What was so bad about the Tower of Babel? In this episode, Tim and Jon examine the cycle of division within the human race in Genesis 1-11, the violence that occurs when humans unite apart from God, and God’s plan to use one family to redeem all families in the end.
You have the Eden ideal, which is where the human family spreads out, multiplies, subdues the earth, rules it, but retains a unity, in that they are all the image of God together collectively. And you have the Babylon ideal, which tries to unify humanity around an imperial dream of elevating one city’s name into the heavens. It’s a narrative about how human families deify their own tribe into the heavens. That becomes a very dangerous unifying principle.
In part one (0:00–16:00), Tim and Jon explore the cycle of division within the human race in Genesis 1-11.
In Genesis 1-2, the narrator describes the identity of humanity as a unified family that represents the image of God, without dismissing personal uniqueness. But when humans create their own definitions of good and evil, personal differences become a source of conflicts within human relationships.
Genesis 3 kicks off a chain reaction of familial disarray. Adam and Eve hide from each other. Cain kills his brother Abel. Lemek takes two wives and celebrates murder. A cosmic fracturing occurs between the sons of God and the daughters of men (Genesis 6).
God told humanity to “fill the earth” by starting families (Genesis 1:28). And instead they “fill the earth with violence” (Genesis 6:11). God is grieved, and he decides to purify his creation with a great flood (Genesis 6:9-9:17). But God chooses one family through whom he will restore his purpose to bless the nations: the family of Noah.
Now the sons of Noah who came out of the ark were Shem and Ham and Japheth; and Ham was the father of Canaan. These three were the sons of Noah, and from these the whole land was dispersed.
Unfortunately, Noah replays the story of Adam and Eve. He eats from the fruit of his own garden, gets drunk, and winds up naked. And the resulting drama divides family.
In part two (16:00–29:30), Tim walks us through Genesis 10, which is a genealogy of people who become the ancestors of key players throughout the Bible.
The genealogy kicks off with Noah’s three sons, whose descendants produce a total of 70 nations. In Genesis 10:21-31, the narrator introduces us to Shem, the father of all the sons of Eber, later called the Hebrews.
Each of the names in Genesis 10 also refers to a geographic region where families settled and grew into nations.
“The peoples listed amount precisely to seventy… There are fourteen Japhethites, thirty Hamites, and twenty-six Shemites. The figure seventy, even if not explicitly given, can hardly be fortuitous. The mere recognition in verse 5 of the existence of additional, unnamed “coastal nations” lends added significance to the enumeration as being deliberately chosen. In the biblical world the number seventy is “typological”; that is, it is used for rhetorical effect to evoke the idea of totality, of comprehensiveness on a large scale, as opposed to the use of seven on a smaller scale. Thus, according to Genesis 46:27, the entire household of Jacob that went down to Egypt comprised seventy people. The representative body of the entire community of Israel in the wilderness consisted of seventy elders, as recorded in Exodus 24:9 and Numbers 11:24... In light of this convention, one may safely assume that making the offspring of Noah’s sons total seventy is a literary device to convey the notion of the totality of the human race... This device affords an insight into a major function of the Table, a document thus far unparalleled in the ancient world… [It] is no mere academic or scholastic exercise. It affirms, first of all, the common origin and absolute unity of humankind… then it tacitly, but effectively, asserts that the varied instrumentalities of human divisiveness are all secondary to the essential unity of the international community, which truly constitutes a family of man.” –– Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis, The JPS Torah Commentary, p. 69.
Jon points out that although we might take the common origin of humankind for granted today, the ancient world didn’t. Core to the national mythology of many people groups was the belief that they were the only “true” humans and everyone else was somehow subhuman.
Genesis 10, by affirming the “common origin” of humankind, clarifies that all humans share in the image of God equally and are meant to be part of God’s family.
In part three (29:30–35:00), the team examines the description of each people group in Genesis 10 as possessing a different language, emphasizing their separateness and disunity.
The transition from one language spoken on the ark to many languages is jarring, since a relatively short amount of time has transpired. A strange aside in the middle of the Genesis 10 genealogy offers a clue to the source of this change.
Now Cush fathered Nimrod; he became a mighty one on the earth. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord; therefore it is said, “Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the Lord.” And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. From that land he went to Assyria, and built Nineveh, Rehoboth-Ir, Calah, and Resen between Nineveh and Calah; that is the great city. Mizraim fathered Ludim, Anamim, Lehabim, Naphtuhim, Pathrusim, Casluhim (from whom came the Philistines), and Caphtorim.
Nimrod is identified as a Giborim, a descendant of the Nephilim, who founded Babylon (the tower of Babel) where the separate languages originated.
In part four (35:00–46:00), Tim and Jon take a deeper dive into the origin of human languages. Genesis 10 and 11 are out of chronological order, with Genesis 11 functioning like a “flashback” to explain in more detail what Genesis 10:8-12 hints at regarding human languages.
Now all of the land had the same lip and unified words. And it came about, as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. Then they said to one another, “Come, let’s make bricks and fire them thoroughly.” And they used brick for stone, and they used tar for mortar. And they said, each to his neighbor, “Come (הבה), let’s build for ourselves a city and a tower whose head reaches up to the heavens, and let’s make a name for ourselves; lest we be scattered abroad over the face of all the earth.”
Babylon represents an alternate humanity, whose “head” is in the skies, as well as a false Eden. This is humanity’s attempt to deify its own cultural heritage and homogenize humanity and make everything “one.”
So what’s the problem? Isn’t God’s desire to have a unified humanity? Yes, but not like this. The goal is not to replace diversity with homogeneity. Just like in the garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve chose their own definitions of good and bad, in Genesis 11, humanity chooses what unity should look like. Babylon is a human attempt to unify around the wrong name––their own imperial name instead of God’s.
In part five (46:00–end), Tim and Jon talk about God’s response to Babylon. He does what this people group feared most: he scatters them.
And the Lord said, “Behold, one people, all with one speech. And this is what they have started to do, and now nothing which they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come (הבה), let’s go down, and let’s confuse their speech, so they can’t listen, each to the speech of his neighbor.” So Yahweh scattered them… so they called the name “Babylon” (בבל), because there Yahweh confused (בלל) their speech; and from there Yahweh confused the speech of all the land, and scattered them on the face of the land.
God sees that humanity has become too powerful for their own good, and he saves them from themselves, echoing his response to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3.
Genesis 11 is a turning point in the story of the Bible. Up until now, the focus of the Bible has been on all nations. Having scattered the nations abroad, God now turns to Abraham.
Now the Lord said to Abram,
a “Go forth
b1 from your country,
b2 and from your relatives
b3 and from your father’s house,
a’ to the land which I will show you;
a and I will make you a great nation,
b and I will bless you,
a’ and make your name great;
b’ and so you shall be a blessing;
a and I will bless those
b those who bless you,
b’ and the one who curses you
a’ I will curse.
c and in you all the families of the ground will be blessed.”
God’s purpose is to bless humanity in all of its diversity by choosing one family in all of its particularity. The human mission to subdue and rule the earth demands unity, but when humanity undertakes that pursuit in a way that seeks to glorify its own name, that pursuit leads to violence. When we let God make our names great, we find true unity, and all families receive a blessing. God always does things differently than Babylon (we) would.
Show produced by Dan Gummel. Show notes by Lindsey Ponder.
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