Just in case there hasn’t been a genealogy recently enough, Genesis 11:10-29 decides to add another one after taking a short detour regarding the Tower of Babel. On the plus side this section is focused only on one line of descendents, but the negative is that it is still another list of names that we can’t pronounce and for the most part only see once and then forget.
So what is the focus of this shorter, more focused genealogy? The easy answer is that we’re getting pointed to Abraham and the expected creation of Israel, but is there more to it than this?
In some ways no, but I have run across a couple perspectives that people use when looking at this genealogy . John H. Sailhamer in his commentary on Genesis from the Expositor’s Bible Commentary series takes a view that the earlier genealogy of Genesis 10 was the wicked line and the genealogy here is the good and godly line. I’ve written about my thoughts on this interpretive view when talking about Genesis 5. I just feel that it is an oversimplification. We aren’t given any information about this line other than it ended in the birth of Abraham (Abram at this point) and his brothers plus there is the problem that part of this line is repeated from the genealogy in Genesis 10.
Are we tracking towards Abraham? Yes, but I don’t see that meaning that everyone from his line was good or that everyone from other lines were necessarily bad. I think we just need to be careful before wielding this interpretation about too carelessly.
Walter Brueggemann provides a bit of a different view. He does note a contrast between Genesis 10 and Genesis 11:10-29, but his contrast is more on the scope of the different genealogies. He states, “Whereas chapter 10 reports the multiplication, spread and vastness of humankind, leading to the Tower of Babel story, this listing narrows, restricts, and confines interest to this single family.”
Now this may not seem to contrast too much, but Brueggemann goes on from there to say, “There is a tension between the universal sovereignty (and providence) of God, who cares for and presides over all nations and the election of God, who focuses on this distinctive people. Proper interpretation requires maintaining this tension, refusing to relax in either direction. ” Now while using terms like sovereignty, providence, and election could muddy the waters as to what exactly Brueggemann is getting at I think his approach is more useful than Sailhamer’s.
To me this means that Brueggemann is talking about how God is active in both circumstances, just in different ways. That God is active in a more general way to the other nations, but there is something particular that he is planning to do through the line of Abraham and the nation of Israel. I find a view like this more helpful than trying to delineate between a line of good and evil.
There are a couple other insights that Brueggemann puts forward that helps put this into perspective as well. First, he points out that “the road to Israel is unexceptional. That is, there is nothing special, sacred, or religious about the appearance of Israel.” This genealogy is just like the others, in fact there is really less detail given than some of the lineages presented in chapter 10. There is nothing saying that they followed God better or were superior in any way. It is simply another genealogy presented as moving on to later generations.
Connected to this idea is the fact that the information we are given about the path to Israel isn’t exactly promising. We are told that Abraham’s wife Sarah (Sarai) is barren. Brueggemann thinks this is a very intentional point. He looks back at what he calls the “blessing mandate” which is the “be fruitful and multiply” language of Genesis 1:28 and 9:1. If that mandate is in view here then, as he says, “Israel is a major disappointment in terms of the purposes of creation.”
So not only is Abraham’s, and therefore Israel’s, lineage unexceptional it is below average. One would expect that Lot or the couple Nahor and Milkah to be the one the narrative follows after this, not Abraham and his barren wife Sarah. After all how does one make a nation without the ability to have any children? Yet as many who are familiar with the stories know, it is Abraham and Sarah who are called and respond to God.
Looking at it from this perspective it is God working with the unlikely of the world. Unlike the view that talks about a line of evil and good which seems to me to present the call of Abraham as some sort of triumph of a good lineage or upbringing, this presents a view of God displaying his power through unlikely and impossible ways.
So yes, we are moving towards Israel by way of Abraham here, but this movement is presented even in the genealogy as something that we may not have expected. That a family line with little notoriety and that the branch of that family line with barrenness is going to be God’s chosen people. This is certainly not the way I’ve read this passage of Genesis before, but I think it frames the situation in a much more complete way. What about you?