21 To Shem also, the father of all the children of Eber, the elder brother of Japheth, children were born. 22 The sons of Shem: Elam, Asshur, Arpachshad, Lud, and Aram. 23 The sons of Aram: Uz, Hul, Gether, and Mash. 24 Arpachshad fathered Shelah; and Shelah fathered Eber. 25 To Eber were born two sons: the name of the one was Peleg, for in his days the earth was divided, and his brother’s name was Joktan. 26 Joktan fathered Almodad, Sheleph, Hazarmaveth, Jerah, 27 Hadoram, Uzal, Diklah, 28 Obal, Abimael, Sheba, 29 Ophir, Havilah, and Jobab; all these were the sons of Joktan. 30 The territory in which they lived extended from Mesha in the direction of Sephar to the hill country of the east. 31 These are the sons of Shem, by their clans, their languages, their lands, and their nations.
32 These are the clans of the sons of Noah, according to their genealogies, in their nations, and from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood. – Genesis 10:21-32 ESV
Compared to his younger brother’s genealogy, Shem’s lineage is far more pedestrian in nature. It contains no names that might raise eyebrows or elicit a sense of shock. And yet, within this list of obscure and difficult to pronounce names Moses provided a subtle, yet powerful, reminder of God’s sovereign authority over the affairs of mankind.
For most modern readers, this list of names seems rather superfluous. The individuals listed are unknown to us and, therefore, carry little weight. Yet, for the Jewish audience to whom Moses penned the book of Genesis, these names would have had a great deal of significance. At the mention of Arpachshad, Shelah, Eber, and Peleg, Moses would have had his reader’s undistracted attention, because these men were part of the family tree of Abraham, the father of the Hebrew nation. In fact, Moses will provide a more detailed and complete genealogy of Abraham in the very next chapter. He will go on to trace the lineage of Shem through the line of Peleg, all the way to the man who would become the patriarch of the Jewish people.
But in chapter nine, Moses chose to ignore the line of Peleg and traced the lineage of his brother, Joktan instead. Moses provides a rather strange aside when describing these two brothers.
To Eber were born two sons: the name of the one was Peleg, for in his days the earth was divided, and his brother’s name was Joktan. – Genesis 10:25 ESV
There has been much debate regarding the meaning of the phrase, “the earth was divided.” The Hebrew word is פָּלַג (pālaḡ), and it means “to split, cleave, or divide.” Based on the context of chapter 11, the most logical explanation is that Moses is referring to God’s dividing of the nations by the creation of languages. It seems that the events recorded in Genesis 11:1-9 occurred during the lifetime of Peleg. It was in Peleg’s lifetime that God decided to “divide or split” the earth by confusing the languages of the people. And Moses provides a detailed description of God’s momentous decision.
“Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” – Genesis 11:6-7 ESV
And Moses goes on to describe how God “dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth” (Genesis 11:8 ESV). God literally “divided” or “split” the earth by creating new people groups with different languages. Their inability to communicate with one another caused an immediate parting of the ways, indirectly fulfilling God’s command that mankind “fill the earth.” In “dispersing” them, God was breaking humanity in pieces and scattering them abroad. That is the literal meaning of the Hebrew word, פּוּץ (pûṣ).
It would appear that Moses split the genealogy found in chapter 10 at the juncture of Peleg and Joktan because he was going to provide further details about Peleg’s lineage in the following chapter. During the lives of these two brothers, something significant and earth-shattering took place. And Moses will provide further insights into that momentous occasion. But it seems safe to conclude that when Moses states “in his days the earth was divided,” he is referring to the events surrounding the tower of Babel, as described in the opening verses of chapter 11. Another reason for reaching this conclusion is found in a psalm written by David. In it, he uses the very same word, (pālaḡ), to describe the dividing and confusion of languages.
Destroy, O Lord, divide (pālaḡ) their tongues;
for I see violence and strife in the city. – Psalm 55:9 ESV
So, hidden within this somewhat meaningless and uninteresting genealogy is a subtle reminder of God’s sovereign will. As the sons of Noah procreate and populate the planet, God is operating behind the scene, sovereignly orchestrating His divine will. With the birth of each new son, another branch in the human family tree begins. Peleg and Joktan, while brothers, would produce two distinctively different progeny. From Joktan would come the various Arabic tribes, the Yemenites, Assyrians, Lydians, and Aramaens. These “clans of the sons of Noah, according to their genealogies, in their nations, and from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood” (Genesis 10:32 ESV).
God was orchestrating the creation of all those nations that were destined to play vital roles in His future plans for the world. By sovereignly forming such diverse groups as the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Canaanites, God was putting in place all the pieces to His divine plan for mankind’s redemption. There was a method to the seeming madness. God had a reason for creating each of these distinct people groups. And Moses wanted his readers to understand that the existence of each of these nations had been decreed by God’s will. They didn’t just happen. They were planned by God Almighty. And while each of them would eventually become an enemy of Israel, God had a divinely ordained role for them to play.
There is no cosmic karma in the universe. Nothing happens by chance. Nations rise and fall by the sovereign will of God. The existence of languages was part of God’s plan. The birth of great nation-states was His idea. Each of the men listed in the genealogy of chapter 10 would go on to father a multitude of descendants. And these people would eventually form various nations, representing a diverse mix of ethnicities with each speaking their own unique language and displaying their own cultural distinctiveness. And it would be into this diverse and divisive milieu that God would sovereignly raise up a single man who would become the next “Adam” in the story of mankind’s eventual redemption from the fall.
This all takes us back to the protoevangelium (first gospel) found in Genesis 3:15. In pronouncing His curse against the serpent, God provided the promise of an offspring or seed, that would come from the woman.
“I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.” – Genesis 3:15 ESV
There is far more to this statement than the prediction of mutual hatred between mankind and snakes. This was a divinely decreed promise of payback for Satan’s role in Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God. There would one day come a descendant of Eve who would restore fallen mankind to a right relationship with God. Jesus Christ, as outlined in the gospel of Luke, would be born a descendant of Adam (Luke 3:23-38). But as Matthew records in his gospel account, Jesus would also be the descendant of Abraham, who would be born from the line of Peleg.
…Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. – Matthew 1:1 ESV
Hidden within these somewhat obscure genealogical lists is the message of God’s sovereign plan to restore what Satan had attempted to destroy. When God sent the flood as a form of judgment against the wickedness of humanity, He could have destroyed Noah and his sons, and been completely just and right in doing so. While Noah found favor with God, he was not sinless. While Moses describes him as righteous and blameless “in his generation” (Genesis 6:9 ESV), this was intended as a statement of comparison, not commendation. In other words, Noah had not earned his salvation from God. God did not spare Noah because he was righteous. No, according to the book of Hebrews, God spared Noah because he believed and obeyed. He took God at His word and heeded the warning that judgment was coming.
By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith. – Hebrews 11:7 ESV
Noah’s faith was in the salvation of God. Despite the fact that none of God’s commands made much sense or the likelihood of a worldwide flood seemed remote at best, Noah believed and obeyed. He put his faith in God’s promise of deliverance. But in stepping on the ark he had helped to construct, Noah was foreshadowing a greater deliverance to come. And the author of Hebrews ends chapter 11, his great “Hall of Faith,” with the following words of encouragement and insight.
All these people earned a good reputation because of their faith, yet none of them received all that God had promised. For God had something better in mind for us, so that they would not reach perfection without us. – Hebrews 11:39-40 NLT
Out of all the offspring born to Adam and Noah, there would eventually come one “seed” that would provide a means of restoring broken humanity to a right relationship with its Creator.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.