Welcome to the SDMB weekly Bible Study (SDMBWBS). This week we will be discussing Genesis 11. Since the discussion can turn into a very broad and hijackable thread, we would like the following rules to be adhered to:
These SDMBWBS threads are to deal with the books and stories in the Bible as literature. What I’m hoping to achieve is an understanding of the stories, the time in which they were written, context, and possibly its cultural relevance.
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The intention is to go through the Bible from front to back in order. While different books are needed to be referred to in order to understand context, please try and keep the focus on the thread’s selected chapter(s)/verse(s).
Since different religions have chosen which books to include or omit, the threads will use the Catholic version of 46 Old Testament Books and 27 New Testament Books. It’s encouraged to discuss why a book was included/omitted during the applicable threads only. BibleHub, as far as I know, is a good resource that compiles many different versions of the verses into one page.(Also the SDMB Staff Reports on Who Wrote the Bible). Please feel free to use whatever source you want, including-and even more helpfully-the original language.
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The Tower of Babel
11 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.
3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
5 But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. 6 The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
8 So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
From Shem to Abram
10 This is the account of Shem’s family line.
Two years after the flood, when Shem was 100 years old, he became the father of Arphaxad. 11 And after he became the father of Arphaxad, Shem lived 500 years and had other sons and daughters.
12 When Arphaxad had lived 35 years, he became the father of Shelah. 13 And after he became the father of Shelah, Arphaxad lived 403 years and had other sons and daughters.
14 When Shelah had lived 30 years, he became the father of Eber. 15 And after he became the father of Eber, Shelah lived 403 years and had other sons and daughters.
16 When Eber had lived 34 years, he became the father of Peleg. 17 And after he became the father of Peleg, Eber lived 430 years and had other sons and daughters.
18 When Peleg had lived 30 years, he became the father of Reu. 19 And after he became the father of Reu, Peleg lived 209 years and had other sons and daughters.
20 When Reu had lived 32 years, he became the father of Serug. 21 And after he became the father of Serug, Reu lived 207 years and had other sons and daughters.
22 When Serug had lived 30 years, he became the father of Nahor. 23 And after he became the father of Nahor, Serug lived 200 years and had other sons and daughters.
24 When Nahor had lived 29 years, he became the father of Terah. 25 And after he became the father of Terah, Nahor lived 119 years and had other sons and daughters.
26 After Terah had lived 70 years, he became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran.
27 This is the account of Terah’s family line.
Terah became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran. And Haran became the father of Lot. 28 While his father Terah was still alive, Haran died in Ur of the Chaldeans, in the land of his birth. 29 Abram and Nahor both married. The name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife was Milkah; she was the daughter of Haran, the father of both Milkah and Iskah. 30 Now Sarai was childless because she was not able to conceive.
31 Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Harran, they settled there.
The Tower of Babel has often been associated with known structures, notably the Etemenanki, a ziggurat dedicated to the Mesopotamian god Marduk by Nabopolassar, king of Babylonia (c. 610 BC). The Great Ziggurat of Babylon base was square (not round), 300 feet in height. A Sumerian story with some similar elements is told in Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta.
Etemenanki (Sumerian: “temple of the foundation of heaven and earth”) was famously rebuilt by the 6th-century BC Neo-Babylonian dynasty rulers Nabopolassar and Nebuchadnezzar II. According to modern scholars such as Stephen L. Harris, the biblical story of the Tower of Babel was likely influenced by Etemenanki during the Babylonian captivity of the Hebrews. Scholars have recently discovered in the Schoyen Collection the oldest known representation of the Etemenanki. Carved on a black stone, The Tower of Babel Stele (as it is known) dates from 604-562 BC, the time of Nebuchadnezzar II. The Greek historian Herodotus (440 BC) later wrote of this ziggurat, which he called the “Temple of Zeus Belus”, giving an account of its vast dimensions. The already decayed Great Ziggurat of Babylon was finally destroyed by Alexander the Great in an attempt to rebuild it. He managed to move the tiles of the tower to another location, but his death stopped the reconstruction.
This is one of the few places where there’s something of an English equivalency to the wordplay. Babel = Babylon. The Hebrew “balal”(meaning “to mix up”) is as good a near-homophone as “babble”. There’s more wordplay in that “nabela” means “let us confuse”, which is pretty much an inversion of the consonantal sounds in “lebenim” (“bricks”). The word for tower (“migdal”) actually indicates a fortified structure. “Babel” means the “Gate of God”, from Akkadian bab-ilu.
The account in Genesis makes no mention of any destruction of the tower. The people whose languages are confounded simply stop building their city, and are scattered from there over the face of the Earth. However, in other sources such as the Book of Jubilees (chapter 10 v.18-27), Cornelius Alexander (frag. 10), Abydenus (frags. 5 and 6), Josephus (Antiquities 1.4.3), and the Sibylline Oracles (iii. 117-129), God overturns the tower with a great wind.
The presence of the phrase “their languages” in Gen 10.5, 20, 31 suggests that this story was originally earlier in the narrative, but was redacted to after the Flood.
The mention of using bricks for stone and bitumen for mortar indicates lower quality building materials than the Hebrews used (at the time of the redaction) and may be at a slam at their former Babylonian captors.
Note that there is a distinct literary structure in that we have humans saying “Come let us mold bricks” and “Come let us build”, followed by the Lord saying “Come let us go down”. There is a certain irony in having the people build a tower to ascend to heaven and the Lord still saying he’s coming down to see it. This is most likely the same use of “us”, BTW, as in earlier portions of Genesis (e.g., 1.26 “let us make man in our own image).
One recent theory first advanced by David Rohl associates Nimrod, the hunter, builder of Erech and Babel, with Enmerkar (i.e., Enmer the Hunter) king of Uruk, also said to have been the first builder of the Eridu temple. (Amar-Sin (c. 2046 – 2037 BC), third monarch of the Third Dynasty of Ur, later attempted to complete the Eridu ziggurat.) This theory proposes that the remains of the historical building that via Mesopotamian legend inspired the story of the Tower of Babel are the ruins of the ziggurat of Eridu, just south of Ur. Among the reasons for this association are the larger size of the ruins, the older age of the ruins, and the fact that one title of Eridu was NUN.KI (“mighty place”), which later became a title of Babylon. Both cities also had temples called the E-Sagila.
Aside from the Ancient Greek myth that Hermes confused the languages, causing Zeus to give his throne to Phoroneus, Frazer specifically mentions such accounts among the Wasania of Kenya, the Kacha Naga people of Assam, the inhabitants of Encounter Bay in Australia, the Maidu of California, the Tlingit of Alaska, and the K’iche’ Maya of Guatemala.
Though not mentioned by name, the Qur’an has a story with similarities to the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel, though set in the Egypt of Moses: Pharaoh asks Haman to build him a stone, or clay tower so that he can mount up to heaven and confront the God of Moses. Another story in Sura 2:102 mentions the name of Babil, but tells of when the two angels Harut and Marut taught the people of Babylon the tricks of magic and warned them that magic is a sin and that their teaching them magic is a test of faith. A tale about Babil appears more fully in the writings of Yaqut (i, 448 f.) and the Lisan el-'Arab (xiii. 72), but without the tower: mankind were swept together by winds into the plain that was afterward called “Babil”, where they were assigned their separate languages by God, and were then scattered again in the same way. In the History of the Prophets and Kings by the 9th-century Muslim theologian al-Tabari, a fuller version is given: Nimrod has the tower built in Babil, God destroys it, and the language of mankind, formerly Syriac, is then confused into 72 languages. Another Muslim historian of the 13th century, Abu al-Fida relates the same story, adding that the patriarch Eber (an ancestor of Abraham) was allowed to keep the original tongue, Hebrew in this case, because he would not partake in the building.
From The Funk & Wagnall’s Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend:
Although it is clear from the story that the work on the city and tower displeased the Lord, the specific sin of the builders is nowhere mentioned. Modern scholars have pointed out that the desire to remain together in one place was in direct conflict with the divine purpose as is expressed to Noah and his sons after the flood: “Be fertile and increase and fill up the earth” (Gen. 9:7) and was, therefore, an affront to God and so necessarily doomed to failure. It is hardly likely that the expressed wish to “make a name for ourselves” could be construed as sinful, since a similar phrase is used in connection with the divine promises to Abraham (Gen. 12:2). Further, Babylonian temple inscriptions frequently refer to the “making great” of the name of the king under whom the particular temple was built or repaired, thereby demonstrating that this formula was commonly used in such instances and need not be understood as expressing an inordinate desire for fame. As for the phrase “with its top in the sky,” it has been noted that there are several examples of Babylonian temple inscriptions which describe buildings as reaching to heaven so that the phrase should be understood not as an expression of the presumption of these people or of their desire to ascend to heaven, but rather as a borrowing by the biblical writer from the technical terminology of Mesopotamian temple inscriptions with which he was evidently familiar. According to this interpretation the sin of these people was, therefore, not presumption or a desire to reach heaven and gain fame, but rather an attempt to change the divinely ordained plan for mankind.
The Tower of Babel narrative is a turning point in history, as understood by the Bible, in that it signals the end of the era of universal monotheism which had existed since the beginning of time. Since the divine election of Abraham and his descendants immediately follows, it must be tacitly assumed that the incident led to the introduction of idolatry into the world.
It’s always hard to follow Prof P, who is so very thorough. However, I have a few little bits. (I’m using my JPS translation, which is more true to the Hebrew. I also apologize for simply taking the position of multiple authors, since there is no difficulty here if you want to think of one Author.)
Verse 11:5: “The Lord came down to look…” Similar phrasing (in the Hebrew text) will be used later, namely Gen 18:21 when the Lord “comes down to look” at Sodom and Gomorrah. (I tend to think of an angry parent, yelling at the kids in the basement, “Don’t make me come down there!”) It also appears in Exodus 32:7, when God tells Moses to go down the mountain (at the episode of the golden calf.) Arguably, this is a theme about who bears responsibility when humans misbehave. In the earliest stories, God takes it upon Himself and must “come down.” By the time of Sinai, it’s up to human beings to take responsibility (come down).
According to most rabbinic commentators, the sin of the builders is hubris. This is arguably also the sin of Adam and Eve.
Also, the text clearly believes in free-will. Humans have choices, and usually make bad ones.
V 9: “The Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.” This is third exile in the story so far: first, Adam and Eve from the garden; then Cain; and now the builders. The implication is that exile is a punishment for sin. That was, of course, an important theme at the time of the redaction, after the Babylonian Exile.
The story of Babel is almost universally assigned to the J-author.
Arguably, through verse 9 we’ve been dealing with pre-history. With the coming of Abraham, we into what the biblical writer(s) viewed as “history.” The book of Genesis started with pre-historical humankind, and now moves to the story of one family. So, this is a point of shift of emphasis, to Abraham and his descendents.
We start with numerical parallels:
[li]Adam has three [named] sons, and ten generations later, Noah is born.[/li][li]Noah has three sons, and ten generations later, Abraham is born. His father Terach has three sons.[/li][/ul]
The number 3 is used throughout the Old Testament to imply success, where the number 10 implies accomplishment. Obviously, the number 3 has importance to the later New Testament writers.
Verses 10 – 27(a) are probably an edit from the Redactor, from the “book of Generations” probably once a separate and continuous work, continued from what we have as Gen 5 (discussed previously), broken up by the Redactor and used as filler. 27b to the end of the chapter is probably the P-source.
Note the drama at this point, with the information that Sarai is barren. We’ve just had a long list of begats, with everyone being fertile as all get out, and then we get to the person that all the listeners know to be the most important one, and SURPRISE! his wife can’t conceive.
The marital relationship and the need to pass the story/covenant on to future generations will be central themes in the life of Abraham. By way of preview: he will be tested, he will learn and develop (unusual for heroes in classical literature), he will be instructed and improved. There are two major lessons he needs to learn: (1) That God is the master of fertility, of life and birth and death; and (2) that a wife is a spiritual partner. (This is the first real marriage in the story, and I’m hoping we can discuss the male/female relationship as we go along. There is much more gender equality in the earlier nomadic days than later, after redaction, and it’s interesting to see the tension in the changing role of women.)
Just wanted to pop in and say ‘hi’ and thanks for keeping these threads going. Things have gotten busy recently so I have been unable to participate but I’ve been lurking and the threads have been very informative. Once things settle down a little bit maybe I can play, too - at this rate, I’ll probably be dead before we make it to Revelations
Terah was a wicked idolatrous priest who manufactured idols. In Jewish tradition, Abram is considered to be the eldest of three sons who was opposed to his father’s idol shop. After Abram smashed his father’s idols and chased customers away, Terah brought his unruly son before Nimrod, who threw him into a fiery furnace, yet Abram miraculously escaped. The Zohar says that when God saved Abram from the furnace, Terah repented and Rabbi Abba B. Kahana said that God assured Abram that his father Terah had a portion in the World to Come.
Rabbi Hiyya’s relates this account:
Terah left Abram to mind the store while he departed. A woman came with a plateful of flour and asked Abram to offer it to the idols. Abram then took a stick, broke the idols, and put the stick in the largest idol’s hand. When Terah returned, he demanded that Abram explain what he’d done. Abram told his father that the idols fought among themselves and the largest broke the others with the stick. “Why do you make sport of me?” Terah cried, “Do they have any knowledge?” Abram replied, “Listen to what you are saying!”
It is believed that Abram left Haran before Terah died as an expression that he would not be remiss in the Mitzvah, of honoring a parent, by leaving his aging father behind. The significance of Terah not reaching Canaan, was a reflection of his character, a man who was unable to go “all the way”. Though on a journey in the right direction, Terah fell short at arriving to the divine destination — in contrast to Abram, who did follow through and achieved the divine goal, and was not bound by his father’s idolatrous past. Starting a journey and not being able to finish it will be seen again when we get to Moses.
The above’s from Wikipedia, BTW. My studies have shown me that there’s no one definitive opinion as to why Terah didn’t complete his journey, but I don’t remember seeing anything indicating the Lord told him to go, rather than Abram.
I think whether or not Abram was an idolator in the past is irrelevant–what matters is that God calls him now, maybe not even out of Abram’s own worth (because we know he doesn’t always act in a manner worthy of a patriarch in the accounts that the Bible does leave behind).
The text itself usually doesn’t approve or disapprove, but just states facts. Some of Abram/Abraham’s behaviors that are open to criticism (which we’ll get to later in these discussions, I hope) would be:
Letting Sarai treat Hagar harshly prior to the birth of Ishmael (Chapter 16). (Yes, we have lots of rabbinic explanations trying to make this seem not so bad, but the plain reading of the text is that “Sarai treated [Hagar] harshly.” And Abram deferred to Sarai.)
Pretending that Sarah was his sister in Chapter 20.
To me, it’s inspiring that the great heroes of the Hebrew Bible are imperfect human, with human flaws.
In some Islam sects, Abraham’s father is believed to have been an ignorant man, who refused to listen to the constant advice of his wise son. In fact, the earliest story involving Abraham in the Qur’an is his discussion with his father. The name given for this man in the Qur’an is Āzar (Arabic: آزر), though Arab genealogists related the name of Abraham’s father as Tāraḥ (Arabic: تارح). Even though the name is different, there is no doubt that the same figure is spoken of in both texts.
As a father, Azar required his son’s most sincere advice. Abraham, after receiving his first revelations from God, invited his father to the way of Islam. Abraham explained to him the faults in idolatry, and why he was wrong to worship objects which could neither hear nor see.[From the Quran 74/6 “And [mention, O Muhammad], when Abraham said to his father Azar: Do you take idols as deities? Indeed, I see you and your people to be in manifest error.” Abraham told his father that he had indeed received revelations from God, knowledge which his father did not possess, and told him that belief in God would grant him immense rewards in both this life and the hereafter. Abraham concluded his preaching by warning Azar of the grave punishment he would face if he did not mend his ways. When Abraham offered his father the guidance and advice of God, he rejected it, and threatened to stone him to death. Abraham prayed for his father to be forgiven by God, and although he continued to seek forgiveness, it was only because of a promise that he had made earlier to him. When it became clear that Azar’s unrelenting hatred towards pure monotheism would never be fought, Abraham dissociated himself from him.
I don’t see any implication that he was “called out” by the Bible. Pharaoh and Abimelech got punished (until they asked Abraham’s forgiveness) for making a play on Sarah, despite Abraham’s lie that she was his sister, and he came out of both situations quite wealthy.
Au contraire. The text almost always indicates whether the protagonist of a given narrative was in the wrong, if not by direct statement, then at least by indicating the reward or punishment for said action.
Indeed. What moral lessons the Torah intends to teach to humans only makes sense if the stories in question are about humans like them.
Eh, we’ll get to that part when we get there, but it’s at least pretty clear Pharoh and Abimelech, though they gave Abraham gifts, were super unhappy about the situation. (“Way to almost make us unwitting adulterers, asshole.”)
But material blessing doesn’t always correlate with God being pleased with you. Sometimes it really feels like God blessed Abraham out of His own generosity, not because Abraham did much to earn it (granted, he does show extraordinary faith, but I very much doubt that lying about his wife was one of the good parts). The only reason Sarah didn’t end up in Pharaoh or Abimelech’s harem permanently was divine intervention, and there was also misfortune that came along with the goodies–it’s posited that Hagar was among the gifts Pharaoh gave Abraham, and Abimelech’s men came into dispute with Abraham because of his riches over water rights. One again, yes, God eventually blesses Abraham, but again it’s because of
God’s magnanimity. Riches gained through merit or accomplishment is simply wages.
Yes, I’ll give a tentative agreement, I wasn’t thinking of the reward/punishment side. I was thinking of examples like Abraham arguing with God about how many righteous it takes to spare Sodom: there’s no specific comment that Abraham took a great risk (of trying to “trick” God) for a just cause. There’s no final statement of “I am pleased that you argued with me”, there’s no direct statement of “How annoying you are.” Anyway, we can discuss these when we get to the various tests.
Yep. Even stronger than that, the biblical heroes are well-rounded, complex individuals – unlike, say, the very shallow one-dimensional heroes of Greek myths. The biblical heroes have traits to emulate, and have failures from which we can learn moral lessons.
And, of course, the significant break with this tradition, and the major exception occurs in the New Testament.