There is a tremendous amount to unpack in Genesis 1-11. Each individual story is rich in ancient theological meaning and nuance, obscured by our modern day perspective but there none the less. The stories taken together form a stunning cycle – God’s good plan, our rebellion, and God’s faithful redemptive response.
Since forming function out of chaos in Genesis 1, Yahweh has seen his “very good” creation turn away again and again. After the destruction of the great flood, it is clear that even this was not sufficient to turn mankind’s bent from wickedness, and Yahweh forms, in essence, a new world with a new strategy. What this is has yet to be unveiled but this we know – he will never destroy his creatures.
There is one final story – the tower of Babel. Through two lists of descendants we watch as Noah’s children repopulate the earth. Speaking all one language, they build a massive city and tower. Why this is unacceptable is not entirely clear, but it is alarming to God, who confuses their language and the people scatter across the earth.
One of the basic functions of these passages is to lead us from the stories of “pre-history” to the world as we know it within history, and where we meet Abram in Genesis 12. A bridge is needed from one man and his children to a world full of people in every corner, each with their own language and customs. The focus of these lists are the actual social/political situations of the known world in (at that time) the present day.
As the nations are laid out in these pages, the stage is being set for the biggest event yet. Though the world the Hebrews knew was diverse and wicked, in these pre-history genealogies and stories we learn that they are also united by ancient family ties, part of God’s blessed, rebellious, and beloved Creation. What happens next is not against this Creation, but for this Creation. If we miss this point, so carefully and repetitively laid out in these early chapters, we will miss the good news itself.
We have seen God’s commitment to bless the earth, and mankind’s commitment to disobedience. Through Noah, God has come to terms with man’s utter unwillingness or inability for lasting change and is formulating a brand new thing – the calling of Abram and the creation of Israel.
The ending of Genesis 11 wraps up the first calling, the first creation. Its final verses end with a mention of Terah, his son Abram and wife Sarai. What they begin is woefully incomplete – Terah heads out with his family to Canaan but doesn’t finish the journey; Abram and Sarai are married, but have no children. Sarai is pronounced barron.
And with this pronouncement, God’s great redemptive act is about to begin. Instead of a few chapters, the telling of it will require the rest of the Hebrew Bible…and time itself.
Are you coming with me? We have traveled a long way, but we are just getting started.
If you’re interested in reading the rest of this series, you can find more of it here.