Author’s Note: I am preaching through Genesis on Wednesday nights. Here I will present edited notes in blog form. You can listen to the sermon below and download it here. May God be glorified and His people edified. Comments below if you like.
In this study we return to Genesis 11, where previously we saw in the first nine verses the people gathered together in rebellion against God at Babel, consciously choosing to disobey His command to be fruitful and multiply and populate the earth abundantly and multiply in it. And God — the Godhead, the Trinity — responded by scattering the peoples, the families of the earth, confusing their languages, and setting the stage for the rest of history.
So the scattering having happened, then, with not everyone in one general area anymore, from this point on there will be a shift in the way God works amongst those He created in His image. After Babel there are almost two centuries of silence, so to speak, as God allows the families of the earth to develop into nations, so that out of them He could choose one suitable man and, through him, establish a special nation (singular) which would speak His word to the nations (plural).
God had worked directly with and through mankind as a whole before, sometimes speaking to a particular representative of all humanity, like Adam or Noah. But now that the people are scattered — and in accordance with His sovereign, eternal plan — God, and by necessity His word, the Scriptures, will begin to focus on a singular people to get that suitable man. And that’s what Genesis 11:10-32 is about.
And if you look at it you can see that, yes, it is another genealogy. But here’s what the student of Scripture must ask: Why did God make sure this was part of His inspired, inerrant, authoritative, and sufficient word? That’s the question we need to keep asking, and that’s the question which leads us to see how profitable this text is in setting up everything after it.
It’s genealogy, yes, but the point of it is to show how the promise of God is preserved.
And what promise am I talking about? The one we saw — way back, now — in Genesis 3:15… the promise the Seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent. The first gospel. Our passage tonight shows the continuing outworking of that promise within the history of creation, as we see the focus narrow from the expansion of all mankind — which is what we see in chapter ten — to the focus now being on a specific people, the descendants of Shem, to get us to that suitable man, the start of a nation, through whom all the peoples, all the nations, of the earth would be blessed. We’re going from Shem to Abraham, so let’s begin with verses 10 and 11…
These are the records of the generations of Shem. Shem was one hundred years old, and became the father of Arpachshad two years after the flood; and Shem lived five hundred years after he became the father of Arpachshad, and he had other sons and daughters.
Now the first thing we see here is another one of these “These are the generations of” statements. There are ten of them in Genesis and this is number five. We saw it in 2:4 (the record of the heavens and the earth being created), in 5:1, (the generations of Adam), 6:9 (Noah), and more recently in 10:1 (the records of the generations of Shem, Ham, and Japheth). So we’ve already seen part of Shem’s line, from Genesis 10:21 to 31, covering descendants mainly from when he came out of the ark to when Babel happened — four generations worth. In this passage we see more.
More in the way of descendants and more in the way of content. What I mean by that is, in Genesis 10, there were no lifespans given. And that’s significant because the last time in Genesis we saw a couple of genealogies given back to back it was in Genesis 4 and 5. And if you recall, the genealogy in chapter four dealt with the seed of the serpent, the ungodly line of Cain, and there we weren’t given any information about how long they lived. But in chapter five, the line of Seth, we were given specific information about how long each patriarch lived and how old they were when the next patriarch was born. Likewise, in chapter ten we see no dates, but now that the focus is narrowed to the line of Shem we get those specifics again.
What does this tell us? It tells us the line of Shem is the one continuing the line of promise, which began from Adam to Seth and then down through Noah, who had three sons, and Shem is the one of those three through whom the line of promise continues. God sees to it in His word we get more specifics now about Shem and his descendants.
And also, before we get into those details, while this genealogy is similar in some ways to Genesis 5, there is also one big difference. There, if you recall, each patriarch’s account (except for Enoch) ended with “and he died.” There was a focus on death, stressing the wages of sin, and showing each of those men was not the promised Seed. But here, “and he died” is not the common refrain. Instead, the emphasis is on life and expansion. We see the repeated phrase “and he had other sons and daughters.” And that is an important difference, even though at the same time we also see the longevity of life sharply declining.
And we do see that with Shem, we’ll talk about it more as we go along. But Shem is 100 years old and becomes the father of Arpachshad two years after the Flood. So Shem was 97 when he got on the ark and 98 when he came off. He would have died, then at age 600. He lived through the Tower of Babel, and was actually still alive when Terah, the father of Abram (Abraham), died. So Shem would have been alive during each of these descendants’ lives. So Shem lived a long life, 600 years. But still, it wasn’t Noah’s life was it? Remember how long Noah lived? He was 500 when he began having those three sons, 600 when he got onto the ark, and died at age 950. Noah would have been alive until Terah was 128 years old.
So right away, from Noah to his own son Shem, we notice decline in life spans. And we see it more pronounced in verses 12-17…
Arpachshad lived thirty-five years, and became the father of Shelah; and Arpachshad lived four hundred and three years after he became the father of Shelah, and he had othersons and daughters. Shelah lived thirty years, and became the father of Eber; and Shelah lived four hundred and three years after he became the father of Eber, and he had other sons and daughters. Eber lived thirty-four years, and became the father of Peleg; and Eber lived four hundred and thirty years after he became the father of Peleg, and he had other sons and daughters.
Now in Genesis 9:28 we saw Noah lived 950 years and then he died. Going back to Genesis 5 we see that Noah lived about as long as those who came before him. His son, Shem, was just under 100 when he went into the ark, lived most of his life after the Flood, and died at age 600. There is then a dramatic reduction in how long men lived after that. Shem’s son Arpachshad lives for 438 years. Shelah lives to 433. Eber, from which the word Hebrew comes, lives a little bit longer — to 464. But in a span of five generations the average life span has been reduced by over half, 500+ years.
Why is that? Well ultimately it comes down to God being the author of life and the One who has numbered all our days, but when you factor in everything we know from Scripture about the Flood and what happened there compared to what the earth was like before, there are some answers. For example, the waters in the heavens, the canopy over the earth from creation until the Flood, was now gone, meaning radiation from space, from the sun, was not filtered out the way it used to be, which would have a significant physical effect.
Also, as time progressed from sin entering the world in the Garden you began to have genetic mutations, which have an affect on humanity generation by generation. In the days of Noah there were potentially billions of people on earth and there wasn’t the necessity of intermarrying within families that had existed before in the time of Cain and Seth. But after the Flood you once again had a limited number of people you could marry — and they were all family. And thus you had a genetic bottleneck, which would have had an affect on life spans. Add to that the more rugged environment after the Flood and a greater stress of living, and we begin to see why life spans shrunk.
Of course, even with life spans in decline, people were still living a long time. So after the Flood the population would have expanded rapidly in the century leading up to Babel. It was advantageous for families to have as many children as possible. Plus, being fruitful and multiplying and populating the earth abundantly was in obedience to what God had told Noah to do in Genesis 9:7. So they would have sought to have large families for that very reason.
By themselves, Shem, Ham, and Japheth had sixteen sons listed, and that doesn’t include the possibility there were sons not listed. Of course, they had daughters, too, and they aren’t listed at all. But if we assume there were about the same number of daughters as sons between those three sons of Noah — sixteen daughters — that gives us 32 people in that first generation after the Flood, an increase of 533 percent in the population.
And if that proportion stayed the same — which is a pretty conservative assumption — it may well have increased since Shem was 100 when he had Arpachshad, and succeeding generations weren’t waiting until age 100… If that proportion stayed the same, the second generation would have jumped from 32 to something like 171. A third generation would have been 912. So by the time Babel came along there would have been well over 1,000 mature adults, not to mention younger men who would have helped in building the city and the tower.
A growth rate of just eight percent would have produced a population of over 9,000 people in 100 years. And it’s worth noting not all the families were listed in Genesis 10, remember? Just the ones pertinent to Moses when God was giving the Law, through him, to Israel. The point being the population increased rapidly.
But that only takes us up to Babel, verses 12-17, when Peleg was born. Genesis 11 gives us more. Verse 18…
Peleg lived thirty years, and became the father of Reu; and Peleg lived two hundred and nine years after he became the father of Reu, and he had other sons and daughters. Reu lived thirty-two years, and became the father of Serug; and Reu lived two hundred and seven years after he became the father of Serug, and he had other sons and daughters. Serug lived thirty years, and became the father of Nahor; and Serug lived two hundred years after he became the father of Nahor, and he had other sons and daughters. Nahor lived twenty-nine years, and became the father of Terah; and Nahor lived one hundred and nineteen years after he became the father of Terah, and he had other sons and daughters.
Understanding the genealogy shows us how there was a sufficient population for what happened in Babel. This shows us even more how the population developed getting up to the time of Abraham. When this passage ends, Terah is the ninth generation from Noah, and if each generation just kept expanding the way those first few generations did, then the world population at the end of verse 25 could have been well over 100 million. I read one estimate of around 300 million people. What is clear is that it was a big enough population to account for the civilizations which began popping up all over the world.
Now, some skeptics of Scripture point to the Tower of Babel and say, “If the Flood story is true, how could there have been enough people to build the kind of society and the tower and all of that just over 100 years later?”
And some have tried to pacify those Bible skeptics by trying to insert gaps in the genealogies. Some have also tried to insert gaps here as a way of conforming the Bible to evolutionary theory. But when you read this, there is no good reason to doubt this genealogy as it is given to us. After all, there is no reason for the writer here to be so exact with chronological data, including how long people lived, unless the data is complete, unless all the links in the chain are there. Add to that the fact there is no indication in the text itself that there are any gaps, either — and we don’t want to eisegete this text, we don’t want to read into the text something which isn’t there. Plus, if you go to genealogies in other places — 1 Chronicles 1, Luke 3 — they don’t hint at any gaps either. Bottom line: There is no good reason to try to read in gaps that aren’t there. There is no good reason not to read this, as with all of Genesis 1-11, as literal history. As Henry Morris has written, “One should not base his biblical exegesis on some latter-day scientific theory.”
We cannot change our hermeneutic based on the world. Our hermeneutics have to inform how we look at everything else. And hermeneutics is just a big, but important word, which means the way we interpret a text… in this case the Bible. Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation. We interpret the Bible as written — literally, normally. We don’t impose a worldview on the Bible. The Bible gives us our worldview.
Now, back to verses 18-25, we see another dramatic decrease in how long people were living, dont’ we?
Look first at Peleg. His father Eber lived to 466, but Peleg, probably born right after God scattered the peoples at Babel (remember, his name means divided)… Peleg only lived to 239. Peleg’s son Reu… only 239. Serug after him… 230. Then Nahor only to 148 years old. And Terah lives to 205. We’ll see later Terah’s son Abraham lived to 175. But the point is: that’s a big drop from before Babel, and an even greater drop from Shem at 600, and Noah at 950!
So why is there a second dramatic drop in longevity? Well, the scattering of peoples was undoubtedly a traumatic event for all involved. We probably can’t comprehend the effects it had on people. Whereas humanity had been striving for an urban utopia, now all the sudden they were forced to go out into the uninhabited world, where they would have to struggle to survive.
Also, think about how humanity was spread throughout the world after Babel. By families. Earlier we talked about the genetic bottleneck that occurred after the Flood, and how in succeeding generations people would have been able to marry more distant relatives, different families. But after Babel, when Gomer went here and Javan went there and the Sinites were other here and Cush was over here… there was another genetic bottleneck — by families, so more genetic mutations… affecting the life span of all. So all of that — the Flood, Babel, and all they affected — all of that is how you get from 950 to 600 to 430 to lifespans under 200 years. Ultimately it’s a judgment of God.
That brings us to Terah. Verse 26…
Terah lived seventy years, and became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran.
Like Genesis 5 with Noah, this genealogy closes with someone who has three sons. And we’re told also, like we were with Noah, how old he was when he began having sons. With Noah it was 500. With Terah, 70. His three sons were Abram, Nahor, and Haran. Verse 27…
Now these are the records of the generations of Terah. Terah became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran; and Haran became the father of Lot.
Here is the sixth “These are the records of the generations” statements. We’ve moved from the line of Shem being the focus to now Terah. The three sons’ names are repeated and Lot is also introduced. Verse 28…
Haran died in the presence of his father Terah in the land of his birth, in Ur of the Chaldeans.
Ur was a city in southeastern Mesopotamia, what we know today as Iraq. It’s noteworthy that two other cities in Mesopotamia would be named for two of Terah’s sons — Nahor and Haran. And of course Haran dies — if you run the math he was less than 135 when he died — and his death is important because we see Lot become closely associated with his uncle, Abram. Verses 29-30…
Abram and Nahor took wives for themselves. 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 Iscah. Sarai was barren; she had no child.
We don’t get Lot’s mother name here, but we do for Nahor and Abram — the reason being we see more from their families later. Nahor married his niece, Haran’s daughter Milcah. Just as Lot seems to be associated with Abram after the death of his father, Milcah is associated with Haran, even becoming his wife. We don’t know anything more about Haran’s other daughter, Iscah.
Now, as for Sarai, she’s Abram’s wife. We find out later she was also his half-sister. Terah was her father, too. But he had more than one wife, so they were half-siblings. Which, you know, we consider immoral today, but those marriages were not uncommon then, and not yet prohibited by God.
Finally, though, we have that note in 30 that Sarai was barren. She had no child. It’s not just foreshadowing the next few chapters in Genesis, but it also tells us Abram, unlike his brothers, had no children while he was still in Ur of the Chaldeans. As I read it put, “The child of promise [would have to be] born in the land of promise.”
Let’s look at the last two verses.
Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife; and they went out together from Ur of the Chaldeans in order to enter the land of Canaan; and they went as far as Haran, and settled there. The days of Terah were two hundred and five years; and Terah died in Haran.
This is what the genealogy has been leading up to. Terah’s decision to leave Ur. Now why did he do that? After all, Ur was a great city, a prominent city, a cultured city. But it was also a very idolatrous city, run amok with wickedness. But that doesn’t really tell us why he left.
Terah, Abrah, Sarai, Lot… the language is they “went out together,” and the way it’s written suggests Terah could have himself been commanded by God to go to the land of Canaan. In fact, perhaps God spoke to Terah and Abram together while they still lived in Ur. The question is, “If Terah was leaving Ur to go to Canaan, why did he end up in Haran?” Because whereas Canaan was about 600 miles west of Ur, Haran was about 600 miles northwest of Ur.
And the answer apparently has to do with Haran, Terah’s son who died in his presence. The city of Haran 600 miles away had apparently been settled by. So perhaps Terah went to Haran first to settle his son’s affairs, as it has been suggested, since Haran’s death was premature. One thing that is clear is, for whatever reason, Terah never made it to Canaan. He never left Haran, which was an important city on an important trade route. We read in 31 they went as far as Haran, “and settled there.”
Now as for verse 32… there’s more to this than meets the eye. We read Terah died in Haran at 205 years of age. Simple enough. We’ll also see when we get to 12:4 that Abram left Haran when he was 75. So, if you do the math — 205-75 — Terah would have been 130 years old when Abram was born. Seems clear, right?
Not quite. Not when we consider the rest of Scripture, specifically Acts 7:4 where Stephen, the church’s first martyr, is preaching the sermon that will lead to his death. Acts 7:2-4…
And he said, “Hear me, brethren and fathers! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, ‘Leave your country and your relatives, and come into the land that I will show you.’ Then he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran. From there, after his father died, Godhad him move to this country in which you are now living.
Stephen, over 2000 years later, says Abram waited until his father was dead before he left Haran. If Abram was Terah’s firstborn, then, as the language of Genesis 11:26 suggests, listing Abram first, then Terah was 70 years old when he had Abram, making Terah only 145 when Abram left Haran. So something seems to be off here.
Well, it’s possible Abram wasn’t Terah’s first son, that Abram was only listed first here because of his importance. That’s possible. So to make the math work Abram would’ve been born when Terah was 130, making Abram 75 when Terah died at age 205. But then, if that’s the case… if Abram’s father was 130 years old when he was born, why would a big deal later be made about Abram having a son when he was 100?
The answer, beloved, lies in what it means to be dead. You see, Stephen also said the glory of God appeared to Abram while he still lived in Mesopotamia, “before he lived in Haran,” which reinforces the idea Terah may have been instructed by God to go to Canaan. Abram left with him, but when Terah stayed in Haran — settled in Haran — then YHWH appeared to Abram in what we will see in chapter twelve, and said, “Go forth from your country, from your relatives, from your father’s house…”
It could very well be both Terah and Abram were told to go to Canaan, but Terah decided to only go halfway. Halfway obedience, which is not real obedience, beloved. The prosperity to be found in Haran, the comfort, was too great a temptation for him to go to Canaan. He wouldn’t give up those familiar Chaldean idolatries, which explains why Joshua, in his last speech to Israel — Joshua 24 — says Terah worshiped other gods.
Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘From ancient times your fathers lived beyond the River, namely, Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, and they served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River, and led him through all the land of Canaan, and multiplied his descendants and gave him Isaac.
Terah worshiped other gods. So then, it was at this point Terah was dead… dead to God’s will, dead to God’s command upon his life. This happened when Terah was 145 years old, Abram 70. And it’s precisely the kind of situation we saw Sunday in Luke 9 when Jesus called that man to follow him and the disciple replied, “Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.” And Jesus said, “Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.”
Terah was dead to God’s will — disqualified… perhaps saved, but no longer useful to the Lord, trying to hold on to the world while still retaining the Lord’s blessing. But what he was not, his son Abram would become. The Lord would come to Abram again and he would go, and through him all the peoples of the earth would be blessed. Through him a nation would come — God’s holy nation, a kingdom of priests, a people for His own possession — who were to be separate from other nations, declaring the glory of God. And through that nation would come the Seed who would crush the head of the serpent. Abram would let the dead bury their own dead and go, that the kingdom of God might come.
So there is more to this genealogy than just names and sons and ages and lifespans. It starts with Shem, who we read in Genesis 9:1 was blessed, and this section ends with Abram, who we’ll see in chapter twelve was called to receive the blessing and be a blessing. This God’s promise to save being seen through from Noah… through Babel… to Abraham, and ultimately Jesus Christ.
That is why God made sure this passage was in His Scriptures. May it be a blessing to you.
Father, we thank You for being a God who keeps His promises. We thank You for being the God of history, who has worked through history to accomplish Your purposes — for Your good pleasure, and the eternal good of all those whom You will save through Your Son Jesus Christ. We praise You for how we have seen in the first eleven chapters of Genesis Your work of creation, and even when man sinned and death entered the world through sin, by Your grace we see Your work of salvation — first being declared, then being preserved through the first 2000 years of history (even amidst devastating judgments), and finally being fulfilled in Jesus. Help us to rest in Him, Father, and like Abram… Abraham… go when You say go. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.