I. From Adam to Abraham (Genesis 1:1–11:9)
I. From Adam to Abraham (1:1–11:9)
A. Creation, Marriage, and the Fall into Sin (1:1–5:32)
1:1 The Bible is not the only religious book that talks about the origins of the universe. It is, however, the most audacious. Most ancient creation accounts chronicle a struggle between good and evil forces, with the earth popping up as a sort of accidental by-product of struggle. In these other accounts, the gods who created the world did so out of some prior material. The gods crafted, but they could not truly create.
The creation story in Scripture is altogether different: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. What we see here is creation ex nihilo—that is, out of nothing. God did not need raw material to make his universe. He creates by divine decree. With a mere word he made everything—both spiritual and physical. This establishes that God existed before time and space and, therefore, exists in the realm outside of both.
1:2 The Hebrew phrase translated formless and empty connotes a desolate, uninhabitable place. Why would the author describe God’s new universe like this? Some believe God intended to show us his progressive approach through creation. The following verses certainly do show God using a process.
But it seems that something else has happened between verses 1 and 2, because disorder and darkness do not reflect the character of God. Someone else arrived on the scene, and his name is Satan. We get few details of Satan’s fall in this chapter (Ezek 28 and Isa 14 provide more), but it appears that his rebellion plunged the earth into darkness (see Luke 10:18). Fortunately for humanity, even when Satan is active, God has a plan to save. The Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters, ready to bring order out of chaos.
1:3-5 The creation story is arranged according to seven days, although God takes the seventh day off. (If anyone deserved the break, he did.) On day one, God began by creating light, then separating that light from the darkness. Based on the apostle John’s testimony (see John 1:1-2), we know that the word that God spoke here is actually Jesus Christ. Even as early as Genesis 1, the eternal Son of God was seeking to re-create and restore his planet. His illuminating light dispels the darkness and reveals the plan of God to blinded eyes.
God also established, from the very beginning, his authority over the created world. He made the light, but he also named it: God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night” (1:5). By naming the parts of his creation, God expressed sovereign rule over them. Even the concept of light, which is fundamental to our created world, only exists because God, the King, daily sustains it.
1:6-8 On day two, God began to separate the sky from the earth. He placed some water above the expanse (1:7), which will later be the basis of rain and our earthly water cycle. God created the atmosphere of our planet so that life here is possible.
1:9-13 On the third day, God gathered into one place (1:9) all of the water, essentially pulling the land up to create the continents. He then created vegetation, according to . . . kinds (1:12), showing that God has an order and plan to everything. As with the previous days, God gave names to these new creations, establishing his rule and reign over them. He also recognized that these things were good (1:10, 12)—a common refrain throughout this first chapter. Even though humanity wasn’t even on the scene of this story yet, and the world was still in need of restoration, God’s word boldly declared, “What I am doing in this world is both powerful and good.”
1:14-19 Day four confuses many: here God created the lights in the expanse of the sky (1:14)—the sun and moon and stars—but just a few verses earlier, on day one, God had created light and darkness. So what was emanating light for the first three days? God himself was (see Rev 22:5). On day four, God handed over that responsibility to a group of celestial representatives, so that they would provide light on the earth (1:17) and serve as signs for seasons and for days and years (1:14). This too he declared good (1:18).
1:20-23 God filled the sky and the seas on day five. Just as he populated the ground with plants (1:11-13), he also made birds and fish according to their kinds (1:21). What is unique here is that he blessed them with a commission to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the . . . earth (1:22). God created a built-in desire and capacity for his creation to reproduce.
1:24-25 Day six is the last day of God’s creative week, and he made land animals after the same pattern of the plants, birds, and fish. The creatures were made according to their kinds (1:24), and their very existence was good (1:25). The threefold taxonomy of animals here reflects the Jewish way of categorizing animals. You find livestock (1:24), domesticated animals like cows, sheep, and goats. Then there are creatures that crawl (1:24), or the tiny things we would generally call insects, rodents, and lizards. All the rest are wildlife of the earth (1:24). Those wildlife, by the way, would include the creatures we call dinosaurs.
1:26-30 The end of day six breaks the pattern. Until this point, God had simply spoken and the created world sprang into being. But here God demonstrated his creative genius with his crowning achievement: Let us make man in our image, visibly mirroring God’s spiritual nature, according to our likeness, visibly mirroring God’s functional actions (1:26). “Let us” is a hint at the Trinity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit agreed together to make the first human family, and that family was supposed to reflect truths about God. Like the Trinity, humanity has unity in diversity. God . . . created him [that is, humans] in the image of God (1:27), so every human reflects the unity of God. But he also created them male and female (1:27), so our differences reflect the diversity of the Trinity too, since we were designed to mirror the Creator. This also lays the groundwork for upholding the importance of heterosexual marriage as the foundation of the family in fulfilling God’s kingdom agenda in history.
We humans are to rule the world on God’s behalf, and we are to reproduce for his glory (1:28). The more we image-bearers reproduce and fill the earth, the more his image goes out. Just as God handed over responsibility to the sun, so that it would shine for God, God handed over responsibility to us, so that we would govern and rule and steward his world for him. This is God’s world, but he’s put it in our hands and said, “Let them rule.”
Notably, God’s promise of blessing followed man’s fulfillment of this dominion mandate. Thus, failure to do so robs mankind of the experience of God’s favor. We must also note that while man was given the authority to rule over creation, that didn’t include ruling over other people.
1:31 For the first time in this chapter, God declared his world not merely good, but very good indeed. Humanity reflected the beauty and complexity of God like no other part of creation could.
2:1-3 Most take days off because we get tired and need a break. Not God. He rested on the seventh day (2:2), not because he was weary, but because he wanted to provide us a model. If even God, who “does not slumber or sleep” (Ps 121:4), took an entire day off to enjoy the fruit of his work, we too should take time to stop our labors and focus on him.
2:4-7 Chapter 1 of Genesis describes creation in broad strokes. In chapter 2, the author decides to zoom in, focusing not on the human race but a specific person—Adam. The word Adam, in Hebrew, refers to that which comes from the ground, because the Lord God formed the man out of the dust from the ground (2:7). With the introduction of the name “Lord” (Yahweh) with “God” (Elohim) in these verses, God introduced himself relationally to his creation. God made Adam from the same ground that he was to oversee. God also breathed into Adam the breath of life (2:7).
This combination is astounding: Adam was, at one and the same time, a piece of dirt and the bearer of God’s own breath. This should keep us from thinking of ourselves either too highly or too lowly. God made us out of the most mundane material imaginable, so we shouldn’t be conceited. But God also infused us with his Spirit, which gives us tremendous value. Like Adam, we are all a fusion of the divine and the dusty.
2:8-15 God placed Adam in a garden in Eden (2:8) and gave him a job. Adam was to work the garden and watch over it (2:15). Before Adam had a wife, he had a place to live, a job, and a relationship with the living God. (Real men are defined by God’s calling.)
Adam’s calling was unique, but we can all learn about our calling through Adam’s, because he was not just our shared ancestor; he was also the prototype for all humanity. God asked Adam to work a specific garden, cultivating it, working the ground, and bringing out the hidden potential of all that God had made.
He was also to guard and protect that which was under his responsibility. Since the only threat in existence was Satan, this reinforces the view that Satan’s fall had already occurred. This introduces the angelic conflict and the fact that man was created to demonstrate God’s greater glory to the angelic realm as he managed God’s creation on his behalf (see Ps 8:4-6; Eph 3:10; 6:10-12).
It is the same with us. Each of us has a “garden,” a God-given sphere of responsibility that God has placed within our care. Whether we are working in business, staying at home caring for children, or serving the Lord professionally in ministry, God wants us to make his global purpose apparent in our local situations. God won’t do the work for you; he wants to do the work with and through you.
2:16-17 Eve hadn’t made her grand entrance yet, because God had something else to give Adam first—his word. The Lord God commanded the man and expected him to obey (2:16). Many men today hate the idea of others telling them what to do. That kind of independence may make someone feel like a man, but God measures manhood by a person’s ability to submit to the rule of God. A man hasn’t arrived at biblical manhood if he won’t let God tell him what to do.
The commandment was simple, though it may have struck Adam as odd: You are free to eat from any tree of the garden, but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (2:16-17). Freedom, then, is a divinely ordained right—not a humanly determined one. Biblical freedom is the responsibility and opportunity to choose to maximize one’s calling under God. God gave Adam a tremendous amount of freedom, allowing him to enjoy whatever God provided. But biblical freedom, as opposed to our culture’s ideas of freedom, has healthy limits. The fundamental issue at work in this passage is this: Would man live by divine revelation or human reason? To eat the forbidden fruit meant man would seek right and wrong independently of God. In creating the man first, God was highlighting that he holds men ultimately responsible and accountable for the expansion of his kingdom program (see Gen 3:9; Exod 34:23-24; Rom 5:14-19; 1 Cor 15:21).
Just as the rules in a football game help the players and fans enjoy the game, boundaries in our spiritual walk help us live the way God intended. When we misuse that freedom, the consequences are severe. Just one bite, God warned, and you will certainly die (2:17). Ignoring God’s boundaries can feel liberating, but it always ends in death. This is true for individuals, families, and nations.
2:18 Throughout chapter 1, God kept saying of his creation, “It is good.” Yet when God saw Adam by himself, he responded this way: It is not good for the man to be alone. So he promised to make a helper corresponding to him. The Hebrew phrase ezer kenegdo means an essential collaborator not a maid. As strong as a man is, no man has it all; he needs someone to make up for his deficiencies, especially since he was minus ribcage. A wife is there to be a man’s counterpart, equal to him and adding what he lacks, as she fulfills her biblical role. The moment a man says he doesn’t need her, he contradicts God.
2:19-20 The solution to Adam’s isolation was preceded by a parade. After promising to make him a wife, God brought by the animals. Adam, exercising the authority God gave him, gave names to all the livestock, to the birds of the sky, and to every wild animal (2:20). “Bear . . . gorilla . . . elephant . . . anteater,” he said. But then he noticed something. For every Mr. Elephant, there was a Mrs. Elephant. Mr. Gorilla had his Mrs. Gorilla. But for Adam, no helper was found corresponding to him (2:20). There was a Mr. Adam, but no other half.
2:21-22 God lovingly addressed Adam’s need, putting Adam to sleep and creating a woman out of one of Adam’s ribs. The English translations don’t usually make it clear, but the word used for God creating the woman is much different than the one used for making Adam (2:7). God formed Adam, but he fashioned Eve. When God made man, he took some dirt and threw it together; when he made woman, he took his time.
Not only did God fashion the woman, but he also brought Adam and Eve together. He brought her to the man (2:22), as if playing matchmaker. Just like Adam, Eve had a relationship with God before she had a relationship with her husband. (Women who place their hands in God’s hand can trust him to place them in the hands of the right men.)
2:23-25 When their marriage took place, Adam broke out into a little song. The Hebrew poem here, This one, at last, is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh (2:23) is—I think—Adam’s way of saying, “That’s what I’m talking about!” And Adam—ish in Hebrew—gives his wife his name. This one will be called “woman” (2:23), he says, the Hebrew word for “woman” being isha. Together, they become one flesh (2:24), which is to say they share a unity of purpose while retaining their uniqueness as individuals. This is a pattern for all married couples. As Jesus would later say about this passage, “what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Mark 10:9). In a culture characterized by abandoned mothers, easy divorce, and broken homes, God offers a better way. And the man is to lead in accepting the responsibility for leaving and cleaving.
3:1 The text doesn’t say it here directly, but the serpent that showed up to tempt Adam and Eve was the devil, Satan, in disguise. He approached the woman on purpose, because he knew that Eve did not hear the command of God firsthand; only Adam did. Adam was supposed to lead his family by making sure that both he and Eve knew God’s commands and walked in them. The serpent sought to reverse the divinely ordained roles in the family by bypassing the man and appealing to the woman. This is a reminder that role reversal leads to chaos.
Importantly, Satan omitted God’s relational name Lord (Yahweh) when speaking with Eve. This indicates that he doesn’t mind religion as long as there’s no relationship with the Lord God driving it. Notice Satan’s tactics. There was only one restriction that God gave, but that’s the only restriction the devil wanted to discuss. Not only that, but he also intentionally misrepresented God, implying that God had commanded, You can’t eat from any tree in the garden. One of Satan’s oldest lies, as alluring today as it was then, is this: God is holding out on you. Thus, Satan questioned the goodness of God.
3:2-3 Eve answered the initial attack well enough, pointing out that God allowed them to eat the fruit from the trees in the garden (3:2), but that they should not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If they did, they would die (3:3). Adam had emphasized to Eve that she was not even to touch it (3:3).
3:4-5 Satan became bolder here, revealing two more of his classic lies. The first is that sin carries no consequences. You will not die, he told Eve (3:4). Every one of us has felt that lie, since it’s at the heartbeat of every act of sin. God tells us not to cross a line—because the consequences are disastrous—and we pretend like he’s all talk. The second lie is that humans can become equal to God. As Satan said, When you eat the fruit your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil (3:5). The irony is that God intended for us to be like him, sharing in his reign and ruling over his world. But Satan tempted Adam and Eve to try to take God’s place, kicking him off the throne altogether.
3:6 We see another lie of Satan as Eve contemplated the fruit. She sized it up and concluded that the tree was good for food and delightful to look at, so she took a bite. Our culture expresses this lie this way: “If it feels good, do it!” The results of buying the lie are just as tragic today as they were for Adam and Eve.
By the way, notice that Adam was with her this whole time. God had given him the task of protecting the garden and leading his wife, and here he was standing next to Eve while the snake laid a heavy line on her. Sitting there in silence, Adam became the responder instead of the leader, and literally all hell broke loose as a result. His failure to help his wife live in obedience to God’s word had tragic consequences.
3:7-8 God promised that eating from the tree would lead to death, and he was right. The manifestation of that death was emotional, spiritual, relational, environmental, and ultimately physical. Adam and Eve knew they were naked and sewed fig leaves together for clothing (3:7). They had been naked up to this point—and unashamed. But suddenly they were full of shame and guilt, so their nakedness was a mark of emotional death, rather than life. Fear crept in too, another sign of emotional death. When they heard God approaching, they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden (3:8). The spiritual relationship that nourished them and should have brought them their greatest joy had become a terror to them.
3:9-13 God never asks questions because he doesn’t know the answer. So when he called to Adam, Where are you? (3:9), he wasn’t losing a game of hide-and-seek. He was calling Adam to task, because Adam was the accountable one. He was the leader, and he had failed. I suspect that God is calling out to many men with the same question today. To those men abandoning their families, sitting passively in their relationships, and wasting their lives, God says, “Where are you?” It’s time to stop acting like little boys; step up to be the men God created you to be. Kingdom men accept responsibility under God.
3:14-19 We see the seeds of death grow further as God issued punishments for Adam’s and Eve’s sin. Their rebellion led to relational death, as God promised that the relationship between men and women would become a battle rather than a partnership (3:16). We even see economic death, as God promised that work would become painful labor rather than the fruitful process he intended (3:17). And while Adam and Eve would not drop dead on the spot, their coming biological death was now guaranteed (3:19). They were like flowers cut off from the plant. The process of physical death had begun.
3:20-24 In response to all of this, God did something gracious. He drove the man out of the garden, placing a cherubim with a flaming, whirling sword at the entrance (3:24). This was the kindest thing God could have done. If Adam and Eve had eaten of the tree of life in their sinful state, they would have been locked into that sinful state and its consequences forever. God also provided redemptive covering for them through the slaying of an animal (3:21).
4:1-5 Even though Adam and Eve were exiled from the garden, God continued to bless them. With the Lord’s help (4:1), Eve gave birth to two sons—Cain and Abel. Both sons grew up hearing stories about God, so both knew that they should bring offerings to their Creator. In the course of time (4:3), both boys came ready to worship. But while the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering (4:4), he did not have regard for Cain and his offering (4:5).
What made the difference between the two offerings? We get a clue from the sort of offerings they brought: Cain offered produce from the ground, but we know that the ground was under the curse. This suggests Cain had aligned himself with the curse. The apostle John points this out, calling Cain “evil” even before he killed his brother (see 1 John 3:12). Abel, on the other hand, was exercising dominion over the animals, as God had commanded (Gen 1:28), as well as offering the required sacrifice of shed blood (see Heb 9:22). True worship must be what God will receive, not merely what we want to give. So God rejected Cain and accepted Abel, because one was evil and the other righteous.
4:5-7 Because God rejected his offering, Cain became both furious and despondent (4:5)—mad and sad at the same time. That makes for a dangerous combination. God gave Cain an opportunity to break out of his emotional funk, reminding him that if he did what is right, he would be accepted (4:7). The cure for emotional problems is found in spiritual realignment.
4:8-16 Rather than listening to God’s counsel and choosing to worship according to God’s pattern, Cain nursed his negative emotions until they manifested as murder (4:8). There is an eerie familiarity in what follows, echoing the interaction between God and Adam after the fall. Like Adam, Cain sinned. God asked him a question, not so that he could get information, but so that he could give Cain a chance to accept responsibility for his actions. Like Adam, the son shirked that responsibility, brushing off what he’d done (4:9). And just as he did with Adam, God punished Cain. This time, instead of the ground merely becoming cursed, it will never again give you its yield, God said, making Cain a restless wanderer on the earth (4:12). Cain was cast out, not just from the garden, like his father, but from the Lord’s presence altogether (4:16).
4:17-24 What follows Cain’s punishment is the tale of two families, a theme that shows up repeatedly throughout Genesis. Unfortunately, Cain’s murderous ways infected his family line. By the time we get to his great-great-great-grandson, we find a man bragging about his own violence. I killed a man for wounding me, Lamech boasted (4:23). Notice too that Lamech was talking to his wives—plural (4:23). God’s perfect design is only four chapters old, and already we find people reveling in bloodshed and flouting his design for marriage.
4:25–5:32 In contrast to Cain’s line, God raised up another family tree. In place of Abel God granted Eve a son named Seth (4:25). Seth typified the same type of worship as his deceased brother Abel, because in connection with Seth, people began to call on the name of the Lord (4:26). The prideful way of worship, Cain’s way (see Jude 11), points to itself. The humble way of worship, Abel and Seth’s way, calls out to God. It is no surprise, then, that when God wanted to choose an obedient servant, hundreds of years later, that servant—Noah—would come from Seth’s line (5:28-32).
B. The Flood (6:1–8:22)
6:1-4 The Nephilim (6:4), described only here in the Bible, were demonized men, whose sexual intimacy with women led to a demonized society. They had given themselves over to powers of darkness so fully, it seems, that they became powerful men (6:4). Yet their dark powers were no match for the Creator God, who looked down and decreed that their days will be 120 years (6:3). God would only take so much evil, so he announced a 120-year window for people to repent, after which judgment would come.
6:5-7 We have fallen a long way from Genesis 3. What began with Adam and Eve’s sin, grew in Cain’s murderous ways, and bore fruit in Lamech’s boastful violence is now in full bloom throughout the entire human race. God looked on the earth and saw that every inclination of the human mind was nothing but evil all the time (6:5). People had become comprehensively corrupt, manufacturing evil at the highest possible level. This pained God (6:6), and it moved him to action. God’s Spirit would no longer shield men from his just judgment, as he issued a decree of total destruction (6:7).
6:8-13 In the midst of this corrupt and violent generation, Noah . . . found favor with the Lord (6:8). He was exceptional because he walked with God. In the same way, all believers should be exceptions in the midst of their own sinful generations.
6:14–7:5 God revealed his plan to Noah: I am bringing a flood . . . to destroy every creature under heaven with the breath of life in it (6:17). The only escape would be through the ark that God commanded Noah to build, a flat-bottomed vessel enormous enough to preserve both human and land animal life. God intended to start over, so this judgment was not total.
Noah was to bring into the ark two of all the living creatures so that their kinds would be spared (6:19). God made a distinction between the clean and unclean animals, though. Of the clean animals, Noah was to take with him seven pairs (7:2-3), rather than just one. These were for Noah and his family to eat after exiting the ark and—as we will see at the end of this story—for Noah to sacrifice to God in worship. In all this, Noah obeyed God completely, doing everything that the Lord commanded him (7:5). Obedience in the midst of evil should be the supreme goal and desire of God’s people.
7:6-22 After all the preparations, and after 120 years of God waiting for people to repent, the flood finally began. Only Noah, his sons, his wife, and his sons’ wives entered the ark (7:7), while every other human was wiped out. The water came from above as well as below (see 7:11-12), raining down while the subterranean waters broke loose from underneath. The result was a flood that affected the whole earth, lasing forty days and forty nights (7:12). Just as God had promised, the flood destroyed all life on land (7:21-22).
7:23-24 Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark (7:23). Yet not a drop of this judgment was more extensive than it needed to be. Great was the sin, so also was God’s just judgment. Sitting on that boat while the water surged on the earth 150 days (7:24), Noah’s family acted as a living reminder that the God who fiercely judges sin is the same one who, through our faith, mercifully delivers us from it.
8:1-14 Just as God had done in the original creation, so here God gathered the waters together to reveal dry land (8:1, 3, 13-14). Eventually Noah’s ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat (8:4), inaugurating a new beginning for mankind.
8:15-22 God wanted Noah to know about this new beginning. The flood was not merely a purge of evil, but a chance to return to God’s original goal. So we see a repetition of some of the blessings of chapter 1, as the animals—and people—were commissioned to spread over the earth and be fruitful and multiply (8:17). Noah, overflowing with thanks for the way that God had saved him, made an offering of some of the clean animals (8:20). When he saw Noah’s worship, God was pleased and promised to never again curse the ground because of human beings (8:21). God would providentially preserve the earth and its ecology for the sake of humanity.
His promise, however, was larger than this. God’s promise gives us hope that when we respond to him in faith, he can renew something that has been lost. He can restore that which has been destroyed, rebuilding that which lies broken because of our sin.
C. A New Beginning—And a Dead End (9:1–11:9)
9:1 God recommissioned Noah with the command to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth—the commission given originally to Adam and Eve. The judgment of the flood, it is important to remember, was not God abandoning his original purposes, but resetting the scene so that his original purposes could go forth.
9:2-6 Humanity was now free to eat meat for the first time. The only restriction God placed on this was to avoid eating meat with its lifeblood in it (9:4). Raw meat was off limits because it represented life (see Lev 17:11). God also added another new command about lifeblood, this one about people: Whoever sheds human blood, by humans his blood will be shed (9:6).
This is the basis of capital punishment, and it is grounded in the fact that God made humans in his image (9:6). Humans uniquely reflect God’s image and nature, so taking innocent human life is unthinkable and requires retribution, since at its core murder is an attack on God.
9:7-11 God made a new covenant with Noah, promising that never again will every creature be wiped out by floodwaters (9:11). God won’t wipe out every creation with a flood again, but he still reserves the right to wipe it out some other way. A second judgment is indeed coming, one not carried along by waves but by flames (see 2 Pet 3:7).
9:12-17 God established his covenants with signs, physical pictures to encourage us and remind us of his faithfulness. The sign God gave here is the rainbow (9:13). What is significant about the rainbow (and the covenant) is that it required nothing from humans. Generally covenants are two-party agreements: I do this; you do that. But God simply said, Whenever . . . the bow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant (9:14-15). God keeps his promises toward us unconditionally, even in the face of our sin. If he didn’t, no covenant between us would last.
9:18-19 All humanity has its origin in Adam and the three sons of Noah: Shem, Ham, and Japheth (9:18; also see Acts 17:26). This is an appropriate foundation for gaining a proper biblical basis for racial identity. Because all races stem from the same root, it is absurd for any group to claim superiority over another. God intended to reestablish the human race through the three sons of Noah; therefore, God legitimized all races over which each son stood as head and over which Noah presided as father. This is especially true since Scripture says that God blessed Noah and his sons, and the command to repopulate the earth was comprehensive and equally applied to each of them (see 9:1). Each son is associated with nations of peoples, as is recorded in the “Table of Nations” in Genesis 10. All races can take pride in the fact that it was God’s intention that each unique group exist, survive, and function as nations of peoples, without any one group or ethnicity being superior in nature to any other.
9:20-23 It’s difficult to end well, as Noah’s life shows us. He became drunk, and uncovered himself inside his tent (9:21). Noah’s sinful drunkenness provided the setting for another sinful act. Ham, one of Noah’s three sons, saw his father naked. But rather than covering his nakedness and removing his father’s shame, Ham ridiculed his father to his brothers (9:22). His brothers covered their father, but Ham’s spiteful words created a ripple effect, leading to the curse on Ham’s son, Canaan.
9:24-29 Canaan’s line would continue in unrighteousness and oppression, following in the footsteps of Ham’s example (9:24-25). And God’s plan to bless the world would now focus instead on Shem’s descendants, while Canaan’s descendants would be removed from that plan (9:26-27).
Since Ham was the father of black people (see below on 10:6), and since his descendants were cursed to be slaves because of his sin against Noah (9:25-27), some have argued that Africans and their descendants are destined to be servants, and should accept their status as slaves in fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Due to this “curse of Ham” theory, there existed a myth of inferiority with apparent biblical roots in Christian history and culture. This theological basis provided the raw material necessary to convince slaves during the antebellum slave era that to resist their assigned inferior status was to resist the will of God. It was also used to give slavery a perceived biblical approval for slave owners and traders. This myth became an authoritative one because it was rooted in a purported theology, and slave owners used this twisted belief system to sustain a perverted sociology.
Yet even as slavery was ultimately abolished, this false theology, coupled with the legal status of American segregation in the early twentieth century, did nothing to ameliorate the already culturally inflicted and discolored perception of black people in the minds of many white Christians. Unfortunately, this contributed to the establishing and continuation of a distorted myth of black inferiority in the American Christian psyche.
This interpretation of the “curse of Ham” is incorrect due to multiple reasons. Bear in mind that the Bible says Canaan, Ham’s son, was cursed, not Ham himself. Thus, only one of Ham’s four sons was cursed. How then could all black people everywhere be cursed? The Bible also places limitations on curses—only three or four generations at most (Exod 20:5). Moreover, the curse that Canaan and his descendants would be slaves found its most obvious fulfillment in the ongoing defeat and subjugation of Canaan by Israel (see Josh 9:23; 1 Kgs 9:20-21). The descendants of Ham’s other sons—Cush, Mizraim, and Put (Gen 10:6)—have continued to this day as national peoples in Ethiopia (Cush), Egypt (Mizraim), and Libya (Put). In fact, founders of the first two great civilizations, Sumer (Mesopotamia) and Egypt, descended from Ham.
God says that curses based on disobedience only extend to three or four generations at most and are reversed when people repent and turn again to obedience (Exod 20:5-6). This is certainly sufficient to negate the Christian endorsement of the American enslavement of black Christians as well as any lingering myth of superiority or inferiority based on race.
10:1-32 It can be helpful to think of Genesis like a movie. The author wants us to know the main characters, but he also fast-forwards through other sections of the plot to move us from one key scene to the next. So even though a lot happened between Seth and Noah, the author fast-forwards by using a genealogy (5:1-32). Here he does it again, fast-forwarding from Noah to the next big scene at the famous tower of Babylon (11:1-9).
As we skip through these centuries, however, we see God populating the earth and creating the multitude of nations. Japheth’s descendants spread out to the north and west (10:2-5); Ham’s descendants migrated to the area of Mesopotamia (10:6-20); Shem and his descendants became ancestors of the Jewish people (10:21-31). Even though God would focus his redemptive plan through one line (Shem’s), this chapter reveals that God is a God of all nations. He cares for them all and has a plan to redeem people from every people group.
Noah’s son Ham had four sons: Cush, Mizraim, Put, and Canaan (10:6). Cush was the progenitor of the Ethiopian people. This is validated by the fact that the names Cush and Ethiopia are used interchangeably in the Scriptures. Mizraim was the progenitor of the Egyptian people, who are understood in Scripture to have been a Hamitic people, and thus African (see also Ps 78:51; 105:23, 26-27; 106:21-22). Put was the progenitor of Libya. Canaan was the progenitor of the Canaanites, one of the most problematic foes of God’s chosen people, the Israelites.
In 10:8-12 (see also 11:2), we find a particularly important and powerful person named Nimrod, the descendant of Cush, who ruled in the land of Shinar. Nimrod eventually became the father of two of the greatest empires in the Bible and in world history, Assyria and Babylon. He was the first great leader of a world civilization. Nimrod’s presence and accomplishments confirm the unique and early leadership role black people played in world history. Unfortunately, he also led the world away from God.
11:1-2 A key, but subtle, theme hinges on this word east (11:2). When God pushed Adam and Eve out of the garden, he sent them east (3:24). When Cain was removed from God’s presence after killing his brother, the text says he too went east (4:16). “East” represents a journey away from God. So when we see the people gather at a valley in the land of Shinar, in the east (11:2), the author is telling us that the next scene will move humanity further away from God.
11:3-4 The people at Babylon/Babel made a declaration of independence—not from another nation, but from God himself. Let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky. Let us make a name for ourselves (11:4). To build a city was to build civilization. To build a tower was to build a religious order. Both would be man-centered, not God-centered, efforts. They were adopting a form of humanism.
Instead of pursuing God’s agenda—multiplying and filling the earth—they wanted to do everything to prevent being scattered throughout the earth (11:4). In a sense, they wanted what most teenagers today want: independence (with all of its benefits) while still retaining all the perks of living at home under parental provision. This scene shows humanity telling God, “Keep putting food on my table and clothes on my back, but don’t tell me what to do. Keep blessing me, but don’t instruct me.”
11:5 The people at Shinar wanted to build “a tower with its top in the sky” (11:4), reaching all the way up to heaven. What happened next? God came down to look over the city and the tower (11:5). The people thought they could use man-made religion and technology (brick and mortar) to build their own physical and spiritual world. But God had to stoop down to even see what they were doing. It doesn’t matter how high you climb; the only way you can reach God is if he comes down to you.
11:6-7 If they have begun to do this . . . then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them (11:6). God was not threatened by what humanity was doing. He wasn’t fearful that humanity was suddenly an unstoppable force. Rather he recognized that unified sinful humanity had enormous potential to sour God’s creation. Left unchecked, their unified language would only make it easier for evil to proliferate on the earth. So in order to put the brakes on that, God decided to disunify them and confuse their language so that they will not understand one another’s speech (11:7). God interrupted their plans to communicate.
11:8-9 The result of this language shake-up was twofold. First, the people stopped building the city (11:8). Without the benefit of easy communication, the great nation they were building was left unfinished. (I see in this a warning to any country: if we pursue the blessing of God without the instruction of God, we may not be allowed to finish as a civilization.) Second, God’s original purpose was accomplished: all the people—now speaking precursors of Arabic and German and Swahili and not having a clue what the other guys were saying—were forced to scatter throughout the earth (11:9). If God intended for his people to multiply and fill the earth, they would.