The flood is over and Noah and his family begin their new lives in what effectively is a second creation. It is through them that mankind begins again. The first post-flood event the Bible records, however, is an uncomfortable story that shows even the eight people God brought through the flood are corrupt and sin will continue to dominate man’s actions as long as he exists. If the flood marks a second creation, the story of Ham and Noah marks the second fall. Moreover, once the population of the world begins to grow, man again does what Adam and Eve did in the garden – he attempts to make himself like God. God again must intervene – just as He did in the garden – and judge man for his pride. The lesson of the immediate post-flood history is that while water wiped all but eight sinners off the earth, they are in fact sinners and the problem of sin remains. That means the only solution for a fallen creation is the ultimate destruction of sin itself.
The sons of Noah that come out of the ark are Shem and Ham and Japheth. For some reason the author mentions that Ham is the father of Canaan. No other grandsons of Noah are mentioned. It must be that Canaan plays a role in the story to come and the author wants to introduce him here before telling it. From these three sons of Noah the entire earth will be repopulated.
The story told in these verses is somewhat hard to decipher because it is unclear if it is recounted euphemistically or if we can take it at face value. Also, without understanding the cultural norms of the day some of the details may lose their significance.
If we take it at face value – and this seems to be the safest choice – what happens is as follows: Noah plants a vineyard and makes wine and one day becomes so drunk that he ends up naked and passed-out in his tent. Ham, his youngest son, later comes and sees his father asleep and exposed. Instead of respecting Noah and trying to cover him up so no one else sees him or knows what happened, he goes to his brothers and tells them – and the sense is that he tells them in a disrespectful manner (“You ought to go check out dad!”). Shem and Japheth go to the tent and – so as not to disrespect their father by looking at him – walk backwards into the tent with a garment on their shoulders and cover Noah.
Because the solution to the problem is that Shem and Japheth cover Noah, there does not seem to be a reason to assume Ham does something sexually abhorrent to his father. There are places in the Bible where nakedness is a euphemism for sex, so some commentators see sexual perversion involved here. Others have suggested that perhaps Ham did something sexual to his mother – who would have to be in the tent with Noah – which the text could also describe as Noah’s nakedness (Lev 18:7). However, since Shem and Japheth do what they do and are considered honorable, it seems safest to assume Noah is simply passed out and naked and Ham humiliates him by leaving him that way and running to tell his brothers.
When Noah wakes he somehow knows what Ham has done (this verse does seem to imply that Ham actually did something – but it could just as easily mean that Noah knows Ham humiliated him). So Noah curses Canaan (these are the only words of Noah recorded in the Bible) – Ham’s youngest son (introduced in vs 18). Nothing in the text explains why Canaan bears the curse instead of Ham. And nothing explains why the curse is on Canaan instead of any of Ham’s other sons. Perhaps Noah curses Canaan because he is Ham’s youngest son just as Ham is Noah’s youngest son.
The curse is that Canaan will be a servant of servants to his brothers. He will serve Shem and he will serve Japheth. He will be the lowest of the low – he will not just be a servant, he will be a servant who serves other servants.
It is interesting to read this knowing how the future unfolds between Canaan’s descendants and Shem’s (Israel). Obviously there will be continual strife between the Canaanites and Israelites. The Canaanites will be who Israel removes from the Promised Land. They are also the people groups that God warns Israel not to mix with or emulate because of their moral corruption (see Lev 18). They will become so corrupt over the generations that God will instruct His people to completely annihilate them – leave no one alive regardless of age or sex (Deut 20:16-18). Apparently the curse of Noah and the actions of Ham leave a legacy to Canaan’s descendants that results in their complete rebellion against God.
[The “Curse of Ham” was used by believers to justify slavery in America during the time it existed. Since Ham’s descendants settled in Africa, they reasoned, enslaving Africans was simply carrying out God’s curse. What they failed to recognize – apart from the Bible’s admonitions to love your neighbor as yourself and esteem others more highly than yourself and the biblical truth that all men are created in God’s image – is that the curse was actually on Canaan. And Canaan’s descendants did not settle in Africa – they settled along the Mediterranean coast in what became the Promised Land. The “Curse of Ham”, therefore, was bad theology and in the end was simply cover for believers doing something they could not justify otherwise.]
While cursing Canaan, Noah blesses Shem (indirectly) and Japheth. He actually blesses the God of Shem and says that Japheth will dwell in the tents of Shem. It is not clear what this means, but perhaps it is why in biblical history – at least until the time of the Roman Empire – there is virtually no strife between the descendants of Japheth and Israel.
This story as a whole seems to illustrate God’s words in 8:21 – the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth. The flood is over and the world is new, but man is still sinful – nothing has changed. In many ways this could be characterized as the second fall to go along with the second creation. Noah even plays the part of the one naked and ashamed. Man again is given a fresh start and a new world in which to serve God, but he immediately falls away and shows himself to be utterly sinful. The only way to remove sin from the earth is to destroy all men or destroy sin itself. Thankfully God chooses the latter course.
These verses close the genealogy of Chapter 5. Remember there the author listed each generation and stated the man’s age when he had his son and his age at death. And he ended each section with a note that the man died. When he reached Noah he paused to tell the story of the flood in Chapters 6-9. Now he returns to the same motif to say that Noah lives another 350 years after the flood and reaches the age of 950. At the age of 950 Noah dies.
This chapter is commonly referred to as the Table of Nations. The reason for this name is that Moses seems to be listing the patriarchs of the nations that would be known to his audience. He shows how the descendants of Noah become the known world in Moses’ time.
Moses mentions exactly 70 names in the chapter. This obviously is intentional. Seventy is typically a number denoting wholeness. That there are exactly 70 names means the list is selective and not meant to be a full historical record of all the descendants of Noah’s sons.
It is interesting to trace the number 70 throughout the Bible. Seventy descendants of Jacob go down from the Promised Land into Egypt during Joseph’s time (46:27). Seventy elders of Israel go up with Moses and Aaron to meet God at Sinai (Ex 24:9). In Deut 32:8 there seems to be an allusion to it as the number of nations God set up to equal the number of the sons of God. Finally, it is the number of disciples that Jesus sends out to preach the kingdom of God and heal and cast out demons in Luke 10. Seventy is a figurative number that shows completeness and one Moses uses very deliberately.
[It is also worth noting that Luke refers back to this chapter when he describes the people groups that hear the gospel in their own tongue at Pentecost. In Acts 2:9-11 he lists nations seemingly with the intent of including descendants of all three sons of Noah. He even says in verse 5 that men from every nation under heaven are in Jerusalem to celebrate the holiday.]
It is said several times in the chapter that each of these people separate into their lands according to their language (5, 20, 31). That this chapter comes before the story of Babel could mean that it contradicts Chapter 11. However, what the author seems to do is to list the descendants to show that God’s blessing on Noah does come to pass – his descendants multiply and spread across the earth. But then he goes back in Chapter 11 to tell about a specific event that takes place sometime during the lives of some of the people mentioned in Chapter 10.
Some of the names in the list are notable. Nimrod – a descendant of Ham – is a mighty hunter before the Lord. It is not clear if this is a good or bad thing. He founds two cities, however, that become mortal enemies of Israel – Babylon and Nineveh. [Something to think about is how could Nimrod – if he is in fact just the third generation after the flood – found cities when presumably there would be very few people on the earth to settle in them? This is another example that shows this list is not meant to be comprehensive.] So it seems to follow that Nimrod is a mighty man apart from God.
In verse 21 the text begins the list of Shem’s descendants. Notice that it describes Shem as the father of all the children of Eber. This shows the importance of Eber. It is through him that Abram will come to be and through this line that the Messiah will come. It is also because of Eber that the descendants of Abram will be known as ‘Hebrews’ (and because of Shem that they will be known as ‘Semitic’). In this chapter Moses lists Shem’s descendants who are not in the line of promise. He will list another genealogy of Shem to show the Messianic line in Chapter 11.
Another notable name in the chapter is Peleg – a son of Eber. The text says during his life the earth was divided. This could be a reference to what happens at Babel (in which case – according to the years listed in Chapter 11 – Babel happens anywhere from 100 to 240 years after the flood). There is no way to know for certain, however, and it could be that it is a reference to a different event familiar to Moses’ readers and therefore not explained.
The author takes us back to before the world splits up according to language and nations. At this time the whole earth used the same language and the same words. The people have multiplied since the flood but they have stuck together and have not spread throughout the earth as God encouraged them to.
As a group they travel east to a plain in the land of Shinar. Remember that traveling east in Genesis is almost always bad. Going east typically means away from God. That they go east is a sign that what is about to happen is not according to God’s will.
In Shinar they decide to build a city with a tower. The tower will reach into heaven (likely a figure of speech meaning it will be very tall – not meant literally). The intent of the city and the tower is to make a name for themselves so they will not be scattered abroad over the face of the earth.
Remember that God’s admonition/blessing to both Adam and Eve and Noah and his sons was to multiply and fill the earth. These people are good with the multiplication but they do not seem to want to fill the earth. Whether or not this is why God judges them or if it is only their arrogance in wanting to make a name for themselves is not entirely clear. What IS clear is that they want to make a name for themselves apart from God. They – just like Adam and Eve – want to put themselves in God’s place. They want the security the city provides and the acclaim the tower provides – both apart from God.
The author says something interesting in verse 5 – the midpoint of the story. He says God comes down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. He wants to make it clear that though man builds a tower that will reach into heaven God has to come down just to see it. And he also wants to highlight that these actions are those of the sons of men – they are the descendants of Adam infected with Adam’s sin.
When God sees what they are doing He says that if He allows this then nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them. He seems to come to the same conclusion He reached in the garden after man sinned. There He could not allow man to have access to the tree of life since man would be unredeemable if he could live forever in his sin. Here He says that man’s sin will know no limits if he is allowed to stay united and grow ever more corrupt as a group with no check on his aspirations. Man’s sin must be dispersed and man saved from himself (thus God’s actions are as much mercy as judgment).
Therefore God comes down a second time and confuses the language of the people (notice how this story is written with three statements the different characters make – “Come, let us make bricks…”, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city…”, “Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language…”). The ability to communicate is taken away and thus the unity of the group ends. The text also says God scatters them. It is not clear if this is a separate act from confusing their language or simply the result of the confusion. Regardless, the construction project is stopped and the people move in separate directions across the earth.
As a result of this event the land is called Babel – a word in Hebrew that sounds like the word for ‘confused’. It is the future home of Babylon (‘Babylon’ and ‘Babel’ are interchangeable in Hebrew). The author here seems to use the name Babel to mock Babylon. Babylon will become synonymous throughout the Bible for evil and rebellion against God (Rev 17-18) and the name ‘Babylon’ is supposed to mean “gate of the gods.” However, Moses apparently wants his readers to know that before there was Babylon the great city there was simply Babel and it was where God judged man’s pride and the land was named after the confusion He caused.
Several things are worth noting here. Though God separates mankind as a result of judgment, this separation will ultimately result in more glory to Him. In Revelation John shows a scene in heaven where the elders sing a song to the Lamb because He purchased with His blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation (5:9). In another scene he shows a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb praising the Lamb with a loud voice (7:9-10). That Jesus redeems men from all tribes and tongues actually results in greater glory to Him. (The idea for this point comes from John Piper, “The Pride of Babel and the Praise of Christ”; sermon on 09/02/07.)
Also, God will effectively reverse the effect of Babel at Pentecost. Remember at Pentecost – as already referenced above – men from every nation under heaven hear the gospel in their own language. Instead of language dividing men, the diversity of languages unites them in the gospel. Every man hears the gospel in his native tongue. The following is what we wrote about Pentecost in regard to Babel in the notes to Acts 2:
This shows that the New Covenant is for all people. God’s good news is not for the Jews only (although only Jews hear the message on Pentecost) and not limited to Judea and Galilee. It is for every race and nation and will go out into all the world – even to the remotest part of the earth.
In this way Pentecost somewhat becomes the anti-Babel. At Babel (Gen 11:1-9) God caused the people building the tower to use different languages so they would not be able to unite and challenge God. He divided them by the confusion of many tongues and made them spread throughout the earth. Here He unites the listeners by enabling them to each hear the same message in their native language. Babel used language to punish and divide, Pentecost uses it to unite the world through the gospel.
Nothing could have demonstrated more clearly than this the multi-racial, multi-national, multi-lingual nature of the kingdom of Christ. Ever since the early church fathers, commentators have seen the blessing of Pentecost as a deliberate and dramatic reversal of the curse of Babel. At Babel human languages were confused and nations were scattered; in Jerusalem the language barrier was supernaturally overcome as a sign that the nations would now be gathered together in Christ, prefiguring the great day when the redeemed company will be drawn ‘from every nation, tribe, people and language.’ Besides, at Babel earth proudly tried to ascend to heaven, whereas in Jerusalem heaven humbly descended to earth. John Stott, The Message of Acts.
So it is the same story repeated throughout the Bible and throughout world history. Man sins. God judges. And through judgment God glorifies Himself all the more. And when God glorifies Himself, man benefits. Not that this justifies sin – nothing justifies sin. But judgment always brings glory to God and – apart from final judgment – is often an act of mercy and always shines a glorious light on redemption. God separated man so he could no longer unite to challenge God. But in so doing God also checked man’s sin and provided for an even greater redemption – which benefited man. Someday men from every nation and language in the world will stand before the throne of God and praise Him. And God will be glorified all the more for the diversity of people He redeems. Babel becomes, then, not just a mark of the continual failure of man after the flood. It also becomes a place where God shows the glory of His coming gospel and another example of His great mercy on sinful man for which He will be praised for all eternity.
Unlike the genealogy of Shem in Chapter 10 which did not list the Messianic line beyond Shem’s grandson Peleg, these verses cover the generations from Shem to Abram. Just as in Chapter 5, exactly ten generations are mentioned and the last generation lists three sons of the ninth (in Chapter 5 it was Shem, Ham, and Japheth; here it is Abram, Nahor, and Haran). That means that as Noah was listed as the tenth generation from creation, so here Abram is the tenth generation from Noah. The same principle, therefore, applies here as we discussed in Chapter 5. Since the genealogies are so symmetrical it is probably dangerous to assume we can take the years and generations at face value and get to specific years for Noah’s and Abram’s lives. There seems to be a purpose behind these genealogies beyond wanting to show dates and times, and to suppose otherwise may lead to wrong conclusions.
Regardless of the date, however, the stage is now set for the first patriarch and the beginning of God’s chosen people.