“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. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” – GENESIS 11:6-7
I've indicated before that this is not going to be a “gotcha” blog, and I meant it. I’m not here to throw stones, so to speak. I’m not interested in singling out embarrassing passages or highlighting things that seem absurd to my fellow non-believers. Such an approach wouldn’t bring anything new to the discussion, it would be annoying for any believers who might someday read this, and it would be boring for me. I’m much more interested in finding things to enjoy about the Bible. If I didn’t think I would enjoy the book on some level I wouldn’t be reading it.
With that disclaimer out of the way, and I hope I won’t have to repeat it on too many occasions, I felt I had to choose the above excerpt to serve as the lead-in to this post. I can only imagine it must cause some discomfort for believers. If it doesn’t, they must have thought of a pretty good explanation for why God chose to inconvenience us with disparate languages. God doesn’t exactly provide one, except that it is meant to hinder communication and thus stop the construction of a tower to heaven. To be fair, the people didn’t exactly provide an explanation for why they wanted to build a tower in the first place, except that they wanted to “make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4). The attempted construction takes place after the flood; none of the people before the flood, no matter how sinful they may have been, seemed interested in bridging the gap between earth and heaven. Perhaps this post-flood civilization wanted to be closer to God than their doomed forebears, both literally and figuratively. In any case God would have none of it, and thus the descendants of Noah were dispersed throughout the earth and given different languages.
Speaking of Noah’s lineage, it certainly is harder to keep track of than Adam’s. Noah’s family tree spreads out wide as well as deep, and many members of his bloodline seem to be the progenitors of entire cultures. There are too many tribes to keep track of, but they are clearly meant to include all of the various peoples who inhabited what we now call the Holy Land. Abram, who will later take the name Abraham (thanks, Wikipedia), appears somewhere in the list of names in Noah’s line and receives orders from on high to travel to an area inhabited by Canaanites. God promises this land to Abram and his offspring. Abram is with his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot. To escape a famine in the land of the Canaanites they enter Egypt.
There things get a little strange. Abram seems to think he will be killed by people who covet his wife. So he pretends that he and Sarai are siblings — a ruse which has the same affect on Sarai’s life as Abram’s death apparently would have had, but which does keep Abram alive. She becomes one of the Pharaoh’s concubines and Abram gets a lot of gold, silver, and donkeys. God then intervenes, sending plagues to the Pharaoh as punishment for his involvement with a married woman, and the Pharaoh exiles Abram, Sarai, and Lot. The reunited family returns to their new homeland with their new Egyptian riches, which Lot apparently received as well, but Lot and Abram soon find themselves in competition for the same land and part on not-entirely-amicable terms. Lot, however, gets caught up on the losing side of a war and has to be rescued by Abram.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have recapped this story, because I’m struggling to find something insightful to say about it. (I’d have the same problem, though, if I’d chosen to focus on the famous flood of chapters 7-9.) These early adventures of Abram are clearly setting up events to come. I recognize the people’s names and have some idea of what’s going to happen to them afterward. I recognize the importance of the strained relationship between Abram, father of the Hebrews, and the Pharaohs of Egypt. The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah get a mention within these chapters as well, and it is even stated that they will eventually be destroyed. Abram doesn’t come across as a particularly likable character during his stay in Egypt, effectively trading his wife to protect himself and acquire material goods, but perhaps he knew God would come to her aid. By the end of chapter 14 Abram is a more sympathetic figure, having worked out a peaceful arrangement with a political rival (Lot) and then saved that rival from a dicey situation. He takes no spoils of war, saying “I would not take a thread or a sandal strap” other than what his men need to survive (Genesis 14:23-24). This is an ambiguous start for the father of God’s chosen people, but it shows promise. Unlike Adam and Eve, who started off innocently enough but fell into sin, Abram’s moral trajectory seems to have an upward slant. However, knowing what I know about what the future has in store, moral ambiguity and family drama seem likely to continue to hound Abram throughout his life.
God’s decision to scatter the people of the earth and set up barriers to communication also seems to ensure the continuation of other themes that appear for the first time in these chapters: warfare, tribalism, and conflict over land. Would building a tower to heaven really have been worse than these alternatives?