By Chester K. Lehman

Chapter 3, Biblical Theology: Old Testament © 1971 (see end for details)

1. General Trend of the Narrative

A study of Genesis 4 - 6 shows two lines of descent which disclose two opposite trends in the human race. In the line of Cain there is pictured the downward plunge of humanity in sin and wickedness. Over against this is the godly line of Seth. It is our concern to learn what the writer sought to teach in this earliest period of human history. Again it is plain that the writer had a purpose and this purpose became evident as he unfolded the account. By way of anticipation, he would have us see that the sinful line of Cain worked deadly havoc in the human race, leading to the verdict: "The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually" (Gen. 6:5). Alongside of this the author showed that a godly line did continue through this era until it became evident that the growing forces of evil would finally overcome the faithful remnant unless God would intervene. Very clearly the writer had no intention of presenting a formal history of this era. His concern centered in a religious purpose based nevertheless on the course of history.


2. Offerings of Cain and Abel

This familiar story also requires close study in order to gain an understanding of the author's purpose. We need to observe that Cain and Abel followed two different modes of life: one tilled the ground and the other kept sheep. In their worship they brought two kinds of offerings; one offered of the fruit of the ground and the other of the firstlings of the flock and of their fat portions. We are confronted with the problem of understanding the reason for the rejection of Cain's offering and for the acceptance of Abel's. It would appear on the surface that each one brought an offering related to his vocation, in which case it would appear that both offerings should have been accepted by God. The narrative presents an explanation. To Cain God said, "If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it" (Gen. 4:7). This explanation pointed to a spiritual lack in Cain. He was not doing well. Sin was couching at Cain's door. Like a ravenous beast, sin had the desire to devour Cain. God would lead Cain to recognize this foe and enter into combat with it. By implication, God accepted Abel's offering because Abel was doing well. He was recognizing sin as his foe and was mastering it.

The author of Hebrews gave an explanation of this incident in the words, "By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he received approval as righteous, God bearing witness by accepting his gifts; he died, but through his faith he is still speaking" (Heb. 11:4). This gave another reason for the rejection of Cain's offering and the acceptance of Abel's. It turns on the word "acceptable." This word carries the meanings superior, more excellent, richer, greater, and better. It pointed to a qualitative superiority of Abel's offering over that of Cain's. The nature of this superiority calls for study. To begin, Abel's superior sacrifice was an act of faith. Evidently Cain's offering was not by faith. The meaning of Abel's faith must be gained from the use of the word "faith" in this Hebrews 11 context. The author of Hebrews defined faith as "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Heb. 11:1). Evidently Abel entertained a hope of God's fulfilling some promise. This hope was based on his faith and trust in God. The narrative, however, does not tell us the content of Abel's hope. Is it possible that the nature of Abel's sacrifice may tell us something of the content of Abel's hope? In the discussion of the Garden of Eden story we saw that some meaning may have attached to the shedding of blood necessary for the provision of the garments of skin for Adam and Eve. It is conceivable that when Abel learned of this he concluded that a bloody sacrifice was necessary to cover his sins. By this offering he would be showing his faith in God with respect to the hope bound up in God's promise to his parents (Gen. 3:15). Evidently Cain refused to recognize any guilt of sin and consequently had no confidence in this promise. In his mind all that was necessary was an offering of thanks to God. Abel, on the other hand, realized his sin and recognized God's provision for the covering of sin. Cain had no regard for this provision. If this interpretation is correct, the difficult problem of determining the origin of bloody sacrifices in biblical history finds a solution.


3. Author of Genesis Interprets Antediluvian History

Cain's murder of his brother set the stage for the course of history through his descendants. The Apostle John gave an analysis of Cain's character in the words, "Cain who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother's righteous" (1 Jn. 3:12). Cain's response to the Lord's punishment failed to show a spirit of penitence. He was more concerned about his own preservation than for the impact of his sin upon others. At least two things should become evident in tracing the descendants of Cain. First, the author showed the degrading effects of sin among those who departed from God. Lamech stood out as a typical example of the outworking of sin in this line. He not only broke God's law of monogamous marriage, a most grievous sin, but he also became a murderer like his ancestor, Cain.

The nature of this degradation became clear in the words already quoted (Gen. 6:5) which stated that the wickedness of man was great in the earth. The forcefulness of this language is very striking. The writer did not stop with the single statement with respect to the wickedness of man but he intensified the language, showing most vividly the inward nature of sin. Sin centered in the heart; human depravity had gone to the depths that "every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually." What a terrible judgment on man s degradation in sin! The nature of sin also became clear in the life of Cain. It showed self in the anger of jealousy toward his brother in his refusal to master sin, which led to murder as the outworking of his hatred. And sin's nature became still more evident in his lack of repentance and faith toward God. These same aspects characterized the sinfulness of Lamech. In him there was a total disregard for God's law of marriage. His acts of murder revealed the inner working of the spirit of vengeance. He would outdo Cain by a seventy-seven-fold act of vengeance. Thus sin was viewed not merely as outward acts but as something fundamentally inward. This statement of the inner nature of sin was underscored by Christ when He said, "For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander" (Mt. 15:19).

The line of Seth shows an entirely different picture. The author of Genesis had an evident purpose in presenting an unbroken lineage from Seth to Noah. The Cain line was left incomplete for the possible reason that all of his descendants at the time of the Flood perished in the Flood. On the other hand, the line of Seth by reason of its godliness was preserved from destruction and continued beyond the Flood. In preserving this continuous genealogy the author was evidently giving expression to his forward look. It was the line of descent to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to whom the Lord gave the great promises. A comparison of this genealogy with that of 1 Chronicles and of Luke would seem to confirm the eschatological outlook of the author of Genesis. It would appear that he desired to trace the line of descent to that member of the seed of the woman who would deal the crushing blow on the head of the serpent.

In the narrative of this descent the author made a statement of considerable significance. He wrote, "At that time men began to call upon the name of the Lord" (Gen. 4:26). Students have wrestled with this statement for many years. The interpretation which seems to fit best into the meaning of the narrative is that with Seth there is the beginning of man's worship of the Lord. If this interprets correctly the meaning of this verse, we discover here one of the profound reasons for the perpetuation of the godly line. Among the descendants of Seth were those who called upon the name of the Lord. They involved themselves in the worship of their Creator. It would account for the faith and life of Enoch, who walked with God. His manner of life pleased the Lord. His walking with God was a continuation of the close fellowship found between man and God in the Garden of Eden. While the Garden was closed to man's access, yet this godly man experienced a similar fellowship in his walk with God. It was a walk that did not terminate, "for God took him." He did not experience physical death. [1]

Another evidence of the godliness and faith found in the line of Seth becomes evident in the naming of Noah. His father, Lamech, said, "Out of the ground which the Lord has cursed this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands" (Gen. 5:29). Back of these words lay a deep-seated realization of the effects of sin upon the human race. The nature of man's wickedness as described in Genesis 6:11, 12 gives additional insight as to the sinfulness of the world. It reads, "Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth." So unspeakably wicked had the human race become!

One more picture of the state of affairs calls for explanation. It is the commingling of the two lines, thus threatening the complete destruction of the godly line. It is this which led the J writer to announce the imminent judgment upon the world. Some formidable problems center in this brief paragraph (Gen. 6:1-4). It has to do with the interpretation of "sons of God," "the daughters of men," and the Nephilim. Since this brief paragraph carries significance for the study of the unfolding of divine revelation, I shall present my understanding of its meaning. To begin, we may expect that the author of the J document, together with that of the final recensionist, gives us an account free from pagan influences. The terms used are to be oriented to the thinking of God's people. They do not have their roots in paganism. This would suggest that the marriage of the sons of God with the daughters of men refers to the intermarriage between the godly line and the ungodly line. The manner in which the final writer of the Book of Genesis presents the lines of Cain and of Seth seems to prepare the reader for the possibility, even the probability, of their commingling. The words of the Lord, "My spirit shall not abide in man for ever, for he is flesh, but his days shall be a hundred and twenty years" (v. 3), stand as the result of the conduct described in verses 1, 2. In my judgment this fact completely nullifies the interpretation which would identify the sons of God with angels.

The meaning of Nephilim remains as a problem. It is usually taken to mean giants but it could carry the sense of extraordinary physical strength. It does not seem necessary to give it a meaning lying beyond natural biological laws of heredity.

The Lord, the righteous judge, condemned the world to destruction. The J writer expressed the Lord's words in this fashion: "I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the ground, man and beast and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them" (Gen. 6:7). The P writer quoted God as saying to Noah, "I have determined to make an end of all flesh; for the earth is filled with violence through them; behold, I will destroy them with the earth" (Gen. 6:13). Both statements are very expressive. Only through divine judgment could God save the few remaining faithful ones from being engulfed in the stream of wickedness.


4. Revelation Given Through Noah


a. God, His Nature and Acts

This section of the Book of Genesis builds on the foundation laid in the creation account. We have seen God as the Creator of all things and observed how He dealt with Adam and Eve in justice, love, and mercy. In the crisis of extreme wickedness that resulted in mankind's bringing upon the world the just judgment of God, these attributes stand out in still bolder relief. The Lord showed Himself the God of righteousness in relation to man's sin; the God of justice in relation to the judgment of the Flood; the God of mercy in sparing Noah and his family; and the God of love in drawing Noah into covenant relationship with Himself. He is the God who acts in history, in the most remarkable way of destroying the world by the Deluge. God who created the world also destroyed this world.

We should observe further that God established a standard of living for His people. He declared the sacredness of human blood because He had made man in His own image.

The anthropomorphic language used in Genesis 6:6, 7 should be interpreted in the same manner that we understand figurative language. The only way in which man can grasp the nature of God is by the way of anthropomorphic language. This mode of expression shows to us the likeness of personality in man to that of God. When we lift this likeness to Deity level, we begin to understand the personality of God. There is the inner nature of God that finds true expression in the language of human emotions. To use the words of Elliott with reference to the Genesis writer's account of God's reaction to man's sin, "It grieved the Lord that man had behaved as he had. This is an expression of God's concern and compassion for man." [2] With these personality traits raised to divine level, it is entirely natural that the record should represent Noah as finding favor in the eyes of the Lord. The Lord communicated with Noah in the language of seeing, speaking, commanding, and the like. The intimacy of this relation of God to Noah in this anthropomorphic setting possesses great meaning. The narrative represented God as remembering Noah, blessing him, and, most significantly, establishing a covenant with him.


b. Life of the People of God

It is significant for our study that very early in human history attention is given to the life of the people of God. I have already noted the positive aspect of this in the instance of Abel and in the godly line from Seth to Noah. Abel's manner of life was such that God had regard for Abel and his offering. In the time of Seth men began to call upon the name of the Lord. Enoch walked with God. Noah stood forth as a man who also walked with God, for he "was a righteous man, blameless in his generation" (Gen. 6:9).

The words "righteous" and "blameless" are definitive as setting forth godliness in character. The Lord spared Noah and his family from destruction because he was righteous. This word stands over against the wickedness of men who were destroyed by the Flood. Appearing in an ethical setting, the word carries the idea of that which is conformed to a standard. This standard lies in the character of God. As we shall note later, Abraham was concerned that in the destruction of Sodom, the righteous would not be slain with the wicked. He raised the question, "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right" (Gen. 18:25)? This God-centered trait of Noah's character was so outstanding that Peter called him a "herald of righteousness" (2 Pet. 2:5). Significant for our purpose here, Peter used an opposite term, "ungodly," to describe the people who were destroyed by the Flood. Thus ungodliness is the antonym of righteousness. The word translated "blameless" has the literal idea "without blemish," a term used regularly throughout the law to describe animals which were fit for sacrifice. In the ethical realm it carries the idea of perfect, undefiled, upright, sincere, and sound. [3] We should note that these two words, righteous and blameless, became the leading normative expressions used to describe men and women of God. As we would expect, the writer of Hebrews attributed Noah's building of the ark to his faith, and through this act he "became an heir of the righteousness which comes by faith" (Heb. 11:7). From this we should learn that righteousness and blamelessness are found alone in men of faith. This is a very significant aspect of the life of the people of God.


c. Noah's Worship of the Lord

Closely associated with the life and character of the man Noah was his worship of the Lord. On leaving the ark Noah built an altar to the Lord on which he offered burnt offerings of clean animals and birds. The meaning of these acts calls for study. To begin, there is entire absence of a recorded command from God for Noah to do this. The rise of sacrificial worship remains unexplained. As I noted earlier, we may find some suggestion in God's providing garments of skins for Adam and for Eve and also in the bloody offerings of Abel. The shedding of blood is common to both of these incidents. This fact may suggest some reason for Noah's bloody offering.

Looking into history, we may note the prominence of burnt offerings among the people of God. The large place devoted to these offerings in Israel's ceremonial worship would suggest their importance here and also give the reason for the writer's noting that they were "burnt offerings." In the Mosaic legislation we will discover the meaning of the details relating to this sacrifice. The altar was built to the Lord and represented the participation of God in the sacrifice. The offerings were placed on the altar to indicate their dedication to God. The slaying of the animals for the burnt offerings involved a shedding of blood, the forfeiture of life. In some way Noah recognized a relationship of his sin to the kind of offering he should bring. He had come to realize that by the offering of animals his own life would be spared by God. The distinctive aspect of the burnt offering, namely, that of burning the entire animal on the altar, had profound meaning for Noah, and would suggest that he realized by this act that he was setting apart himself unto God. It represented a complete surrender to his God.

The reader should recognize that the narrative in Genesis 8:20-22 says nothing about the meaning of this offering. I have pushed backward from the time of Moses the meaning and symbolism of the burnt offerings. If it did not carry for Noah the full significance which became clear in the time of Moses, it certainly possessed some such meaning for him. In passing we should note that the Lord had spoken to Noah before the Flood with reference to animals distinguished as clean and unclean. No word of explanation was given for this distinction. Nevertheless, in Noah's offering clean animals and birds were used. It is conceivable that there were unrecorded words of God to Noah in which this distinction was made, including the idea of clean animals being used in burnt offerings.

Noah's offering was acceptable to God and brought forth the promise, "I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth; neither will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease" (Gen. 8:21, 22). Here are words which also call for careful study. First, there is the Lord's promise never again to curse the ground because of man. This implied that the Lord would use positive measures of grace to deal with man's sinfulness. The description of man's sinful nature given here repeats the indictment given before the Flood which described the sinfulness of mankind outside of the godly line. Here the words are given as being true also of the righteous. The godly people were sinful by nature just as the Cain line. In the promise that followed, the temporal character of the earth stands out. The earth will not remain eternally, but while it does remain the course of nature will continue without interruption.

This suggests an eschatological aspect of the Deluge. It would appear that Peter saw in the Deluge a note of eschatology (1 Pet. 3:20, 21; 2 Pet. 2:5). While the first of these references by Peter presents some very difficult problems for interpretation, it is clear that Peter found some connection between Noah's being saved through building the ark and water baptism. The saving of Noah and his family through the ark possessed the eschatological note of salvation through water baptism. While the second statement by Peter lies in a different context, it reflects a similar idea. If this eschatological explanation interprets Peter's observation correctly, we may conclude that a profound lesson stands forth in the Flood: Just as the Flood brought judgment upon wicked men, and the few righteous were saved by means of the ark, so judgment will come upon all the ungodly, but those baptized into Christ will be saved.

It is significant also that Jesus compared His return with that of the days of Noah (Mt. 24:37-39). The Flood came suddenly upon the ungodly. In like manner His return will bring sudden judgment upon all the ungodly. From this point of view, the Deluge in the days of Noah prefigured the final judgment at the return of our Lord. The saving of the righteous Noah and his family anticipates the saving of the church of Jesus Christ at His return.


d. God's Covenant with Noah

This section (Gen. 9:1-7) shows that God's provision for mankind will continue in the world even though it is under a curse on account of sin. Life shall be propagated. God delivered all living things into the hand of man. Both animals and plants become the food of man. At this point an unexpected but significant prohibition is given. Man shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. In man's power over all living things he is forbidden to eat blood. By this restriction God would teach man the sacredness of life, but this command was not an end in itself. It would appear that the final author of the Pentateuch introduced these words here to prepare the reader for what God said in Lev. 17:10, 11. This context repeats the idea of the relation of life and blood:

"The life of the flesh is in the blood." To this God added, "I have given it for you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement, by reason of the life." This Leviticus passage shows how God's unfolding revelation led man to a fuller understanding of the great message of the atonement. In this manner the whole sacrificial system instituted by Moses, as well as the sacrifice of Christ, has its roots in this message of God to Noah.

The picture of animals' fear and dread of man would also seem to possess an eschatological note. This becomes clear in such passages as Isaiah 11:6-9; 65:25, and Habakkuk 2:14. These prophetic passages envision a time when there will no longer be animal fear and dread of man. They picture the restoration of the Edenic conditions before the Fall. Without attempting to interpret this prophetic language, it is sufficient for our present purpose to note God's plan to remove the curse which came upon man and beast by reason of the Fall and to restore the peaceful condition of Eden.

God's final instruction to Noah in this context has to do with the command, "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image." Students differ as to whether this statement is to be understood as a simple statement of a future condition or whether it is a command. The addition of the words, "God made man in his own image," seems to indicate that the words, "by man shall his blood be shed," are to be understood as an imperative. This means that God entrusted to mankind, living in that period, the responsibility of taking the life of the murderer. This appears to be the correct interpretation of these words. Although all through Old Testament times capital punishment was practiced, it is my belief that this command no longer obtains in this present age of grace because in Christ, love and mercy annul the law of vengeance.

Several New Testament Scriptures appear to have a bearing on God's command to Noah to avenge murder. In Romans 13:1-7 Paul wrote of the Christian's subjection to the governing authorities. He maintained that governments have been instituted by God. The government is the servant of God to execute His wrath on the evildoer. History tells us that outside of the theocracy of Israel no governments arose by direct institution of God. Peoples set up governments by their own initiative. But as in all human affairs, God uses human institutions to fulfill His purposes. In this sense existing governments have been instituted by God and fulfill His purposes. On this account, Daniel told the proud monarch Nebuchadnezzar that "the Most High rules the kingdom of men, and gives it to whom he will, and sets over it the lowliest of men" (Dan. 4:17). In the same strain Moses had spoken to Pharaoh the word of the Lord in the words, "For this purpose have I let you live, to show you my power, so that my name may be declared throughout all the earth" (Ex. 9:16). It belongs to New Testament theology to bring together the love and grace manifested in the kingdom of Christ and the authority to use force entrusted to the civil government.

This brings us to the covenant God established with Noah. God said to Noah, "Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your descendants after you." This word "covenant" (berith), we shall learn, is one of the most important in the whole study of theology. Since this is its first occurrence in the Old Testament, we do well to study its meaning here. Later we shall learn what meaning it carried when God made a covenant with Abraham and at a later time with Israel at Mt. Sinai. The new covenant made by Christ builds on the ideas in the Old Testament usage of this word and carries the covenant idea to its climax.

At least five aspects of the word "covenant" become apparent in its use here. First, God instituted the covenant. He took the initiative in establishing it. This shows the tremendous import which attaches to this word.

Second, it was an everlasting covenant. That is, it was not subject to change; it was unalterable; it possessed eternal validity. Thus Teremiah, with possible conscious reference to this covenant, said, "Thus says the Lord: If I have not established my covenant with day and night and the ordinances of heaven and earth, then I will reject the descendants of Jacob and David my servant and will not choose one of his descendants to rule over the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob" (Jer. 33:25, 26).

Third, this was a universal covenant. It included the entire human race. It was not limited to one nation as was the covenant instituted at Mt. Sinai.

Fourth, in establishing this covenant God bound Himself by a solemn promise. Great importance attaches to the idea that God in His wisdom made such solemn commitment to Noah.

Fifth, God gave a token or sign of the covenant. Very significantly the sign was connected with "the ominous force of nature from which it pledges protection." [4] Some students see in this a symbol of God's tender mercy such as was expressed in Ezekiel's vision of God. He wrote, "Like the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud on the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord" (Ezek. 1: 28, 29).

Sixth, the covenant involved a clear note of eschatology. This was explicitly stated in Isaiah 54:9, 10: "For this is like the days of Noah to me: as I swore that the waters of Noah should no more go over the earth, so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you and will not rebuke you. For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the Lord, who has compassion on you." This shows that the promise given to Noah pointed to God's steadfast love and His covenant of peace as eternally abiding with His people.


e. Noah's Prophetic Deliverance

The story of Noah's drunkenness, together with the conduct of his sons in relation to it, leads to a very significant prophetic utterance concerning his sons and their descendants (Gen. 9:20-27). With the exceptions of Enoch's predictions and the very brief statement of Noah's father concerning the relief which Noah would bring, these words mark the beginning of prophetic utterances by men of God. This is a very distinctive phenomenon in divine revelation. God chose certain servants of His, later called prophets, through whom He gave important predictions having to do with the affairs of men. In Noah's prophetic words we discern in greater detail God's direction of the course of history. The predictions had to do with the lives of men. They covered the gamut from the curse upon Canaan and his descendants to the blessings to be received by Shem and Japheth and their descendants.

This introduces a problem of how prophetic utterances dealing with the affairs of men should be interpreted. On the surface it would appear that Canaan by reason of his father's sin had become the victim of a curse from which he had no power to deliver himself. Along with this there appeared to be the inevitable blessings to Shem and Japheth without any apparent conditions. The problem centers in the bearing of divinely given predictions upon man s exercise of free will. Does God the creator of man prevent man from exercising the freedom belonging to human personality?

In the solution of this question let us note the following. First, we may safely assume that God the creator of man would always deal with him as a personal being with full powers and responsibility of moral choice. Man created in the image of God is held responsible to God for uncompromising obedience. When man chooses to disobey God, he brings upon himself just judgment for his sins. Second, prophetic utterances have their basis in God's omniscience. This omniscience on the part of God does not predetermine man's conduct. On this account predictions concerning the affairs of men do not as such predetermine the actions of men. Third, the biblical narratives up to this point have already shown a most significant characteristic of God's actions in the world. Theology has provided the term "divine providence" to describe this characteristic. This word "providence" has come into use in an effort to express a basic principle involved in a thoroughgoing theism. God is working in the affairs of men with the purpose of leading the world to the goal He has planned. In all these dealings with men God does not infringe upon man's freedom. Divine providence includes the direct guidance of men by God as well as His indirect guidance. Thus the stories of the line of Cain and of Seth, culminating in the Deluge with the saving of Noah and his family, can be understood only through the factor of divine providence. This will become increasingly apparent as we study the lives of Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, the children of Israel, and all other historic events of Old Testament history.

The curse upon Canaan was most severe. This curse becomes intelligible as we note the outworking of his father's sinful conduct among Canaan's descendants. The sins of the Canaanites partook of the same nature as that of Ham. It is very noteworthy that later Old Testament references bear out this fact. [5] The conditions of slavery to which the Canaanites became subject were the natural outworking of their sinfulness. That is, there was no direct intervention of God which brought the Canaanites into subjection to the descendants of the Shemites and of the Japhethites. Perhaps the most graphic biblical incident proving this is found in Israel's conquest of the land of Canaan. The overthrow of the Canaanites was God's judgment upon their sinfulness. In the actual outworking of this judgment Israel was the instrument of God in bringing it to pass.

Concerning Shem, Noah said, "Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem and may Canaan be his servant" (Gen. 9:26). [6] The wording of this is unexpected. In contrast with what was said concerning Canaan we would expect the words, "Blessed be Shem." This form of language suggests the special blessing that will come to Shem by reason of the Lord being his God. The use of the word "Lord" thus far in the Book of Genesis leads us to believe that the writer was tracing events in the history of God's people which would bring to fulfillment the redemptive promise of Genesis 3:15. This implied that Noah recognized the distinctive character of the faith of Shem manifested in having the Lord as his God. To put it another way, since the Lord was his God, the distinctive blessings and grace of the Lord would be shared by Shem. There was nothing of merit in Shem for this blessing. Further, it appears to affirm that through Shem's descendants would come the knowledge of the true God.

Noah's last prophetic words were, "God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his slave." The interchange of divine names between this blessing and that of Shem is not without significance. If the J writer sought to dwell on those elements of early history which led to the choosing of a family and a nation in whom God would bring to fulfillment the redemption promise of Genesis 3:15, we may here find a close relation between the uses of God (Elohim) and the Lord (Yahweh) God. It was His desire to magnify God (Elohim) in relation to the universe as in Genesis 1 and also the Lord (Yahweh) God who brought on the Deluge and finally made a covenant with Noah with respect to the continuation of the world order. This is to say, Elohim is none other than Yahweh Elohim.

Two problems arise in the interpretation of this blessing: first the meaning of enlarge and second the antecedent of the word "him:' It makes good sense to think of this enlarging as being territorial. It could well include the idea of prosperity. Certainly this has become literally true in that the Japhethites have become the dwellers of the largest land areas of the world. Included in the expansion of the Japhethites over the greatest portions of Asia, Europe, the Americas, and Australia, are the immeasurable resources found on these continents. Second, what is the antecedent of the pronoun "him" - Japheth or God? The thought of Japheth dwelling in the tents of Shem does carry great meaning; and, for this reason, may be the proper construction. If it is interpreted in this way, their dwelling as guests among the Shemites would lead to their sharing in the special blessings that would come to Shem. While it is true that the Greeks and Romans subjugated the Shemites politically, yet the identity of the Shemites was not destroyed. It was through this means that the blessings which belonged to the Shemites were appropriated by the Japhethites. Delitzsch made the striking comment, "We are all Japhethites dwelling in the tents of Shem." [7] On this point Driver wrote, "The words are a reflection of the more friendly regard with which religiously minded Israelites viewed the Japhethites, as compared with the Canaanites. They may also include perhaps in germ the thought (which is developed afterwards more fully by the great prophets, e.g., Is. 2:2-4) of the ultimate inclusion of the peoples referred to Japheth as their ancestor in the spiritual privileges enjoyed by the descendants of Shem." [8] In view of Driver's comment, is it too much to state that such passages as Genesis 12:3; 17:4; Isaiah 49:6; 60:3-5 reflect on this promise that God would give Japheth the promise that by right of descent belonged to Shem? It is certainly true that the note of universalism began as early as the promise to Abraham, developed throughout the Old Testament, and came to a climax in Isaiah's prophecies. Such is one of the greatest of wonders in the prophetic revelations of the Old Testament.


5. The Lord's Direction of History to the Call of Abraham


a. Table of Nations, Genesis 10

According to the testimony of archaeologists and historians this is the oldest recorded list of nations. Its structure at once arrests attention. Instead of the genealogy of Shem coming first by reason of his being the oldest son of Noah, it comes last. This suggests an evident purpose of the table. In the words of Richardson, "Here in Genesis 10 it is implied that God's purpose embraces all the nations, for all are in truth one big family, sprung from a common ancestor. An attempt is made to show the relationship of Israel to the other nations of the earth. After this has been done, the editor can devote his attention exclusively to the true line of development from Shem to Terah, the father of Abraham (11:10-26)." [9] This purpose becomes still clearer in the light of the larger intent of the entire Book of Genesis. Of the fifty chapters in the book the author devoted eleven to an account of the acts of God which were necessary to the understanding of the call of Abraham, leading to the setting apart of the people of Israel to their great redemptive purpose in biblical history. The Shemites receive this special position of prominence because they constitute the race through whom the Lord provided redemption. At the same time other nations and races receive proportionate attention. They are not dropped from the realm of sacred history. They are also a part of the human race which God created. This table shows that all nations descended from a common stock. Before God they are all on a common level, men created in the image of God. This table is the necessary precedent to the genealogy of Shem leading to the patriarchs.

b. Tower of Babel and the Confusion of Tongues

Some students regard this story, Genesis 10, as a parable or myth. While the narrative presents some problems of interpretation, there appear to be no adequate reasons for rejecting its historical character. Practically all details of the narrative are in entire accord with what does take place in the affairs of men. The chief problem encountered in recognizing this as an actual historical event has to do with what appears to be an instantaneous confusion of languages. But nothing is given as to the time element involved in the confusion of tongues. The judgment of confusion of tongues does not lose its reality even if it did require years of time for it to be fulfilled.

The evident purposes for building a city and a tower lead to an understanding of the entire story. The builders said, "Let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth." The Lord interpreted their intention in the words, "This is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them" (Gen. 11:4-6). Richardson finds in their motives an expression of pride. He says, "In the parable THE WHOLE EARTH desires to MAKE A NAME - and so it happens that man seeks to set up his name as a rival name to the shem Jahweh, to which alone praise and glory properly belong. (Cf. In the parable of the Fall the desire of Adam to be 'as God,' 3:5.) Man seeks by his own virtue and cleverness to BUILD A TOWER WHOSE TOP MAY REACH TO HEAVEN, to erect a civilization that recks little of God's grace and therefore of His law." [10]

Richardson also draws attention to the same spirit seen in Sodom and Gomorrah, Tyre, Babylon, and Rome. The wickedness of each is graphically portrayed in later Scriptures. It would almost seem that later writers reflected on the sins of the builders of Babel when they described the sins of these cities and countries. Richardson adds, "The author of the Apocalypse clearly has the parable of Genesis 11:1-9 in his mind when he writes: 'Thus with a mighty fall shall Babylon, the great City, be cast down, and shall be found no more at all' (Rev. 18:21)." [11] God's intervention had the evident design of checking sin's advance. It was a judgment upon the sinfulness of the world's civilization.

Less obvious is the fact that in this confusion of tongues the Lord took a further step toward the call of Abraham and the nation of Israel for their specialized task of carrying forward God's plan of salvation for all mankind. If the race had remained one, the separation of the family of Abraham evidently would have been impossible.

This incident possessed a clear note of eschatology. As Richardson puts it, "The story of Pentecost, with its miraculous reversal of the Babel confusion of languages, is itself a parable of the power of the divine love 'to bind together men from every nation under heaven' in the New Covenant of grace (Acts 2:5-11); the story of the Gift of Tongues at Pentecost is nothing other than the Babel story in reverse." [12]

It may be that Paul had in mind also the reversal of the confusion of tongues at Babel when he wrote, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise" (Gal. 3:28, 29). This is to say that oneness in the human race which is acceptable to God is possible alone through being one in Christ Jesus. The oneness of the race in building the Tower of Babel led to sinfulness because it was building up the power of sin. The oneness in Christ is that alone which gives honor and glory to God.

A similar picture of the reversal of the Babel confusion of languages has its glorious setting in heaven, where John beheld "a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb" (Rev. 7:9). This then is the eternal revocation of the Babel confusion of languages.

c. Election of the Shemites

The Lord chose the descendants of Shem to be the recipients of His revelation and witnesses to the world of His redemption (Gen. 11: 10-33). A very striking phenomenon characterizes the genealogy recorded in these verses. It gives the line of descent from Shem to Abraham. At once we ask, "What does this restricted line of descent mean?" for there is evident purpose in this genealogy. Here we meet the phenomenon of election: it is not the genealogy of Japheth nor of Ham but that of Shem which leads to Abraham. Naturally we wonder whether or not there was any peculiar fitness of the Shemitic line which lay at the basis of this election. Did individuals in the line of this descent show qualities of leadership which resulted in their being chosen? Varying answers have been given to these inquiries. Many students have sought to solve the problem on the basis of a natural development arising from some inherent fitness of the Shemites for religious leadership. None of these explanations satisfy the facts of the case.

We shall note presently that God encountered Abraham, calling him for his special task. There was no recorded qualification of Abraham for his special mission. Later Scriptures declare that this call manifested the grace of God toward him. While it is true that the Shemites possessed some traits which fitted them for receiving divine revelation, the call cannot be based on these traits. Vos noted that "The Shemites had a predominantly passive, receptive, rather than active or productive mentality." [13] Further, he observed that in the matter of religion the Shemites had departed the least from the true worship of God.

When every possible factor is considered, we must conclude that we have here one of the most staggering facts found in human history. It is this: The Shemites and not the Japhethites nor the Hamites were the people chosen by God for a special mission. The writer of Genesis was aware of this and consequently presented the line of descent from Shem to Abraham. The election of the Shemites grew out of God's foreknowledge of their response and of how they would carry forward God's plan of salvation in the world.

Undoubtedly, God's election of these people for carrying out His purposes in the world went deeper than an act of grace. God surely bestowed upon His chosen servants the gifts needed for their tasks. But this brings in another consideration. It is the fact that "Israel was the elected nation, but as a nation it miserably failed in its vocation.

It would seem, then, as if, on the external side, election had failed of its result." [14] James Orr proceeded to show that even though Israel failed as a nation, there was, nevertheless, a remnant which was faithful to God in whom God fulfilled His purposes. A number of biblical passages give some light on the doctrine of election as shown in this narrative. [15] None of these, however, explain the mystery of election. The most staggering idea of human history, the election of the Shemites, remains.

For Additional Beading and Reference:

Napier, Song of the Vineyard, pp. 52-60.
Oehler, Theology of the Old Testament, pp. 54-57
Payne, The Theology of the Older Testament, p. 96.
von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. I, pp. 154-65.
Sauer, The Dawn of World Redemption, pp. 63-88.
Schultz, Old Testament Theology, Vol. I, pp. 86-125.
Thielicke, How the World Began, pp. 187-300.
Titcomb, Revelation in Progress (written in 1871), pp. 16-25.
Vischer, The Witness of the Old Testament to Christ, pp. 68-116.
Vos, Biblical Theology - Old and New Testaments, pp. 56-78.
Weidner, BiblicalTheology of the Old Testament, pp. 40-46.

See Indexes for Gen. 4 - 11, Abel, Cain, Deluge, Flood, Babel, Semites, Noah, in the following references:
Baab, Theology of the Old Testament.
Burrows, An Outline of Biblical Theology.
Davidson, The Theology of the Old Testament.
Eichrodt, The Theology of the Old Testament, Vol. I.
Jacob, Theology of the Old Testament.
Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel.
Knight, A Christian Theology of the Old Testament.
Knudson, The Religious Teaching of the Old Testament.
Kohler, L., Old Testament Theology.
Pfeiffer, Religion in the Old Testament.
Robinson, Inspiration and Revelation in the Old Testament.
Rowley, The Re-Discovery of the Old Testament.
Vriezen, An Outline of Old Testament Theology.
Wahlstrom, God Who Redeems.
Wingren, Creation and Law.

Appended Note:

Use of the Name Lord in Genesis.

 The name "Lord" poses a problem of considerable dimension. While its involvement become clear only after we have traced the biblical narrative to the time of Moses, there is need of giving it some attention here. God said to Moses, "I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by my name the Lord I did not make myself known to them" (Ex. 6:2, 3). It may be profitable to give an attempted solution at this point so that along the way we can check its accuracy as the elements of the problem become more apparent. In an earlier chapter I noted the interchange of divine names, which on the basis of literary criticism gives evidence of embedded documents in the Book of Genesis. Thus in Genesis 1:1 - 2:3 the word Elohim (God) is used, whereas in the second account of creation the name of Yahweh Elohim (Lord God) is used. This interchange of names for Deity continues throughout the Pentateuch. On this account the author's statement that men began to call upon the name of the Lord arrests our attention. According to literary criticism this statement belongs to the J Document, that in which the word for God is Yahweh, translated Lord. Throughout Genesis in these so-called J sections both the writer and the speakers used the word "Lord" in speaking of God. Thus Lamech the father of Noah, Noah, Abraham, and Jacob used the word "Lord" in their quoted words. Very striking in this respect are Jacob's words, "If God will be with me ... then the Lord shall be my God" (Gen. 28:20, 21). Over against all this are the words of God to Moses in which God explicitly said that by His name, The Lord, He had not made Himself known to the patriarchs. He had appeared to them as God Almighty.

By way of an attempted solution, we might begin with the fact that the final author of the Pentateuch saw no need of explaining the problem. In making this final recension he allowed the use of the word "Lord" in the J Document to stand. Evidently the author of the J Document did not think it necessary to declare when the name "the Lord" was revealed to the people of God. He was content to use the name "the Lord" all through his narrative from the Creation onward. The original author of Exodus 6:3, 4 did have a concern to state when God had actually made known His name. For this reason all through the Genesis narrative the author of this Document used the word "God" for deity. Thus understood the problem of the use of the name, "the Lord" throughout the J Documents of Genesis docs not conflict with the statement of P in Exodus 6:3. In this connection it may add to our discussion to note what appears to be the distinctive character of the J Document. For our purpose it would appear that the author of the J Document had a concern to present deity in relation to His covenant people. The Lord sought to restore the fellowship between Himself and man as found in the Garden of Eden. He would accomplish this by entering into covenant relationship with them.

End Notes:

1. See note appended at the end of the chapter.
2. Ralph H. Elliott, The Message of Genesis (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1961), p. 65.
3. See my work. The Holy Spirit and the Holy Life (Scottdale: Herald Press. 1959), pp. 12-14.
4. Vos, op. cit., p. 67.
5. Gen. 15:16; 19:5; Lev. 18:3; 22:24; Deut. 9:4. 5; 12:29-32.
6. The Berkeley Version in Modern English.

7. Vos, op. sit., p. 71.
8. The Book of Genesis (New York: Edwin S. Gorham. 1907), pp. 110 f.
9. Gen. I-XI Introduction and Commentary (London WCI: SCM Press, Ltd. 1964), p. 116.
10. Op. cit., p. 124.
11. Op. cit., p. 125.
12. Op. cit., p. 126.
13. Op. cit., p. 73.
14. Dictionary of the Bible, edited by James Hastings, revised edition by Frederick C. Grant and H. H. Rowley (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1963), "Election," by James Orr, revised by Norman H. Snaith. p. 239. This is a brief but very instructive article on election.
15. See Josh. 24:1 if.; Acts 7:1-5; 13:17; Gal. 3:6-18; Heb. 11:8. ______________

This is chapter 3 of Chester K. Lehman's Biblical Theology: Old Testament. Published by Leland M. Haines by arrangement with Herald Press, Scottdale, Pa. 15683 . Copyright © 1971 by Herald Press. All rights reserved.

IBSN 1-890133-12-4. Third printing, 1997. Available from Biblical Viewpoints.


You are welcome to make copies of the above article provided you show the copyright information and source.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Send then to the Webmaster.

This page is presented by:

Biblical Viewpoints Publications
63100 County Road 111
Goshen, IN 46526
Phone: 574-875-8007

Back to the Articles page.

Return to Home Page

May God's grace and peace be with you as you study His Word.

June 22, 2000