Genesis Wrap Up

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I was already fairly familiar with most of the stories in Genesis from pop culture and Sunday School, so I didn’t expect to be as surprised as I was.

My first big shock came right at the beginning with the two accounts of creation. It’s a well-known fact that there are two separate creation stories, each emerging from different traditions. I hear this a lot from Atheists, which is to be expected, but I also hear it from scholars. And, while I’m sure that they are correct about the provenance of the two stories, I found it much easier to harmonize them than I had thought. The imagery of Genesis 1 is of a world, whereas the imagery of Genesis 2 is of a garden – a garden built within a world.

When I heard these stories in Sunday School, I had always assumed that I was getting a shortened version, when in fact the opposite was true. The kiddie versions of these stories are often substantially longer, filling in details that the Bible misses. I was very surprised by how short famous stories like the Tower of Babel actually are.

I was disappointed with the patriarchs. I wasn’t expecting a lot, but I figured that they would at the very least display a contextually appropriate virtue. For all I know, maybe they are. But they bear no resemblance at all to what any modern westerner would regard as upstanding . The only one who might pass as role model is Joseph, whose story is by far the most complex, realistic, and interesting of the whole book.

I knew going in that there would be portions of the famous stories that are commonly glossed over. It turns out that I was correct, but that I hadn’t quite realized the extent of it. What lay person knows that Noah got so drunk that he passed out naked and then cursed his son (and all his son’s descendants) because the poor guy had the misfortune of finding him in that state?

I tried my best to keep up with the family tree as I read, but I had to give up once my tree started looking a bit too much like a web. It didn’t help that some of the branches changed depending on which passage I read. I just don’t have the technology to clearly represent disappearing spouses.

I think my greatest take away from this first book is that God and his patriarchs bear no resemblance whatsoever to that of the modern Christian conception. Even those who believe in the vengeful, cruel God don’t seem to grasp the complexity of the character. As I tried to lay aside the preconceptions I had formed from the sanitized versions of these stories I was familiar with, I realized that Genesis is an alien book written in an alien time by an alien people. I think that it’s a mistake to think that it can be truly understood by a modern lay reader, or that it’s in any way capable of informing our 21st century lives.

Genesis 11: The Tower of Babel

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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.

The Tower

“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.”

Nimrod supervising the construction of the Tower of Babel by master of Jacques d'Armagnac c.1477

Nimrod supervising the construction of the Tower of Babel by master of Jacques d’Armagnac c.1477

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.”