Chapter xi
(d) The Confusion of Tongues (11:1-9)

This is the last item to be reported under the head of the "History of the sons of Noah," which began Ge 10:1. When this item is disposed of, the general history of mankind will be concluded, and the author may begin to centre on the line of promise in Shem (Ge 11:10). That the author was intending right along to treat of this confusion of tongues appears from Ge 10:25, where in connection with Peleg it is mentioned that "in his days was the earth divided."

If the author's brief history of all mankind is to be at least relatively complete, it must deal with all the major factors that help explain the present state of the world. Besides a knowledge of the origin of sin and its divisive effects in general; besides a knowledge of the first great judgment upon the earth -- the Flood; besides a summary account of the diffusion of the various nations after the Flood, we need, indeed, also some explanation of the great variety of different languages and dialects that are found in the world and how these languages originated. The story of their origin was known to Moses and was by him written down as an inspired and an instructive account, which finds no worthy parallel in the literature of earliest antiquity.

It is now conceded that a cuneiform account of the confusion of tongues is not available. Jeremias claims to have demonstrated the error of the opinion that a parallel was available. A few rather late parallels are to be found, which Jeremias conveniently lists Das Alte Testament im Lichte des alten Orients, p.175 ff. These are found in the Sibylline oracles, a pseudepigraphic writing, whose earliest parts reach back only to the second century B. C., or again in Alexander Polyhistor, of the first century B. C.; also in writings of Moses of Chorene, an Armenian of the fifth century A. D., and lastly in the Ethiopic book of Jubilees, perhaps a still later work. Mankind does not pride itself on faithful remembrance of the things of its history that are less honourable. Scripture records all important events with strict impartiality.

The time of this event is about one hundred years after the Flood, since Peleg (Ge 10:25) receives his name, which signifies "division," in memory of this event, and Peleg was born 1757 after the Creation, and so one hundred years after the Flood (1656). If it be thought that one hundred years is too short a time to allow for the increase of the human race to sufficient strength to be able to undertake a work of such magnitude, the computations of Keil have shown that the human race might have grown to a total of about 30,000 persons on the supposition that the families ordinarily had about eight children, a reasonable assumption for those times. Besides, it must be recalled that practically the whole human race participated in this project.

If, then, the account as a whole shows the confusion of tongues to be the outgrowth of human presumption and disobedience, the practical lesson of the story must be primarily this, that the present resultant confusion that is upon us must serve as a constant reminder of the inclination of the human heart to arrogance and disobedience. The multiplicity of languages upon the face of the earth is a monument not to human ingenuity but to human sin.

Naturally, this account of the confusion of tongues is not a second attempt to set forth, as criticism claims, what had already been covered in chapter ten. For the tenth chapter describes only the various racial groups into which the human family naturally divided itself. Our chapter shows how an unnatural dispersion was caused by human sin on the basis of distinct languages. Chapter ten describes progressive development; chapter eleven records a divine judgment. As usual, this historical account is libelled by the critics as being "a mythical and legendary account."

1, 2. And all the inhabitants of the earth had one language and one and the same vocabulary. And it came to pass as they journeyed eastward that they discovered a broad plain in the land of Shinar and settled down there.

If all the inhabitants of the postdiluvian world are, as the Scriptures teach, descended from Noah, they must, indeed, have used one and the same language. Of this very natural fact the writer makes us aware by dwelling besides upon the fact that the one "language" (saphah, literally: "lip") had not yet become differentiated into various dialects; for the word "lip" apparently emphasizes that the lips of all were shaped alike in uttering words. In addition, the very "words" (debharim) were of one sort 'achadhim, "one and the same" (B D B). We should say, all had "the same vocabulary." Debharim achadim cannot mean "few words" (Meek), as though we were here dealing with a crude type of primitive man. For though the plural 'achadhim does in some instances mean "few," that cannot be the case where 'echchad ("one") -- the singular of the same word -- appears in parallel use in the same sentence. In the early days after the Flood such a complete speech unity was, indeed, an indication of a deeper spiritual and cultural unity. But at the point where our chapter begins the inner unity was already a thing of the past. Ham and Canaan represent the strongest manifestation of a divergent spirit. The word "earth" must here by metonomy represent "the inhabitants of the earth." Wayhi is masculine, though ha'arets is feminine, since the sentence usually begins with the neutral Hebrew form, i. e., the masculine (G. K.145 d).

2. The region of Ararat (Ge 8:4) was the centre from which the human race began to spread abroad upon the earth, all fanciful claims to the contrary notwithstanding. From this cradle of the human race men "journeyed (nasa' -- lit. "to pull up stakes") eastward." Though miqqédem would seem to mean "from the east" and so apparently "westward," yet the usage of the term in Ge 2:8; 3:24; 12:8 and Ge 13:11 indicates that "eastward" must be the correct rendering. Since "eastward" includes southeastward, this interpretation is doubly established by the simple fact that Babylon (Shinar) lies southeast of Ararat. "Shinar," though including, perhaps, more than the land of Babylon (cf. on 10:10), is yet that extremely fertile land that the ancients praised so highly, attributing to it two hundred fold fertility and more. We can readily see what attracted them to this "broad plain" (biq'ah). For though this word is also rendered "valley," it signifies a broad plain rather than a narrow gorge, though both plain and gorge are bounded by mountains. So fertile a land invites men to "settle down" permanently (yashabh, originally only: "to sit down").

3, 4. And they said, one to another: Come, let us make bricks and let us burn them well. And they used brick in place of stone and bitumen in place of mortar. And they said: Come, let us build for ourselves a city and especially a tower whose top shall reach to heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.

Some time after having become established in the land of Shinar -- no one can say how long after -- they who constituted the human race resolved upon building a city and a tower. As many remains in this region show, such towers were regular adjuncts to the cities. They were called zikkurats and were temple-towers. Nothing indicates that the venture described in our chapter is a temple-tower. Besides, everything seems to indicate that this is the first tower ever attempted. It would, then, seem as though all these later towers, in spite of the divine judgment upon the first, are imitations of the first to an extent but at the same time they appear to constitute an attempt to deflect any possibility of divine punishment by consecrating them to the guardian divinity of the city.

To make the scene as vivid as possible the writer takes us back to the first counsels that were held as the titanic project got under way. With great eagerness of spirit they encourage one another: note the "come" (Whitelaw: "come on") in v.3 and again in v.4, Habhah, imperative, strong form, from yahabh, though second person, used with the hortative first person (K. S.355 g). First they encourage one another to the arduous task of making the bricks and laying them. One almost sees the originators of the plan start from their seats and mutually ("one to another") exhort one another to get under way. Nilbenah lebhenîm involves a cognate object, like the parallel Assyrian labânu libittu. The verbs have the hortative ending ah. "Let us burn well" uses the expression nisrephah lisrepha, "let us burn to a burning," which may be rendered as followed by a dative of product, or merely. by an adverbial phrase. In any case, it must mean: "burn well." Here, Moses inserts an explanatory statement before he lets us hear the rest of their purpose by dwelling upon the unique nature of the materials used -- unique for such as are in rocky Palestine with its innumerable stones. For the builders purpose to use their burnt brick in place of stone and bitumen for mortar. Abundant remains of similar structures display how very accurate the author is in his statement. For more substantial buildings not the sun-dried but the kiln-dried bricks were used, and bitumen sealed the joints. Such structures cohere very firmly to this present day. To a non-Babylonian such a mode of building would seem strange as well as particularly worthy of notice. This explains the insertion of the parenthesis. Critics fail to discern the propriety of this parenthesis at this point and to find evidence of divergent accounts. The strangest claim of the critics is that here in this simple and coherent narrative two original and divergent accounts, a city story and a tower story, were woven into one.

4. The purpose of the first exhortation to burn bricks (v.3), of course, is that therewith structures might be reared. These structures are to be "a city and especially a tower." The original says "and a tower," but without a doubt, the major purpose was the tower, therefore we have here the so-called waw speciale -- "and in particular." The explanation of the builders as to the purpose of the tower reveals clearly the ungodly purpose that motivated the entire undertaking. In fact, several ungodly purposes are here intimately intertwined. First of all, in reference to the tower (mighdal) they say: "whose top shall reach to heaven." Now, indeed, in other uses of the phrase "to heaven" (cf. De 1:28; 9:1; Ps 107:26) a hyperbole is plainly involved, yet, if we take into consideration the defiant spirit of the rest of the statement, we can hardly go wrong if we interpret the phrase as meant literally here. This already is an ungodly purpose. But we dare hardly make it involve a dethroning of God, because such a purpose, if harboured, would apparently have found expression at this point. Nor is there any sense in letting these builders appear as providing a safety measure against another Flood. For the word guaranteeing the non-recurrence of the Flood was, without a doubt, well known; and, in the second place, our verse gives full expression to their purpose. Besides, such fantastic reports about a tower which was actually raised to a height of nine miles and was then destroyed by a strong wind, deserve the sharp condemnation that Luther already bestowed on them. The preposition in bashshamßyim is the "Beth of contact," used with verbs of touching.

The first part of the purpose expressed is: "let us make for ourselves a name." So, then, the statement: "let us make a tower whose top shall reach to heaven" is only auxiliary to this part, the making of a name. "Making a name" (na'aseh shem) signifies to acquire fame or a reputation. The passages claimed for the use of the word "name" for "monument" (cf.2Sa 8:13; Isa 55:13) hardly establish that meaning here. These builders are, for one thing, strenuously determined to achieve fame. No effort is to be spared. If stones are not available, they must be manufactured. Nothing shall deter these men, so greedy of enhancing the glory of their own name. This also is a part of their ungodly purpose.

The major purpose of these defiant builders lies in the word which represents the climax of their endeavours: "lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth." This word breathes defiance of God. After the Flood God had bidden Noah (Ge 9:1) and his sons "to replenish the earth." This, of necessity, involved spreading abroad. These Babylonian builders were sensing that now, as their inner oneness of purpose was lost -- for they were no longer one in the fear of God -- they might sooner or later scatter after all. They preferred to remain a closely welded unit and to refuse to obey God's injunction. The tower was to provide the rallying point and to be at the same time a token of their oneness of purpose. So it, of necessity, becomes the symbol of defiance of God. From this historic incident it appears that later tales like those of the heaven-storming Titans originated. At the same time nothing could more flagrantly display how little of the unity of faith remained in humankind. Since God does not for them supply that which draws their hearts into a unity of purpose, so vain a thing as this inanimate, useless tower is to weld them into a unity. Such a concentrated spirit of opposition to God is sufficiently serious to call for divine intervention. It was the climax of the ungodly purpose involved in this entire venture.

5. And Yahweh came down to see the city and particularly the tower which the children of men built.

The anthropomorphic expression Yahweh "came down" (yaradh) is a vivid way of stating that God interposed. Where He had till now, as so often in the affairs of the children of men, simply allowed things to take their course, now He manifestly intervenes and takes the situation in hand. His judicial control and regulation is His coming down. Therefore the expression is not the same here as in Ex 19:20; 34:5; Nu 11:25; 12:5, where Yahweh actually descended in visible fashion to deal with men face to face. It is rather to be likened to similar instances like Ex 3:8; Nu 11:17, or, involving a different expression, Ge 17:22; 35:13. Crude conceptions of such coming down are rendered impossible by such passage of Scripture as 1Ki 8:17; Ps 139; Pr 15:3. The Targum, as usual, paraphrases the expression: "Yahweh revealed Himself."

The work had progressed very definitely at this time when God intervened, as the perfect form of the word banû indicates. For this cannot here mean "had completed," but merely: "had built to this point." Besides, the use of the verb "go down," here as well as in v.7, does not point to a twofold going down with a return to heaven intervening; or, as some would have, first a more remote approach, then a closer approach. The simplest solution of the problem is that offered by Strack: the typical style of Hebrew narrative is being followed, first a general statement, newspaper-heading-like, covers the case, then follow the details. Lir'oth -- infinitive of purpose (K. S.407a).

6. And Yahweh said: Behold, the people are one and they all have one language, and this is merely the beginning of what they do, and now from nothing that they devise to do will they desist. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language so that one man will not be able to understand another's speech.

God is spoken of as Yahweh because of the mercy He displays in preventing mankind from carrying out its pernicious purpose. The root of the trouble lies very largely in the fact that "the people" on the earth are but "one" and are bound together into a strong unity by "one language." This is to an extent an incongruity. Inner enmity is no longer a fact, why should outward unity be? It cannot but work harm to let this situation continue. As little as sinful man deserves a habitation like the garden of Eden, so little does a disunited human family deserve the unifying medium of one language. Though mankind have the one language, good cannot come from the possession of it. This is the very line of argument followed by the divine word, for God charges: "this is merely the beginning of what they do." As long as the medium of one language is theirs, just so long will they be able to carry through reasonable though ungodly projects that they may happen to take in hand. God discerns that similar undertakings will follow upon this one. "This is the beginning of their doing" means that more will be undertaken after this first, enterprise. "From nothing that they devise to do will they desist." If, however, the only unity which they still possess is disturbed -- the unity of language -- then all such ungodly endeavours of the future will be cancelled. Hachchillam, Hifil infinitive with double reduplication, irregular, from Challal.

So pitting His divine resolution against theirs in a hortatory habhah, calculated to offset that of mankind in v.3 and v.4, Yahweh determines "to go down," that is, actively to interfere in what He has winked at thus far, and to "confuse their language." The result of this is going to be what is expressed as the divine purpose, "so that one man will not be able to understand another's speech." Exactly how this was accomplished we cannot now determine. Whether, as some contend, the organ of hearing was wrought upon; or, as others claim, a modification of speech was involved; or whether, as still others believe, the inner character, of which speech is a reflex, was so modified that it expressed itself otherwise than heretofore, no man will ever be able to determine. Whether the effects were immediate or whether they began to appear gradually, even this we can scarcely guess at. Besides, not every last person was at once alienated from every other person. Enough to know that divine Wisdom determined upon this effective means of checking man's impudence and that this device was adequate for its purpose.

The plural, "let us go down" (neredhah), is spoken out of the fulness of the character of God, who is called by the plural name 'Elohîm and who possesses unbounded resources and potentialities. Though not a direct reference to the Holy Trinity, the plural here involves that too. The same plural in Ge 1:26 and Ge 3:22.

8, 9. So Yahweh scattered them abroad from thence all over the earth and they left off building the city. Wherefore its name is called Babel because there Yahweh made a babble of the languages of all the earth, and from thence Yahweh scattered them abroad all over the earth.

With astounding ease God has wrought the confusion of His enemies and made them desist from their purpose. Not only that, they must even obey His command, "replenish the earth," though they certainly never intended to do so. Yet where that viewpoint naturally suggests itself, Moses regards the whole transaction rather as a demonstration of the mercy of God -- God defeated man's purpose so as to prevent man from injuring himself further -- as the use of the divine name Yahweh, three times in these two verses, suggests. The term "city" is used for the whole project, for, naturally, the tower was abandoned also -- a legitimate synecdoche.

9. Since the verb balal means "to confuse" and from it the form balbel, contracted to Babel is derived, we have here the actual origin of the name of this famed city. Meek conveys the paronomasia involved very effectively by a rendering which we have followed above: "Called Babel because there Yahweh made a babble" Whatever other interpretation the Babylonians themselves may have put upon this name (cf.10:10 supra), this Biblical interpretation is the original and it remains valid. The play upon words which the Hebrew allows does not, however, now give warrant to deduce the claim, held by theologians ancient and modern, that Hebrew was the original language of mankind, for, as we have shown above, this same play upon words is reproducible just as effectively in English. The verb qara' presents a good illustration of the use of impersonal verbs, "one called" -- "men called," or, passive "is called," (K. S.324 c). Though men scatter because of their inability to co-operate, this result is very properly ascribed to Yahweh, "He scattered them abroad."

Much interest centres on the question whether the ruins of the Tower of Babel are still extant. Two rival claimants for the distinction stand out: (a) the site of the ruins of the temple of Nebo at Borsippa usually called Birs Nimrûd and situated southwest of Babylon on the west bank of the Euphrates; here is a tower of seven stages, each stage of a different colour. Beginning at the top, the first is silver (for the moon), the second, dark blue (for Mercury), the third, a whitish yellow (for Venus), the fourth, golden (for the sun), the fifth, rose red (for Mars) the sixth, brownish red (for Jupiter), the seventh, black (for Saturn). The ruins of the tower still tower fifty yards above the rest of the mass of ruins, (b) The second contestant for the honour is the place of the temple of Marduk in Babylon, called Esagil and having a tower called E-temen-an-ki. Though this last-mentioned tower has the advantage of being in the city, whereas the former is at some distance from it (about fifteen miles), yet it will be noted that the city and the tower are mentioned separately in v.4. Besides, the very significant fact is recorded by history that when Nebuchadnezzar (604-562 B. C.) determined to repair the Birs-Nimrud tower he provided it with a peak, which it had before apparently not possessed. Though the opinions of scholars are still quite sharply divided on this question, we cast our vote for the site of the Nebo tower at Borsippa. Yet we do not claim that the seven stages of the tower dedicated to the seven planets and so also to the seven major deities were at the time of the first building already appointed to these idols; because we do not believe that idolatry had developed to such an extent at that time. Nor have we any means of knowing how many stages of the tower had been completed at the time the work was interrupted. Nor do we know for a certainty that the Birs-Nimrud tower is actually the. Tower of Babel.

V. The History of Shem (v.10-26)

In Ge 9:26 the particular blessedness that Shem should enjoy is indicated. We showed that the statement involved Messianic import. Now the author traces out the line of Shem until he comes to that point where the chosen line begins to develop into one distinct people. There is a fine propriety about the above heading: Shem's history is primarily the story of his descendants.

Moses is still following very consistently the plan carried through the entire book of Genesis: he disposes briefly of the less relevant (history of Shem) that he might treat at length the more essential (history of Terah).

10, 11. This is the history (see on 2:4) of Shem. Shem was a hundred years old and begat Arpachshad two years after the Flood. And Shem lived, after he begat Arpachshad, five hundred years and begat sons and daughters.

12, 13. And Arpachshad lived thirty-five years and begat Shelah. And Arpachshad lived, after he begat Shelah, four hundred and three years, and begat sons and daughters.

14, 15. And Shelah lived thirty years and begat Eber. And Shelah lived, after he begat Eber, four hundred and three years, and begat sons and daughters.

16, 17. And Eber lived thirty-four years and begat Peleg. And Eber lived, after he begat Peleg, four hundred and thirty years, and begat sons and daughters.

18, 19. And Peleg lived thirty years and begat Reu. And Peleg lived, after he begat Reu, two hundred and nine years, and he begat sons and daughters.

20, 21. And Reu lived thirty-two years and begat Serug. And Reu lived, after he begat Serug, two hundred and seven years, and begat sons and daughters.

22, 23. And Serug lived thirty years and begat Nahor. And Serug lived, after he begat Nahor, two hundred years, and begat sons and daughters.

24, 25. And Nahor lived twenty-nine years and begat Terah. And Nahor lived, after he begat Terah, a hundred and nineteen years, and begat sons and daughters.

26. And Terah lived seventy years and begat Abraham and Nahor and Haran.

On this history of Shem as a whole we must remark that it differs as to the pattern followed from chapter five in but one respect, namely in that it gives no separate statement of the total age of the individual, nor of the fact that he died. Equally apparent is the gradual decline of the span of human life: the first child is born earlier, and the rest of life is a shorter period.

However, a few details demand attention. So in v.10 the one phrase that is added is only a variation from the strict pattern of regular form throughout the entire totedôth, viz., the phrase "two years after the Flood." To us the simplest explanation of this phrase lies in the fact that, according to Ge 10:22, Shem had two other sons before Arpachshad, namely Elam and Asshur. If, then, these three children were born in rapid succession, it would not be a physical impossibility to have Arpachshad "begotten" two years after the Flood. Other explanations offered are not as simple as this one.

We believe the following tabular representation will set forth the facts involved more clearly than any other mode of representation.

Age at birth of first sone Year of birth Years after birth of first son Total age Year of death
Shem 100 1556 500 600 2156
Arpachshad 35 1658 403 438 2096
Shelah 30 1693 403 433 2126
Eber 84 1723 430 473 2187
Peleg 30 1757 209 239 1996
Reu 32 1787 207 239 2026
Serug 30 1819 200 230 2049
Nahor 29 1849 119 148 1997
Terah 70 1878 135 205 2083
Abraham 100 1948 75 175 2123
Isaac 60 2048 120 180 2228
Jacob 2108 130

For convenience' sake we have appended three names for which the requisite information is not found in our chapter. A comparison yields the following interesting facts. Since Noah died 2006, he lived fifty-eight years after the birth of Abraham. Shem, for that matter, did not die till Jacob was forty-eight years old. Furthermore, Shem outlived even Abraham, as did also Eber. No doubt, there was a divine providence behind this matter of ages. Men like Noah and Shem were granted great length of life that, being historic personages and survivors of the Flood, they might by their very presence as well as by their testimony offer warning to their godless successors. For Luther, no doubt, argues correctly when he deduces from the activity of the godless in their ungodly projects, that the true children of God will on their part also have proved themselves active in upholding righteousness and in directing the Old Testament church. These godly patriarchs were the repositories of sound tradition and pillars and bulwarks of the truth over against the corruption wrought by error.

We see at this point, too, how very few links there actually were in the chain of tradition from Adam to Abraham. For since Adam lived to the time of Methuselah (or Lamech), and Methuselah lived to the time of Shem, and Shem lived to the time of Jacob, the original truth which Adam possessed was transmitted through but three links of the chain till it came into Jacob's possession. When we consider besides how these men were ail renowed for their piety and their fidelity, we may readily concede that they must have watched over the preservation of truth with zealous care.

Part of the ground of this genealogy, as far as Peleg, was covered by the preceding chapter. See Ge 10:25. One especially noteworthy fact in reference to Peleg is that with him the span of human life dropped to almost half of what it had been attaining to before. But Peleg happened to be the one in whose, time the confusion of tongues took place (10:25).

It is rather difficult to determine definitely just what some of the proper names of this list may mean. No doubt, after the analogy of "Peleg," they were names with a distinct meaning. Above, on Ge 10:22, we indicated that "Arpachshad" may be another name for a district northeast of Nineveh. So, likewise, the Assyrian name Sarûg may be identical with our "Serug." Sarûg is a district in Mesopotamia. From this it appears that these individuals in our list will in some cases at least have given their name to the district which they or their descendants occupied: "Eber" may mean "the man from across," i. e., the river Euphrates. Such meaning may quite naturally attach itself to man, and K. C., therefore, concludes too hastily that these names may not all refer properly to persons. "Terah" may mean a type of ibex, a mountain goat. But, on the other hand, K. C. very correctly points out that because of names like Terah we are not by any means, justified in concluding that a totemistic stage of religion was characteristic of men of this time.

Somewhat like the history of Adam (Ge 5:32) this history of Shem concludes with the three sons of the last member of the list.

VI. The History of Terah (11:27-25:11)

27, 28. This is the history of Terah. Terah begat Abram and Nahor and Haran. And Haran begat Lot. And Haran died before Terah, his father, in the land of his birth, in Ur of Chaldees.

It is a rather remarkable fact that this history of Terah, which deals but very briefly with Terah himself, covers the entire history of Abraham, so that no separate history of Abraham occurs in a book in which he may well be said to be the chief character. Perhaps the following suggestion might cover the case: Jos 24:2 Terah, the father of Israel, is said to have served other gods beyond the River (Euphrates), yet Ge 11:31 Terah leaves Ur, a centre of idolatry, with Abraham. Perhaps this departure of his represents a break with idolatry, as Luther, too, supposes, a break, which was completely realized, in Abraham, so that Abraham can be said to complete the movement Terah began, that is to say, "the history of Terah."

The three sons mentioned in v.26 are again listed in v.27, for this is a new "story" and here the fortunes of these, three are to be treated in detail. Haran is disposed of first because he dies after having begotten a son, Lot. This death occurs "before Terah," i. e., during Terah's lifetime. Apparently, this was the first instance where a man of the race of godly men died during his father's lifetime. No doubt, this death caused Terah great grief, but yet this obvious fact does not give us warrant to translate 'al-peney in the sense: "to the great grief of." Special mention is made of the fact that he died in Ur of Chaldees, because Terah and the rest of his family were soon going to leave Ur of Chaldees behind. But Ur was "the land of his birth." Consequently, Terah lived there before Haran was born.

As to the location of Ur again two principal locations contend for pre-eminence. Some maintain that it must lie north or northwest of Haran. Others, and by far the majority, in a spot identified as Uru, 125 miles southeast of Babylon, south of the lower Euphrates, a spot where extensive excavations have been made, (cf. C. Leonard Wooley's "Ur of Chaldees") and where the worship of the moongod Sin prevailed. It is called in the original Ur Kasdîm. Now, as K. W. maintains, a phonetic law of the Babylonians would transmute the form Kasdîm into Kaldu, as also the LXX translate: caldaioi. These Chaldeans, at first merely a prominent tribe, later become the dominant group in Babylon (Hab.1:6). This Ur is also called Muqajjar at present, meaning "asphaltized." Some spell it Muqayyar.

29, 30. Now Abram and Nahor married: the name of Abram's wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor's wife was Milcah, the daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah and of Yiscah. But Sarai was barren; she had no children.

"To take a wife" (laqach ishshah) is the technical Hebrew expression for getting married. The marriage as well as the wives of Abraham and Nahor are of importance for the rest of this history, therefore they are here formally reported. Abraham's wife bears the name "Sarai" (Heb. Saray -- with an old feminine ending -- meaning "princess"), and she must, according to her name, have been a woman of a measure of social standing. She cannot be identical with the Yiscah mentioned in this verse, as Jewish commentators in particular have long contended, even though we may not be able to discover why this unknown Yiscah should have been introduced at this point. For Sarai, according to Ge 20:12, was indeed Abraham's sister, that is daughter of the same father but not of the same mother, and, therefore, really half-sister; but Yiscah's father was Haran. We dare not, however, judge relations such as these -- which would now be properly termed incestuous -- according to the standards of the present time. As long as it pleased God to let the human race descend from one pair, it must be conceded that for a time marriage between brothers and sisters was a necessity. It may well take quite a time before a sense of the impropriety of such a relation arose. Nahor marries Milcah, his niece, of whom we shall hear later. The Hebrew repeats the term "father" thus: "the father of Milcah and the father of Yiscah'" because of a tendency to avoid a succession of dependent nouns (K. S.276 a).

30. Since Sarai's barrenness is to figure rather prominently in the succeeding events, attention is drawn to it emphatically at this point already, also by the parallel statement: "she had no children." The Hebrew idiom prefers the singular, where we use the plural; for the Hebrew says: "she had no child," waladh, unusual for yéledh. Other cases where special mention of barrenness is made are: Ge 16:2; 25:21; 29:31; Jud 13:2; 1Sa 1:5; 2:5.

Abram may mean "the exalted father" or "the Exalted One is my father." The meaning of "Nahor" is obscure. "Haran" would seem to mean "mountaineer.""Sarai," according to its root, cannot be the same as Sharra and so related to Sharratu, the goddess of Charran, the wife of the moongod Sin. Such efforts to make historical personages indentical with mythological figures degrade Biblical history.

31, 32. Now Terah took his son, Abram, and his grandson, Lot, the son of Haran, and Sarai, his daughter-in-law, the wife of his son Abram, and they went forth with them from Ur of Chaldees to go to the land of Canaan; and they came to Haran and settled down there. And the days of Terah were two hundred and five years, and Terah died in Haran.

In connection with v.27 we discussed the reason why Terah may have left Ur. We believe that what we said goes deeper into the case than does the supposition that this was a step in conformity with certain other movements of the time, as, for example, the going forth of the Phoenicians toward the sea. Not all of Terah's clan go with him. Nahor and Milcah stay behind, although they too are afterward found in Mesopotamia (Ge 24:10). Those mentioned as taken along by Terah are Abram, Sarai and Lot, his orphaned grandson. Why Canaan was definitely fixed upon as goal at the time of the departure from Ur cannot be determined. It may then already have counted as a land flowing with milk and honey. Apparently, the trip straight west across the desert would have been impossible with flocks and herds. So the first stage of the journey went northwest, to Mesopotamia to the city of Haran in Padan Aram, a distance of about 600 miles. Nor will we ever be able to determine why they all "settled down (yashabh -- originally, "to sit down") there." Did Terah feel that he was far enough removed from the pernicious influences of idolatry? Did the land as such appeal to him? In spite of what we said on v.27 above, it must be remarked that, according to Jos 24:2, Terah served other gods "beyond the river." Haran lies beyond the river. Even if our original contention was correct, Terah apparently did not successfully carry through the break with idolatry, as it was practised in those lands. The Jewish tradition asserts that the original summons, like unto that found 12 :l ff., came to Terah in Ur; of Chaldees, but that Terah failed to obey it; Abraham; however, did offer the requisite obedience. We cannot help but feel in sympathy with this approach to the problem, as, we shall show especially at the beginning of chapter twelve.

'Artsah has the old ending ah locative to express place to which (K. S.380a). Yetse'û, "they went forth," has as its subject Terah and Abraham; "with them" means: Sarai and Lot.

32. Terah's history closes with the statement of his age, 205 years. His death occurred, in Haran. A difficulty must be touched upon here. Ac 7:4, Stephen, in an inspired address (cf. Ac 6:10), tells us that Abraham left, "when his father was dead." Yet it appears that Terah lived sixty years after Abram's departure from Haran. For his total age was 205 years, and Abraham was born when Terah was seventy (v.26) and was seventy-five when he left Haran (12:4): 205-145 -- 60. How can Stephen say, Abram left "when his father was dead"? The question is a very difficult one. Luther once expressed the thought that he would be exceedingly grateful for a man sufficiently clever to offer the solution. One attempt at solution makes the statement of v.26 place Abram first because of his great importance, but claims that Nahor and Haran were both older -- or at least Nahor, for Abram's son marries Nahor's granddaughter. But this last reason is covered already by the mere fact that Abram's son was begotten very late and so would naturally be a contemporary with Rebecca, Nahor's grandchild. A second explanation takes the words of Ac 7:4: "his father was dead" in the spiritual sense. But all other such statements as well as the connection make this interpretation seem unlikely. Though allied to this last interpretation, the one that we suggest and favour takes the expression "was dead" in the sense "was dead to him." Because of Terah's adherence to idolatry he was as good as dead for Abram, and so Abram could leave him behind, sorry, indeed, for his father's lot but separated from him already as from one dead. Should none of these explanations satisfy, it should be borne in mind that similar perplexities are found in connection with problems in secular history, but difficulties do not necessarily spell error. We are simply too far removed from these events to be able to decipher how details dovetail together.


In our judgment the only section that can be used to advantage as a text is that of v.1-9, which may appear under the familiar heading, "The Confusion of Tongues." A specific turn in another direction is given to the entire treatment if the theme takes on the form: "The Confusion wrought by Sin." A good point of departure in any case might be the legend preserved among the ancients concerning the heaven-storming Titans. The fable offered by the legend is merely a distorted form of the truth which the Bible account gives in these verses. One should not neglect to point out very definitely in this connection that the gift of Pentecost cancels the harm done by the sinful pride of man, for there the speaking in other tongues signifies that the Holy Spirit repairs by the one language of the Gospel the sad confusion wrought by sin.

chapter x
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