Augustin: City of God 120
But that which God said, “Their days shall be a hundred and twenty years,” is not to be understood as a prediction that henceforth men should not live longer than 120 years,—for even after the deluge we find that they lived more than 500 years,—but we are to understand that God said this when Noah had nearly completed his fifth century, that is, had lived 480 years, which Scripture, as it frequently uses the name of the whole of the largest part, calls 500 years. Now the deluge came in the 600th year of Noah’s life, the second month; and thus 120 years were predicted as being the remaining span of those who were doomed, which years being spent, they should be destroyed by the deluge, And it is not unreasonably believed that the deluge came as it did, because already there were not found upon earth any who were not worthy of sharing a death so manifestly judicial,—not that a good man, who must die some time, would be a jot the worse of such a death after it was past. Nevertheless there died in the deluge none of those mentioned in the sacred Scripture as descended from Seth. But here is the divine account of the cause of the deluge: “The Lord God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented86 the Lord that He had made man on the earth, and it grieved Him at His heart. And the Lord said, I will destroy man, whom I have created, from the face of the earth; both man and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air: for I am angry that I have made them.”87
The anger of God is not a disturbing emotion of His mind, but a judgment by which punishment is inflicted upon sin. His thought and reconsideration also are the unchangeable reason which changes things; for He does not, like man, repent of anything He has done, because in all matters His decision is as inflexible as His prescience is certain. But if Scripture were not to use such expressions as the above, it would not familiarly insinuate itself into the minds of all classes of men, whom it seeks access to for their good, that it may alarm the proud, arouse the careless, exercise the inquisitive, and satisfy the intelligent; and this it could not do, did it not first stoop, and in a manner descend, to them where they lie. But its denouncing death on all the animals of earth and air is a declaration of the vastness of the disaster that was approaching: not that it threatens destruction to the irrational animals as if they too had incurred it by sin.
Moreover, inasmuch as God commanded Noah, a just man, and, as the truthful Scripture says, a man perfect in his generation,—not indeed with the perfection of the citizens of the city of God in that immortal condition in which they equal the angels, but in so far as they can be perfect in their sojourn in this world,—inasmuch as God commanded him, I say, to make an ark, in which he might be rescued from the destruction of the flood, along with his family, i.e., his wife, sons, and daughters-in-law, and along with the animals who, in obedience to God’s command, came to him into the ark: this is certainly a figure of the city of God sojourning in this world; that is to say, of the church, which is rescued by the wood on which hung the Mediator of God and men, the man Christ Jesus.88 For even its very dimensions, in length, breadth, and height, represent the human body in which He came, as it had been foretold. For the length of the human body, from the crown of the head to the sole of the foot, is six times its breadth from side to side, and ten times its depth or thickness, measuring from back to front: that is to say, if you measure a man as he lies on his back or on his face, he is six times as long from head to foot as he is broad from side to side, and ten tittles as long as he is high from the ground. And therefore the ark was made 300 cubits in length, 50 in breadth, and 30 in height. And its having a door made in the side of it certainly signified the wound which was made when the side of the Crucified was pierced with the spear; for by this those who come to Him enter; for thence flowed the sacraments by which those who believe are initiated. And the fact that it was ordered to be made of squared timbers, signifies the immoveable steadiness of the life of the saints; for however you turn a cube, it still stands. And the other peculiarities of the ark’s construction are signs of features of the church.
But we have not now time to pursue this subject; and, indeed, we have already dwelt upon it in the work we wrote against Faustus the Manichean, who denies that there is anything prophesied of Christ in the Hebrew books. It may be that one man’s exposition excels another’s, and that ours is not the best; but all that is said must be referred to this city of God we speak of, which sojourns in this wicked world as in a deluge, at least if the expositor would not widely miss the meaning of the author. For example, the interpretation I have given in the work against Faustus, of the words, “with lower, second, and third stories shalt thou make it,” is, that because the church is gathered out of all nations, it is said to have two stories, to represent the two kinds of men,—the circumcision, to wit, and the uncircumcision, or, as the apostle otherwise calls them, Jews and Gentiles; and to have three stories, because all the nations were replenished from the three sons of Noah. Now any one may object to this interpretation, and may give another which harmonizes with the rule of faith. For as the ark was to have rooms not only on the lower, but also on the upper stories, which were called “third stories,” that there might be a habitable space on the third floor from the basement, some one may interpret these to mean the three graces commended by the apostle.—faith, hope, and charity. Or even more suitably they may be supposed to represent those three harvests in the gospel, thirty-fold, sixty-fold, an hundred-fold,—chaste marriage dwelling in the ground floor, chaste widowhood in the upper, and chaste virginity in the top story. Or any better interpretation may be given, so long as the reference to this city is maintained. And the same statement I would make of all the remaining particulars in this passage which require exposition, viz., that although different explanations are given, yet they must all agree with the one harmonious catholic faith.
But Reject the Allegorical Interpretation, Nor with Those Who Maintain the Figurative and Not the Historical Meaning.
Yet no one ought to suppose either that these things were written for no purpose, or that we should study only the historical truth, apart from any allegorical meanings; or, on the contrary, that they are only allegories, and that there were no such facts at all, or that, whether it be so or no, there is here no prophecy of the church. For what right-minded man will contend that books so religiously preserved during thousands of years, and transmitted by so orderly a succession, were written without an object, or that only the bare historical facts are to be considered when we read them? For, not to mention other instances, if the number of the animals entailed the construction of an ark of great size, where was the necessity of sending into it two unclean and seven clean animals of each species, when both could have been preserved in equal numbers? Or could not God, who ordered them to be preserved in order to replenish the race, restore them in the same way He had created them?
121 But they who contend that these things never happened, but are only figures setting forth other things, in the first place suppose that there could not be a flood so great that the water should rise fifteen cubits above the highest mountains, because it is said that clouds cannot rise above the top of Mount Olympus, because it reaches the sky where there is none of that thicker atmosphere in which winds, clouds, and rains have their origin. They do not reflect that the densest element of all, earth, can exist there; or perhaps they deny that the top of the mountain is earth. Why, then, do these measurers and weighers of the elements contend that earth can be raised to those aerial altitudes, and that water cannot, while they admit that water is lighter, and liker to ascend than earth? What reason do they adduce why earth, the heavier and lower element, has for so many ages scaled to the tranquil ether, while water, the lighter, and more likely to ascend, is not suffered to do the same even for a brief space of time?
They say, too, that the area of that ark could not contain so many kinds of animals of both sexes, two of the unclean and seven of the clean. But they seem to me to reckon only one area of 300 cubits long and 50 broad, and not to remember that there was another similar in the story above, and yet another as large in the story above that again; and that there was consequently an area of 900 cubits by 150. And if we accept what Origen89 has with some appropriateness suggested, that Moses the man of God, being, as it is written, “learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians,”90 who delighted in geometry, may have meant geometrical cubits, of which they say that one is equal to six of our cubits, then who does not see what a capacity these dimensions give to the ark? For as to their objection that an ark of such size could not be built, it is a very silly calumny; for they are aware that huge cities have been built, and they should remember that the ark was an hundred years in building. Or, perhaps, though stone can adhere to stone when cemented with nothing but lime, so that a wall of several miles may be constructed, yet plank cannot be riveted to plank by mortices, bolts, nails, and pitch-glue, so as to construct an ark which was not made with curved ribs but straight timbers, which was not to be launched by its builders, but to be lifted by the natural pressure of the water when it reached it, and which was to be preserved from shipwreck as it floated about rather by divine oversight than by human skill.
As to another customary inquiry of the scrupulous about the very minute creatures, not only such as mice and lizards, but also locusts, beetles, flies, fleas, and so forth, whether there were not in the ark a larger number of them than was determined by God in His command, those persons who are moved by this difficulty are to be reminded that the words “every creeping thing of the earth” only indicate that it was not needful to preserve in the ark the animals that can live in the water, whether the fishes that live submerged in it, or the sea-birds that swim on its surface. Then, when it is said “male and female,” no doubt reference is made to the repairing of the races, and consequently there was no need for those creatures being in the ark which are born without the union of the sexes from inanimate things, or from their corruption; or if they were in the ark, they might be there as they commonly are in houses, not in any determinate numbers; or if it was necessary that there should be a definite number of all those animals that cannot naturally live in the water, that so the most sacred mystery which was being enacted might be bodied forth and perfectly figured in actual realities, still this was not the care of Noah or his sons, but of God. For Noah did not catch the animals and put them into the ark, but gave them entrance as they came seeking it. For this is the force of the words, “They shall come unto thee,”91 —not, that is to say, by man’s effort, but by God’s will. But certainly we are not required to believe that those which have no sex also came; for it is expressly and definitely said, “They shall be male and female.”’ For there are some animals which are born out of corruption, but yet afterwards they themselves copulate and produce offspring, as flies; but others, which have no sex, like bees. Then, as to those animals which have sex, but without ability to propagate their kind, like mules and shemules, it is probable that they were not in the ark, but that it was counted sufficient to preserve their parents, to wit, the horse and the ass; and this applies to all hybrids. Yet, if it was necessary for the completeness of the mystery, they were there; for even this species has “male and female.”
Another question is commonly raised regarding the food of the carnivorous animals,—whether, without transgressing the command which fixed the number to be preserved, there were necessarily others included in the ark for their sustenance; or, as is more probable, there might be some food which was not flesh, and which yet suited all. For we know how many animals whose food is flesh eat also vegetable products and fruits. especially figs and chestnuts. What wonder is it, therefore, if that wise and just man was instructed by God what would suit each, so that without flesh he prepared and stored provision fit for every species? And what is there which hunger would not make animals eat? Or what could not be made sweet and wholesome by God, who, with a divine facility, might have enabled them to do without food at all, had it not been requisite to the completeness of so great a mystery that they should be fed? But none but a contentious man can suppose that there was no prefiguring of the church in so manifold and circumstantial a detail. For the nations have already so filled the church, and are comprehended in the framework of its unity, the clean and unclean together, until the appointed end, that this one very manifest fulfillment leaves no doubt how we should interpret even those others which are somewhat more obscure, and which cannot so readily be discerned. And since this is so, if not even the most audacious will presume to assert that these things were written without a purpose, or that though the events really happened they mean nothing, or that they did not really happen, but are only allegory, or that at all events they are far from having any figurative reference to the church; if it has been made out that, on the other hand, we must rather believe that there was a wise purpose in their being committed to memory and to writing, and that they did happen, and have a significance, and that this significance has a prophetic reference to the church, then this book, having served this purpose, may now be closed, that we may go on to trace in the history subsequent to the deluge the courses of the two cities,—the earthly, that lives according to men, and the heavenly, that lives according to God.
1 (Gn 9,25,
2 (Rm 9,21,
3 (Gn 4,17,
4 Comp). De Trim. 15,c. 15.
5 (Ga 4,21-31.
6 (Rm 9,22-23).
7 Sg 8,1.
8 Lucan, Phar. 1,95).
9 (Ga 5,17,
10 (Ga 6,2,
11 (1Th 5,14-15.
12 (Ga 6,1,
13 (Ep 4,26,
14 (Mt 18,15,
15 (1Tm 5,20,
16 (He 12,14,
17 (Mt 18,35,
18 (Rm 6,12-13).
19 (Gn 4,6-7.
20 Literally, “division.”
21 (1Jn 3,12).
22 We alter the pronoun to suit Augustin’s interpretation.
23 (Ga 5,17,
24 (Rm 7,17,
25 (Rm 6,13,
26 (Gn 3,16,
27 (Ep 5,28-29.
28 C. Faustum. Man. 12,c. 9).
29 (Gn 4,17
30 (Gn 4,25,
31 Lamech, according to the LXX.
32 (Ex 12,37).
33 Virgil, Aen., xii 899, 900. Compare the Iliad, 5,302, and Juvenal, 15,65 et seqq. “Terra malos homines nunc educat atque pusillos.”
34 Plin). Hist. Nat.. 7,16.
35 See the account given by Herodotus (i. 67) of the discovery of the bones of Orestes, which, as the story goes, gave a stature of seven cubits.
36 Pliny, Hist. Nat. 7,49, merely reports what he had read in Hellanicus about the Epirotes of Etolia).
37 Our own Mss., of which Augustin here speaks, were the Latin versions of the Septuagint used by the Church before Jerome’s was received; the “Hebrew Mss.” were the versions made from the Hebrew text. Compare De Doct. Christ.ii. 15 et seqq).
38 Jerome (De Qunaest. He in ) says it was a question famous in all the churches—Vives.
39 “Quos in auctoritatem celebriorum Ecclesia suscepit.”
40 See below, book 18,c. 42-44).
41 C. 8).
42 On this subject see Wilkinson’s note to the second book (appendix) of Rawlinson’s Herodotus, where all available reference are given).
43 One hundred and eighty-seven is the number given in the Hebrew, and one hundred and sixty-seven in the Septuagint; but notwithstanding the confusion, the argument of Augustin is easily followed.
44 (Gn 7,10-11, (in our version the seventeenth day)).
45 (Gn 8,4-5).
46 (Ps 90,10).
47 (Gn 4,1).
48 (Gn 4,25,
51 (Mt 1,
52 His own children being the children of his sister, and therefore his nephews).
53 This was allowed by the Egyptians and Athenians, never by the Romans).
54 Both in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, though not uniformly, nor in Latin commonly).
55 (Gn 5,2).
56 (Lc 20,35-36).
57 (Gn 4,18-22.
58 (Gn 4,26,
59 (Rm 8,24-25.
60 (Rm 10,13,
61 (Jr 17,5).
62 Aeneid, 1,288.
63 Aeneid, 3,97.
64 (Lc 20,34,
65 (Rm 9,5,
66 Eusebius, Jerome, Bede, and others, who follow the Septuagint, reckon only 2242 years, which Vives explains by supposing Augustin to have made a copyist’s error).
68 (Ps 51,3).
69 (Gn 5,1).
70 (Ps 49,11).
71 (Ps 73,20,
72 (Ps 52,8).
73 (Ps 40,4).
74 Or, according to another reading, “Which I briefly said in these verses in praise of a taper.”
75 (Ct 2,4,
76 See De Doct. Christ. 1,28.
77 (Ps 104,4,
78 On these kinds of devils, see the note of Vives in loc, or Lecky’s Hist. of Rationalism, 1,26, who quotes from Maury’s Histoire de la Magie, that the Dusii were Celtic spirits, and are the origin of our “Deuce.”
79 (2P 2,4).
80 (Mc 1,2).
81 (Ml 2,7).
82 (Gn 6,1-4. Lactantius (Inst. ii. 15), Sulpicius Severus (Hist. 1,2), and others suppose from this passage that angels had commerce with the daughters of men. See further references in the commentary of Pererius in loc.
83 Aquila lived in the time of Hadrian, to whom he is said to have been related. He was excommunicated from the Church for the practice of astrology; and is best known by his translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, which he executed with great care and accuracy, though he has been charged with falsifying passages to support the Jews in their opposition to Christianity).
84 (Ps 82,6).
85 Ba 3,26-28.
86 Lit.: The Lord thought and reconsidered.
87 (Gn 6,5-7).
88 (1Tm 2,5).
89 In his second homily on Genesis).
90 (Ac 7,22).
91 (Gn 6,19-20).
Argument—In the former part of this book, from the first to the twelfth chapter, the progress of the two cities, the earthly and the heavenly, from Noah to Abraham, is exhibited from Holy Scripture: In the latter part, the progress of the heavenly alone, from Abraham to the kings of Israel, is the subject.
It is difficult to discover from Scripture, whether, after the deluge, traces of the holy city are continuous, or are so interrupted by intervening seasons of godlessness, that not a single worshipper of the one true God was found among men; because from Noah, who, with his wife, three sons, and as many daughters-in-law, achieved deliverance in the ark from the destruction of the deluge, down to Abraham, we do not find in the canonical books that the piety of any one is celebrated by express divine testimony, unless it be in the case of Noah, who commends with a prophetic benediction his two sons Shem and Japheth, while he beheld and foresaw what was long afterwards to happen. It was also by this prophetic spirit that, when his middle son—that is, the son who was younger than the first and older than the last born—had sinned against him, he cursed him not in his own person, but in his son’s (his own grandson’s), in the words, “Cursed be the lad Canaan; a servant shall he be unto his brethren.”1 Now Canaan was born of Ham, who, so far from covering his sleeping father’s nakedness, had divulged it. For the same reason also he subjoins the blessing on his two other sons, the oldest and youngest, saying, “Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. God shall gladden Japheth, and he shall dwell in the houses of Shem.”2 And so, too, the planting of the vine by Noah, and his intoxication by its fruit, and his nakedness while he slept, and the other things done at that time, and recorded, are all of them pregnant with prophetic meanings, and veiled in mysteries.3
The things which then were hidden are now sufficiently revealed by the actual events which have followed. For who can carefully and intelligently consider these things without recognizing them accomplished in Christ? Shem, of whom Christ was born in the flesh, means “named.” And what is of greater name than Christ, the fragrance of whose name is now everywhere perceived, so that even prophecy sings of it beforehand, comparing it in the Song of Songs,4 to ointment poured forth? Is it not also in the houses of Christ, that is, in the churches, that the “enlargement” of the nations dwells? For Japheth means “enlargement.” And Ham (i.e., hot), who was the middle son of Noah, and, as it were, separated himself from both, and remained between them, neither belonging to the first-fruits of Israel nor to the fullness of the Gentiles, what does he signify but the tribe of heretics, hot with the spirit, not of patience, but of impatience, with which the breasts of heretics are wont to blaze, and with which they disturb the peace of the saints? But even the heretics yield an advantage to those that make proficiency, according to the apostle’s saying, “There must also be heresies, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you.”5 Whence, too, it is elsewhere said, “The son that receives instruction will be wise, and he uses the foolish as his servant.”6 For while the hot restlessness of heretics stirs questions about many articles of the catholic faith, the necessity of defending them forces us both to investigate them more accurately, to understand them more clearly, and to proclaim them more earnestly; and the question mooted by an adversary becomes the occasion of instruction. However, not only those who are openly separated from the church, but also all who glory in the Christian name, and at the same time lead abandoned lives, may without absurdity seem to be figured by Noah’s middle son: for the passion of Christ, which was signified by that man’s nakedness, is at once proclaimed by their profession, and dishonored by their wicked conduct. Of such, therefore, it has been said, “By their fruits ye shall know them.”7 And therefore was Ham cursed in his son, he being, as it were, his fruit. So, too, this son of his, Canaan, is fitly interpreted “their movement,” which is nothing else than their work. But Shem and Japheth, that is to say, the circumcision and uncircumcision, or, as the apostle otherwise calls them, the Jews and Greeks, but called and justified, having somehow discovered the nakedness of their father (which signifies the Saviour’s passion), took a garment and laid it upon their backs, and entered backwards and covered their father’s nakedness, without their seeing what their reverence hid. For we both honor the passion of Christ as accomplished for us, and we hate the crime of the Jews who crucified Him. The garment signifies the sacrament, their backs the memory of things past: for the church celebrates the passion of Christ as already accomplished, and no longer to be looked forward to, now that Japheth already dwells in the habitations of Shem, and their wicked brother between them.
122 But the wicked brother is, in the person of his son (i.e., his work), the boy, or slave, of his good brothers, when good men make a skillful use of bad men, either for the exercise of their patience or for their advancement in wisdom. For the apostle testifies that there are some who preach Christ from no pure motives; “but,” says be, “whether in pretence or in truth, Christ is preached; and I therein do rejoice, yea, and will rejoice.”8 For it is Christ Himself who planted the vine of which the prophet says, “The vine of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel;”9 and He drinks of its wine, whether we thus understand that cup of which He says, “Can ye drink of the cup that I shall drink of?”10 and, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me,”11 by which He obviously means His passion. Or, as wine is the fruit of the vine, we may prefer to understand that from this vine, that is to say, from the race of Israel, He has assumed flesh and blood that He might suffer; “and he was drunken,” that is, He suffered; “and was naked,” that is, His weakness appeared in His suffering, as the apostle says, “though He was crucified through weakness.”12 Wherefore the same apostle says, “The weakness of God is stronger than men; and the foolishness of God is wiser than men.”13 And when to the expression “he was naked” Scripture adds “in his house,” it elegantly intimates that Jesus was to suffer the cross and death at the hands of His own household, His own kith and kin, the Jews. This passion of Christ is only externally and verbally professed by the reprobate, for what they profess. they do not understand. But the elect hold in the inner man this so great mystery, and honor inwardly in the heart this weakness and foolishness of God. And of this there is a figure in Ham going out to proclaim his father’s nakedness; while Shem and Japheth, to cover or honor it, went in, that is to say, did it inwardly.
These secrets of divine Scripture we investigate as well as we can. All will not accept our interpretation with equal confidence, but all hold it certain that these things were neither done nor recorded without some foreshadowing of future events, and that they are to be referred only to Christ and His church, which is the city of God, proclaimed from the very beginning of human history by figures which we now see everywhere accomplished. From the blessing of the two sons of Noah, and the cursing of the middle son, down to Abraham, or for more than a thousand years, there is, as I have said, no mention of any righteous persons who worshipped God. I do not therefore conclude that there were none; but it had been tedious to mention every one, and would have displayed historical accuracy rather than prophetic foresight. The object of the writer of these sacred books, or rather of the Spirit of God in him, is not only to record the past, but to depict the future, so far as it regards the city of God; for whatever is said of those who are not its citizens, is given either for her instruction, or as a foil to enhance her glory. Yet we are not to suppose that all that is recorded has some signification; but those things which have no signification of their own are interwoven for the sake of the things which are significant. It is only the ploughshare that cleaves the soil; but to effect this, other parts of the plough are requisite. It is only the strings in harps and other musical instruments which produce melodious sounds; but that they may do so, there are other parts of the instrument which are not indeed struck by those who sing, but are connected with the strings which are struck, and produce musical notes. So in this prophetic history some things are narrated which have no significance, but are, as it were, the framework to which the significant things are attached.
We must therefore introduce into this work an explanation of the generations of the three sons of Noah, in so far as that may illustrate the progress in time of the two cities. Scripture first mentions that of the youngest son, who is called Japheth: he had eight sons,14 and by two of these sons seven grandchildren, three by one son, four by the other; in all, fifteen descendants. Ham, Noah’s middle son, had four sons, and by one of them five grandsons, and by one of these two great-grandsons; in all, eleven. After enumerating these, Scripture returns to the first of the sons, and says, “Cush begat Nimrod; he began to be a giant on the earth. He was a giant hunter against the Lord God: wherefore they say, As Nimrod the giant hunter against the Lord. And the beginning of his kingdom was Babylon, Erech, Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. Out of that land went forth Assur, and built Nineveh, and the city Rehoboth, and Calah, and Resen between Nineveh and Calah: this was a great city.” Now this Cush, father of the giant Nimrod, is the first-named among the sons of Ham, to whom five sons and two grandsons are ascribed. But he either begat this giant after his grandsons were born, or, which is more credible, Scripture speaks of him separately on account of his eminence; for mention is also made of his kingdom, which began with that magnificent city Babylon, and the other places, whether cities or districts, mentioned along with it. But what is recorded of the land of Shinar which belonged to Nimrod’s kingdom, to wit, that Assur went forth from it and built Nineveh and the other cities mentioned with it, happened long after; but he takes occasion to speak of it here on account of the grandeur of the Assyrian kingdom, which was wonderfully extended by Ninus son of Belus, and founder of the great city Nineveh, which was named after him, Nineveh, from Ninus. But Assur, father of the Assyrian, was not one of the sons of Ham, Noah’s son, but is found among the sons of Shem, his eldest son. Whence it appears that among Shem’s offspring there arose men who afterwards took possession of that giant’s kingdom, and advancing from it, founded other cities, the first of which was called Nineveh, from Ninus. From him Scripture returns to Ham’s other son, Mizraim; and his sons are enumerated, not as seven individuals, but as seven nations. Arid from the sixth, as if from the sixth son, the race called the Philistines are said to have sprung; so that there are in all eight. Then it returns again to Canaan, in whose person Ham was cursed; and his eleven sons are named. Then the territories they occupied, and some of the cities, are named. And thus, if we count sons and grandsons, there are thirty-one of Ham’s descendants registered.
It remains to mention the sons of Shem, Noah’s eldest son; for to him this genealogical narrative gradually ascends from the youngest. But in the commencement of the record of Shem’s sons there is an obscurity which calls for explanation, since it is closely connected with the object of our investigation. For we read, “Unto Shem also, the father of all the children of Heber, the brother of Japheth the elder, were children born.”15 This is the order of the words: And to Shem was born Heber, even to himself, that is, to Shem himself was born Heber, and Shem is the father of all his children. We are intended to understand that Shem is the patriarch of all his posterity who were to be mentioned, whether sons, grandsons, great-grand-sons, or descendants at any remove. For Shem did not beget Heber, who was indeed in the fifth generation from him. For Shem begat, among other sons, Arphaxad; Arphaxad begat Cainan, Cainan begat Salah, Salah begat Heber. And it was with good reason that he was named first among Shem’s offspring, taking precedence even of his sons, though only a grandchild of the fifth generation; for from him, as tradition says, the Hebrews derived their name, though the other etymology which derives the name from Abraham (as if Abrahews)may possibly be correct. But there can be little doubt that the former is the right etymology, and that they were called after Heber, Heberews, and then, dropping a letter, Hebrews; and so was their language called Hebrew, which was spoken by none but the people of Israel among whom was the city of God, mysteriously prefigured in all the people, and truly present in the saints. Six of Shem’s sons then are first named, then four grandsons born to one of these sons; then it mentions another son of Shem, who begat a grandson; and his son, again, or Shem’s great-grandson, was Heber. And Heber begat two sons, and called the one Peleg, which means “dividing;” and Scripture subjoins the reason of this name, saying, “for in his days was the earth divided.” What this means will afterwards appear. Heber’s other son begat twelve sons; consequently all Shem’s descendants are twenty-seven. The total number of the progeny of the three sons of Noah is seventy-three, fifteen by Japheth, thirty-one by Ham, twenty-seven by Shem. Then Scripture adds, “These are the sons of Shem, after their families, after their tongues, in their lands, after their nations.” And so of the whole number “These are the families of the sons of Noah after their generations, in their nations; and by these were the isles of the nations dispersed through the earth after the flood.” From which we gather that the seventy-three (or rather, as I shall presently show, seventy-two) were not individuals, but nations. For in a former passage, when the sons of Japheth were enumerated, it is said in conclusion, “By these were the isles of the nations divided in their lauds, every one after his language, in their tribes, and in their nations.”
But nations are expressly mentioned among the sons of Ham, as I showed above. “Mizraim begat those who are called Ludim;” and so also of the other seven nations. And after ’enumerating all of them, it concludes, “These are the sons of Ham, in their families, according to their languages, in their territories, and in their nations.” The reason, then, why the children of several of them are not mentioned, is that they belonged by birth to other nations, and did not themselves become nations. Why else is it, that though eight sons are reckoned to Japheth, the sons of only two of these are mentioned; and though four are reckoned to Ham, only three are spoken of as having sons; and though six are reckoned to Shem, the descendants of only two of these are traced? Did the rest remain childless? We cannot suppose so; but they did not produce nations so great asto warrant their being mentioned, but were absorbed in the nations to which they belonged by birth.
But though these nations are said to have been dispersed according to their languages, yet the narrator recurs to that time when all had but one language, and explains how it came to pass that a diversity of languages was introduced. “The whole earth,” he says, “was of one lip, and all had one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar, and dwelt there. And they said one to another, Come, and let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly. And they had bricks for stone, and slime for mortar. And they said, Come, and let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top shall reach the sky; and let us make us a name, before we be scattered abroad on the face of all the earth. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the Lord God said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Come, and let us go down, and confound there their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. And God scattered them thence on the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city and the tower. Therefore the name of it is called Confusion; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and the Lord God scattered them thence on the face of all the earth.”16 This city, which was called Confusion, is the same as Babylon, whose wonderful construction Gentile history also notices. For Babylon means Confusion. Whence we conclude that the giant Nimrod was its founder, as had been hinted a little before, where Scripture, in speaking of him, says that the beginning of his kingdom was Babylon, that is, Babylon had a supremacy over the other cities as the metropolis and royal residence; although it did not rise to the grand dimensions designed by its proud and impious founder. The plan was to make it so high that it should reach the sky, whether this was meant of one tower which they intended to build higher than the others, or of all the towers, which might be signified by the singular number, as we speak of “the soldier,” meaning the army, and of the frog or the locust, when we refer to the whole multitude of frogs and locusts in the plagues with which Moses smote the Egyptians.17 But what did these vain and presumptuous men intend? How did they expect to raise this lofty mass against God, when they had built it above all the mountains and the clouds of the earth’s atmosphere? What injury could any spiritual or material elevation do to God? The safe and true way to heaven is made by humility, which lifts up the heart to the Lord, not against Him; as this giant is said to have been a” hunter against the Lord.” This has been misunderstood by some through the ambiguity of the Greek word, and they have translated it, not “against the Lord,” but “before the Lord;” for ejnantivon means both “before” and “against.” In the Psalm this word is rendered, “Let us weep before the Lord our Maker.”18 The same word occurs in the book of Job, where it is written, “Thou hast broken into fury against the Lord.”19 And so this giant is to be recognized as a “hunter against the Lord.” And what is meant by the term “hunter” but deceiver, oppressor, and destroyer of the animals of the earth? He and his people therefore, erected this tower against the Lord, and so gave expression to their impious pride; and justly was their wicked intention punished by God, even though it was unsuccessful. But what was the nature of the punishment? As the tongue is the instrument of domination, in it pride was punished; so that man, who would not understand God when He issued His commands, should be misunderstood when he himself gave orders. Thus was that conspiracy disbanded, for each man retired from those he could not understand, and associated with those whose speech was intelligible; and the nations were divided according to their languages, and scattered over the earth as seemed good to God, who accomplished this in ways hidden from and incomprehensible to us.
We read, “The Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men built:” it was not the sons of God, but that society which lived in a merely human way, and which we call the earthly city. God, who is always wholly everywhere, does not move locally; but He is said to descend when He does anything in the earth out of the usual course, which, as it were, makes His presence felt. And in the same way, He does not by “seeing” learn some new thing, for He cannot ever be ignorant of anything; but He is said to see and recognize, in time, that which He causes others to see and recognize. And therefore that city was not previously being seen as God made it be seen when He showed how offensive it was to Him. We might, indeed, interpret God’s descending to the city of the descent of His angels in whom He dwells; so that the following words, “And the Lord God said, Behold, they are all one race and of one language,” and also what follows, “Come, and let us go down and confound their speech,” are a recapitulation, explaining how the previously intimated “descent of the Lord” was accomplished. For if He had already gone down, why does He say, “Come, and let us go down and confound?”—words which seem to be addressed to the angels, and to intimate that He who was in the angels descended in their descent. And the words most appropriately are, not, “Go ye down and confound,” but, “Let us confound their speech;” showing that He so works by His servants, that they are themselves also fellow-laborers with God, as the apostle says, “For we are fellow-laborers with God.”20
Augustin: City of God 120