Sunday, September 8, 2013

The tower of Babel

10 These are the generations of the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Sons were born to them after the flood.…32 These are the clans of the sons of Noah, according to their genealogies, in their nations, and from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood.
The Table of Nations apparently represents the known world, from the standpoint of the narrator. It seems to lack a consistent classification scheme or selection criterion. That's probably because the narrator is constrained by the facts on the ground. Real life is messy. 
In general, the descendants of Shem reside in the countryside (as pastoral nomads), the descendants of Ham live in cities, while the descendants of Japheth occupy islands and coastlines (Kitchen 2003). 
Gen 11 is bookended by two genealogies of Seth. This portends a fork in the line of Seth–between those whose orientation is into Babylon, and those (e.g. Abraham) whose orientation out of Babylon (Sailhamer 2008).
11 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.
Some linguists deny that extant languages are reducible to a single Ur-language–although Chomsky has postulated a universal grammar. As a result, some scholars think this is referring to a lingua franca (Gordon 1971; Hamilton 1990). However, if the extant human race descends from the survivors of the flood, then at one time the language spoken by the eight passengers on the ark was the mother tongue of all humanity.
This also has some implications for dating the episode. It had to take place before widespread migration and geographical isolation led to the evolution of multiple dialects and languages.  
This account is not an etiology for the origin of linguistic diversity, but a set-up for what follows. 
 2 And as people migrated from the east,
In Pentateuchal usage, the eastern direction is ominous. Away from the Garden. 
 they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 
Shinar is Sumer, in southern Mesopotamia. Since the ark landed in northern Mesopotamia, that's consistent with human history up to this point.  
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.
Because Mesopotamia is rich in clay, but poor in rock, settlers adapted to the natural resources.
 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city
Cities have a dubious connotation in the Pentateuch. They concentrate evil, like Sodom and Gomorrah. God summons Abraham out of settled life in the city. 
 and a tower with its top in the heavens,
There's some dispute about the identity of the tower. Many scholars think this is a ziggurat (Walton 1995). A ziggurat was a sacred mountain. But that identification creates a potential problem for dating the episode. The ziggurat developed in the third millennium, which may be too late (Wiseman 1983).
The Hebrew term doesn't specify a ziggurat. It's more often used for watchtowers or citadels. So this could be referring to a fortified city (Hoerth 1998). And that dovetails with the way Canaanite cities are described (Deut (9:1). On the other hand, the setting is Babylonian rather than Palestinian. So that, along with the stereotypical terminology, may favor a ziggurat. Still, the reference is cursory. 
It's possible that the depiction is deliberately anachronistic. Perhaps the narrator is intentionally updating the past, to telescope a longer period or make it  more familiar to his audience. 
The description is reminiscent of "Jacob's ladder" (Gen 28:12), which may indicate its symbolic function. 
Due to uncertainties regarding the date of the incident and the identification of the "tower," it is prudent not to center one's interpretation on the assumption that this was a ziggurat (Mathews 1996). 
 and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” 
To some extent their desperation is understandable. Due to mortality and dislocation, life is fragmented and fleeting. Our existence lacks continuity. We are scattered to the four winds. It's terrifyingly easy to be lost in time and space. This reflects the homeless motif in Scripture. Because our primal parents were banished from the Garden, we are born in exile–far from our ancestral home. In a fallen world, human existence is nomadic. Impermanence is our lot. Places change. Loved ones die. 
But their attitude is wrong in two respects:
i) They defy God's postdiluvial mandate to fill the earth (Gen 9:1). 
ii) They seek security in themselves rather than God. God alone is our dwelling-place in all generations (Ps 90:1). What time, space, and death have scattered, only God can regather. 
They have learned nothing from the flood. History repeats itself. 
5 And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, 
This belittles their vaulted aspirations. From a God's-eye viewpoint, their boastful city and proud tower is an anthill. 
which the children of man had built.
"Sons of men" hearkens back to Adam and his fatal legacy. Dust to dust (Gen 3:19).
 6 And the Lord said, “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. 7 Come, let us go down and there confuse their language,
Man proposes, but God disposes.
 so that they may not understand one another's speech.” 
Cooperation requires communication. If they can't understand each other, they can't collaborate. 
8 So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.
The ants are scattered, like a burning anthill. 
 9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth.
A play on words. 
 And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth.
God forces them to fulfill his mandate. 
There's something almost fatalistic about this story. They achieve the very thing they fear by striving to avoid it. Poetic justice. Today's utopia is tomorrow's dystopia. 
Gordon, C. Before Columbus (Crown 1971), 107, 165-66.
Hamilton, V. The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17 (Eerdmans 1990), 350-51.
Hoerth, A. Archaeology & the Old Testament (Baker 1998), 196.
Kitchen, K. The Reliability of the Old Testament (Eerdmans 2003), 430-438, 592-597.
Mathews, K. Genesis 1–11:26 (B&H 1996), 470-472,476. 
Sailhamer, J. Genesis (Zondervan, revised ed., 2008), 143.
Walton, J., “The Mesopotamian Background of the Tower of Babel Account and Its Implications,” BBR 5 (1995), 155-75. 
Wiseman, D. J. Nebuchadrezzar and Babylon (Oxford 1991), 68-73.