The New World Order (Life after the deluge) Part III: The Book of Shem
If you have your Bibles I’d invite you to turn with me to Genesis, chapter 11. This is the third and last in a short series on a brief transitional section in the book of Genesis. Moses himself begins this section in Genesis, chapter 10 which he opens with the words, “The toledoth of the sons of Noah”. The book of the generations of the sons of Noah. The book of the generations of Shem, Ham and Japheth. And that passage is, as we have already said, an expansion on a passing comment that Moses had made in Genesis 9, verses 18 and 19. And that section runs from Genesis 10:1 all the way to Genesis 11, verse 9 at the end of the story of the tower of Babel. There we see the nations pass before us in review in Genesis, chapter 10. So Genesis 10 serves to set the line of Shem in its international context and to prepare the way for the story of Abraham.
As has been said, not every nation known to the Old Testament is enrolled here, but enough are present to make the point that mankind is one; for all its diversity, under one Creator. And so that long list of names, that genealogical tree of the nations in the ancient world sets forth the context for the line of Shem, the line that would produce Abraham.
And we came to Genesis, chapter 11, verses 1 through 9. You can look back there again and see the story of the Tower of Babel. And we saw a picture of the climax of pre-Abrahamic, non-Shemite culture. What does the culture look like that’s not from the line of Shem, prior to Abraham in its climatic point before the days of Abraham? And there’s your picture of it right there in Genesis 11, verses 1 through 9. You see man in rebellion against God, and we see man’s attempt at self-glorification end in self-defeat, and we see God’s sovereignty over the nations. And His providence is very clear. His judgment against man’s wickedness, His restraint of man’s evil designs are very evident throughout the passage. Derek Kidner sums up that whole scene when he says, “The primeval history reaches its fruitless climax as man, conscious of new abilities, prepares to glorify and fortify himself by collective effort. The elements of the story are timelessly characteristic of the spirit of the world. The project is typically grandiose. Men describe it excitedly to one another, as if it were the ultimate achievement, very much as modern man glories in his space project.” Touche’. “At the same time they betrayed their insecurity as they crowd together to preserve their identity and control their fortunes.”
And we pointed out that the tendency seen there at Babel to pull together is a direct contradiction of God’s creation mandate to reclaim and express dominion over the earth, to replenish the earth, even as they were fruitful and multiplied. So, with that as our background, let’s look at Genesis, chapter 11, verses 10 through 32, and the genealogy of Shem recorded there.
Our Lord and our God as we come to this passage, the last picture of life in the old world before the age of the patriarchs, we pray thatyyou would teach us wonderful things from Your word. That You would instruct us in the way that we should walk for the living of these days. We ask it in Jesus’ name, Amen.
In the previous genealogies we have been given a picture of what God was doing amongst the nation, and His concerns for the nation. In this genealogy we focus upon the believing line, the line descended from Shem, down to the line of Abram. We meet some of these in this genealogy of chapter 11 who are believing men. And they prepare us for an introduction to a towering figure of Old Testament history: Abraham. And as we meet Abraham, we meet him not as the Hebrew of Hebrews, the father of faithful, but we meet him as Abram, a pagan from Ur the Chaldeans. And from this line God will forge the future of the race.
And I’d like you to look at both the sections that you see here in verses 10 through 32. The first one is the book of Shem. You find it in verses 10 through 26. The second one is the book of Terah. You find it in verses 27 through 32, and I’d like to see some specific implications of these passages for us.
First of all, as you see the book of Shem, in verses 10 through 26, what you are seeing recorded there is the election of grace and the fountainhead of the patriarchs. You remember Noah had predicted that God’s line of blessing would come through Shem, and what Moses is reminding us here is the faithfulness of God to that prophecy through Noah. Noah had said that God would be blessed and would bless the line of Shem. And that blessing would be by dwelling in the line of Shem. And sure enough, we are going to see in this passage the line of Shem descended all the way down to Terah, the father of Abram. The line zeroes on a specific aspect of Shem’s line, ignoring other branches that have already been mentioned.
And this genealogy listed here in Genesis 11 has a very different function than the one that was listed in Genesis 10. This genealogy begins with the forefather of Israel, the nation that God has chosen as His covenant partner. And this chosen line now leads out of the old world into the world of the patriarchs. This genealogy provides us a link between God’s man in the old world, in the days before the patriarchs, and God’s chosen man in the age at the very initiation of the age of the patriarch Abram. Notice as you go through the genealogies, the life span is steadily contracting from these huge ages that we saw of the antediluvian patriarchs to ages closer to the 175 year life span of Abram and then eventually we’ll see in Genesis the 110 year life span of Joseph. We’ll hear of Moses living to be 120, but Moses himself will say in Psalm 90 that the average life span in his own time has become 70 or 80 years. And so those great life spans are contracting as we press into the patriarchal age. Davis says this, “Within Genesis 11, there is a marked contrast; on the one hand human rebellion leading to the divine judgment of dispersion.” That’s what we see in Genesis 11, verses 1 through 9. Then when we get to the second half of Genesis 11, “On the other hand, we see divine grace leading to the call of Abraham, a call which provided hope for the nations and salvation for the lost.”
And as you look at Genesis 12, and normally we dive into Genesis 12 without looking at Genesis 10 and 11. As you look at Genesis 12, with Genesis 10 and 11 as your context, you see the importance of the blessing of the nations by God through Abraham. You see that that’s not just some sort of a passing idea. That’s not something that’s insignificant in God’s call of Abram in Genesis 12, verses 1 through 3. You see that the nations are very much a concern of the Lord, and Abram himself has been called out of these nations. He has been called out of idolatry, and he has been made the fountainhead of the patriarchs. This very line of the election of grace that leads us into the lives of the patriarchs which are going to be covered by Moses in the final chapters of this Book. The bulk of this book is going to focus on Abraham and his immediate descendants.
We see at least two messages for us in that line. First of all we see God’s election of grace set forth very clearly. Noah had made the prediction that the line of blessing would be the line of Shem. He comes to fulfillment before our very eyes here, but it’s all based upon God’s choosing, God’s blessing. As you look at the line of Shem listed here, there are idolaters in this line; Terah, Abraham’s family, they are idolaters. They are pagans. And yet God’s election has led to the establishment of a man of faith, a man named Abram, who will leave his family, and leave his country and will go to the land of Canaan, the land of promise. And so we see God’s election of grace clearly set forth in the very genealogy as it is recorded. His faithfulness to his prophecies, but His election of grace is very much before our eyes.
As we consider these lists of men descending from Shem all the way down to Abram, we can think from genealogies previously listed for us in the book of Genesis of the folks that aren’t listed in this line. Not only are the lines of Japheth and Ham ignored, but some from the lines of Shem who had been listed before are ignored. God’s election of grace stands nevertheless. And then as we look at verses 27 through 32 we see the book of Terah, the father of Abram. And here again the election of grace is made very clear.
In this context the election of grace triumphs, even in the presence of idolatry. In fact, Abram is called out of idolatry by the election of grace. Look again at verses 27 through 32. As we look at this passage, we see the whole family of Terah leaving Ur of the Chaldeans and making their way to Haran. Now we don’t know all the reasons why Terah did that. Perhaps Terah was aged and Abram felt a responsibility to care for him and so took him along. Perhaps Terah was simply fleeing the destruction of his hometown of Ur. We know sometime around the year 2000 B.C. the city of Ur was attacked by the Elamites and destroyed. So maybe Terah saw that coming, and he wanted to leave with Abram. But the important thing to see is that Terah only gets halfway to Canaan. He stops in Haran. Again, we don’t know exactly why. Maybe it was because he was weak and aged and that was as far as he could make it. Maybe the journey itself got the best of him. Maybe he couldn’t conceive of leaving the vicinity of his people where specific practices of worship were observed and a network of relationships obtained. Whatever the case is, it is very clear that Abram in leaving Ur of the Chaldeans was not simply going along with his father, Terah. Abram himself was taking the lead in response to the call of God.
Now that call is not going to be specified for us until the first three verses of the next chapter. But there are several other chapters of Scripture which comment upon this particular passage that help us understand exactly what is going on. The first one that I would point you to is Acts, chapter 7. As Stephen is preaching, he tells us this in Acts, chapter 7, verses 2 through 4: “And he said, ‘Hear me brethren and fathers. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran.’ And said to him, ‘Leave your country and your relatives, and come into the land that I will show you.’ Then he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran. And from there, after his father died, God had him moved to this country in which you are now living.” And so Stephen stresses the fact that Abram is not moving for convenience or for any expedience at all. He’s moving because he has felt the call of God to leave his country and relatives and go to the land of promise, the land of Canaan. So Abram’s purposes here are very clear, and Stephen comments on them.
This isn’t the last time in the New Testament that his purposes are commented on. If you’ll turn forward to the book of Hebrews, chapter 11, verses 9 and 10, we are told this by the author of Hebrews: “By faith he,” that is, Abraham, “lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise; for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” And so again Abram was following a definite call from God, and he was seeking a city which had foundations.
Now, it’s not just the New Testament that comments on this passage and on this call which Abram had received. Joshua comments on this call at a very crucial point in the history of Israel. As Joshua is making his final address to Israel, he says these stirring things in Joshua, chapter 24, verses 1 through 3: “Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem and called for the elders of Israel and for their heads and their judges and their officers and they presented themselves before God. Joshua said to all the people, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “From ancient times your fathers lived beyond the River, namely, Terah, the father of Abraham, and the father of Nabor, and they served other gods. Then I took your father, Abraham from beyond the river and led him through all the land of Canaan, and multiplied his descendants and gave him Isaac.’” And as you know, Joshua goes on to say, ‘Chose you this day who you are going to serve? Are you going to serve the gods of the Amorites in the midst of whom you’re going to dwell, are you going to serve their god or are you going to serve the God of Abraham?’” And he sets before them this tremendous choice that Abram himself had to make. Abram had to leave idolatry to follow the living God. Israel is now going to dwell in the midst of a people who had been devoted to idolatry, and Israel again had to make a choice.
Are we going to follow after the idols of the nations of those around us, or are we going to follow the one true God? And so Derek Kidner says this: “Joshua 24, verse 2 shows that Terah and his forebears ‘served other gods’; his own name and the names of Laban, Sran and Milcah point towards the moon-god as perhaps the most prominent god that was served by those who lived in Ur of the Chaldeans. Certainly Ur and Haran were centres of moon worship. So God comes to this man who is of the line of Shem, the blessed line and they had heard the stories that Noah and then Shem had eventually told and passed down. They had heard of the stories of God’s destruction of the world and his judgment against wickedness, and yet this family has degenerated into idolatry, moon-god worship. But out of that line, out of that family, God is by His election of grace, going to call Abram out of the Ur of the Chaldeans and into the land of Canaan.
And so again we see a beautiful picture of God rescuing us out of our depravity. You know, you can’t get out of Genesis 1 through 11 with a rosy picture of human nature. God gives these people every possible advantage of His revelation. His revelation of grace, His revelation of judgment, His revelation of faithful men and women who stood for Him and testified for Him and what do they do? They degenerate into idolatry, even in the line of Shem. You can’t say that these were just good people who were just so wonderful that God just couldn’t help but love them. These are idolaters. Out of that line of idolaters God plucks Abram like a brand from the fires. And so, he becomes the father of the faithful.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the genesis of the line of Terah begins with an exodus, just as God’s purposes with the nation of Israel begins with an exodus. So God’s purposes with Abram begins with an exodus as the children of Israel came out of Egypt and into the land of Canaan. So Abram would be called out of the land of the Chaldeans and into the land of Canaan. But Terah himself only gets half-way.
What lessons do we learn here? Well, we learn many lessons, but let me focus on two. First of all, we see that serving the living God means forsaking idolatry. And idolatry is not an ancient problem, it is a perennial problem, it is ever present. And idols come in every form and fashion. You don’t have to fall before a statue of gold to be an idolater. All of us are tempted to capitulate to the thought patterns of our own day, and to begin to think like the world. As we do so we have capitulated to idolatry. But the Lord calls all of us out of idolatry to serve the living and the true God. But the Lord calls all of us out of idolatry to serve the living and the true God. I have no doubt that one of the reasons that Abram was called away from the land of his birth and away from his family relations was precisely so that God could cut the Gordian knot of idolatry that Abraham was tangled in, and so break him free from the oppression of the thought pattern of that wicked life. Many of you have had to wrestle with things that required that sort of a drastic break. You have had to wrestle with friendships and relationships that had to be excised in order to follow after God. There perhaps had to be vocational changes in order to follow after God. Tremendous life changes in order to seek after that city which has foundations. It is not surprising that that pattern obtained even in the calling of Abram, the father of the faithful.
Let me also point out that this passage, this chapter reminds us again that our approach into the presence of the Heavenly Father cannot be by our own effort. We see man’s wicked efforts at glorification in Genesis 11, verses 1 through 9 in the story of Babel. We see man’s feeble efforts at following after God in the story of Terah, making it to Haran, but no further. Listen to what Derek Kidner says: “This chapter brings the primeval history to a doubly appropriate close with man’s self-effort issuing in confusion at Babel and in compromise here. On his own, man will get no further than this.” It’s the election of grace that brings Abram into Canaan. It’s the election of grace which causes the line of Abram to become the line of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and Joseph. And for those to persevere in the faith, it’s not something in them. They are called out of idolatry, and they become the line of the faithful. What’s the difference between Abram and his father? The grace of God. Isn’t this a glorious picture that gives you hope though? You know, so often we look at folks and the situations that they find themselves in and the background that they find themselves in and we say you know there’s no way that they’re ever going to be extracted from that mess. And then we look right back to Genesis 11, and we say look who it is that God has called to be the father of His people, the father of you, the father of the faithful. Look who God has called.
And one thing that tells us, friends, is that as believers we are not in a position to look down on anyone else. Look where we’ve come from. Look where God has brought us from. Now God desires us to seek and to save that which is lost because apart from His grace, there we go. Here’s Abram, father of the faithful, a moon-worshiping pagan idolater changed, transformed by the grace of God, by the call of God. And it’s no different from us. What’s the difference between us and our friends who find their satisfaction and contentment in this world? No innate goodness in us. The call of God. The grace of God. That means that as we look at them, we don’t look down our noses as those who have arrived, as those who have self-actualized into our spirituality. We are simply sinners saved from the fires of judgment by the grace of God. What a difference that makes and how we relate to one another, and how we relate to those outside of the covenant family. But in the context of this passage and its reference to the nation, does it not make your heart burn to see those who are now part of the world and part of the nation drawn into the family of faith? Not that we can choose and elect, but that we can yearn and long to see those who are in the thrall of darkness and sin transformed by the grace of God. And the story of Abram proves that there is no one beyond reclamation when the spirit of God is at work. If this idolater can become the father of faithful, we need never give up hope on those to whom we bear witness. May God remind us where we came from.
Can you imagine the impact of Joshua’s referring back to this story as he addresses Israel? Israel has cleared Egypt. She’s cleared the wilderness. She’s entered into the promised land. She’s taken possession of much of the land. As she thinks back on her heritage, she thinks back on the faithful Abraham that we know as recorded in his life from Genesis 12 forward. And Joshua says, I want you to stop and remember where your forefather, Abram, came from. And I want you to remember that you could very easily fall into the same pattern of wickedness from whence he came. He’s saying, ‘Don’t complete that cycle. Don’t go from idolatry to Abraham, back to idolatry again. But remember where you came from, by God’s grace, and press on for the city which has foundation.’ That message is just as relevant for us today in First Presbyterian Church as it was when the Israelites first heard it. May God help us to see ourselves in that message and may the spirit apply that truth to our hearts tonight. Let’s look to Him in prayer.
Our Heavenly Father, we thank You for the truth of Your word. We ask that You would teach us from it. We long, O Lord, to love You above all else. Save us from the sin of idolatry, and we pray, O God, that our faith would be put only in the one true God, the Lord God Almighty, the One who has given His Son. We ask it in Jesus’ name, Amen.