Of Nations and Languages (RJS)

Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_1563The primeval history of Genesis 1-11 ends with two genealogies and an excursion to the tower of Babel (another Sunday School staple). We’ve discussed the Tower of Babel before in posts Babel in Ancient Context where John Walton’s commentaries were considered and then Babel as Ideological Critique based on J. Richard Middleton’s reading of the story.  Both Tremper Longman and Bill Arnold focus on the story as part of the repeating theme of sin, judgement, and grace in the major passages of Genesis 1-11.

The Tower of Babel (2242 BC according to Bishop Ussher) is a tale that defies a literal reading. At least today it defies a literal reading. When the world seemed “small” and confined to a bubble around one location, with with fuzzy ideas of what might (or might not) lie just outside the known … then it was possible to conceive of but one language until ca. 4200 years ago followed by diaspora populating the earth. But this simply doesn’t match the evidence. Among other things the idea of one language until just before Abraham, with the settling of Egypt after Babel, strains credulity. Although it is difficult to pinpoint the origin of language as words without artifacts leaves not evidence, written language provides enough evidence. The oldest ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs date to something like 5000 years ago, a little more recent than Sumerian cuneiform which originated something like 5500 years ago, and there is little likelihood these very early written languages represent similar spoken languages. In fact, there is some evidence that a written Chinese language may have also developed some 5000 years ago, possibly more, and this language certainly wasn’t similar to Sumerian or Egyptian. This, along with a well documented and much earlier dispersion of human population, is enough to set aside the literal reading as the global origin of languages.

The Babel story is flanked by two genealogies. The first, in chapter 10, is often referred to as the table of nations. All three of the commentaries considered here, Tremper Longman III (Genesis in the Story of God Bible Commentary), John Walton (The NIV Application Commentary Genesis), and Bill Arnold (Genesis (New Cambridge Bible Commentary)), consider the Babel story to be a chronological precursor to the table of nations. This is significant in the more conservative (i.e. literal-local) reading of John Walton as well as the reading of Bill Arnold.

Shem,_Ham_and_JaphethThe Table of Nations isn’t a genealogy in the usual sense. Although it traces populations from Noah and his sons the interest isn’t in the the fathers and sons. “The content suggests that rather than an interest in descent this chapter intends to comment on ancient perceptions of national and linguistic relationships.” (Longman, p. 141) This could be at the time of Moses if he is the author as Walton assumes, or at a somewhat later time. Walton notes:

The list of the sons of Shem, Ham, and Japeth contains seventy names, and we cannot believe for a moment that this is accidental. Seventy stands for totality and completion. More important, the concept of seventy nations is offered as the design of God.  (p. 367)

The division between the three does not represent language groups, (because, for example, Canaanite is Semitic). It should also be noticed that not all of the seventy names are individuals. A number of them clearly name people groups (see esp. 10:15-17). Others are well-known as city names (e.g., Sidon) or geographic designations (e.g., Mizraim, Tarshish, Sheba), but possibly the list considers patronymic ancestors of those places.  (p. 368)

Longman quotes from Walton’s commentary and concludes “This “genealogy” is really a primitive linguistic, political map that reflects the realities of a later time, certainly no earlier than the time of Moses.” (p. 143)  Walton suggests that the divisions between the three sons of Noah are at least partially geographical. Arnold suggests that “it may be better to think in terms of the sociopolitical position of the perceived groups: those who were seafarers (Japheth), those who were pastoral nomads (Shem), and those responsible for urban civilization (Ham).” (p. 116)

It is significant that the Canaanites cursed by Noah in 9:25 “Cursed be Canaan; lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers,” are singled out in the table of nations:  “And the territory of the Canaanites extended from Sidon, in the direction of Gerar, as far as Gaza, and in the direction of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, as far as Lasha.” (10:19)

The fact that the geographical boundaries given here roughly correspond to later Israel’s homeland, and the fact that this land is inhabited by numerous Canaanite groups prepares the reader for significant features of the ancestral narratives of Genesis, and indeed for the Pentateuch and Joshua as well. (Arnold p. 117)

394px-Meister_der_Weltenchronik_001Babel. The story of Babel naturally precedes the table of nations. Here human sin results in punishment and the confusion of tongues and cultures that separates humankind. Whatever the sin was precisely, it certainly had to do with people making a name for themselves rather than obeying God. Walton suggests that “with the development of urbanization people began to envision their gods in human terms. People here no longer trying to be like God, but more insidiously, were trying to bring god down to the level of fallen humanity.” (p. 377)  It probably isn’t coincidence that urbanization plays a large role with the descendants of Ham and in the story of Babel. Israel, descended from Shem, on the other hand was identified with pastoral nomads, at least early on.  At any rate the language is confused and the peoples dispersed. The passage ends with a word play on Babel or Babylon. The name of the city was viewed by the people to be Akkadian for “gate of the gods.” The narrator or author of the story in Genesis connects it with a similar Hebrew word meaning “to confuse.” Longman suggests that “the narrator/author was fully aware that this explanation was pejorative and not the actual description of how the name came about.” (p. 150)

Perhaps as the table of nations provides a political map of relationships for the known world at the time of Moses (or later), the story of Babel is an excursus to place the confusion of peoples and tongues into theological context.

The genealogy of Shem. Following the incident at Babel the story picks up again with Shem and his descendants. It isn’t a simple repetition, but a bridge that leads from the primeval history in Genesis 2-11 to the patriarchs. Where the genealogy in the table of nations lists five sons of Shem, this genealogy takes only the middle son and follows his line to Terah and to Abraham. Like the genealogy of Seth in chapter 5 where ten generations lead to Noah and his three sons, here ten generations lead from Shem to Terah and his three sons. Longman comments:

If this genealogy is taken literally and as an exhaustive account of the line, Shem, Noah’s son, lived forty years beyond the death of Abraham. Indeed, Abraham would have been two years old when Noah died. This is not likely, though such a stilted reading of the text is supported by some. Ancient genealogies did not function like modern ones and are often constructed for literary and theological purposes rather than historical ones. This genealogy also has ten names, suggestive of literary shaping.  (p. 152)

Arnold is more definite. This is a stylized literary structure to connect Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to Noah and to Adam. In particular, this genealogy serves to conclude the primeval history before beginning the story of the patriarchs and the founding of Israel.

The next post on Genesis will look in more detail at the theology and purpose of the primeval history of Genesis 2-11 as a whole. In the process I’ll bring a new book and perspective into the mix, Walter Moberly’s The Theology of the Book of Genesis (Old Testament Theology).

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

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