Genesis 11: The Descendants of Shem and Terah (10-32)

By Mary Jane Chaignot

This is the fourth genealogical list in the book of Genesis. The two that were in chapters 4 and 5 traced the lineage from Adam to Noah. Then chapter 10 showed how the earth was repopulated through Noah's three sons. Now, in chapter 11, the descendants of Noah's son, Shem, come into focus. Shem had five sons; the only one of interest is Arphaxad, who was the ancestor of Terah.

There are several interesting aspects to this genealogy. According to this list, when Shem was a hundred years old, he became the father of Arphaxad. This occurred two years after the flood. Shem would live for another five hundred years and would "father many other sons and daughters". In the Table of Nations, Arphaxad appears to be Shem's middle son. It raises interesting questions (that are completely unaddressed by the text) about the timing of the births of Elam and Asshur, both seemingly older than Arphaxad. [The previous stories gave no indication that there might have been children on the Ark.] Nonetheless, the first five generations in this chapter follow the list from Shem's descendants in the Table of Nations.

When Arphaxad was thirty-five, he fathered Shelah, but then lived another four hundred and three years, fathering "many other sons and daughters". The exact same format is used for Shelah and his son, Eber. They each fathered their first son while in their thirties and lived for four hundred plus years afterwards.

Things begin to change, however, with the birth of Eber's son, Peleg. While he had his first son, Re'u at the age of thirty, Peleg only lived an extra two hundred plus years afterwards. This becomes the new format for Re'u and his son, Serug. They still had their sons in their thirties, but now they only lived two hundred plus years. The remaining format continues as they also "fathered other sons and daughters."

Things change again when Serug fathered his son, Nahor. Nahor fathered Terah at age 29, but only lived an extra one hundred nineteen years. Doing the math, he outlived his father by a mere eighteen years. Terah would be 70 before he fathered his three sons, Abram, Nahor, and Haran. This suggests that he had to wait a longer time for his firstborn. The idea of prolonged childlessness has already entered this family's history. Terah would live another one hundred and forty years, but there is no mention of him fathering "other sons and daughters."

So within the ten generations of this genealogy the life expectancy went from five hundred to one hundred years; Terah was the exception, bringing it back to two hundred plus years. Scholars attribute this change to the list becoming more historical in nature. There is additional symmetry between the two sets of ten generations. The first list only gave the names of the first son and ended with Noah, who begat three sons. The second list only gives the names of the first son, ending with Terah, who begat three sons. The formulaic "other sons and daughters" is present up to Terah. And scholars have pointed out that there are 365 years between the birth of Arphaxad and the beginning of Abram's journey to Canaan.

With verse 27, then, the story reverts to the descendants of Terah. Unlike the previous generations that only listed the names of the first son, the story now delves into Terah's whole family. We are told that Haran was the father of Lot and had already died in Ur, the land of his birth. Then, the wives of Abram and Nahor are mentioned. This is the first time women have been included on any of the lists. Abram's wife was Sarai, and the author tells us right from the beginning that she "was barren, and had no child." These two statements not only highlight and emphasize her plight, but also set up tension within the story. One can't help but notice that the author has painstakingly traced history from Adam to Noah and then from Noah to Abram when he suddenly adds that Abram's wife was barren. Are we to assume that the twenty generations will come to a screeching halt due to Abram's barren wife? Obviously not, but the idea of childlessness persists.

Nahor's wife was named Milcah; she was also his niece, since she was the daughter of his dead brother, Haran. And Milcah had a sister, Iscah, about whom nothing more is known. Knowing there are other women that are potentially not barren brings a measure of hope for Terah's family. But it is noteworthy that, at this point, no further information is given about Sarai's family. That is information that will be revealed later in Abram's story.

Following this material, the text reads that Terah took Abram, Abram's wife, and Lot from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan. At least that was the plan. For unknown reasons, they stopped in Haran, a city roughly four hundred miles northeast of Canaan. That is where Terah lived until his death. There is no mention of whether Nahor and his wife accompanied them. Yet, we will find out later in Abram's story that Nahor's descendants also ended up in Haran.

Nor is any reason given as to why Terah decided to move his family or why he stopped before arriving in the land of Canaan. Yet, there is much speculation. Terah's name has been connected with the word "moon." And several other names in his family might also be moon related, as are some of the areas associated with them. Sarai means "princess" in Hebrew but "queen" in Akkadian; the term refers to the consort of the moon god (Sin), the main god of Ur. Milcah is another variant of "queen," and this one relates to Ishtar, known as the "queen of heaven" and the daughter of Sin, the moon god. Joshua 24:2-3 states that Terah, the father of Abraham and Nahor, "worshipped other gods". And that that was the reason God "took Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan."

Scholars also have difficulty with the designation, "Ur of the Chaldeans." Ur, as it turns out, could have been located in several places. For a long time, scholars believed it was an ancient city in Lower Mesopotamia that had been discovered and widely excavated. This Sumerian Ur was a cultural center that dates well into the fourth millennium BCE. Unfortunately, the Chaldeans came much later, around the first millennium, making the designation "Ur of the Chaldeans," then, somewhat anachronistic. There is not a single reference to this city as Ur of the Chaldeans. If this were the biblical city, it was approximately 600 miles northeast of Haran. The journey from Ur to Haran would have roughly followed the Euphrates River.

Other options, however, involve two northern cities. Urfu was a city about twenty miles northwest of Haran. Recently, scholars have been looking at Ura in Hittite territory. Going from one of these cities to Haran would obviously have been a much shorter journey —one that a family would be more likely to undertake. Also, in the four Old Testament references to "Ur of the Chaldeans," the LXX translates Ur as "land or region." That would suggest a translation of "the land of the Chaldeans", which could have covered a much larger territory. Further, some of Abram's relatives have possible northern names (Terah and Nahor). This is a discussion that continues among scholars.

Haran was an area that is close to the modern-day border of Syria and Turkey. It, too, was a major city in ancient times, located on an important trade route, and a center of worship for the moon-god. It was also known as Paddan-Aram, to which Jacob, Abram's grandson, will flee from Esau, his brother. For the moment, however, the story has been set up. Terah and his family are in Haran. Because Sarai is barren, Abram has not been able to father a son. The story concludes with a list of the twenty generations from Adam to Abram. We all know that this is not the end of the story.