As my Bible-reading plan rolls through Genesis this time each year, I am repeatedly overawed at the detail of God’s providence. There are often new details that confuse me and force some important questions, but one thing remains constant. God has ordained every detail of history to serve his appointed ends; namely, the eternal display of his grace to his people through Jesus Christ.
Either God has gotten lucky for ten thousand years (or ten katrillion, which only strengthens my point), reacting perfectly to all human behavior so that Jesus happened on the scene in the nick of time and the church holds on by the skin of her teeth. Or, God has orchestrated all of human history – favoring one person rather than another, allowing this event and not that one, preserving one life and not the ten next to it – to prove he alone is God and will get all glory for the salvation of any one man.
This year a certain phrase garnered my attention as I labored through Genesis 11: “and he had other sons and daughters.” By my count, that phrase is used eight times in vv10-25 (it was used nine times in Gen 5.4-30). Noah had three sons: Shem, Ham and Japheth. Genesis 11.10-30 concerns itself only with Shem’s lineage beginning with his son Arpachshad on its way to Abram. But if Shem “had other sons and daughters” then why is Arpachshad singled out? Why not any one of Shem’s other sons?
Arpachshad and I have something in common: we both welcomed children at 35. He had Shelah at 35, but over the next 403 years “he had other sons and daughters.” But they’re lost to history and only Shelah has been immortalized in the biblical witness. And so goes Shem’s line, getting more and more specific until the spotlight shines on one man: Shem’s great-you-do-the-math-grandson Abram. All along the way everyone was having “other sons and daughters.”
In a stroke of literary brilliance, the author (Moses?) stops us dead in our tracks. He’s ended each generational iteration with “and he had other sons and daughters.” When he gets to Terah, he mentions Terah’s three (not one) sons: Abram, Nahor II and Haran (v26). Haran died (v27), thus ending that line, leaving Abram and Nahor to continue whatever God started with Shem and Arpachshad. Abram married Sarai and Nahor Milcah (v29).
Verse 29 leaves us hanging in suspense. Which son will enjoy being “begat” and which one swept into the “other sons and daughters” category? In v30 we read with amazement: “Sarai was barren; she had no child.” In a chapter carried along by the rhythm of fertility, each stanza ending with the refrain “and he had other sons and daughters,” the song ends abruptly with this crescendo of barrenness. If Shem was a movie, it was a short one.
Naturally, in light of this minor detail, we should expect v31 to begin “So Nahor became the father of Uz” but we don’t hear that until Genesis 22.20. No, whatever God is doing through the line of Shem will go through Abram, husband of Barren Sarah; not Nahor, husband of fertile Milcah. Nahor fades from the scene and the next twelve chapters are, as we say, history.
Did God get lucky that Shem had a son, and every son thereafter had a son until Abram went and married that barren woman? If God were merely reacting to history then he should’ve chosen Nahor, who did have a fertile wife and did bear a son. Why insist on “interfering” with the seeming natural order of things by imposing himself on an impossible situation? How many details must “fall into place” so that an Arpachshad could be born?
It must be that God has sovereignly ordained the most minute details of history – even which son will inherit his favor – to serve his good and wise purposes. Otherwise, every generation was a roll of the cosmic dice. Why favor Seth and not Cain? Why Shem and not Japheth? Why Abram and not Nahor? Why Isaac and not Ishmael? Why Jacob (the liar) and not Esau? Why Joseph and not one of his 11 other better-suited brothers? Why little David and not one of his strapping brothers? There were always other sons and daughters to use who were just as, if not more, fit for God’s purposes!
And on and on until we read of a teenage virgin who is pregnant. And we thought a post-menopausal Barren Sarah becoming pregnant was something!
And in the end we must ask ourselves, “Why me and not him? Why him and not her?” Dear sister, why do you love Christ and not your younger brother who grew up in the same house? Dear brother, why do you believe the gospel and not your older sister who sat beside you in the same pew every Sunday? Dear friend, why would God use you in his kingdom and not your neighbor who gives twice as much to charity? Among all the better people in the world, who have done far less to offend God, why would God favor you and not them? Why did God adopt you rather than the hundred other spiritual orphans next door? Why should my salvation possibly happen?
Are we not left to answer, “So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy” (Rom 9.16).
All the genealogies of Scripture are of a piece of this one lineage: Our Heavenly Father’s only begotten Son. And this Son has many brothers and sisters “who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn 1.13). And this Son’s bride is not barren, but fertile, to beget God’s many sons and daughters into his kingdom through his gospel (Mt 16.18).
As the gospel’s aroma wafts through heaven and the stench of hell reaches our nostrils (Rev 19.3), we will spend eternity confessing “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2.8-9). Dead sinners can take no more credit for their eternal life than post-menopausal barren women and teenage virgins can for their pregnancies. And so goes the romance of sovereign grace.