The Table and Tongues

Series: The Beginnings of Abraham

Sermon by Cory Brock on Oct 21, 2018

Genesis 10:1-10; 11:1-9, 27-32

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Our Scripture reading tonight is from Genesis chapter 10, verses 1 to 10, and then Genesis 11:1-9 and 11:27-32. You can find it printed, the text references, in the bulletin if you want to look at them again. We’re doing a three-week series right now called The Beginnings of Abraham. And we’re looking at the Babel narrative again. We did it two weeks ago if you were here, and this time we’re looking at the Tower of Babel story in context, in a bigger context, in the context it’s set in. And that means we’re looking at the Babel story again in the context of genealogies. And genealogies are sometimes boring to read! But this one’s not at all. This one is actually a lot of fun, so you should have fun with this genealogy, just because I’m telling you to! Why? Because actually it’s called the “Table of Nations” and it’s very famous because it traces the ancient origins of all human societies. And so there’s been immense interest in this passage, Genesis 10, not just in the church; of course in the church because we regard this as Christian scripture, but there’s immense interest in Genesis 10 in all sorts of disciplines in the academy as well by anthropologists and ethnologists and sociologists and all the “ologists” out there. They’re all interested in Genesis 10 because it says so much about where every single human society all the way to today comes from. So let’s pray and let’s read it. Let’s pray.

Lord, we ask now that You would open the eyes of our hearts, that we would understand Your holy Word, that You would teach us to love Jesus. We pray for the presence of Your Holy Spirit, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

So Genesis 10:1-10. This is the Word of the Lord:

"These are the generations of the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Sons were born to them after the flood.  The sons of Japheth: Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech, and Tiras. The sons of Gomer: Ashkenaz, Riphath, and Togarmah. The sons of Javan: Elishah, Tarshish, Kittim, and Dodanim. From these, the coastland peoples spread in their lands, each with his own language, by their clans, in their nations. The sons of Ham: Cush, Egypt, Put, and Canaan. The sons of Cush: Seba, Havilah, Sabtah, Raamah, and Sabteca. The sons of Raamah: Sheba and Dedan. Cush fathered Nimrod; he was the first on earth to be a mighty man. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord. Therefore it is said, ‘Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the Lord.' The beginning of his kingdom was Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar."

And then chapter 11, verse 1 to 9:

“Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.’ And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the Lord said, ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another's speech.’ So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth.”

And finally, 11:27-32:

“Now these are the generations of Terah. Terah fathered Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran fathered Lot. Haran died in the presence of his father Terah in the land of his kindred, in Ur of the Chaldeans. And Abram and Nahor took wives. The name of Abram's wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor's wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran the father of Milcah and Iscah. Now Sarai was barren; she had no child.

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 forth together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan, but when they came to Haran, they settled there. The days of Terah were 205 years, and Terah died in Haran.”

I’m sure David Strain probably would have pronounced a lot of those names differently from me, but I gave it my best! There’s three texts here and there’s three lessons tonight to learn from these texts. And let’s just dive right in. And here they are. The first is that we are equal. The second is that we are equally bad. And the third is that we are saved by language.

We are Equal

So first, we’re equal. And this is a simple point just looking at the first text we read. There are seventy distinct nations, people, listed here in the “Table of Nations.” And what that means in the Old Testament is that this is a comprehensive list. The number seventy often makes something comprehensive but it’s probably not the case that everyone was listed, but seventy, giving us a good sense of almost every people group that’s in the world in this time period. And if you were here two weeks ago, or even when we just read the text, you might have noticed that Genesis 11:1 says, “In those days, there was one language in all the earth.” But here in ten, chapter 10, we read one phrase and there are three more times that it says, “In these days there were tons of languages.” And so how is it that in chapter 11 there’s only one language in all the earth but in chapter 10 there’s at least seventy languages and maybe more than that?

The Middle of the Genealogy

And the commentators tell us, and I think they’re right, that what’s happening here is that the Tower of Babel story is not chronological. It doesn’t come after chapter 10, but happens right in the midst of the goings on of chapter 10. And it’s right here, we read it at the end of our first passage, in chapter 10 verse 10, Noah’s great-grandson in verse 10 is named Nimrod; verse 9 and 10. So we’ll call him grandson Nimrod. It’s not a great name to name your grandson, but it was a different time and they called people Nimrod back then! And in 11:1, as we said, it says that “all the land had one language,” but you see that here in verse 10 it says that the beginning of his kingdom, Nimrod’s kingdom, was Babel. Meaning that right here in the midst of this genealogy, Nimrod, one of the sons of Canaan, started the city of Babel. So there it is. That means that chapter 11 pulls out from what’s happening in the middle of this genealogy and gives you an episode of what happened in the life of Nimrod and the people at the tower of Babel.

One Language

Why did all the earth have one language, even then? Well, think about it. Nimrod is Noah's great-grandson and that means that Noah's sons would have spoken the same language as Noah and Noah's grandsons and probably his great-grandsons. It's just not enough generations that have passed for new languages to develop yet. And so, of course, the whole earth has one language. This is still in the lifetime of Noah when we read Genesis 11 verse 1. But what it doesn't mean, and this is often assumed to be the case, but it doesn't necessarily mean that every single human being was at the Tower of Babel. And we know that because generations before the Tower of Babel, Egypt was already born. And we know that Egypt traveled southwest and started the place that we now call Egypt. And there were others like Gomer and Magog who had lived before Nimrod that traveled north and started the kingdoms that are mentioned again in the book of Revelation. And it says in verse 2 of chapter 11, chapter 11, "As people migrated from the east they found a plain" - meaning, "as some people." Not everyone in the whole world was here at Babel, but at this time everybody had one language. And so this is honing down in on one story, a very important story about what happened in the midst of this genealogy.

And let me give you just a little sample of how this all played out. I hope you enjoy this. I thought it was interesting. It's not part of the first point really, but just so you know, Japheth, the first son mentioned here, just for an example here, Tiras is one of his sons mentioned in verse 2. Tiras is later known as the father of the Etruscan people who are Spaniards and Italians down the road. So it's normally considered that Japheth is the father of the European nations. Not just them, but way down the line, he'll be the father of the European nations. Canaan, of course, he's the father of all the Palestinian region; the seven nations that Israel would later fight against. It says that he is the father of the Arabian people groups. Egypt is one of his sons, right, so he's the father of the Egyptians. But it also says that he's the father of Cush. And Cush in the Bible is another word for Ethiopian, meaning that this is the father of Africans south of Egypt. Canaan and Cush are the fathers of Africans south of Egypt. And then Shem, we didn't read all of Shem's genealogy in chapter 10, or any of it actually, but in verse 21 it tells us that he's the father of Eber, and Eber is the name that will become Hebrew. Eber, E-b-e-r, will eventually be spelled Hebrew. And he's the father of the Hebrews, the father of Terah, Abram, and eventually the Israelites. So there's just a little snippet of the outcome of these genealogies of where they end up. But that's not really the point.

Table of Nations

The point is this, of this Table of Nations. The Table of Nations poses a problem for the human heart and it’s a problem that comes up in every single generation that’s ever lived and it’s this. This passage, as many of you know, has often and frequently in our past been used to say that Ham, Noah’s son who was cursed in the previous chapter, that the reason this genealogy is here is to show that there is a group of people in history that are biologically inferior to the rest of humanity. And the passage has been used that way many times in and in many different ways. The immediate problem with it is that Cush is not actually the one that gets cursed in Genesis chapter 9; it’s only Ham’s son, Canaan. And so the African peoples, which come from Cush, are not actually sons of the curse. That’s just for starters; that’s one of the big problems with it. But the logical problems haven’t mattered because people of all stripes have used this passage in that way throughout the generations so much so that I discovered this week that there’s actually a center at the University of Yale devoted to studying the Table of Nations and how it’s been used in different people groups throughout the world to support racism or to support the claims of racial superiority and inferiority.

And one book that got produced out of that center at Yale is this - The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And the author notes how many different cultures have used this passage to claim the inferiority of very divergent people groups. He talks about how it was used in the Third Reich against the Jews, which makes no logical sense of course because if you’re basing it on blessing and cursing it’s the Israelites, the line of Shem, that are the blessed ones in this passage. He says this. “This passage has been exploited for purposes of racism for centuries. Who is inferior is always variable depending on the culture and the time period.” And look, we know this is a universal problem not only between black and white, historically expressed, but also of course between Aryan and Jew in the Third Reich or between Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda, or even today, not that the Table of Nations is part of this, but in Myanmar, maybe you’ve seen this, the Rohingya peoples are being murdered; there’s a genocide happening. At the very moment, 430 murdered in February; one whole town completely abolished because of claims of their ethnic inferiority, that they don’t belong around other human beings that live in that region.

Interrelatedness of Peoples

And the point is that Genesis 10, the Table of Nations, is here actually to say the exact opposite of that. It’s the whole point of the passage. Walter Brueggemann, one of the great Old Testament commentators, he puts it this way. “The transcending truth of the Table is that it gives an unparalleled ecumenical vision of human reality. The Table declares the interrelatedness of peoples. We all have the same ancestry; we all share the dual paternity of Adam and Noah. Our DNA comes from the same source. Being cursed or being blessed in the Bible has nothing to do with DNA, nor does it register a superior or inferior ethnicity.” Herman Bavinck, the great Dutch theologian of the 19th century, in the midst of a lot of issues between races both in Europe and America, this is what he said. At a very difficult time for him to say this, he said, “The unity of the human race is a certainty in holy Scripture, but it is almost never been acknowledged by every culture and especially not by the peoples who have lived outside the circle of the Bible. The Greeks, for example, considered themselves biologically superior and proudly looked down on all the ‘barbarians.’ This contrast is found in virtually every nation in all of history.”

In Acts chapter 17, Paul turns to these Greeks, verse 26, and he says to them, “We all have the same father and we are all kinsman by blood,” referring to our core, basic humanity that flows from Adam and Eve and now here through Noah and his three sons. And Genesis couldn’t have been clearer about this already up to this point. Genesis 1 makes a big deal out of the fact that every single human is born in the image of God. But even more than that, if a person does try to use the blessing and cursing narrative to support some type or form of racism, the problem is that as soon as you leave the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, you get to Joshua and in Joshua chapter 2 the very first story of the book of Joshua is that Rahab, the cursed Canaanite, the prostitute, the daughter of Ham and Canaan, is one of the mothers of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. There’s no logic in the text that teaches it and the point is quite opposite.

In the summer of 2004, the PCA defined racism to try to help the denomination think through it. And this is what they said. “Racism is an explicit or implicit belief or practice that qualitatively distinguishes or values one race over another race.” I’ve always liked to define it in a little bit more simply in a theological tone like this. “Racism is considering one skin color or one people group to be less than the image of God.” Racism is considering one skin color or people group to be less than the image of God or less than fully human. And what this, to close this first point, what this means, the Table of Nations is teaching us, is this. At the core of what divides human beings from each other is not a difference or a distinction in basic humanity. What divides human beings for us, precisely why the Tower of Babel story is here, is nothing but sin. What divides human beings is not basic humanity, it’s not a distinction in who we are, what we are, what divides human beings from each other is nothing but sin.

And we live in a complex world with a lot of complex relationships between races and all I think I can say from this passage is this. That what this teaches us is that for us as individuals every single situation we enter into our culture, into the difficulty and complexity and the history and the baggage, all I can say individually is a preface that I enter this knowing, knowing that I am a sinner entering the conversation, wherever it may be. Okay, so that’s the first point. The Table of Nations teaches us that we are equal.

We are Equally Bad

But this passage also teaches us that we are not only equal but we are equally bad; that we’re equally bad. Okay since we started this series, the title is, The Beginnings of Abraham. And maybe you’ve noticed that Abraham has gotten zero airtime since the beginning of it. But this is a series about Abraham. And that’s because what we’re doing in it is we’re defining the origins, we’re doing the origin story of Abraham. It’s like episodes one to three of Star Wars in the 90s. Luke Skywalker was nowhere to be found, but it was his origin story. The only difference is that I hope these are a lot better than episode one to three of Star Wars!

Look, it's not unfair to say that besides Jesus Christ, father Abraham is the most important man that's ever lived. And when we were living in Edinburgh there was a half-mile walk between the church, Saint Columbus on the Royal Mile, and the university library down this beautiful path called George IV Bridge and other places. And in that half-mile walk, every time I walked it, which was most days, I would see two mosques, five or more Christian churches, and a Jewish synagogue. And when you make the walk and you see all that, the one thing that every single one of these different religions says is "Father Abraham." They all claim Abraham to be their great ancestor. And that means that sixty percent of all the world says the two little words, "Father Abraham." That's at the core of each of the three great world religions. He's the most important man besides Jesus Christ who has ever lived and still is. And this genealogy and this story of Babel and the genealogy that comes after is all about him. It's all about him.

Abram, a Babylonian

How so? You’ve seen chapter 10 is the Table of Nations. Chapter 11 is the story of the Tower of Babel. In the end of chapter 11 is picking back up with the line of Shem, the genealogy of Shem. It’s establishing the Abraham story. And this is how it does it. Now bear with me because this is when we have to like get into gritty genealogy data, so just hold on for one second! In 10:10 we’ve already seen that Nimrod was the founder of Babel, the son of Canaan, the son of Ham. The great-grandson of Noah. But then if you look down at 10:25, that the line of Shem, Eber is born, the father of all the Hebrews. And then born to him was a son named Peleg. You see that in verse 25? And it says that in his days “the earth was divided,” meaning that most commentators think that Peleg, a son of Shem, a son of the blessed line, was there at the tower of Babel with Nimrod and his sons in the days that the earth was divided or in the days that the languages were divided, that people were spread across all the earth. And what that means is that Abram’s family was there at the Tower of Babel. Peleg is a father of Terah, Terah a father of Abram. And what these stories are here to tell us is Abram’s origin story. And what it’s saying to you is that at heart, fundamentally, culturally, by birth, Abram was a pagan. Abram was a Babylonian. In other words, just as equal as the human race is in basic humanity, chapter 10, so they are equal in the corruption of the heart. See, Abram’s family was birthed in Babel; they were born in Babylon. That means that like Moses, Abraham was not a good man. He was a Babylonian.

And that means that Abram was a polytheist. He didn't believe in the one God. he was not a follower of Yahweh when we read about him in this passage. And I can even prove that to you even more. It says at the end of the passage that he lived at the beginning of his life in Ur of the Chaldeans. Chaldea is another word for Babylon. In Ur, the city that he lived in, we've been able to do a lot of archeological work, Biblical archeologists, and in 1922 through 34, twelve years, a lot of scholars spent time at this site, Ur in Chaldea, which would be southern Babylon; it's 180 miles south of Baghdad. And what they discovered was a 2,000-year-old ziggurat. And you'll remember from last time that we talked about ziggurats, the pagan religious temples to the gods. And at Ur, where Abram was a boy, where he was raised, where he was born, where his father raised him, is a temple to a goddess called Nanna, the goddess of the moon. And that meant that Abram as a boy would have undoubtedly done up to the ziggurat, into the temple, and made sacrifices of all sorts to this goddess, Nanna, or Nannu some say. He was a pagan. He wasn't a good man. He wasn't born from a good family.

And that means that the line of Shem, the blessed line, the line of the Messiah, it came out of Babylon. It came from a Babylonian heart, from a Babylonian place, a Babylonian nation. Just as much as the human race is equal in basic human dignity in worth and value, what this text is also saying is that it’s just as equally bad that there is no distinction here between the blessed line of Shem, Abram’s line, and the line of Canaan. They’re not any better. They are all morally bankrupt. And you get this again in Deuteronomy chapter 9. Maybe you’ll remember that as Moses is preparing the Israelites to go across the river, go into the Promised Land, he says to them, “Do not say when you enter that land and you get the Promised Land that the reason you’re here is that you are any better, because you are righteous.” And he says, “No, you are a stubborn people! You are just like the Egyptians. You are just like the Canaanites. You’re no different. None of this depends on moral or ethnic superiority. There’s none of it here. Everybody’s equal in both dignity as basically human and in moral bankruptcy.” And that’s what we learn here about the origin story of Abram. And that means we, we as individuals, as a people, as a body, we can never claim superiority in either of those ways, ever, ever. That’s what the text teaches us.

Saved By Language

Okay thirdly and finally, we are equal, we are equally bad, but we are saved by language. We are saved by language. And this point picks up at where we left off with the Babel story down in verse 7 to 8, so let’s read that. “Come, let us go down and there confuse their language so that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth and they left off building the city.” Alright, last time we said that Babel is there to show us the heart of every single human, the Babylonian heart; that at the center of all human beings we have a heart that is the city of man. A city of self-centeredness; a city where we want to be kings, where we want to go up into the heavenlies and kill God. That’s exactly what they wanted to do here at the Tower of Babel. But the question here is, “Why does God disperse the Babylonians by confusing their language? What is God doing here?” And I want to say there’s a micro purpose for this and a macro purpose for this.

Micro Purpose

And the micro purpose you'll find in verse 6. "The Lord said, ‘Behold, they are one people and they all have one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. Nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.'" The micro purpose. This is what God is saying there. That if I leave them, the situation that happened before the flood is going to happen again. Before the flood, people had made decisions that were so morally corrupt, so evil, that they had completely lost themselves and God deemed that the only way was to judge the whole earth. And what He's saying here is the same thing. This is what theologians call a recapitulation of what's happened earlier. He's saying, "If I let this stay like this, the same thing that already happened in Genesis 6 will happen again. They will choose to become so evil, so corrupt, so morally bankrupt that they will lose themselves forever, that there will be no hope. No redemption." That's the micro purpose.

Macro Purpose

The macro purpose is that God comes down and confuses their language in order to disperse them, to clear them away from one another, so that this son of Shem, Peleg, Peleg, the father of Terah, the father of Abram, could be pulled out of this city that was going to be doomed to death. So that He could pull out one, one family - not a family that deserved it, but one family, morally bankrupt like the rest of them, but one family that He could pull out and send to a new land to be the hope for the entire world. And that means that when God comes down and confuses their languages, the point is not primarily judgment but primarily redemption. He’s come and done this not primarily as Judge, but primarily as Cosmic Redeemer. This wasn’t wrath. Wrath would be that they get what they deserved; they die. But that’s not what they get. They get the multiplication of languages in order that God would save the world. This is a story ultimately about redemption.

Now, most commentators will tell you that when God confuses their languages this is not as if the Tower of Babel was happening right now, just imagine, with all of us, and God came down and confused our languages. It's not as if, you know, you would speak Dutch and you would speak Polish and you would speak all these completed languages; like God gifted humanity in this moment thousands of completed, fully formed languages. Of course, if this did happen, I would speak French! That would be the one I would hope for at least, and let you have Dutch and Polish and the rest. That's not what's happening here. Most scholars say that what's probably happening here is a misapprehension of language; that it's not that He's creating all these new languages, it's that He's actually taking away the gift of language that was given to human beings in Genesis chapter 1. It's that He's making it where no individual can communicate with another individual. Nobody can understand each other. It's literally a situation of babel, of babeling, of chaos. He's taking away the gift He had given of language. That's the judgment here in order to disperse them, in order to save them. And when He did that, that means that He was giving them exactly what they wanted. You see, they wanted to be absolute individuals. They wanted to be individual kings and He gave them a channel for absolute individuality, a world where you can't communicate, a world where you can't have any relationships, a world where you're forced to only be your own man, only be your own person. He gave them what they wanted.

Creation by Language

Now let’s just close by thinking about language, language, for just a second. In the beginning, God created the world by speaking, by the Word of power. He spoke and nothing became something. Creation is by language; it’s by speech. And then theologians will regularly note that in Genesis 1:26, when it says that God created man “in His image,” that one of the things that means, that one of the most important things that means is that human beings are in the image of God because they are speakers, because they speak, because we have the gift of language, because we speak words. God spoke nothing into being and then He made us into speakers. So Genesis 1, here in Genesis 11, God saves humanity through the vehicle of speech. Yes, it’s a judgment, but it’s a judgment there for the sake of redemption. He saves humanity through the vehicle of speech.

The Word

This is not the last time He will do this. In John chapter 1, the Word, the speech of God, the language of God Himself came down - the Word of God, the Word of power, the Word Himself of Genesis 1. You see, Genesis 11 is what - my favorite word for this is what some call an adumbration. It’s a fancy term for “to shadow forth.” It’s a shadowing forth - salvation by language, redemption, saving the world through language. It wouldn’t be the last time it would happen. The Word of power, He came down. The Word Himself, the very speech of God, the language of God. By the Word, the Word of power, Jesus Christ, He would speak and the curses would be reversed. Tragedies would go back to where they came from. Miracles would happen. All by what? By language. It’s language by which God created the world and language through which He saves the world.

But at the end of the Gospels, before His accusers, He became silent. The Word of God Himself, the one who created the world by the Word of His power, the one who spoke being out of nothingness, before human beings, before Babylonian hearts, He stood before them and they questioned Him and they spit on Him and they mocked Him and they beat Him and the text tells us that “He opened not His mouth,” a mouth whose words could change the world; it could create everything. “He opened not His mouth.” They told Him to call down the angels and use His voice but He refused. Isaiah 53, “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet He would not open His mouth. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as sheep before its shearers He was silent, so He did not open His mouth.” He spoke not and He spoke not for us; for us.

And this is why. In John chapter 10, and we’ll close with this, in John chapter 10 He looked out at His disciples and His followers and He said to them, “My sheep hear My voice and when I call their name, they come to Me. My sheep hear My voice and when I say their name, they come to Me.” In John chapter 20, Jesus Christ had resurrected from the dead and He was standing in the midst of the garden where He was buried. And Mary Magdalene, one of the people that was there in John chapter 10 when He said, “My sheep hear Me and they come to Me,” she couldn’t see Him. You remember? She was blind and she was deaf; she couldn’t hear the Word of power Himself or see the Word of God Himself standing before her. And what did He do? He only did one thing. He looked at her and He said, “Mary.” And unbelief, deafness, blindness - gone. He did it by nothing more than the Word of His power. He was silenced at the slaughter of the cross so that at His victory, at His resurrection victory, our deaf ears could hear Him say our names. The Word that created the world, the Word that saved at Babel, the Word of God come down, is the Word, the language, the speech, that looks out at you and says, “David, Mary, Josh, Bill” - insert your name here - and makes your deafness and your blindness flee away.

The language the Word creates, the language the Word saves, and the language, the Word of God, it’s a person and His name is Jesus. There’s more here, but we’re out of time. So we’ll talk about it next time. Let’s pray.

Our Lord, we give thanks to You for the work of Your Word and we ask that we would hear it, that we would hear our names called by Jesus Christ, that we would know how merciful You are to speak to us even despite our Babylonian hearts. And we pray this in Christ’s name, amen.

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