There is Something in a Name (Gen. 10-12)

Last night I used this discussion in my Life Group. I thought I would post it for others who may not have heard it or are interested in the subject. It is one of the greatest turning points in Scripture, and something we should meditate on for our own lives.

The author of Genesis 10-12 uses a play on words that draws out a powerful message to humanity.  Not only that, but these chapters are significant for they both reflect on that past and look forward to the future.

In Genesis 10 we discover the table of nations.  I know, a bunch of boring genealogies of the sons of Noah – Shem, Ham and Japheth. The last linage is Shem (שם), whose name means “name.”  It is the same Hebrew word used for name throughout Scripture. I know… boring!  It gets better.

In Genesis 11 we find a narrative about the Tower of Babel. It does not take long to figure out the people were wrong for wanting to build a city and tower. But why? One clue is they were wanting to make a name (שם) for themselves (11:4).  That’s right, the same word used for Shem (שם).  It is a play on words.  In fact, we find many repeated words in this account:

  • The purpose of building a city was to prevent the population from being scattered (11:4).  They all wanted to stay together. What’s the big deal? Ironically, God scattered them in the end (11:8).
  • The purpose for building a city was to prevent the population from being scattered over the face of the whole earth (11:4).  In the end, Yahweh scattered them by confusing their language and scattered them throughout the whole earth (11:9).
  • They were given a name (שם), but not the one they were going for. The name (שם) of the city is called Babylon (11:9).  It did not mean anything great, but “confuse.”

Another significant point is the fact they migrated from the east (11:2). I am planning to write a blog on how this location is used throughout the Pentateuch.  For now, understand it signifies moving away from the promised land/the blessing the Creator gave for humanity.  They are seeking to find their own good (see blog on “God is Good” for background).  Those who were building the city of Babylon were doing so because they no longer trusted God and determined what they believed was good.  How do we know this?

Genesis 1:28, God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth…” (emphasis mine).

They were wanting to stop the Creator’s good plan for humanity to fill the earth (11:4). They had failed to enjoy, or even grasp, the good God had provided.  They were determining what was good in their own eyes (3:5). This always leads to failure.  As you go throughout both Testaments, the term ‘Babylon’ is used to portray rebellion and sin.  Even Rome was referred to as Babylon by the author of Revelation (Rev. 14:8).

But the author of Genesis isn’t finished. This narrative simply sets up the next setting – the calling of Abram (12:1-3). Genesis 3-11 demonstrates the failure of human beings. It seems as if there is no hope to return to the former glory of the original creation and fellowship with our Creator.  God will make a promise to Abraham that will ultimately change the history of the world. And among that promise we read these words:

Genesis 12:2, I will make your name (שם) great… (emphasis mine)

The people building the city were trying to make a name (שם) for themselves. Abraham, the one who will be known for his faith and trust in God, is given a name (שם) by Yahweh! Babylon and Abraham both represent the descendants of Shem (שם).  Throughout the Scriptures a line is drawn between good and evil:

  • Abraham and Babylon
  • Noah and those lost in the Flood
  • those who trust God and those who trust self
  • the faithful and the unfaithful
  • the Seed of the Messiah and the seed of the nations.
  • works of the Spirit and works of the flesh.

There is something in a name. A name will transform lives.

Joel 2:28-32, Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. (Acts 2:21)

Acts 2:38, “Repent…be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Acts 4:12, There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to people, and we must be saved by it. (emphasis mine)

Whose name do you bare? Babylon or Jesus? Are you so busy trying to make a name for yourself in the world that you fail to submit to God?

*All Scripture quoted is from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.

*Resource for this blog came from John H. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative.

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