The first half of Chapter 11 tells the story of the Tower of Babel (in a form much truncated from the one I received in Sunday school!), while the second half jumps back into genealogies. Yay.
“Now the whole earth had one language and few words” (Gen. 11:1). I’m having trouble harmonizing the first line of this chapter with:
- “These are the sons of Japheth in their lands, each with his own language, by their families, in their nations” (Gen. 10:5).
- “These are the sons of Ham, by their families, their languages, their lands, and their nations” (Gen. 10:20).
- “These are the sons of Shem, by their families, their languages, their lands, and their nations” (Gen. 10:31).
I wondered about the timing of events and whether it might be possible to reconcile Chapter 10 with Chapter 11 by assuming that we’ve gone back in time to before the descendants of the three brothers acquired their various languages. Possible. But then my study bible came around and knocked that theory out of the water: “This tradition is clearly independent of and different from the table of nations.”
In any case, humans in the land of Shinar invent bricks and mortar and decide to build themselves a city, “and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Gen. 11:4). At the risk of relying too heavily on my study bible’s notes, it says that: “in the eyes of nomads Mesopotamian city culture was characterized by the ziggurat, a pyramidal temple tower whose summit was believed to be the gateway to heaven.”
I just want to point out that we’ve only seen somewhere between one and six generations since the entire world population was reduced to eight people. The idea that we have a need to start building cities, as opposed to hamlets or, depending on fecundity, villages is rather silly. But a city they build, and God comes down to see it.
At this point, the typical Sunday School interpretation is that God doesn’t like the tower because it displays hubris. The people were building a tower to reach heaven (and, if I remember my own childhood instruction correctly, trying to get into heaven without having to be good on earth), they were trying to position themselves as gods. This is what warranted punishment.
But I don’t see this reading in the text itself. God tells us why he doesn’t like the tower: “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” (Gen. 11:6). In other words, God is worried that humanity – when able to work together – may become too powerful. God doesn’t want us working together to accomplish our goals. He wants miscommunication, he wants confusion, he wants factioning.
There’s a lesson for us here: we can accomplish anything if we’re willing to work together. But the Bible doesn’t want empowered people. It wants us to be ignorant and subservient, awed by the power of a God whose might we can collectively match. This God is a jealous god.
Is pettiness really an acceptable trait for the recipient of worship?
Moving on, God confuses their language and “scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth” (Gen. 11:9). Once again, “all the earth” refers only to the regions in or around the Middle East, and we’re only talking about, at most, the number of people that can be produced in six generations. If the incest forced by the Adam & Eve and Noah bottlenecks wasn’t enough, we’ve now split up an already very small number of people. Excellent.
Ebonmuse has a great post up on Daylight Atheism dealing with the Tower of Babel story.
The Sons of Shem
Getting sick of genealogies yet? We still have a long way to go…
- Shem: 100 when Arphaxad is born, 600 at death.
- Arphaxad: 35 when Shelah is born, 438 at death.
- Shelah: 30 when Eber is born, 433 at death.
- Eber: 34 when Peleg is born, 464 at death.
- Peleg: 30 when Reu is born, 239 at death.
- Reu: 32 when Serug is born, 239 at death.
- Serug: 30 when Nahor is born, 230 at death.
- Nahor: 29 when Terah is born, 148 at death.
- Terah: 70 when Abram, Nahor, and Haran are born (triplets?), 205 at death.
- Haran: Father of Lot, Milcah, and Iscah.
I found it interesting that both Arphaxad and Shelah lived exactly 403 years after the birth of their respective named sons. After them, Eber lived for 430 years after the birth of his son. And look at all those repetitions of the number 30! I also like how many of the ages in the genealogies are in multiples of five – which is precisely what I would think of if I were making up a bunch of numbers.
The Migration of Terah
Haran dies young, while his father is still alive. To break up the sausage-fest a bit, we finally get some women in this story. Abram marries Sarai and Nahor marries Milcah (his niece). Sarai, of course, is barren (because nothing could possibly be wrong with Abram’s equipment, I’m sure).
Terah, Abram, Lot, and Sarai all leave Ur (“of the Chaldeans”) and head for Canaan. On their way, they come to Haran (not to be confused with Haran the deceased son) and decide to settle there. Terah dies in Haran. Incidentally, my study bible says that “the migration from Mesopotamia into Canaan was a phase of population movements in the early part of the second millennium B.C., occasioned by the influx of Amorites from the Arabian desert.”