R Evans, Genesis in Context - 9

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Index of Genesis in Context by Bro Roger Evans, 2021

9. New Beginnings

NB: not integrated into wiki

The curse of Canaan

After the Flood, Noah’s descendants begin to populate the land. Paul implies that he is the one from whom all nations arise, God having determined in advance their boundaries and habitations (Acts 17:26): a clear allusion to the emergence from the Ark and the division of nations. Paul’s argument is that all men are equal, and equally responsible before God; that the idea of national gods and parochial deities is a delusion born of ignorance; and that all nations have one common origin and one common responsibility to the same singular God, “whose offspring we are.” Ultimately it is not Noah, or Adam, but God who is the father and originator of all men (Luke 3:38).

“The sons of Noah who emerged from the Ark were Shem, Ham and Japheth. And Ham is the father of Canaan.” It is interesting to note the particular mention of Canaan, the fourth son of Ham, who was born after the Flood (10v1). His especial mention at the outset is a signpost to the intent of the narrative; in which a minor familial event determines the future destruction of the Canaanite tribes. The story of Noah and his vineyard is an etiological accounting for the subsequent relationship between Israel and Canaan.

The simple narrative is full of allusions to the beginning in the Garden of Eden. Noah sets out as a man of the soil (ish adamah) to cultivate the land; and he plants a vineyard (as God planted a garden for Adam). He drinks of the wine of the garden (as Eve ate of the tree), erring in his judgment. With his eyes enlightened by sobriety, he knows what he has done, he knows that he was naked, and he experiences shame. A curse, though from Noah’s mouth and not from God, accompanied by blessing, determines the fate of his descendants.

It was while he was inside his tent, in a drunken stupor, that Ham, his second son, saw him naked. Rather than maintaining a respectful silence, he told his brothers. Again we are told that Ham is the father of Canaan. The two other brothers behave with diplomatic respect, covering their father’s nakedness without shaming him. Or so it seems.

When he awoke, Noah knew what his younger (Heb. qatan, least important) son had done unto him. Upon being informed of what has transpired, Noah immediately curses Canaan.

Are we being told here that Noah curses one son of Ham, the youngest of four, for the actions of his father? If so, why is Canaan singled out for undeserved retribution? Or was it really Canaan, perhaps still a boy and consequently reacting as a boy, who walked in on his grandfather, and is it Canaan’s father who is initially blamed, as a father carries parental liability for the deeds of his son?

Certainly the singling out of Canaan as the sole target of Noah’s anger suggests that it was he who erred, and therefore it is Canaan who bears the brunt of the curse. Ham himself and his other three sons do not even rate a mention. Shem and Japheth, as active participants, receive a patriarchal blessing, and to each blessing is attached the fate of Canaan. Three times Canaan’s servant fate is uttered, putting him irrevocably at the bottom of the family pecking order.

Thus the fate of Canaan is determined for all time, and written large in the national spiritual record of Israel, descendants of Shem; who will ultimately overrun and possess the lands of Canaan as their own. The narrative of Noah’s insobriety is, in effect, an etiological justification for the invasion of the Promised Land, the obliteration of its existing inhabitants, and grounds for all subsequent national relationships between Israel and the Canaanite tribes.

The descent of nations

From the garden of Noah, the family moved forward, and dispersed. Chapter 10 defines a family tree of nations, descended from Noah and his sons. From Japheth arose the northern nations, around the Black and Caspian inland seas, as far westward as the Isles of Greece. From Ham arose the southern nations of Egypt, Cush (Ethiopia), and Libya; and the Middle Eastern tribes of Canaan. Nimrod, one of the sons of Ham, remained in Mesopotamia, founding the settlements of Chaldea. Most of the sons of Shem migrated south-eastward, to populate Arabia.

Many of the national names are obscure, some redundant. Others, such as the identification of Ham and his son Mizraim with Egypt, bear a greater level of confidence (e.g. Ps. 25: 103). It is an interesting exercise, using Bible dictionaries and concordances, to attempt to match national identities with later national and political entities.

A significant point to note is that most of these nations are those who, in their subsequent histories, directly affect or influence the nation of Israel. This affirms that they are Middle Eastern nations, within commercial and political reach of Israel, and within the bounds of the then known political world. Ezekiel 27 lists many of them as trading partners with the city of Tyre, a close neighbour of Israel. Ezekiel 36-38 identifies a number of them as future political foes of Israel in the great conflict with the northern alliances.

This list of nations, geographically centred around Mesopotamia, does not appear to contain any reference to nations beyond the borders of the then-known world, leaving the origin of more distant ethnicities and cultures- western European, African, Chinese, North American, Indian, and Antipodean, among others, to speculation. However Isaiah (66:19), referring to the future universal Kingdom of God, makes an interesting reference:

“I will gather all nations and languages, and they shall come and see my glory. And I will send the survivors to Tarshish, Pul, Lud, Tubal and Javan, and to the distant regions that have not heard my fame or seen my glory.”

There is an implicit allusion to the existence of peoples, to whom God has never revealed himself, being preached to, drawn in and included in the knowledge and glory of God.

Were such peoples descended from Noah? If so, how is it that, being his descendants, they have never heard of God? Are all humans literally descended from Noah? In these questions there is considerable scope for thought.

The founding of Babylon

Tucked into the middle of the postdiluvian narrative is a brief account of the putative origins of the Chaldean empire. One of the sons of Cush, we are told, is Nimrod. The meaning of the name is obscure, but we are told thrice that he was a warrior (gibbor, mighty man). The allusion reminds us of the children of the sons and daughters of men earlier in Genesis, who were gibborim, men of name. Of this same ilk is Nimrod, whose personal fame and strength is such that it becomes legend: “even as Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the Lord”. The beginning, or centre, of his kingdom, we are told, is Babel, and its associated cities, in the land of Shinar (Chaldea). Attributed to him also are the neighbouring cities of Asshur (Assyria), marking the beginning of empire.

In the list of nations, we are told that the land was divided among each of the patriarchal groups, according to their languages.

Of Japheth (10:5) the lands were divided according to languages, lands, clans and peoples.
Of Ham (10:20) according to languages, lands, clans and peoples.
Of Shem (10:31) by clans, languages, lands and peoples.
By these the earth was divided.

In verse 25 we are told that this division happened in the days of Peleg, five generations from Noah.

With a common descent of all peoples from Noah, the stated diversity of languages must be accounted for.

After the Flood, we are told, all peoples were of one language and of one speech. With unity of communication came unity of purpose. As the people journeyed forward, (in Hebrew, eastward also means forward), they found a plain in Shinar, and settled there. With unity came the desire for security and for permanency. “So they said, Go to, let us make brick, fired thoroughly.” They had brick, and stone, and pitch for mortar. With security came the desire for identity and dominance. So they said “Go to, let us build a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens. And let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered in the land.” As the acknowledged founder of Babylon, Nimrod was probably their leader.

Josephus, the Jewish Roman historian, expands on the story as follows:

“Now it was Nimrod who excited them to such an affront and contempt of God. He was the grandson of Ham, the son of Noah, a bold man, and of great strength of hand. He persuaded them not to ascribe it to God, as if it were through his means they were happy, but to believe that it was their own courage which procured that happiness. He also gradually changed the government into tyranny, seeing no other way of turning men from the fear of God, but to bring them into a constant dependence on his power. He also said he would be revenged on God, if he should have a mind to drown the world again; for that he would build a tower too high for the waters to reach. And that he would avenge himself on God for destroying their forefathers.

Now the multitude were very ready to follow the determination of Nimrod, and to esteem it a piece of cowardice to submit to God; and they built a tower, neither sparing any pains, nor being in any degree negligent about the work: and, by reason of the multitude of hands employed in it, it grew very high, sooner than anyone could expect; but the thickness of it was so great, and it was so strongly built, that thereby its great height seemed, upon the view, to be less than it really was. It was built of burnt brick, cemented together with mortar, made of bitumen, that it might not be liable to admit water. When God saw that they acted so madly, he did not resolve to destroy them utterly, since they were not grown wiser by the destruction of the former sinners; but he caused a tumult among them, by producing in them diverse languages, and causing that, through the multitude of those languages, they should not be able to understand one another. The place wherein they built the tower is now called Babylon, because of the confusion of that language which they readily understood before; for the Hebrews mean by the word Babel, confusion ...”

Of interest is Josephus’ speculation that the use of well burnt brick and of pitch was deliberately designed to insure against the effects of water; and that the goal of height was to reach to the heavens, to God, and to a point above the level of any putative inundation. Rather than trusting in the covenant of God that he would never again flood the earth, the inference is that they wanted to take control into their own hands and ensure that He could not.

Thus the principal element missing in this sense of purpose was God. They spoke to each other with the same unity of purpose as expressed by God at Creation: “Let us”: this expression is used three times. Their first goal was to build a city- which is the first thing Cain did on leaving God. Their second goal was to build a tower reaching to heaven, elevating themselves to Divine status, and establishing collective self-will as a focal point of their union and purpose. Their third goal was to make a name for themselves, as men had done before the Flood. Men had again turned to their own ways, leaving God out of their lives.

God’s action follows the same pattern as that of men, but with opposite purpose. Their “come, let us build” is countered by God’s “come, let us confound”. Their purpose is to prevent diaspora; God’s intent is to cause it. This is a battle of wills, human versus divine. By the fiat act of frustrating communication, God destroys their unity of purpose, and scatters them abroad.

Yet the abandonment of the tower at Babel was not the abandonment of empire. The name Babel is perpetuated in the name Babylon. Though this empire was succeeded by others, Babylon has ever since remained symbolic in Scripture of human purpose, rule, intent and organisation. The prophecy of the Image in Daniel speaks of Babylon ultimately being succeeded by other empires, though the spirit of human rule remains in them all. It represents human empire, standing collectively as a statue, with Babylon at its head, ultimately being destroyed as a singularity (Daniel 2v34, 35) and replaced by a universal Divine kingdom.

Isaiah’s prophecy against the King of Babylon (Isaiah 14) alludes to the spirit of the builders of the Tower of Babel. “You said in your heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God (that is, to usurp the rule of God: in terms of ancient cosmology, the throne of God was above the stars, which were in the under-surface of the firmament); yet you shall be brought down to the grave.”

In Revelation Babylon becomes the symbol of human political and economic organisation, with her sins, like bricks mortared together (Greek, kollao, glue) reaching as a tower to heaven (Revelation 18:5); an entity wholly destroyed at Christ’s second coming. The theme of Babel as the symbolic headship of human kingdoms is born in Genesis, and runs through Scripture from beginning to end.

The calling of Abram

Though the nations were dispersed, the Chaldean kingdom of Babylon grew and prospered. Some of the sons of Shem remained in it. Peleg begat Reu, Reu begat Serug, Serug begat Nahor; and Nahor begat Terah.

Terah lived in Ur, a city of Chaldea (Babylon). He had three sons: Abram, Nahor and Haran: “and they served other gods” (Joshua 24:2). The name of God was again all but forgotten, and a new beginning was requisite.

Abram, the patriarch of the Nation of Israel, was a Babylonian citizen by birth. Terah and his family left Ur for a new life in Canaan, but settled instead in Aramea, in Haran. Here, Terah died. Why did Terah leave Ur? In Genesis 15:6 God tells Abram: "I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give you this land to inherit it.” Had he directed Terah to leave Ur, or had He indirectly influenced circumstances so that Terah himself chose to emigrate? We are not told if God did speak to Terah, or informed why he settled instead in Haran. We are told though that he served other gods. Perhaps those gods and life in Haran were sufficient for him.

It was to Abram himself that God gave specific command, seeing in him the character of one who would believe, and obey. It was in Haran that God appeared to Abram himself, calling him out to continue the journey to the land that He would show him, where God would make his name great, and he would become a nation. His calling out from Haran in Aram is commemorated in the memorial phrase: “An Aramean ready to perish was my father” (Deut.26: 5).

Leaving his father Terah to die in Haran, Abram set out for the land of promise, no longer following his natural father, but following God. Haran remained behind, perishing in obscurity. It is following God’s calling, not our own effort, that makes our name great; and it is faithful obedience to Him, not our own works, that leads us to become blessed among nations.

So it was that God’s plan of salvation was transferred, from Mesopotamia and Chaldea, to a new Adam: to Abram and his descendants in the land of Canaan. With the narrative of Abram, the patriarchal history of Israel begins, and the record of God’s work in Babylonia ends.

The genre of the Genesis record also changes, from a chain of didactic narratives, epic events and extreme miracles linked together by hyperbolic genealogy, to a cursive, biographical narrative that deals with the itinerant daily lives of the patriarchs, with the development of their personalities and characters, and with the ultimate founding of the nation of Israel.