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Genesis: The Tower of Babel

This lesson is a part of an audio course Why Read Genesis by Robert Garland

Chapter 10 begins with a passage known as the Table of Nations. It is, as Alter puts it, an unprecedented attempt to trace the descent of all nations upon the earth – all with whom the Hebrews had any contact – 70 in total. The impression one receives from the Table is that human beings are spreading rapidly over the face of the Earth, after being all but wiped out during the Flood.

The Tower of Babel, like many memorable stories in the Hebrew Bible, is very short. In fact it's told in just nine verses. It begins with the statement that the whole earth was "of one language". There weren't any regional variants, nor any dialects. However, it came to pass – that beautiful phrase in the translation of the King James Version, which isn't actually in the Hebrew – a certain group of people – they are just referred to indefinitely as "they"­ – settled in the Land of Shinar – that's to say, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, a very fertile area, and decided to build a tower whose top would reach as far as heaven, and to give themselves a name, to prevent themselves – this is important – from being scattered abroad over the Earth.

For the first time in Genesis we have the sense of a people seeking their own identity – a central theme in the Abraham story, which follows immediately afterwards. So the people build a tower, and the tower excites the curiosity of the Lord, who comes down, evidently from the sky, to see what it's all about. The fact that this indeterminate "they" are united and acting collectively and speaking one language troubles the Lord because, as He says, there won't be anything that they won't be able to achieve afterwards. In other words, He sees humanity progressing in a way that represents a threat to Himself. In consequence, He scatters people, they stop building the city, and they no longer speak a single language. And that, Genesis concludes, is the reason why the tower is called Babel because in the translated of Everett Fox he baffled their language. Our word "babble", meaning to speak in a language that is incomprehensible to those who don't speak it obviously derives from this.

The story of the Tower of Babel is, quite obviously, yet another aetiology. It explains why different peoples speak different languages. It goes further than that, however. It's an acknowledgement that different language constitute a barrier to understanding, to communication, and to co-operation between peoples.

One other thing to note: although the Lord opposes human progress, He does not act as ruthlessly as He did in the Noah story. He punishes humans but He does not obliterate them. And justly so, we might note. It's not in this case sin that provokes His anger but arrogance, the enduring human aspiration to be on the same level as God. What the Greeks called hubris, and indeed in Greek mythology there are many stories that deal with the same them – the human aspiration to challenge the divine. The satyr Marsyas challenges the god Apollo to a musical contest. He loses and is flayed alive. The tower of Babel, too, is a symbol of the human desire to equate itself with the divine. But it's condemning more than arrogance. It also amounts to a condemnation of technology and of urbanism, which Genesis regards as inconsistent with God's will. Genesis, let's not forget, is the story of a nomadic people who lived in tents.

We now get more lists of names until we reach a character called Terah, who is the father of Abraham. Incidentally the Hebrew Bible provides ages of individuals, which is why Bishop Ussher in the 17th century thought it was possible to calculate the exact age of the Earth. Ussher deduced that the first day of creation was October 23, 4400 years before the Common Era.

Genesis now takes a change of direction, as we begin what is called the patriarchal narratives – the narratives that lead to the foundation of the twelve tribes of Israel. Abraham – or Abram as he is first known, and as I will call him to begin with – is a real flesh and blood character, unlike all the other personages we've met thus far. We learn a great deal about his personality, and it isn't invariably to our liking, at least to us moderns I suggest. He goes on a long journey with many twists and turns, like Odysseus, the hero of Homer's Odyssey, but he's certainly not like Odysseus in any other way. For one thing, he's 75 years old when he sets out on his journey. For another, he's not searching to return home, like Odysseus. He's searching for a home, as, too, are his descendants later in Genesis. He's what we would call today an economic migrant. He's deeply religious, yet despite or perhaps because of that, God repeatedly tests him to discover the depths of his faith. And though God blesses Abram, it's up to him to work out how to capitalise on that blessing, so to speak. The story of his life is propelled forward by two concerns: number one, by his desire to produce a male heir; and number two, by his desire to improve his material circumstances and make money.

Abram's story is the subject of the next lesson.

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Written by

Robert Garland