Rev. Izzy Harbin
Genesis 11:1-9, Separation and Scattering
11 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise, we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” 5 The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 6 And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth. (NRSV)
They say that the first inhabitants of the earth, glorying in their own strength and size and despising the gods, undertook to raise a tower whose top should reach the sky, in the place in which Babylon now stands; but when it approached the heaven the winds assisted the gods, and overthrew the work upon its contrivers, and its ruins are said to be still at Babylon; and the gods introduced a diversity of tongues among men, who till that time had all spoken the same language; and a war arose between Cronos and Titan. The place in which they built the tower is now called Babylon on account of the confusion of tongues, for confusion is by the Hebrews called Babel.—(Euseb. Præp. Evan. lib. ix.; Syncel. Chron. xliv.; Euseb. Chron. xiii.)
I love the story of the Tower of Babel. We have another moment early in the biblical text when God decides that greater separation needs to occur between humanity and the divine. The Biblical text is sparse regarding the actual reason for wanting to build the tower, or why God was so displeased with their efforts. This is another passage where we have to look outside of the Bible to other writings available in the day to understand the full context of this story.
The key figure in this story is a guy named Nimrod, identified in Genesis 10:8-9 as the son of Cush (who is the eldest son of Ham, son of Noah) and “the first to become a mighty warrior upon the earth; a mighty hunter before the Lord.” The story in chapter 10 not only reveals the genealogy of Noah’s sons, but also the beginnings of the first cities in the Mesopotamian region. Cush, and subsequently Nimrod, are credited with the development of Babel (later called Babylon), Erech (better known as Uruk), and Accad (known as Akkad), all located in the land of Shinar (Babylon). When talking about the ancient world, there are a variety of sources that offer what appears to be conflicting information. These conflicts, however, are mostly related to language differences. Most scholars now associate many of the early Biblical names with those found in the ancient writings from Mesopotamia and more specifically the Kings of Assur or Sumer. If this is true, then Nimrod is one of the kings of the ancient world that also correlates with the development of the city of Babylon.
In our passage, we find the story of the Tower of Babel built in the Land of Shinar. In the Book of Jasher, we find a few more details which help explain how the tower came to be. In Jasher 7 we are told that Nimrod built up all the cities of the region and that Nimrod ruled over all the sons of Noah. In verses 31-39 the Book of Jasher tells us that Nimrod was a mighty warrior defeating all of his enemies. And in verse 40 is says, “He set over his subjects and people, princes, judges, and rulers, as is the custom amongst kings.”
[Side Note: One such prince was Terah, the son of Nahor, who would become the father of Abram. This is the connection between Nimrod as a ruler over the land and Abram who is called by God to leave this land and go where God would instruct him to go.]
Nimrod, and his son Mardon, were extremely wicked, however, even more so than those prior to the flood. Sadly, there is only a brief mention of Mardon, so we have no idea what happens to him. From the end of chapter 7 in the Book of Jasher and all through chapter 8 we are told this incredible story about the birth of Abram, son of Terah. Finally in chapter 9 we return to the story of the Tower of Babel, which mirrors the story in Genesis. It becomes clear through the extra material provided in the Book of Jasher that Nimrod’s failing was to place himself above all other beings, including the “god” of the heavens. Nimrod believed that he could conquer and subjugate the whole of the earth because of his might and strength. What was originally a gift from God, he turned to greed and power.
The story of Abram is interjected into the story of Nimrod as a counterpoint to the evil machinations of Nimrod. As predicted by several of Nimrod’s spiritual advisors, on the day that Abram was born, they observed in the night sky a bright star streaming across the sky and swallowing up 4 stars at differing points in the sky. They knew from this portent that Abram would become the ruler of all the land and that his family would multiply exceedingly. When this incident was shared with Nimrod, the spiritual advisors knew that it would be the end of Abram. Terah, however, acting in concert with God’s wishes, delivered to Nimrod a day-old infant from one of his servants to stand in place of Abram.
When we reach the moment of the Tower finally being built, Nimrod believes that he has the capacity to reach to the heavens, to conquer the gods, thus placing him as the supreme being of all the world. He believed that his massive tower would save him from anything that the gods might hurl at him. If the earth flooded again, he would survive because of its height. If God sent fire to destroy the earth, he would survive because the tower was made of bricks already burnt by the sun.
God, realizing rather quickly the mindset of Nimrod, devises a plan that Nimrod could not have expected. Instead of sending another flood or raining down fire from heaven, God simply confounds the languages of all the people. Quite the plan, really, because after bringing all of these people under one ruler, one language, one government, suddenly they could no longer understand each other. The confounding of their language hampered the building of the tower and led to their destruction and dispersal. God scattered the people all across the known land.
According to the Biblical text, each of Noah’s sons ended up settling in different regions of the world. But we don’t have a clear sense of the timeline for these events. It cannot be determined from the text alone whether the brothers, upon exiting the Ark, immediately went their separate ways, or whether it happened at the time of this remarkable event where God scatters the people. We also don’t know the methods with which God used to scatter the people. Did they just pack up and start walking? Did God pick them up in one location and drop them off in another? We just don’t know.
What we can witness for ourselves today, though, is nothing short of a miracle. We know that life began somewhere in Africa, that the Mesopotamia region is one of the earliest regions settle by larger groups of people who established cities and governments with laws and civic life. We know that there are strange connections between the ancient people of Mesopotamia and other people around the globe such as the Mayans, Aztecs, and various Indigenous tribes in the Americas and in Australia. We can ignore the connections, or we can embrace them, get curious about them, and attempt to see how the Biblical text gives us a glimpse into the earliest history known to man.
God’s closing of the heavens after this incident brings additional separation between God and humanity. It is this act by God that is more difficult to understand than God’s previous acts of separation. God doesn’t want to be removed from the daily contact with humanity, but humans, designed to be curious and inquisitive, keep looking for ways to return to their creator while enjoying the bounty of earth. I would like to believe that God knew this was a necessary step in the evolution of man, to recognize that there is something greater in the universe than that which exists on earth.
When we begin to grow up, it seems inevitable that we’ll start asking questions like, “Where do we come from?” or “Why are we here?” These questions are fundamental to our development as a species and the fact that we don’t know the answers to these two questions keeps us searching for our creator. It is in our searching that we find something bigger than ourselves, something more profound than our own ideals, that has moved upon the earth and shaped it into what we now witness daily. Our connection to our creator is what draws us back to these ancient stories in the first place. We want to know more about God and how God works in the world.
Ultimately, this story provides context and linkages between the ancient world and the heavenly realm and the continued misguided efforts by humans to operate on the same level as the gods. It provides a plausible, albeit unrealistic, explanation for the varieties of peoples that exist on the planet today and the vast language cache that in many cases shares the same root language. And we cannot ignore how God created more separation between humanity and the heavens. We can look at this separation as something to fear, or we can look at this separation as God’s way of putting his faith in humanity.
As a species, we have been able to accomplish many things. Not always the God thing, but certainly we have achieved beyond our wildest dreams. What God desires most in our endeavors, though, isn’t purely the act of becoming, but rather our ability to see and know the other and how we are intricately connected. I am convinced that at the moment of building the Tower of Babel, there wasn’t any kind of mutual respect happening in the kingdom, just another tyrant lording it over his subjects. This is not who our God is, nor does God want us to behave in this way. We must be the ones, now, to reveal and live according to this newfound (yet ancient) interconnection between all life. We must honor the separation given to us by God by using it to create the connections here on earth that God intended. We were never intended to make our way to heaven by scaling the walls of a tower, but rather by loving one another and creating community here on earth.