. They had been commanded to spread over the land and subdue it; but like Adam with the same commandment, they decided not to. The descendants of Noah, which after a few generations would have numbered maybe 30,000 people, wanted to resist this; just as the early Christians resisted the command to take the Gospel into all the earth, despite the gift of languages giving them the opportunity to overcome language barriers. We see in these observations the power of conservatism within human nature; the desire for stability, the old and familiar, rather than the new. The Lord commented upon this (Lk. 5:39). No matter how liberal and open minded we may consider ourselves to be, there is an almost overpowering inertia within us.

11:3 A man said to his neighbour- The origin of the sin punished at Babel was a man suggesting something to his neighbour. The record of the lies of Cain and the sins of the people at the time of the flood and later at Babel all clearly locate human beings as responsible for the very sins which the pagan myths blamed upon the gods, with the implication in the Gilgamesh Epic that man was created an inevitable sinner by nature and therefore not fully culpable for his sin. Such ideas have in their essence re-appeared in mistaken Christian theologies of later millennia. Sin and death were blamed upon the gods. Thus Gilgamesh was told by Siduri: “When the gods created mankind, they allotted death to mankind, but life they retained in their keeping” (Tablet 10, col. 3, 3-5). In these kinds of pagan ideas we see the essence of common ideas about Satan; the blame for sin and the human condition that arises from it is blamed upon some superhuman being.

Come- Three times in this record (Gen. 11:3,4 and 7) we read the phrase "Come" or "Go to" (AV) in the contexts of the men 'going to' in the building, and of God 'going to' in His dramatic intervention. It cannot be coincidence that this rare idiom occurs twice close together in James 4:13; 5:1. The context there is of warning believers not to build their own 'Babels' of wealth and monuments to human achievement, seeing that they would be suddenly destroyed by the Lord's coming.   This in itself points to a latter-day application of this Genesis record-  indicating that weak believers will get caught up in the latter day Nimrod's unity movement, and will benefit from it materially? 

Let’s make bricks, and burn them thoroughly. They had brick for stone, and they used tar for mortar- The record of the tower being built with bricks is so similar to the Babylonian Epic Of Creation, Tablet 6, lines 58-61, which held that "For a year [the gods] made bricks" to build the ziggurat of Babylon. Their myths claimed that after the deluge, humanity came to Babylon and the Anunnaki deities, who had supported Marduk in his battle, built the city. But Gen. 11:5 labours that it was "the sons of men" who built Babel. Cassuto describes the Genesis record as "a kind of satire on what appeared to be a thing of beauty and glory in the eyes of the Babylonians".

The building materials here listed are appropriate to Babylon. I suggested on Gen. 10:9,10 that it was Nimrod who began the building project, and who was the rosh or head of the tower which was to be exalted to heaven. There is in the Babylon area a ruined tower which the Arabs call 'the tower of Nimrod'.

"Let us make brick" is literally 'let us make ourselves Laban'.  'Laban' meaning 'white' came to be associated with 'brick' because the bricks were presumably made from white clay. This created the picture of a dazzling white tower, gloriously reflecting the desert sun - which suggests that the tower was a piece of religious symbolism, perhaps a mock temple. This impression receives Biblical confirmation in Zech. 5. This chapter describes the corruptions of the Jewish and Christian apostasies; chapter 4 speaks of the building of the true temple in Jerusalem, whilst chapter 5 matches this with a description of a false temple being built "in the land of Shinar" (Zech.5:11). 'Shinar' being used rather than 'Babylon' must be in order to take us back to the tower/temple which men built "in the land of Shinar" in Gen. 11:2. 

The religious associations of the tower are strengthened by the similarity of this tower built by the first king of Babylon on a plain and the statue built by Nebuchadnezzar on the plain of Dura, also in Babylon.   It may be that the locations are identical. And there is a continuity of theme to be found in Arab leaders (kings of Babylon) showing a distinct liking for large monuments and religious imagery expressed in big building projects. Saddam Hussein, claiming to be the latter day Nebuchadnezzar, tried to rebuild Babylon and fill the area with quasi-religious towers and obelisks glorifying himself. "Let us make ourselves Laban" (v. 3) continues the Arab connections, seeing that Laban's persecution of Jacob typifies that of Israel by the Arabs, especially in the last days. 

There are other references to the persecution of Israel in the Babel record - the using of bricks and mortar to build a huge piece of religious symbolism recalls the work of Israel in Egypt (the same Hebrew word for 'bricks' occurs in the Exodus record).  "Slime had they for mortar" (Gen. 11:3) also contains echoes of Israel in Egypt.  "Slime" is the same word as "mortar" in Ex. 1:14, and "mortar" in Gen. 11:3 is the word translated "pitch" concerning how Moses' bulrush basket was made (Ex. 2:3). This conjures up the picture of Amram bringing home some mortar from the building site in order to make that ark. These echoes of Israel under persecution are hard to make sense of until it is recognized that the context of this Babel passage is the account of Arab growth in Gen. 10, and that Babel was built under Arab auspices.   Bearing in mind the certain Arab domination of Israel in the last days, it is surely justifiable to see in this record a hint of a latter day Arab-led coalition, which will perhaps express its grandeur in physical terms by the building of a structure. 

This colossus being built of baked clay and mortar and being effectively destroyed by the Lord's 'coming down' inevitably connects with the feet of the statue which Daniel interpreted, also seen in Babylon. The feet were made of "miry clay", "mixed" (Heb. 'Arab'). Is. 41:25 also springs to mind, speaking of the second coming, "He shall come... he shall come upon princes as upon mortar, and as the potter treadeth clay". It has been suggested that the image of Daniel 2 can be interpreted in a primarily Arab context, and we have shown that the Babel-builders are also primarily Arab.   "They journeyed from the east... they said... they builded" in Gen. 11 refers to the people of the eretz listed in Gen. 10. 

 

11:4 They said, Come, let’s build ourselves a city, and a tower- The phrase "city and tower" is so often found in Babylonian writings with reference to Babylon; but the phrase is used of Babel in Gen. 11:4. The temple of Marduk in Babylon had a sanctuary, the Esagila- "the house whose head is in heaven" and a tower called Etemenanki, "the house of the foundation of heaven and earth". Marduk supposedly lived on the seventh storey. The Babylonian inscriptions speak of the ziggurat tower as having its top in Heaven. The Genesis record deconstructs all this. The tower of Babel was built by sinful men and not gods; the one true God came down to view the tower- its top did not reach to Heaven, and there is a powerful word play on the word Babylon, meaning 'the gate of Heaven' in their language, and yet 'Babel', the equivalent Hebrew word, means 'confusion'. What the Babylonians thought was so great was in God's eyes and those of His people the Hebrews simply confusion and failure. The Genesis record goes on to show how that it was Abraham who had a great name made for himself (Gen. 12:2), whereas the Babel builders failed in their desire to make a permanent name for themselves. God's intention that mankind should spread out and fill the earth after the flood did eventually triumph over the builders of Babel-Babylon who tried to thwart it. Zeph. 3:9-11 allude to the Babel record- at the time of Judah's restoration from Babylon, it was God's intention to undo the effects of Babel and "change the speech of the peoples to a pure [united] speech, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord and serve Him with one accord. From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia my suppliants, the daughter of my dispersed ones, shall bring my offering". Those dispersed would then gather as one, i.e. Babel would be reversed.

Our Lord appears to refer to the temple as "a tower" in Mt. 21:33, supporting the previous suggestion that there was a religious aspect to this tower. It is hard to avoid emphasizing that in our last days Arab leaders are eager to rebuild Babylon and other historic cities, seeing them as a token of their unity and common connection with a glorious Babylon of old which subdued Israel. The original Babel was built with "slime" (Gen. 11:3);  the Hebrew seems to refer to bitumen, literally meaning 'that which is brought up,' and today it is Arab oil money which is financing such building schemes. 

There is good internal reason to think that the Pentateuch likewise was re-written in places to bring out the relevance of Israel's past to those in captivity. Consider the use of the word pus, 'scatter'. It was God's intention that mankind should scatter abroad in the earth and subdue it (Gen. 1:28); but it required the judgment of the tower of Babel to actually make them 'scatter' (Gen. 11:4). Thus even in judgment, God worked out His positive ultimate intentions with humanity. And this word pus is the same word used with reference to Judah's 'scattering' from the land into Babylonian captivity (Ez. 11:17; 20:34,41; 28:25). The intention, surely, was to show the captives that they had been scattered as the people had at the judgment of Babel / Babylon, but even in this, God was working out His purpose with His people and giving them the opportunity to fulfil His original intentions for them.

Whose top reaches to the sky- This is a poor translation - the A.V. putting "may reach" in italics indicates that these words are not in the original.  The Hebrew for "top" is rosh, familiar to students of Ez. 38:2, which correctly translates it as "chief prince". The chief leader of this tower was to reach unto and into heaven, and I suggested on Gen. 10:9,10 that Nimrod was this individual. Every Bible-minded student will race to Is. 14, where another king of Babylon says the same: "Thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God:  I will sit also in the mount of the congregation (i.e. the temple mount), in the sides of the north (Jerusalem, Ps. 48:2)... yet thou shalt be brought down... that (his children) do not possess the land, nor fill the face of the world with cities", as Nimrod had done (Is. 14:13,14,15,21). The connection with Is. 14 confirms that this tower had religious symbolism, and that with the image of Dan. 2 suggests that the chief prince (rosh) of the image is based on Nimrod, the first king of Babylon. Daniel, of course, also made it clear that the head of the image was the king of Babylon, who was then Nebuchadnezzar. 

When we read that the summit of Babel was to touch the heavens (Gen. 11:4), we find that the Hebrew phrase refers usually to persons, elevating their head. There are many uninspired parallel accounts of the building of Babel in contemporary literature- the Enuma Elish speaks of how the builders “raised high the head of Esagila toward the Heaven”. Clearly the tower was seen as headed up by a person, just as was the image of Dan. 2 and also that built by Nebuchadnezzar. These all indicate that the Lord Jesus will return to destroy a human system headed up by a specific, antiChrist individual. The Canaanite tribes were noted for the very high walls of their cities - "unto heaven" (Gen. 11:4 cp. Dt. 1:28).  This shows a continuity of theme between Babel and the tribes of Canaan. Significantly, God decided that nothing would be "restrained" from these people if their tower were completed - using the same Hebrew word translated "walled up" in Dt. 1:28 concerning the cities of Canaan. 

The whole prophetic meta narrative of the Bible is in many ways a tale of two cities- Babylon and Jerusalem. There are times when Babylon masquerades as Zion- a false city of God with a false Messiah leading her. Babylon / Babel was a city built to reach unto Heaven, in contrast to the true city of God which comes down from Heaven (Gen. 11:4 cp. Rev. 21:2). And there are times when Zion in her apostacy has appeared as Babylon. But in the final conflict of the last days, these two cities will be literally pitted against each other. Zion will briefly succumb under the might and pride of Babylon, to rise again in eternal glory. It was in Babylon where Nimrod first built the tower of Babel, the first organized rebellion against God; and it was there that God first entered into open judgment of flesh and humanity en masse. And it is here likewise that His purpose with sin and His true people will likewise be fulfilled.

And let’s make ourselves a name-  The new religious system was to replace God's Name with their own. The image of Dan. 2 is fundamentally concerning the domination of Israel (the earth / land), and we have connected that image with the tower of Babel. The building of the tower is also linked to the persecution of Israel through various allusions to Exodus. The motive for building Babel (i.e. dominating Israel in the typology), is to stop the builders being scattered and to make them a common name (Gen. 11:4).  Prophecies like Ps. 83, as well as an awareness of current Arab politics, indicate that the motive for the final Arab invasion of Israel will be in order to unite the naturally disparate Arab peoples. But it is twice emphasized that the Lord's 'coming down' resulted in their being "scattered abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth" (Gen. 11:8,9), using the very language which they used in v. 4 - "lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth." This clearly connects with the little stone destroying the desolating image and scattering the remains of it worldwide. 

Lest we be scattered abroad on the surface of the whole earth- Their conscious intention was to disobey the command to Noah's descendants to spread throughout the eretz  and subdue it. The memory of the Flood would still have been reasonably fresh with the generation of Babel.   After the Flood the nations were "divided in the earth" (Gen. 10:25,32); so perhaps the Canaanites building the city and tower so that they would not "be scattered abroad upon the earth" was a conscious effort to resist the judgments brought about by the Flood and its effects.  We have shown that the Flood particularly represents the judgments of the last days, and in the typology of Gen. 11 it is these which the builders of Babel consciously try to avoid.  This raises the question of how they will be so convinced that these judgments really are imminent. A display of the cherubim over Jerusalem (or a similar "sign of the son of man in heaven" ), or, of course, the actual second coming of the Lord, seem the only feasible explanations of their convictions. 

 


11:5 Yahweh came down to see the city and the tower- As if He had to search and come to have a closer look; this ‘language of limitation’ may refer to the Angels rather than God personally. "The Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the children of men builded" – surely this language of limitation must be concerning the Angels, seeing that God is aware of all things. The Angelic response was "Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language" (Gen. 11:5,7). This recalls  the Angels' words of Gen. 1:26 "Let us make man in our image"- see notes there.

Which the children of men built- See on Gen. 11:2 above.

11:6 Yahweh said, Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is what they begin to do. Now nothing will be withheld from them, which they intend to do- The intentions of the people were clearly far more than simply building a tower. That was but a beginning- towards a fake kingdom of God on earth. The Hebrew for "begin" here is also translated "to profane", again showing the distinctly religious aspect of their actions in building the tower. But God wants to save; and so He didn't allow such a system to fully develop. But it was not that God was as it were on the back foot; He didn't want to allow the earth to reach a point where He would have to mass destroy as He had done at the flood. As ever, His judgments were to save, ultimately, rather than to punish for its own sake.

With the world supporting them, and with a unity of mind never before experienced, the latter day Babel-builders will be able to gleefully relish the prospect of completely destroying the Jews and building their own religious system. Dan. 12:1 describes this period as "a time of trouble (for Israel) such as never was since there was a nation". "Since there was a nation" may well refer to the time of Babel, when the nations became more clearly defined. If this is indeed a Babel allusion, then the suggested connection between the building of Babel and the persecution of Israel is indeed confirmed. Yet Babel appears to be a symbol of apostate Israel in Is. 24:1: "The Lord maketh the earth (land) empty, and maketh it waste... and scattereth abroad the inhabitants thereof". The judgments to come upon the Babel builders will also come upon the faithless Israel of the last days. 

11:7 Come, let us go down- The same kind of language found in Gen. 1:26; see notes there.

And there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech- The languages of the peoples in the eretz were and are confused, words from one language are found in the others, but with different meanings. Arabic and Hebrew would be the classic example. And it was this closeness yet distance which created the interpersonal problems with which we are now familiar, and which led to the dispersal of the peoples from Babel. But comparing, say, Chinese with an Amazonian language doesn't yield that same sense. Again, it is the situation within the eretz which is always in view here. In God's bigger purpose, the misunderstandings and divisions between persons were used to set the scene for Abraham's calling. And He works similarly today.

There is a definite similarity between the account of God's intervention at Babel and that of His 'coming down' to Sodom. "The Lord came down to see the city and the tower (and 'noticed' how evil their aims were)... Let us go down..." (Gen. 11:5-7). This is matched by “I will go down now, and see whether they (Sodom) have done altogether according to the cry of it... and there came two angels to Sodom" (Gen. 18:21; 19:1). We have our Lord's authority for seeing this 'coming down' of the Lord to Sodom as typical of the second coming; the designed similarity with His 'coming down' to Babel indicates that we can read that incident likewise. 

11:8 So Yahweh scattered them abroad from there on the surface of all the earth. They stopped building the city- As noted on ::4, the scattering abroad was God's intention, so that the eretz would be subdued. They had built Babel specifically so that they would not be scattered. So here we see God using judgment and division between persons in order to achieve His purpose. And likewise the endless divisions amongst God's children, with each making their own missionary efforts, has in a strange way resulted in the wider spread of the Gospel.

How God 'came down' to destroy their plans is revealing as to His methods in the last days. There is no indication in Gen. 11 that the tower was actually destroyed, indeed, "Therefore is the name of it called Babel" (Gen. 11:9) implies that at least part of the building was still standing when the record was written.   It was the very action of confounding their language that resulted in their scattering, "so (i.e. because of the confounding of their language) the Lord scattered them abroad" (Gen. 11:7,8). "They left off" building (Gen. 11:8) uses a Hebrew word meaning strictly 'to grow flabby', implying a gradual cessation rather than a momentous destruction. Likewise the persecutors of angel-protected Lot in Sodom (a certain type of the last days) "wearied themselves" in their efforts as a result of the Lord's 'coming down'. One of the 'plagues' that God threatens the Arab invaders of Israel with is that "a great tumult from the Lord shall be among them;  and they shall lay hold every one on the hand of his neighbour, and his hand shall rise up against the hand of his neighbour" (Zech. 14:12,13).  This is how previous invasions had been overcome (Jud. 7:22; 2 Chron. 20:23). Ps. 83 perfectly describes the Arab unity as they attack Jerusalem in the last days (vs. 3-5, 12), but concludes with the Psalmist praying that God would destroy them as He did Oreb and Zeeb (v. 11) - who were defeated as a result of God making their troops turn on each other (Jud. 7:22-25).  It will largely be through this means that the image will be broken up and scattered worldwide, as the Babel builders were.   In its continuous historic fulfilment, the different parts of the image subdued each other; for them to stand together in the last days shows that a unity must be placed upon them by their head and also the feet upon which they stand; only for this unity to be destroyed by the Lord's coming.    

11:9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there Yahweh confused the language of all the earth. From there, Yahweh scattered them abroad on the surface of all the earth- The stress that "there" the confusion occurred makes us wonder how exactly it occurred. The act of confusion occurred at a specific point in space and time, and yet affected all the descendants of Noah; who by that time might have been around 30,000. Perhaps all of them listed in Genesis 10 were present at Babel, which would mean that a fair "city" already existed there. They would have scattered from each other due to their misunderstandings and arguments- and yet this was God's scattering of them. His judgments work in accord with human freewill. Thus God threw Pharaoh into the Red Sea; but he himself charged in there of his own free volition.


11:10 This is the history of the generations of Shem. Shem was one hundred years old and became the father of Arpachshad two years after the flood- The genealogies of Genesis 11 reveal how some human lives repeat according to the same outline schema. See on :13,14. Abraham and Shem both had sons at 100 years old. And it is the very nature of Christian fellowship that God has arranged that our human lives likewise have elements of amazing similarity of pattern.

11:11 Shem lived five hundred years after he became the father of Arpachshad, and became the father of sons and daughters- It should be noted that the Septuagint gives different ages and inserts other generations in genealogies such as this one. Yet the Septuagint is usually the version quoted by the inspired New Testament writers, including for passages where the Masoretic Text reads quite differently. This has large implications for the theory that Adam was created 4000 BC, and the six thousand year plan theory.

11:12 Arpachshad lived thirty-five years and became the father of Shelah- As noted on :11, the LXX differs here, adding in a generation, of Cainan. And this version is quoted in Lk. 3:36. And according to the LXX genealogies, Adam was not born 4000 years BC.

11:13 Arpachshad lived four hundred and three years after he became the father of Shelah, and became the father of sons and daughters- The genealogies of Genesis 11 reveal how some human lives repeat according to the same outline schema. See on :10,14. Both Arphachsad and Shelah each lived 403 years after the births of the eldest sons.


11:14 Shelah lived thirty years, and became the father of Eber- Shelah, Peleg and Serug were each 30 when their first sons were born. See on :13.

11:15 And Shelah lived four hundred and three years after he became the father of Eber, and became the father of sons and daughters- We note the decreasing lifespans as the generations proceed after the flood. We are left with the impression of everything going downhill, morally and physically- until the Lord starts again with humanity, through calling Abram.


11:16 Eber lived thirty-four years, and became the father of Peleg- Eber is mentioned four times here in :14-17, matching the special emphasis given to him in the genealogy of chapter 10. This was surely because he was the one whose name carried over as "Hebrew".

11:17 Eber lived four hundred and thirty years after he became the father of Peleg, and became the father of sons and daughters- Peleg was so named because around his birth, the eretz was divided; a reference to the division at Babel. See on Gen. 10:25.

11:18 Peleg lived thirty years, and became the father of Reu- As noted on :10,13, the genealogies of Genesis 11 reveal how some human lives repeat according to the same outline schema. Peleg, Serug (:22) and Shelah (:14) were each 30 when their first sons were born. We too can find uncanny similarities between our lives and those of others in the faith; or between our lives and Biblical characters. The same Divine hand is at work.

 11:19 Peleg lived two hundred and nine years after he became the father of Reu, and became the father of sons and daughters- The mention of "daughters" here, when this isn't always noted in the genealogy, perhaps suggests that they were significant to the early audience of the Pentateuch. But seeing that significance is now lost, we have no more details.

11:20 Reu lived thirty-two years, and became the father of Serug- The common approach of seeking to extract meaning from the Hebrew names is in my judgment mistaken. They yield nothing- "Reu" means "friend" and "Serug" means "tendril"- apparently. And who knows what the names originally meant. 

11:21 Reu lived two hundred and seven years after he became the father of Serug, and became the father of sons and daughters- The exact periods given suggest that Moses had access to some oral tradition, which under inspiration he now sets in stone, as it were.


11:22 Serug lived thirty years, and became the father of Nahor- For the significance of having a child at 30, see on :18.

11:23 Serug lived two hundred years after he became the father of Nahor, and became the father of sons and daughters- As noted on :20, there is generally no significance in the meaning of the names. But as we get closer to Abraham, we note that "Nahor", "Terah" and "Haran" all have associations with idolatry.


11:24 Nahor lived twenty-nine years, and became the father of Terah- As noted on :23, the meanings of Abraham's immediate ancestors all have associations with idolatry, confirming the note in Josh. 24:2 that Abram and his ancestors were idolaters. Out of that background, God chose a man who had the potential to be different. Another reading of "Terah" is that it means "One who tarries / remains", which would fit with his remaining in Haran and not going further towards Canaan.

11:25 Nahor lived one hundred and nineteen years after he became the father of Terah, and became the father of sons and daughters- Nahor therefore died at 148, the shortest liver among the post-flood patriarchs. We wonder why exactly that was... seeing that his grandson Abram was to be the one chosen. It perhaps made Abram reflect upon the brevity of life and the failure of idolatry to offer real salvation.

11:26 Terah lived seventy years, and became the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran- Abram is mentioned first, although Haran was the firstborn (:29). This is a common theme in Genesis- that the younger and weaker is elevated by God's grace to the place of the firstborn.

11:27 Now this is the history of the generations of Terah. Terah became the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran. Haran became the father of Lot- This information is given twice (:26), to set the scene for the momentous event that was to happen- just one man was going to be chosen out of this family, and through his agreement in faith, God was to set up a line leading to salvation of all peoples. We note that there is no hint of an unbroken line of spirituality extending down the generations from Noah to Abram. Quite the opposite. We get the impression of a slide into disbelief and apostacy; and instead of destroying the eretz again, God by grace chooses a singular individual and invites him to be the father of a faithful tribe, which shall expand to fill there eretz and indeed the whole planet, on account of Abram and his seed.

11:28 Haran died before his father Terah in the land of his birth, in Ur of the Chaldees- As noted on :25, these early deaths in Abram's family experience may have all been part of the scene setting required to make Abram open to the idea of new life and realistic salvation. "Ur of the Chaldees" has been excavated, and archaeologists present it as perhaps the most developed and sophisticated city on the globe, and certainly in the area. Every indication is that Abram was from a wealthy family, living in luxury. But that was no barrier in itself to receiving the call.

11:29 Abram and Nahor took wives; the name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran, who was also the father of Iscah- Polygamy was widespread, especially amongst the wealthy. That Abram had apparently only one wife would have been noteworthy. This is not to say that he didn't have others; the record zooms in upon Abram and Sarai. Likewise Isaac is presented as Abraham's only child, when we know from Gen. 25 that Abraham had a number of children by concubines; and Ishmael had already been born to him. "Iscah" is understood by some as another name for Sarah, seeing that she and Abram had the same fathers (Gen. 20:12). The question remains as to why she is given a different name here; and yet if she isn't Sarah, then we wonder why one woman should be singled out for mention, when hardly any other women apart from Sarah are mentioned in the genealogies. Such behaviour was condemned under the law of Moses; but we are presented with a man who was in an ongoing situation which broke the law, who attained a righteousness greater than the law. Never was there any hint that Abram should have ended his marriage to Sarah because she was his half sister; and this may have significance for those who consider that marital failure must be put right by separation from current partners.

11:30 Sarai was barren; she had no child- This must have been another factor in Abram's background which prepared him for the call he was to receive. His hopes would have been dashed; but in the promises he received, there was to be hope of a huge family and a "seed". But as with us, the promises of God in the Gospel are only attractive if firstly we have been through experiences which make them attractive. Seeing he married his half sister (Gen. 20:12), the lack of a child is not surprising. But through all the miscarriages and broken hopes, they were being prepared as fertile ground upon which the seed of the Divine calling would fall.

11:31 Terah took Abram his son, Lot the son of Haran, his son’s son, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife. They went from Ur of the Chaldees- The fact has to be faced that Abram was called to leave his country and kindred (his fellow countrymen), but when he left Ur his countrymen came with him. And additionally, "Terah took Abram... to go into the land of Canaan". Abram did not respond immediately and completely to God's command. The call of Abram is an essay in partial response. Yet we know he had faith. Terah was an idolater (Josh. 24:2); the command to leave was given to Abram, not Terah. Because God was going to promise Abram a massive new family stemming from him, he therefore had to come out from his own natural family. He was going to be promised many descendants- therefore he had to separate himself from his "father's house" or posterity. He was to be promised a land for eternal inheritance- therefore he had to leave his own native land. And in this life, Abram's seed must separate themselves from their present, worldly inheritance if they are to receive the promised blessings. It was therefore imperative that to receive the promises, Abram must separate from his natural family and land inheritance. There seems little doubt, in the light of this, that it was God's intention for Abram to leave Ur and his natural family, just taking his wife and their children with them. Yet Abram did not do this. And yet he had faith!  

Heb. 11:8 (Gk.) implies that as soon as God called Abram, he got up and left Ur. But a closer examination of the record indicates that this wasn't absolutely the case. It is stressed that both Abram and Sarai left Ur because "Terah took Abram his son... and Sarai his daughter in law" (Gen. 11:31). Abram had been called to leave Ur and go into Canaan. But instead he followed his father to Haran, and lived there (for some years, it seems) until his father died, and then he responded to his earlier call to journey towards Canaan. The Genesis record certainly reads as if Abram was dominated by his father and family, and this militated against an immediate response to the call he received to leave Ur and journey to Canaan. At best his father's decision enabled him to obey the command to leave Ur without having to break with his family. And yet, according to Heb. 11:8, Abram immediately responded, as an act of faith.  

Abraham believed God, and "when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed" (Heb. 11:8). Therefore when his father announced that they were emigrating to Canaan, Abram would have realized that this was the call from God to get up and leave. Unlike the rest of Terah's unrecorded family, who would have mocked such a crazy plan, Abram willingly submitted. But how was he to leave his kindred and father's house? For they were coming with him! Indeed, Terah "took Abram". Thus Abram had faith in God's promise, yet may have balked at the command to leave his country and family. Providentially arranged circumstances then resulted in his aging father taking him, implying some degree of compulsion, and leading him out of his native country. Whilst not fully understanding how he could leave his father's household whilst they looked set to be accompanying him on this journey to a strange land, he went ahead in faith. It is emphasized that God " brought out" (s.w. to lead, pluck or pull out) Abram from Ur (Neh. 9:7; Gen. 15:6,7). The calling came through Abram's hearing of the word of promise, and providentially arranged circumstances encouraging his faithful response to it.   

Abraham's attachment to his father and father's house is even indicated in his name, Ab-ram- meaning "my father is exalted" (Gerhard von Rad, Genesis (London: S.C.M., 1963) p. 152). In that family, Abram's father named his son like this because he wanted his son to exalt him- not break away from him, as God required of Abram. Abraham's connection with his father is shown in the various possible meanings of the name Abram. If 'Abram' were used as a Western Semitic word, it would mean "he is exalted through his relationship to his father"; 'Abram' in Akkadian would mean "he loved the father" (Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary On The Book Of Genesis (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1992) Vol. 2 p. 267). Yet Abraham gave up all this for the sake of God's promises to him; he lost it all in order to gain the new family which God offered him in return, just as all his seed must do. And later Scripture seems to refer to these meanings of the word 'Abram'- for Is. 41:8 and 2 Chron. 20:7 speak of him as "the friend [lover] of God". He had once 'loved' his father's house, but in response to the promises he left them, and loved God; and thus God loved him, and Abram became Abraham, the 'exalted father'.

There are marked similarities between the record of the exodus from Ur, and that of the call of Abram to leave Haran: 


Gen. 11:31 

Gen. 12:5

Terah took  

Abram took

Sarai...Abram's wife

Sarai his wife

Lot the son of Haran 

Lot his brother's son

They went forth from Ur

They went forth (from Haran)

To go into the land of Canaan

To go into the land of Canaan

They came unto Haran

Into the land of Canaan they came.

These similarities may mean that the same processes occurred in each move- a word of promise made, Abram struggling to show his abundant faith in that promise and call, and the providence of God acting to make his expression of faith possible. There may also be the hint that when Abram left Haran, he still had the same fundamental problem as when leaving Ur- he had still not fully left his kindred and father's house.  It has been pointed out that around the time Terah and Abraham left Ur, the city was threatened by and then destroyed by the Elamites. It could well be that the motive for leaving Ur in the first place was therefore mixed- it was fleeing from a material threat more than plain obedience to a Divine command. This would explain why the family settled in relatively nearby Haran, and remained there for so long. See on Gen. 20:13. It's a very strange 'co-incidence' (if that's indeed what it is) that Noah, Peleg and Nahor all died in the same year- when Abraham was about 50 years old, living in Ur. Whilst we have no evidence that these men were all living together, it's not impossible that they were. Perhaps they died in some calamity in Ur. So it could well be that the motive for leaving Ur in the first place was therefore mixed- it was fleeing from a material threat more than plain obedience to a Divine command. This would explain why the family settled in relatively nearby Haran, and remained there for so long.

To go into the land of Canaan. They came to Haran and lived there- Terah and his family departed "to go into the land of Canaan" (Gen. 11:31 AV). These are the same Hebrew words as in the command to Abram: "Get thee out of thy country" (Gen. 12:1). We can therefore conclude that Abram received this call to quit his country, but didn't obey it, until some unrecorded situation led his father to announce the family's emigration to Canaan. Abram was therefore very slow to obey the call. Note too that the command to Abram had been to leave his land and also his "kindred and... father's house". This he didn't do- for he left Ur with his father and brothers, i.e. his kindred. His brother Haran died, and his father then died in Haran, where they temporarily lived on the way to Canaan. We see here how God seeks to almost make us obedient. And Gen. 15:7 records that it was God who brought Abram out of Ur- even though Abraham failed to rise up and be obedient in his own strength, God manipulated family circumstances to make him obedient to the call; and in essence He does this for us too.

11:32 The days of Terah were two hundred five years. Terah died in Haran- Abram evidently found it so hard to sever the family ties, and move straight on from Haran. The call of Abram required breaking with family. Perhaps Terah was too old and ill to move on further (he died at 205, a great age by post-flood standards), and Abram found it hard to leave his old and ill father in a strange city. Or perhaps Terah's strong influence on Abram meant that he found it just too hard to go against him. How he must have wrestled with the pain of leaving his family and father! Yet he believed God's promises, and he knew that these things were necessary if he was to attain the promised land. Many a convert to Abraham's seed in these last days has been through the same process. The call to "come out" of mystical Babylon is surely rooted in the call for Abram to "come out" from Ur and Haran. Whilst this evidently occurs at the time of baptism, when these same Abrahamic promises are made to us personally, our whole lives are a process of 'coming out' from the world. As we do so, our appreciation of God's promises is progressively expanded, as God works with our faith.