Reading the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy) as narrative is not just spiritually rewarding but a lot more fun. What I mean by this is to read the text as one would read a novel, experiencing the drama by identifying and connecting broader themes as well as minor ones. Most Old Testament scholars today break the Pentateuch up into diverse source materials which they then analyze individually in light of history and archaeology. In doing this they tend to miss or discount the broader themes that the author of the Pentateuch intended to convey. Tracing the seed of Eve in Genesis is an example of reading the text as narrative.†
In His response to the Fall of Adam and Eve, God charges the serpent with what constitutes, on the one hand, a threat to his “seed”, and on the other, the promise of hope to humankind:
“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; They will strike at your head, while you strike at their heel” (Gen. 3:15).
Note that the references to the offspring (seed) of the serpent are singular and thus directed at Satan himself; he and his seed are one. Who then constitutes the seed of Eve that will crush the head of Satan? While it is left an open question, the author of the Pentateuch carefully traces this seed through various genealogies and narratives.
In the story of Noah we see how God’s promise develops; He judges the world yet preserves the obedient Noah and his family. After leaving the arc Noah builds an altar and sacrifices to God, who then blesses Noah:
“And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them: ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth” (Gen. 9:1).
Now the promise concerning Eve’s seed will be preserved through Noah’s descendants.
But not through his great-grandson Nimrod. In the genealogy of Noah’s descendants in Genesis 10-11 (the Table of Nations), Nimrod receives an extended comment:
“Cush [son of Ham] became the father of Nimrod, who was the first to become a mighty warrior on earth. He was a mighty hunter in the eyes of the LORD; hence the saying, ‘Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter in the eyes of the LORD.’ His kingdom originated in Babylon, Erech and Accad, all of them in the land of Shinar. From that land he went forth to Assyria, where he built Nineveh…” (Genesis 10:8-12).”
The point of this aside is that the author is intentionally associating the kingdom 0f Babylon with Assyria, (combining southern and northern Mesopotamia); these idolatrous kingdoms of the east would become the mortal enemies of Israel. It also associates these kingdoms with Nimrod’s grandfather Ham rather than Shem. Ham had been cursed by Noah. So it would now be through the descendants of Shem that God would preserve the seed of Eve.
Nimrod, according to the text, may have had nothing to do with the building of the Tower of Babel. The account of the Tower, Genesis 11, strategically interrupts Shem’s genealogy right after listing the sons of Joktan, who was one of the two sons of Shem’s grandson, Eber:
“The whole world had the same language and the same words. When they were migrating from [to] the east, they came to a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to one another, ‘Come, let us mold bricks and harden them with fire.’ They used bricks for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and so make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered all over the earth.'”
“The LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the people had built. Then the LORD said: If now, while they are one people and all have the same language, they have started to do this, nothing they presume to do will be out of their reach. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that no one will understand the speech of another. So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the speech of all the world. From there the LORD scattered them over all the earth” (Gen. 11:1-9).
The key to understanding the significance of the Tower is the word “name”, “…let us make a name for ourselves.” Nimrod and the sons of Joktan wanted to form a powerful nation-state, rather than a bunch of independent city-states or nomadic tribes. Since this nation would be a threat to the seed of Eve, God, protecting His promise, did the very thing that they were trying to avoid; He”scattered” them.
The author then resumes the genealogy of Shem through Eber’s other son, Peleg. It was through Peleg that Abram was born in Ur of the Chaldees (southern Mesopotamia).
“The LORD said to Abram: ‘Go forth from your land, your relatives, and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you. All the families of the earth will find blessing in you‘” (Gen. 12:1-3).
The two lines of Eber, Joktan’s and Peleg’s, went in opposite directions. Joktan’s clan went eastward with the intention of forming a great nation and make a name for themselves, but were confounded by God. Abram, who remained faithful, was told to go westward to Canaan, to what would eventually be the Promised Land, It would be there that God would make his name great and his family into a great nation. It would be through Abram that the seed of Eve would be preserved, leading to the blessing of all the families of the world.
This pattern of God’s active preservation of the seed who would eventually crush the head of Satan is a central theme that continues through the Pentateuch. It is why the biblical genealogies are so important.
†See Sailhamer, John H., The Pentateuch as Narrative: A Biblical-Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992).