Genesis chapter 11

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What does Genesis chapter 11 mean?

Genesis 11 contains three sections: the story of the Tower of Babel, the genealogy from Shem to Abram, and a description of the life of Terah, Abram's father. Abram will later be renamed Abraham and he will become one of the most important figures in Israel's history.

The events surrounding the building of the city and Tower of Babel are breathtaking. God exercises His power, authority, and creativity to confuse the languages of all the peoples of the earth and then to disperse them geographically around the known world.

God's reason for doing so is equally fascinating. As the families of Noah's children Shem, Ham, and Japheth grew, they continued to live together as a community with one language and one culture. Eventually, they moved to the area known as Shinar and began to build a massive city with a huge tower. To avoid separating from each other, they planned to make themselves great and powerful on the earth.

Not only did the people disobey God's command to "fill the earth," they apparently did not acknowledge God or seek His help. They became arrogant in their self-reliance and accomplishments. Some scholars think the building of the tower was an attempt to evade a future flood from God, or possibly as a symbol of man's power.

God acknowledged that nothing would be impossible if they continued to operate as one people with one language. This comment has been interpreted in various ways, but seems to follow the same line of thought God used prior to the flood: left alone, mankind can find a way to commit any act of evil imaginable. To prevent this, God confused and dispersed the people.

The section involving the Tower of Babel is composed as a chiasm, meaning a literary mirror-image. Everything mankind attempts in the first half of the narrative is undone in the second half. The building of the city, Babel, later to be called Babylon, ceases. Later, when the Israelites came into conflict with the powerful Babylonians, the name of this city was a reminder that God's power was far greater than the plans and might of mere human beings.

The second section of the chapter provides a simple genealogy from Noah's son Shem to Abram, showing specifically how God's people descended in a direct line from one to the other. This genealogy also shows that the lifespans of men quickly decreased after the flood, from nearly a thousand years, to several centuries, to roughly a century by the time of Abram.

The final section of the chapter sketches out the life of Abram's father Terah and his family, including Abram's two brothers, his wife, and his nephew. Together, the family moved from Ur, in what is now southern Iraq, some 600 miles closer to Canaan, settling in Haran. From Haran, God will call Abram and Sarai to leave their home and move into the promised land of Canaan. These two will eventually be renamed Abraham and Sarah, two of Israel's most crucial ancestors.
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