As the descendants of Noah’s family increased in number, they continued to have one “language” and the same “words,” the same vocabulary, or the same way of expressing themselves. According to the Septuagint, the people had “one lip and one voice,” sound, or pronunciation. Both in the Hebrew text and in the Septuagint, the entire human population that then lived on the land is referred to as “all the earth.” (11:1)
From the original location where the family of Noah first lived after the deluge, a significant number of their descendants moved eastward. They found a “plain in the land of Shinar,” a region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and settled there. In the vicinity, stone was not available for building projects. Therefore, the people decided to use kiln-dried bricks made from clay and bitumen for mortar. Their plan was to build a city and a very high tower (a tower with its top in the heavens or reaching up to the clouds). They also wanted to make a “name” for themselves, not wanting to be scattered over the surface of “all the earth” or over the extensive land areas that they knew existed. The “name” they wanted to make for themselves apparently was that of a reputation that defied God and opposed his purpose for the human family to spread abroad throughout the vast regions of land. (11:2-4)
In his Antiquities (I, iv, 2, 3), Josephus attributed to Nimrod the building project in the land of Shinar. Nimrod persuaded the multitude that “he would be revenged on God, if he should have a mind to drown the world again; for that he would build a tower too high for the waters to be able to reach, and that he would avenge himself on God for destroying their forefathers. Now the multitude were very ready to follow the determination of Nimrod, and to esteem it a piece of cowardice to submit to God. They built a tower, neither sparing any pains, nor being in any degree negligent about the work.” By reason of the many hands employed on the project, the tower “grew very high, sooner than anyone could expect.” Its thickness “was so great, and it was so strongly built, that thereby its great height seemed, upon the view, to be less than it really was.” The tower “was built of burnt brick, cemented together with mortar made of bitumen, that it might not be liable to admit water.” Targum Jonathan (thought to date probably from the second century CE) linked the tower to idolatry, indicating that the builders intended to place an idol for worship at its top.
Whereas the builders of the tower attempted to have it reach the “heavens,” YHWH is represented as coming down to see the city and the tower they had built. He is then quoted as saying, “Look, they are one people, and they all have one language.” The building of the city and the tower was just the beginning of acts that defied God’s purpose for them to spread to various regions of the earth, and other acts of defiance were bound to follow. With the kind of united action that speaking the same language made possible, the people would have been able to carry out any of their God-defying plans. Everything that they devised would have been “possible for them to do.” Therefore, YHWH is represented as determining to go down to confuse the language of the builders so that they would be unable to understand one another and thus be prevented from carrying out corrupt plans as a united body. In Targum Jonathan, God is portrayed as addressing angels to make known to them his purpose. He “said to the seventy angels which stand before him, Come, we shall descend and shall there commingle their language, that a man will not understand the speech of his neighbour.” In the Targum, the “seventy angels” are then linked to “seventy nations.” The confusing of the language led to scattering the people “over the surface of all the earth” or the land, and they stopped building the city. According to the Targum, each one of the seventy nations came to have its own distinctive language. This development was the reason the city became known as “Babel.” (11:5-9) Commenting regarding what occurred at the city, Josephus (Antiquities, I, iv, 3) wrote, “When God saw that [the people] acted so madly, he did not resolve to destroy them utterly, since they had not grown wiser by the destruction of the former sinners.” He brought about confusion among them by causing them to speak a multitude of different languages so that they could no longer understand one another. “The place where they built the tower is now called Babylon, because of the confusion of that language which they readily understood before; for the Hebrews mean by the word Babel, confusion.”
From this point onward, the focus in Genesis chapter 11 is on the descendants of Shem, starting with his son Arpachshad and then continuing consecutively to (Kainan [Cainan]), Shelah, Eber, Peleg, Reu, Serug, Nahor, and Terah. Neither the Hebrew text (the Masoretic Text) nor the Samaritan Pentateuch include Kainan (Cainan), but the Septuagint does in Genesis 11:12, 13. The name Kainan (Cainan) is also found in the genealogy of Jesus Christ at Luke 3:36.
Arpachshad was born two years (twelve years [Josephus, Antiquities, I, vi, 5) after the deluge when his father Shem was 100 years old. The Hebrew text, the Septuagint, and the Samaritan Pentateuch are in agreement about the age of Shem at the time Arpachshad was born and that Shem died at the age of 600 or 500 years after the deluge. Regarding Arpachshad and the other descendants, however, there are differences in the ages at the time of the births of the listed sons and the length of life after this event. The following are the ages of each man at the time his listed son was born: Arpachshad (Arphaxad) to Kainan, 135 (LXX); Arpachshad to Shelah, 35 (Masoretic Text); 135 (Samaritan Pentateuch); Kainan to Shelah (Sala), 130 (LXX); Shelah (Sala) to Eber, 30 (Masoretic Text); 130 (LXX and Samaritan Pentateuch); Eber to Peleg (Phalek), 34 (Masoretic Text); 134 (LXX and Samaritan Pentateuch); Peleg (Phalek) to Reu (Ragau), 30; 130 (LXX and Samaritan Pentateuch); Reu (Ragau) to Serug (Serouch), 32 (Masoretic Text); 132 (LXX and Samaritan Pentateuch); Serug (Serouch) to Nahor (Nachor), 30 (Masoretic Text); 130 (LXX and Samaritan Pentateuch); Nahor (Nachor) to Terah (Thara), 29 (Masoretic Text); 79 (LXX and Samaritan Pentateuch). The following are the ages of each man at his death on the basis of the number of years he lived after becoming father to the listed son: Arpachshad (Arphaxad), 438 [Masoretic Text and Samaritan Pentateuch]; 565 [LXX]; Kainan [Cainan], 460 [LXX]; Shelah [Sala], 433 [Masoretic Text and Samaritan Pentateuch]; 460 [LXX]; Eber, 464 [Masoretic Text]; 504 [LXX]; 404 [Samaritan Pentateuch]; Peleg (Phalek), 239 (Masoretic Text and Samaritan Pentateuch); 339 (LXX); Reu, 239 (Masoretic Text and Samaritan Pentateuch); 339 (LXX); Serug (Serouch), 230 (Masoretic Text and Samaritan Pentateuch); 330 (LXX); Nahor (Nachor), 148 (Masoretic Text and Samaritan Pentateuch); 208 (LXX). (11:10-26)
An ancient explanation for the addition of 100 years to the ages of the men at the time they became fathers to the listed sons is that the years were only a tenth of the twelve-month year. This explanation, however, does not fit the way the year is calculated in connection with the time that Noah and his family spent in the ark during the deluge. It is noteworthy that the men born after the deluge did not live as long as those who lived during the preflood period. For believers in YHWH as the true God and the Creator of the first humans, the explanation for the decline in the life spans is that the generations after the deluge progressively lost the potential for a long life that Adam continued to possess after his sin and which potential his earlier descendants still retained. Finally, at the time Psalm 90 was committed to writing, the typical life span was around 70 years, and an approximate age of 80 came to be attributed to the possession of greater strength.
The ages contained in the works of Josephus (Antiquities, I, vi, 5) do not correspond to those in the extant Hebrew text. For Arpachshad (Arphaxados), Shelah (Selos), Eber (Heberos), and Peleg (Phalegos), Josephus has the same ages as does the Septuagint for the time the men became fathers to the listed sons. Although increasing the ages at the birth of their sons by 100 years for Reu, Serug, and Nahor, the ages do not agree with the Septuagint nor with the Hebrew text when the sum of 100 is subtracted (Reu [Reumos], 130; Serug [Serougos], 132; Nahor [Nachoros], 120). Also unlike the Septuagint, Josephus does not include Kainan (Cainan).
At the age of 70, Terah (Thara) became a father. His family came to include three sons, Abram, Nahor (Nachor), and Haran (Harran). Although listed first, Abram was not the firstborn son of Terah. At the time Terah died at the age of 205, Abram was 75, indicating his father was about 130 years of age at the time of his birth. The reason for mentioning Abram first may have been on account of his prominence as the ancestor of the people of Israel and his outstanding example of devotion to God. (11:26, 27; see 11:32 and 12:4.) According to the Samaritan Pentateuch, however, Terah died at the age of 145. Based on this shorter life span, Abram would have been the firstborn son. In view of the absence of any corroberative support from the Hebrew text, the Septuagint, Targum Jonathan, and Josephus, the rendering of the Samaritan Pentateuch is in doubt. Possibly the age of 145 (instead of 205) was introduced into the text of the Samaritan Pentateuch because Abram was considered to have been the firstborn son of 70-year-old Terah.
Abram’s brother Haran was the father of Lot and preceded his father Terah in death, dying at Ur in Chaldea, the land of his birth. Terah’s surviving two sons, Abram and Nahor, married before Abram’s departure from Ur (commonly identified with Tell el-Muqayyar on the south bank of the Euphrates in southern Iraq). Abram’s wife was Sarai who had remained barren, and Nahor’s wife was his niece Milcah, the daughter of his deceased brother Haran. The siblings of Milcah were her brother Lot and her sister Iscah. Although Abram was the one whom God called upon to leave Ur, the move, as was customary in ancient times, was attributed to the family head Terah. The members of Terah’s family who left Ur included Abram and his wife Sarai, and Abram’s nephew Lot, the son of his deceased brother Haran. According to Josephus (Antiquities, I, vii, 1), Abram adopted Lot because he had no son of his own. The final destination for the family was to be Canaan, but it was not possible to travel westward through the inhospitable desert. Therefore, the family headed north on the usual route from Ur to Canaan. When they reached Haran, a city in northern Mesopotamia, Abram, Sarai, and Lot remained there until Terah died at the age of 205. The Genesis account does not list Nahor and his wife as accompanying his father Terah from Ur, but later in the account he and his family are mentioned as having their home at Haran. (11:28-32; 22:20-23; 24:15, 24, 47) Josephus (Antiquities, I, vi, 5) wrote that Terah had come to hate Chaldea because of his mourning for his son Haran and that the entire family (“they all,” which would have included Nahor and his wife) “removed to Haran of Mesopotamia.”
The Hebrew word for “father” can designate a grandfather or even an earlier ancestor. Targum Jonathan identifies Iscah (11:29) as Sarai. This identification is only possible in the event that Terah was the grandfather of Sarai but the father of Abram. If Terah was her grandfather, she would have been Abram’s niece. This is what Josephus (Antiquities, I, vi, 5) understood the relationship between Abram and Sarai to have been, for he wrote that Abram and his brother Nahor “married their nieces.”