Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Tower of Babel Part I: The Background

The Tower of Babel Part I: The Background
By Dr. Dave Johnson, missionary to the Philippines

Slowly the mud dried as the waters receded.  The flood had been catastrophic, wiping man and beast, flora and fauna, vegetation and crops from the face of the earth.  The destruction had been complete.  Only Noah, his family, and the animals he carried with him on the ark, had been spared.  God was starting over, purging the earth of the fruit of Adam’s rebellion.  But while God was giving mankind another chance, the seed of evil remained (Genesis 8:21).

From Genesis 8:17-9:17, God made a number of promises to Noah and gave several commands.  God also specifically told Noah and his descendents to multiply, which may be the most cheerfully obeyed command that God ever gave!  But along with the command to multiply came the expectation that they would fill the earth, a command which, as we shall see, was not joyfully obeyed.  

In Genesis 10:8, the Bible records that Cush, one of the descendents of Ham, the son of Noah, had a son named Nimrod.  From Noah to Nimrod human society was built around family clans, with the patriarch of the clan serving as the head and no one overall leader.  This understanding of the social structure fits the arrangement of the genealogies in chapter 10, which follow the husband’s, or patriarchal lineage.    

A word must be said about the chronology of Genesis 10 and 11.  First, the genealogical list here, as well as others scattered throughout the Bible, must be seen through a different cultural lens.  The Hebrew concept of fatherhood was different from that of modern western cultures.  To the ancient Hebrews, the term father could also mean grandfather, great-grandfather, or even ancestor.  This is why the Pharisees in John 8:39 could claim to be “children” of Abraham, even though they were many generations removed from him.  A close comparison of the genealogical lists throughout the Bible reveal a number of gaps, which make the various lists appear inaccurate and contradictory unless this cultural viewpoint is understood.  Second, different cultures view exact chronology with varying degrees of importance.  Tracing the timing of where in the genealogy the events of Genesis 11 took place may not be entirely certain because one cannot be sure that doing so exactly was important to Moses, the writer of Genesis and master storyteller. What is important to Moses, for reasons that will be covered in the next blog, is to trace the ancestry of Abraham, the father of the Hebrew nation.

A cursory reading of Genesis 10:5, 20, 32 and 11:1 suggests that these verses may be contradictory, but a closer examination resolves the conundrum.  In 10:6 Moses is giving the genealogy of Noah and his sons both before and after the Tower of Babel experience and, except for the genealogy of Shem, simply chooses not to break up the genealogical list to put in the story of Babel in the time frame where it took place.  The point Moses is making in 10:5 is that when God did divide humanity, he did so along family, clan, and ethnic lines.  In other words, families, both nuclear and extended, remained intact after the judgment at Babel.

Before moving on, two other observations must be about Genesis 10:5.  Here, the word Gentile (NKJV) is used for the first time in the Bible.  By doing so, Moses is preparing his readers to grasp the idea that the origin of the Israelites, God’s chosen people who were separated from among the other nations of the earth, was rooted in the Babel experience, an idea that will be explored more fully in the next blog.  The second is the word nations, which appears in the New King James Version and other translations.  The idea of the modern political nation states was unknown to the early citizens of the earth.  To them, the idea of a nation was more akin to our understanding of ethnic groups. 

Genesis 10:25 says that the earth was divided in the time of Peleg, a descendent of Shem, but it does not say what this means. It may mean that Peleg and his people settled in a land that was easy to plow, thereby dividing the earth into rows, for raising crops (, accessed May 31, 2011).  The most probable meaning, however, is that “the earth” refers to people, not land.  It is likely that Peleg was a contemporary of Nimrod, and the phrase “dividing the earth” refers to dividing the people at Babel.

Nimrod was a descendent of Ham, the second son of Noah. Although we are not told how, he somehow managed to become the world’s first king.  In verse nine he is described as a might hunter “before the Lord” (NKJV). Most scholars suggest that this phrase should be understood as describing Nimrod as being in rebellion against God—a description that fits the context of Genesis well.

Genesis 10:10-12 records that Nimrod presided over the world’s first known empire.  What Genesis 10 does not say is whether his kingdom spread before or after the Tower of Babel experience.  Genesis 11:1, however, suggests that his kingdom did not expand until after the judgment at Babel.  We should also understand that Nimrod settled the areas mentioned in Genesis 10:10-12 rather than conquering them because there was most likely no one yet living in these areas after the Flood. 

Genesis 11:1 tells us that all of humanity lived together in one large community.  While they likely felt this was necessary for defending themselves against wild animals and the forces of nature, it was in direct disobedience to God’s specific command to populate and exercise dominion over the whole earth.   The people were at least semi-nomadic, moving from place to place to find suitable living places for themselves and, most likely, their herds of animals.  After the flood, the survivors and their offspring descended from the mountains of Ararat, which are in modern day Turkey, and migrated to the plain of Shinar, in modern day Iraq, not far from the Garden of Eden—the birthplace of humanity.  The city of Babylon would later be built here; the implications of which will be studied in the next blog.   

When they came to the land of Shinar, they decided to live there and cease their semi-nomadic lifestyle.  Why they chose Shinar is not stated but can be rather easily deduced.  Any civilization needs a water source, and the land of Shinar was in or near the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.  Rivers provide for arable land, good for crops and grazing cattle, and it is fair to assume that the early inhabitants of the earth did both.  Assuming that the plain of Shinar was well watered, it would have been an ideal place to build a permanent community.   

Understanding 11:4 brings us to the heart of the matter.  God had expressly ordered them to spread out and exercise dominion over the earth.  By building a city, they intentionally disobeyed God’s command.  The hint of humanity’s continued rebellion after the Flood that is found in Genesis 8:21 and that can be traced through the person and actions of Nimrod, now comes to full flower.

First, they would build a city.  This is the second reference to building a city in the Bible.  The first was by Cain in Genesis 4:16-17.  Both references indicate that these cities were led by men in opposition to God.  Things haven’t changed much.  Among other things, today our cities today are filled with crime, self-indulgence, greed, graft, corruption, and the breakdown of families.  Rebellion against God remains at the heart of the issue.  But not only would Nimrod’s followers build a city, they would erect a tower “whose top is in the heavens.”  They were not thinking of an early model of the Empire State Building.        
What they intended was a large ziggurat, an ancient altar found throughout the Middle East, that was the center of occultic practices.  As will be explored in the next blog, their intent was to “reach into the heavens” through practices such as astrology and divination.  Those involved in such things attempt to tap into supernatural power that is not submitted to God.

The motive for building both the city and a ziggurat is clearly revealed in verse 4.  Rather than submit to the will of God, they would stand against him.  Rather than seeking his glory, they would honor their own name.  Rather than seek his best, they would be abased.  Again, things haven’t changed much.  Both the full fruit of their rebellion and the God’s judgment, which must be seek as an act of redemption more so than punishment, will be the subjects of the next blog.

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Copyright 2011 Dr. Dave Johnson 

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