(Chapter 7)


Milton Terry
©1898 by
Eaton & Mains, New York
Reprinted 1988 by
Baker Book House
ISBN 0-8010-8888-7


    THE genealogies and statements of Gen. 10:1-11:26, stand in noticeable correlation with those of Gen. 4:16-5:32, and serve both to show how the nations were divided and scattered abroad in the earth after the flood, and to connect Noah through Shem with Abraham. The compiler of Genesis seems in this section to cross the border line between historic and prehistoric ages. But whatever the accuracy or inaccuracy of the several ethnographical statements, the great purpose of this scripture is not to give instruction in details of history or science, but to convey a vivid pic­ture of the formation, development, and dispersion of the families and races of mankind. In this respect the picture can be shown to be faithful and true.

    It is not essential for instruction in righteousness that every de­tail of these ancient records be proven to be accurate. A great picture, viewed in its entirety and in the light of its purpose, might be inexact in some of its minor parts, but impressively truthful as a whole. So important truths may be conveyed by means of the symbolism of archaic genealogies as well as by the symbolism of dreams and visions of the night.

    The section headed “generations of the sons of Noah” (10:1-11:9) is composed of two distinct documents. The first is a geneal­ogy or table of nations and countries (10:1-32); the second is an account of the dispersion of men and its causes (11:1-9).

    1. The first is a comprehensive and valuable outline of a three­fold multiplication of mankind after the flood. It has reference to their families, their languages, their lands, and their nations, and accordingly names of tribes, tribe-fathers, cities, provinces, and nations are mixed together, so that in some cases it is impossible to say whether the given name be that of an individual, a land, or a nation. Some critics find traces of at least three different sources in this list of nations and countries. The apocalyptic and religious purpose of the table of nations is not affected by such questions of minute criticism. The compiler doubtless made up this table as he did other portions of his work, from a variety of material at his command. His one great purpose is to write a telling word-picture of the origin and multiplication of families, languages, and nations as they spread themselves abroad over the face of the earth, and took possession of the various lands they occupied and to which they gave their several names. Whatever inaccuracies of detail or of minor statement the table may contain (we know not that any have been proven), it furnishes a faithful picture of the origin and spread of nations in the earth. It is a curious fact that almost everyone who attempts to tell us a tradition of his ancestral history is wont to carry his story back to three brothers.

    2. The second part of this section (11:1-9) is another picture of the same great facts, drawn from another point of view, and having the nature and purpose of apocalyptic repetition. The fact, al­luded to in the previous chapter, that the different families and na­tions of men made use of different tongues or languages (10:5, 20, 31) as well as occupied different lands, calls for additional notice, and is here conceived both as a judgment and a means of scattering the children of men abroad upon the face of all the earth. The diver­sity of human tongues is accordingly to be thought of both as a cause and as a result of the dispersion of mankind into widely separated families and countries. In itself it may well be regarded as a misfor­tune, and in the conception of biblical writers it is much more than a misfortune (comp. Deut. 28:49; Psalm 114:1; Isa. 33:19; Jer. 5:15; Ezek. 3:5).

    (1) That we have in Gen. 11:1-9, an imaginative picture, not a record of historic fact, is apparent (1) in the dramatic style of de­scription, (2) in the remarkable anthropomorphism of its conception of Jehovah, and (3) in the apocalyptic council implied in the lan­guage of verse 7 (comp. Gen. 1:26; 3:22).

    (2) The judgment depicted is a formal condemnation of the use of human speech (which is the outward expression of “every im­agination of the thoughts of the heart;” comp. chap. 6:5), as a means of carrying on projects of worldly ambition and pride. The building of the city and the tower “whose top may reach unto heaven” is a picture of the same defiant spirit which appears in the words of the “day star, son of the morning,” who says in his heart, “I will ascend into heaven; I will exalt my throne above the stars of God; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the Most High” (Isa. 14:12-14). Whatever the origin and real facts about the story of the tower of Babel, the biblical writer appropriated it as the symbol of heaven-aspiring ambition in the form of great combinations to further worldly schemes of power. All the great world empires, which had their basis “in the land of Shi­nar” (Assyria, Babylon, Persia) are to some extent figured in this city and tower which were to have reached unto heaven. The universal monarchy of a human chieftain was the vain dream of all the great oriental world-rulers, and what better was it than the fancy, that all families and nations of men can be fashioned into one form of thought and expression by political plans which human language can propound?

    (3) As a result of the diversity of language men are scattered abroad over all the world, and kept apart in their various lands and nationalities. The language of a people is a mighty factor of their civilization and culture and an index of their national character. Schlegel has called language “the general, all-embracing art of man.” When this is employed to build up vain schemes of human ambition it will be made to defeat itself and scatter what it would fain unite. But when it is made to serve the purpose of glorifying God, and, in Messianic idealism, all peoples, nations, and languages unite to serve the Christ of God (comp. Dan. 7:14), then the curse of Babel shall be changed into the blessing of Pentecost (comp. Acts 2:6). And so the great purpose and real lessons of Gen. 11:1-9, are religious, not historical or scientific.

    The short section entitled “the generations of Shem” (Gen. 11:10-26), stands in the same relation to the preceding section as does “the book of the generations of Adam,” in Gen. 5:1-32, to that which preceded it, and ended with the story of Cain, and his city building and other enterprises over against the garden of Eden. Thus we are shown how human plans of worldliness and pride repeat themselves again and again in the course of ages. But God’s purpose of election and redemption also shows itself again and again in the same ages. While the worldly spirit seeks to make itself a name (___, 11:4), and is defeated by the judgment of heaven, God plans to make for himself and those who love and serve him a name that will outlast the cities and empires of the world. He chooses Shem, whose name (___) in this connection seems peculiarly significant and suggestive, and we are shown how he purposes to dwell in the tents of this son of Noah (comp. Gen. 9:27), and secure a righteous seed upon the earth in whom all the families and nations shall be blessed. So Shem’s line is traced to Terah, the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran. And then, in the next section, which bears the title of “the generations of Terah” (verse 27), we read the manifold revelations of Jehovah to Abram, the great father, and to Abraham, the father of a great multitude, to whom he binds himself by promise and oath to make him a great nation, and make his name (___) great, and through his seed bless all the nations.