Real Bible Studies: The Tower of Babel

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Following the story of the flood, Genesis 10 goes into the descendants of Noah’s sons, Shem, Japheth, and Ham. Ham’s son Canaan, previously cursed by Noah for something his father actually did, is cited as the progenitor of many of the tribes the Israelites will have issues with as they move into the “promised land” including the Amorites, Jebusites, and Hittites, while Shem becomes the ancestor of Abraham and the sons of Israel. Genesis 10 lists several generations of descendants, before picking up the list with the line of descent from Shem to Abram (later Abraham) in Genesis 11.

Before turning to Shem’s family, however, the author of Genesis 11 pauses to relate the story of the Tower of Babel. Most people with any knowledge of the Bible are familiar with this tale of how the people decided to build a tower that would reach into the heavens, and God put a stop to it by confusing their language. It turns out to be another of those curious episodes in the Bible where neither the intentions of the people, nor the reaction of God makes much sense. While I’ve seen dramatizations of the story that attribute the building of the tower to a specific king, usually identified as Nimrod, none of the translations I checked at the Bible Gateway, including the New International Version, the KJV, and the New American Standard Bible, mention a specific king. Nimrod is named as a descendant of Ham in Genesis 10, but there he’s identified as a legendary warrior, responsible for building several cities, Babel not being among them.

The setup for the story is very simple. Everyone on earth speaks the same language, and, after settling in a place called Shinar, they decided to use bricks to build a city with a massive tower. The author of Genesis 11, only tells us that their stated reason for building the tower is to “make a name for ourselves.” I assume this is intended to show their arrogance toward God, but in the actual relation of the story, they make no mention of any intended affront to God, just that they believe they’ll become famous, and won’t get scattered over the earth, which means they’re in for quite a surprise.

God comes down for a visit and, as is usual in stories from Genesis, is surprised by what the people are trying to do and decides to put a stop to it. Otherwise, the people will be able to accomplish anything. Why this is considered a bad thing in the eyes of God isn’t stated, just that God has to stop it. God, having apparently acquired a few more tricks since the flood, decides against wiping everyone from the face of the earth, and this time just makes it impossible for anyone to communicate by confusing their language. This accomplishes the desired goal of stopping the Tower from going up, and causes the people to be scattered, which, given the fact they were wandering tribes to start with, doesn’t significantly change their status.

How exactly any of this relates to the story of Shem and his descendants isn’t clear, as none of them are mentioned in relation to the founding of the city, nor the building of the Tower. In fact, the story isn’t grounded in a specific time or place, other than Shinar, and could have occurred at any point in the stories told in the Bible. Perhaps the author wanted to break up the monotony of all that begetting by Shem and his descendants, by offering a quirky little tale of why everyone speaks different languages, but whatever the intention, the story serves as just a brief interlude before we’re told the generations of Shem, leading us to our next biblical hero, Abram.

Stories such as that of the Tower, attest to the piecemeal nature of the early books of the Bible. Tales are dropped in at various points which may or may not relate to the main story being told, and which add little to the overall narrative. This is not to say that the story of the Tower of Babel isn’t an interesting folk tale in and of itself, but why it appears in the middle of the story of Shem and his descendants isn’t made clear. The NIV does make an attempt to separate it from the story of Shem, but other translations abruptly transition from talking about the Tower back into the story of Shem without any break. Whatever happened at Babel doesn’t appear to have affected Shem, as his descendants are related in the usual manner, without mentioning any difficulties in speaking to one another.

God once again doesn’t come across in the best light, being unaware of what people are up to on earth, and over-reacting once God finds they’re planning on building a tower that will reach into the heavens. God should have known that this would have been impossible, given the building materials and techniques of the time, or the atmospheric difficulties encountered when one reaches a certain elevation, not to mention the difficulties of breaking through the ozone layer. Modern skyscrapers reach much further into “the heavens” than anything early people could have imagined, and God never intervened to stop them from being built. Given the diversity of modern construction crews, it’s also not clear how simply confusing the languages people speak would dissuade them from constructing a tower. It may have made it difficult to talk, but measurements and layouts would have remained intact. In any event, people started speaking different languages, and this was apparently enough to cause them to scatter throughout the earth, which God undoubtedly chalked up as a win.

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