We now undertake the third in our series of Studies in Biblical Exegesis. Our approach has been, and continues to be, to identify patterns in the arrangement of the Biblical text that enable us to extract the meaning of the text. Thus far, our emphasis has been on parallelisms. Using that as our principal guide in Lesson 2, we took note of an inclusio in the text of the story of the Fall of Man, running from Genesis 2:7 through 4:1. Inside of that, we identified a number of other parallelisms that yielded a picture that the first humans, Adam and Eve, transitioned from God-centeredness to human-centeredness. Though the onset of sin, death and spiritual separation remain dominant explanations of the Fall in the Christian world, the text reveals an accompanying drive by created beings to exert autonomy and independence from the One who created them. With this understanding in tow, we move forward to a reading of Genesis 10:21 through 12:3.
Even a cursory reading of this passage reveals a very large parallel development in the text. There are two separate genealogies of Shem. The first is found in Genesis 10:21-32 and the second is found in Genesis 11:10-32. While they are parallel, they diverge at a certain point. In Hebrew, the word, shem, means name. The first use of the word, shem, is found in Genesis 2:8 which reads: “And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there (shem) he put the man whom he had formed.” In Genesis 2:10, we read “A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there (shem) it divided and became four rivers.” Therefore, shem refers to a point of origin or a source of some sort. As a consequence, we find in Chapters 10 and 11 two separate genealogies of names whose source was a common ancestor named “name.”
What do these genealogies have in common? Both cite Arpakshad as a son of Shem (Gen. 10:22, 11:10). There are four names that repeat consecutively in both genealogies: Arpakshad, the father of Shelah (Gen. 10:24, 11:22); Shelah, the father of Eber (Gen. 10:24, 11:14); Eber, the father of Peleg (Gen. 10:25, 11:16). The name, Peleg, also repeats in both genealogies, but it is at this point that the genealogies diverge.
In studying the Hebrew text of Scripture, it is critical to understand that names mean things. We already know that Shem means name. What can we say of the names of Shem’s descendents? Would knowing the meaning of their names reveal something about the meaning of the passages in which they’re found? Would it also reveal a relationship between the two genealogies? Given that we have two separate genealogies of Shem, plus repeating names in both, finding the meaning of the names of Shem’s descendents would seem to be a reasonable approach.
Let’s begin with the name Arpakshad. Looking at a concordance, we find the root word. It consists of three Hebrew letters: cof (pronounced like a “hard” c or k), shin (pronounced either as a sh or s) and dalet (pronounced as a d). Those three letters can be sounded out to form the word, Kasdi, which happens to have been a geographic region in southern Babylon. The plural form of that word, Kasdim, is a reference to the people of that region. The word, Kasdim, is found in Scripture, even in the passages we’re presently studying, specifically Genesis 11:28 and 11:31. Short of looking in a concordance, Kasdim would be invisible to the English reader in that it is typically translated as Chaldeans. This once again points out how careful we must be about not becoming too reliant on translations.
Next is Shelah, the son of Arpakshad. The name found in most modern translations as Shelah, and secondarily as Salah (as found, for instance in the KJV), is in Hebrew, Shelach. This noun form derives from the verbal root, shalach, meaning to send out. As a side note, the first known Greek Old Testament known as the Septuagint, translates shalach to apostello, the Greek for apostle.
We now come to Eber, son of Shelah. Eber means “region beyond.” The verbal root of Eber is abar, meaning to “cross over.” Abar is also the root of ivri, which is translated as Hebrew.
So, if we look at the first several names of the two genealogies from the perspective of a narrative about Shem’s lineage, what would we have? The genealogy of Shem, one whose name refers to a source, originated in the land of Kasdi, and would one day be “sent out” to “crossover” to a “region beyond.” This may remind us of a very significant person in Scripture.
The genealogies diverge beginning with the sons of Eber. In Genesis 10:25, we read: “Two sons were born to Eber. One was named Peleg, because in his time the earth was divided. His brother was named Joktan.” The name, Peleg, derives from the verbal root, palag, meaning to divide. The verse notes that in the time of Peleg, the earth was divided. It is not entirely clear what that means. However, as we see, the name, Peleg, is associated with a divide in the lineage of his great-great-great grandfather, Shem.
Genesis 10:25 makes mention of Joktan, the brother of Peleg. The genealogy in Chapter 11 makes no mention of him. In verse 10:26, the family of Joktan settled between Mesha and Sephar. Those are both considered to be places on the Arabian peninsula, the former in the north, the latter in the south. The name, Joktan, derives from the verbal root, qaton, meaning to be small or insignificant.
The Genesis 11 genealogy continues forth from Peleg to Reu, Reu to Serug, Serug to Nahor, Nahor to Terach, and then Terach to Abram.
Before reaching an interpretation that would explain these two contrasting genealogies, we should pause to take a look at the broader literary arrangement within which the genealogies are found. Following the genealogy in Chapter 10, we find the story of the Tower of Babel, Genesis 11:1-9. The second genealogy is immediately followed by the story of Abram, beginning in verse 11:27, and continuing into Chapter 12 and beyond.
From this, we see the following. Both genealogies track the progress of the descendents of Shem from Arpakshad to Shelah to Eber, whereupon there is a division. The sons of Eber, Peleg and Joktan, are tracked separately. Joktan and his descendents spread out across the Arabian peninsula from Mesha to Sephar. The meaning of Joktan’s name–to be small or insignificant–applies to his lineage. Joktan’s lineage, beyond the mention of his sons in verses 10:26-27, is absent from the story of God’s people. This lineage became insignificant. This corresponds to the fate of the people who occupied Babel in Chapter 11. From Babel, “they were scattered over the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:9) Like the sons of Joktan who were spread out over Arabia, those who were from Babel were spread out over all the earth, being made small and insignificant in the process. Like the descendents of Joktan, this people has no further lineage in Scripture.
The descendents of Peleg, on the other hand, are tracked to Abram, through whom God would establish His people. Each party to this lineage of Shem–Arpakshad, Shelah, Eber, Peleg, Reu, Serug, Nahor, Terach and Abram–connect the Messiah, Jesus, the Son of God, in reverse order all the way to Adam, also said to be the Son of God, in Luke Chapter 3. This lineage beginning with Peleg in Chapter 11, is therefore significant.
There are other parallels. The people of Babel purposed to build “a tower whose top reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves.” (Gen. 11:4) Driven by human-centeredness, this would be a completely autonomous, human enterprise. They wished to make their name great. Contrast this with the early story of Abram in Chapter 12. God told Abram that He would make Abram’s name great. (Gen. 12:2) And what was Abram’s response? He walked. As the descendent of Arpakshad, Shelah and Eber, he originated in the land of Kasdi and he was sent out by God to cross over into a region beyond. The writer of Genesis called Abram ivri, a Hebrew, one who “crossed over” and by so doing, took on the meaning of his ancestor’s name, Eber. Abram faithfully walked this walk, fulfilling the purpose of God in his life. Abram was God-centered.
In Chapter 10, the line of Joktan was made small and insignificant. Did God mention something about “smallness” to Abram? Looking at Genesis 12:3, we read: “I will bless those who bless you and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” There are two words that appear to repeat in this verse, bless and curse.
Curse appears twice in the verse. The second instance is based on the Hebrew root word, arar, meaning curse in the typical sense of a punishment or retribution of some sort. However, the first occurrence of the word translated as “curse” is based on the Hebrew, qalal, meaning to make someone or something small or insignificant. Those who would make Abram insignificant, God would curse.
Bless appears three times in this verse. In each case, it is based on the same Hebrew root, barak. The word, barak, in its concrete, Hebraic meaning, refers to a knee. The three instances of the word in verse 12:3 all derive from this root meaning. However, there are different cognates of the root, barak, present in this verse. Linguistically, cognates derive from the same root word or source, but will themselves mean different things. In verse 12:3, the first two instances of “bless”, abarakah and barakekah, both mean to give something, such as a gift, to another, from a kneeling position. However, the third instance of “bless” found in the phrase, “and all peoples on the earth will be blessed through you”, is a distinctively different cognate of barak, nibrechu. Unlike the idea of giving a gift, this cognate carries the meaning of “mixing”. In an agricultural context, a branch of a tree that is grafted to another branch is “mixed in”, and this is often done at an angle, resembling the shape of a leg defined by the bend of its knee joint. Hence, the source or root meaning of barak, a knee, carries over into the meaning of the cognate, nibrechu.
What then do we make of this? When we read that all peoples or nations will be “blessed” through Abram, what the Hebrew is actually saying is that, through Abram, all peoples will be “mixed” or “grafted” into a movement of God’s people upon the Earth. This finding is not simply based on linguistics, but finds support in the literary arrangement to which it belongs, beginning in Chapter 11. A chiasm emerges.
A– Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves.” (Gen. 11:4a)
B–That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth. (Gen. 11:9)
A–I will make your name great. (Gen. 12:2b)
B–And all peoples on earth will be blessed (nibrechu) through you. (Gen. 12:3b)
In Babel, those who desired to make a name for themselves had their languages mixed by God and were scattered across the face of the earth. Through Abram, one whose name God would make great, all the peoples on earth will one day be blessed, that is, grafted back in as God’s people.
There are a couple of important takeaways from this lesson. First, finding the meaning of Hebraic names reveals much about the passage in which they’re found. Secondly, studying broad swaths of Scripture, even across several chapters, can reveal much about the author’s message. In this case, the two separate and different genealogies of Shem point to the meaning of the stories that follow them respectively.