If we are honest, each of us would readily admit that certain parts of the Bible seem “less exciting” than others. In particular, genealogies and lists simply do not spark the fires of our hearts as readily as other portions of Scripture. However, all Scripture is breathed out by God (2 Tim. 3:16) which means all Scripture – including its genealogies and lists – is useful and necessary. This is good to remember as we come to Genesis 10-11. Though the story of the tower of Babel is well-known and full of action, it is surrounded by two genealogies that are more probably skipped on a regular basis. But God saw fit to include them, so we should see fit to consider them. As we do so, it becomes clear that God has a purpose and point – namely: He does what He says He will do, and nothing can thwart His purposes.
Genesis 10 provides a list of the nations descended from each of Noah’s sons. After destroying everyone else, God uses this small family to fill the earth. Just like we all descended from Adam, we also all descended from Noah. Though God’s wrath was poured out, He clearly was not finished with His creation. The story continued.
And there is an interesting point made in the midst of this genealogy: God is in sovereign control of our destinies – even the destinies of nations. In 9:27, Noah asked God to “enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem, and in 10:2-5, we read that Japheth’s offspring “spread” just as Noah asked God to “enlarge” them. And Japheth’s offspring lived in peace with Shem’s descendants. Conversely, Noah had said, “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers” (9:25). Because of Ham’s sin, God (through Noah) cursed his descendants. Interestingly, as we read of Ham’s offspring in 10:6-20, it is like a laundry list of future Israelite enemies (Egypt, Canaan, Assyria, Nineveh, Jebusites, Amorites, Girgashites, and Hivites). God’s people, Israel, would fight with numerous members of Ham’s family, and this is because of what God declared about them through Noah in Genesis 9:25. And Noah had given Shem preeminence over his brothers – saying that Ham would serve him and Japheth would dwell in his tents (9:26-27). It is no surprise then, that the descendants of Shem become the chosen line through which God’s purposes are carried out. The more specific genealogy at the end of the chapter 11 makes this clear: God’s chosen line would run specifically through Shem – leading first to Peleg (11:16) and then to Abram (11:26) and ultimately to Jesus Christ (Luke 3:35). As with his brothers, the destiny of Shem’s line was declared before it ever came to pass.
This is a reminder that God is in control. Through Noah, God declared what would happen, and it came to pass. Unlike us, God does not just wish and hope, he determines and declares. No one can overcome Him or change His plans. Ultimately, our lives and our destinies depend on God, because He is in control (Prov. 16:9; 21:1).
Even the story of the tower of Babel highlights this sovereign power of God by demonstrating that God’s purposes cannot be thwarted even by the greatest human wickedness. This story (in Genesis 11:1-9) is clearly “pulled out” for our attention – more than likely it describes the moment when the “earth was divided” in the days of Peleg (Gen. 10:25). Despite God’s command to spread out and fill the earth (Gen. 9:1), the people decided to stay and make a name for themselves. This was an attempt to carry out their task and pursue their ends – independent of God. Predictably, such an attempt brought the judgment of God: He confused their language and caused them to spread out on the earth and accomplish His purpose anyway.
The story shows the serious danger of pride – especially the pride of following our own desires and plans and goals rather than the desires and plans and goals of God. We should search our own hearts and see if we are living with ultimate regard for God or ourselves. If the latter, God will not ignore such an arrogant attitude.
The story also reminds us – like the genealogies – that God’s sovereignty and control cannot ever be overcome – even by the grandest plans and purposes of sinful human beings. He has a plan for this world – to bring all things together under the rule of His Son, Jesus (Eph. 1:10; 1 Cor. 15:20-28; Rev. 21-22). And that plan will be accomplished – no matter the plans and desires of human beings. God is able to use even the sin of His creatures to further His own purposes. Even as He scattered the nations in Genesis 11, He eventually sent His Son to gather the nations (Acts 2; 1 Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11). And the ultimate goal is that people from every tongue and tribe and nation – even those descended from Ham – will join together and sing the praises of God and the Lamb.
The purpose of God is certain and sure. This should humble us – causing us to see the futility of our own selfish plans. And it should drive us to God – causing us to seek His pardon and follow His will by trusting, and obeying, His Son. The people of Genesis 10-11 could not thwart His plan, and neither can we – and that is good, good news.