Genesis 10:1-11:9 Spread and Sputter

..the LORD scattered Babel… God seems more worried about there being not any restraint on planned doings… “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” … glorifying in your own is often a precursor to unspeakable violence …Lead me to your new Jerusalem, where people from every tribe, tongue, and nation experience unity without conformity.

Genesis 10:1-11:9

Now these [are] the generations of the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth

Now, another set of generations (towl@dah), our fourth, followed by another round of begats (yalad). Adam’s children still seem to be following through on that part of Noah’s covenant, about being fruitful and multiplying. And some of them — eventually? — get around to filling the earth:

By these were the isles of the Gentiles divided in their lands; every one after his tongue, after their families, in their nations

These [are] the families of the sons of Noah, after their generations, in their nations: and by these were the nations divided in the earth after the flood.

The Gentiles were divided in their lands, or the nations spread out over the earth (in both cases, gowy paraderets). I suspect the Hebrew is ambiguous, since the KJV renders this as passive (nations were spread out) while the NIV uses the active (nations spread out). This becomes more significant in the context of Chapter 11, where God seems to be doing explicit dividing:

Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.

What’s going on here? The most natural assumption appears to be that Ch. 11 occurred in the midst of Ch. 10, perhaps around the generation of Peleg:

the name of one [was] Peleg; for in his days was the earth divided

Genealogies apparently being more important than chronologies to the ancient writers. Certainly by the end of Ch. 10 there are many tongues (lashown):

These [are] the sons of Shem, after their families, after their tongues, in their lands, after their nations.

While at the start of Ch. 11 there is only one language (saphah) and speech (dabar):

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.

Yet, ‘lashown’ is used throughout Ch. 10, while ‘sapah’ and occasionally ‘dabar’ appear exclusively in Ch. 11, so they may not imply the same thing. And, even at the beginning of Ch. 11, people seem already to be on the move:

And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.

So, once again, I have no idea what really happened, and the Hebrew (as usual) seems silent on the juicy parts. Did God afflict a unified clan with mutually incomprehensible languages in one divine stroke, resulting in individual family units wandering off in confusion? Or did he bring in immigration and cultural turbulence over a period of generations, leading to a social breakdown and gradual emigration? Its difficult to say, especially since the text leans slightly one way and linguistic anthropology leans hard to the other. The point of the story, though, seems to be that God takes responsibility for it:

Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

If that’s the point, then the question is why?

And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top [may reach] unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.

What’s wrong with that? Why does God take such exception to it?

And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the LORD 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.

Sure, its easy to read this as a jealous and vindictive God who wants to keep people(`am) under His thumb and destroy their incipient self-reliance. But, that’s entirely inconsistent with the previous nine chapters. As far as I remember, God hasn’t yet given any general commands about worship and obedience. Apart from a few restrictions on eating blood and from certain trees, his commands have all been about encouraging human initiative and mastery.

What is it about the so-called Tower of Babel that God takes exception to? Well, it might have to do with their making their own name (`asah shem), or fear of being scattered (puwts) – the latter perhaps stronger and less voluntary than ‘parad’ in Ch. 10. But somehow God seems more worried about there being not any restraint on planned doings (lo’ kol batsar zaman `asah). Why? What’s wrong with that? Isn’t that the goal of technology and human empowerment, to do what we visualize? Isn’t that the usual definition of God’s omnipotence, that He can accomplish whatever He wills?

I am reminded of the apothegmAbsolute power corrupts absolutely” – at least when not married to absolute love. Maybe the Babelites weren’t building a utopia, but a tyranny; to English ears the ‘let us build’ sounds inclusive and egalitarian, but Hebrew is the tense-less banah. It may well have been a single despotic lineage seeking to glorify themselves at expense of the larger community, and that those rulers are the people (‘am) God opposes; certainly the history of ancient building projects lends itself to that interpretation.

It also reminds me of the dangers of ethnocentrism. Its often tempting to prize uniformity and conformity to what seems to us an obviously good ideal. Which we of course are better equipped to interpret than anyone else. But the verdict of history is pretty harsh on cultures who were supposedly sure of their own righteousness and superiority. That is not to argue in favor moral relativism, but rather to argue against pride. Pride is a deadly, evil thing, and glorifying in your own language group and mindset is often a precursor to unspeakable violence against those outside — or those who fall short. Maybe the earth’s cultural diversity exists to remind us that God is bigger than our own imaginings. Maybe God’s judgment on Babel really was a severe mercy, to prevent them from utterly destroying themselves and others.

We’ll have more time to contemplate God’s severity and mercy in the following weeks, as our chronological readings shift from Genesis to the book of Job.


God, I don’t understand your ways. Yet I know I am prone to pride, and self-righteousness, and seeking to build my own name. Lord, save me from the judgment of Babel. Make me willing to be scattered by you, rather than cling to the familiar and idolatrous. Lead me to your new Jerusalem, whose foundation is the Lord, where people from every tribe, tongue, and nation will experience unity without conformity. Reveal to me a taste of the manifold splendor of your divine majesty, which no man — or culture, or even religious tradition — can fully contain. Break open the old wineskins of my limited thoughts, and grant me the grace to walk with you. Amen.