Genesis Chapters 1-11
Creation and the Prehistory Sagas
Read Chapter 1
The Biblical creation story has been at the center of the ongoing battle between those who believe in evolution as a valid scientific theory and those who believe that six days means six twenty-four days and thus the earth is only about 6,000 years old.[i] This battle, unfortunately, has caused many people to miss the wonderful insights about God and us, that this chapter contains. Below you will find six insights that we are offered by the writer, or writers of this story. For much of what follows, I am indebted to Walter Brueggemann’s work on Genesis.[ii]
First, we can take a fresh look at the opening verse of this chapter. The Hebrew allows us to read, “In the beginning when God created…” as “In the beginning when God began to create…” This translation helps us see that God continues to be at work creating and recreating. That God’s work was not completed in “six days” but that God remains active in the world, and thus the creation and all that is in it, including ourselves, are works in progress.
Second, we are shown that God brings order out of chaos. While much of Christian tradition teaches that God created “ex nihilo”, or, out of nothing, the text does not lend itself easily to this interpretation. Instead, the Spirit of God is described as hovering over the chaotic waters of creation. In other words, God has arrived in the scene to bring order to a chaotic world. God not only brings about order, but does so in an orderly way; working step by step to create a world which is thriving with life.
Third, God’s speaking does not bring into existence an inanimate object, but brings about a living, thriving creation. A creation filled with a diversity of plants, animals and even people, which God creates as male and female. There is something joyful about this description of swarming, flying and multiplying creatures. This is not a static world. It is one alive with possibilities.
Fourth, we witness equality. Unlike the second creation story which we will examine next week, this story has men and women being created at the same moment. “…God created them…male and female…” In some Jewish midrashim (Jewish commentaries on scripture), when God created male and female, God actually created a single being, half male and half female. Though this is not part of our tradition, it reminds us that the Hebrew text does not give preference to men or women, but links them together in divine equality.
Fifth, human beings are given responsibility to care for God’s creation. This idea is what is at the heart of the famous line, “God created humankind in God’s image.” There have been many ways in which the “image of God’ has been understood. But one that has come to light more recently is that an “image” referred to the authority given to a local ruler to oversee matters on behalf of a king who cannot be present. Thus, for us to have been created in God’s image means that we are assigned by God to take care of this living creation which God has brought into being.
Sixth, rest and sabbath matter. We know this because even God rested after the initial actions of creation. This is a reminder that life is not to be all about work, but it is also to be about enjoying the creation we have been given and the God who has given it to us.
ii] Brueggeman, Walter (1982) Genesis, Interpretation Series, Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press
Read Chapter 2
Throughout the history of Christianity this chapter has been understood to be the second account of creation. In some ways this is a bit misleading. It is misleading because it is not so much an account of creation as it is an account of the purpose and place human beings have in God’s created order.
When the story opens, the earth and the heavens are already created, just not decorated, meaning there are no plants or animals. There hasn’t been any rain, though there is a stream coming from inside the earth to water it. It is at this point that God creates “man.” God creates Adam from the dust, as his name implies (Adam is derived from “adamah,” or earth in Hebrew). The image of being made from “dust” can also be translated as being made from “mud” or “clay.” If we choose dust, this will remind us that we are all dust; from dust we have come and to dust we shall return (as we say on Maundy Thursday). If we move toward mud or clay then we are depicted as living beings that God shapes to God’s own desires; God is the potter and we are the clay. Either way we are intimately tied to the earth itself since that was our origin.
God next breathes into Adam. Though many people want to see this “breath” as the gift that separates us from the animals, it does not (Genesis 7:5 tells us that animals also contain the breath of life). It is merely God’s animating force which separates animals from the rest of the created order. Thus, we mud-people are not only intimately tied to the earth, but we are tied to all animals because we share the breath of life.
It is only at this point that God begins to decorate creation. God plants a garden and fills it with everything that man needs for sustenance and beauty, but not as we shall discover, for companionship. Included in the garden are two trees. These are the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God makes it clear that while Adam may eat the fruit of any tree, including the tree of life, he may not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This command has long puzzled readers. Why would God not want human beings to know the difference between good and evil? The answer is never fully explained, but can be inferred by what happens in chapter 3. In addition, man is given the task of caring for the garden. He is to till and keep it (2:15).
The next step in the evolution of the story is that God decides that it is not good “that man should be alone” (2:18). Man is somehow incomplete, evidently having been designed for community rather than for a solitary existence. God tries out all the animals, which Adam names, as companions, but none quite fills the bill. God then puts the man to sleep and out of man, forms woman. Adam immediately understands the significance of this event. He and the woman are one. They are equal. They are bone of bone and flesh of flesh. This part of the story closes with the declaration that husbands and wives become one flesh and that the pair were naked and not ashamed.
This chapter offers us several insights beyond those already mentioned. The first is that human beings can live together in harmony; that there need not be anger, hatred or jealousy. Second, that human beings can have an intimate experience of a loving God who provides for them. Third, that God desires human beings to enjoy all aspects of God’s creation.
Read Chapter 3
This chapter has often been referred to as the story of the fall; referring to the fall of humanity from a state of immortality/perfection into a state of death/brokenness. For this reason it has played an outsized role in the theology of the church. However, if this story is that important, we might think that it would be front and center in the scriptures. However, it isn’t. It is mentioned only marginally in one other place in the Old Testament and receives only a couple of passing references in the New Testament. This article then, will focus not on the “fall” but on the story itself; a story told in six acts.
Act One: This act opens with the snake, a creation of God, offering Eve an alternative understanding of life in the garden. While God had prohibited eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the snake tells the first lady that the prohibition is simply one option among many. Another option was that she and Adam could eat the fruit, have their eyes opened and become like God, knowing good and evil.
Act Two: This act brings us face to face with the first recorded act of disobedience. Eve and Adam, after observing the fruit and evidently discussing the positive possibilities inherent in eating it, partake. While the story has Eve eating first and then offering it to Adam, this does not make Eve any more culpable than her significant other, for in fact, it was Adam to whom the prohibition was first given. They were each then, responsible for their own actions.
Act Three: Here we see the consequences of their actions. First there is shame. Adam and Eve become ashamed of their own bodies (bodies which were gifts of God) and try and hide them from each other. This shame extends to hiding from God. Next comes blame. They blame the snake and each other for their own, freely chosen, act of disobedience.
Act Four: This is the trial. God questions them as a prosecutor would. “Who told you, you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commended you not to eat? “ “What is this that you have done?” God discovers the answers to each of these questions and convicts the first couple of having violated God’s good commands.
Act Five: This is the sentencing phase of the trial. The snake is forced to eat dust and become the enemy of humanity. Eve will suffer in child birth, be filled with desire for her husband and her husband will rule over her. Adam, will be forced to toil for a living and will ultimately return to the dust from which he came. Thus, there are consequences beyond shame and blame for violating God’s rules.
Act Six: This is the act of grace. God, in response to their disobedience, does not impose an immediate death sentence, but instead clothes them. God makes for them “garments of skins.” Even though the couple will be expelled from the garden, they will not be expelled from God’s gracious love. As the Biblical story continues we will watch as God’s love becomes the thread that will bind the entire scriptural story together.
This story has often been used an excuse for our disobedience. Adam and Eve “fell”, thus condemning all of us to “fall” as well. It’s all their fault. Rather than reading the story in this way, perhaps we can see it first, as the eternal story of humanity wrestling with its/our own disobedience to God’s loving commands and the consequences that flow from that disobedience. And second we can see it as a challenge for us to choose to obey in order that we might find the full life God offers.
Read Chapter 4
Chapter Four can be divided into two main sections. The first section is what is commonly referred to as the Cain and Abel story. The second is a genealogy of Cain.
The back story of the Cain and Abel tale is that their parents, Adam and Eve, having been expelled from the garden, have sex and produce two children. The first is Cain, whose name means “to get” or “to create”. The second son is Abel, whose name means “vapor” or “nothingness”. The names will prove to have meaning as the story continues. The controversy in the story arises when each offers their first fruits to God. God accepts Abel’s but not Cain’s. Commentators have tried to explain God’s choice, but the story leaves us in suspense. The writer simply implies that this mysterious God is free to do what this mysterious God wants to do. The result is that Cain is filled with rage, not at God, but at his brother. At this point God engages in a discussion with Cain. This discussion makes two interesting points about life.
The first point is that sin has a life of its own. God says, “…sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you…” The image is of a wild animal crouching in the high grass waiting for its next victim. It is powerful and wants to consume the unsuspecting passerby. The sin in this case is anger, a force which sometimes seems to overpower all of us. The second point is that human beings can master sin. “…sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you and you must master it.” People have claimed that Adam and Eve’s disobedience (often called “the fall”) made it impossible for human beings to deal with the power of sin in their lives. This story would tell us otherwise; that we are all capable of and responsible for, dealing with sins such as anger in our lives.
Unfortunately, the story tells us that Cain makes the choice not to master his anger, but instead allows it to master him. He invites his brother to a meeting and then kills him (which is perhaps why Abel is named “vapor” and “nothingness”). Later, when God asks about Abel, Cain claims to have no knowledge of his whereabouts and responds with the famous line, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The actual answer is that no, he is not his brother’s keeper, but he is his brother’s brother; meaning he is to treat his brother with the respect due to one of God’s special creatures. Cain’s punishment is to be separated from the rest of humanity and wander the earth alone. This sentence is never carried out however, for when Cain cries out the punishment is more than he can bare, God chooses to show mercy and places a protective mark on him.
This protection leads to the second section in which we see the results of the commutation of Cain’s sentence. The results are mixed. On the one hand he becomes the ancestor of those who herd livestock, play music and create bronze and iron tools (remember his name can mean “to create”). On the other hand, he is also the ancestor of Lamech, who is vengeful and will kill to protect his family’s honor. Second, we see that God’s name will be invoked not by Cain’s offspring but by Adam and Eve’s new son Seth and his descendants. In a sense, with Seth, God is trying again to help humanity begin again.
Reflection: This story helps us to reflect on the difficulties that human beings have living together. In a world that does not always seem fair, it is easy to become envious of the good things that come to others. In the face of that envy we are given the choice of how to respond. Will we let the envy/anger master us, or will we master it? The good news, according to the writer of Genesis is that, with God’s help, we can master it and live in right relationship with others. And even if we don’t, God will not abandon us, but will continue to work with us across the years.
Read Chapter 5
In this chapter we encounter a ten-generation genealogy. It begins with Adam and ends with Noah. Though many genealogies can be skimmed over, this one has several items of interest that have caught the attention of Jews and Christians across the centuries.
First, we encounter a ten-generation genealogy. Since ten represents completeness, this may be one way of showing that the period between creation and the flood had run its appropriate course. Thus, when the tenth generation ends, it is time for something new.
Second, we are reminded that Adam and Eve were created in the likeness of God, were blessed by God and were called humankind. Seth, the son of Adam and Eve (there is no Cain and Abel here) however, is made in the likeness of Adam, not God. In some sense this may mean that the image of God, while still present in Seth, had been diluted by the actions of the first couple; that sin has dimmed the image of God a bit in him and in us.
Third, we encounter people who lived very long lives. The lives range from around 300 years to about 900 years. While Christians across the centuries have used these ages to assign a date to creation (Bishop Ussher claimed in 1654 that the date of creation was October 22, 4004 BCE), we can see in them as reflection of the stories about Mesopotamian Kings who supposedly lived lives between 18,600 and 43,200 years. While the Hebrew scriptures don’t push the age envelope that far, they probably felt a need to lengthen the life-spans of our ancient ancestors to show just how important these people were.
Fourth, we meet Enoch. While most of us have probably never heard of Enoch, he holds a special place in Christian tradition, including a book named for him in the Apocrypha, which is in Roman Catholic Bibles. The scriptures tell us that Enoch “walked with God” (vs. 22, 24) which many have taken to mean that God gave him secrets that were given to no other human being. In addition, in verse 24 we read that Enoch “was no more” which was interpreted to mean that he never died, but was taken directly to heaven.
Fifth, we meet up once again with Lamech (who you may remember from chapter 4) who fathers a son name Noah. When he does so, Lamech says, referring to Noah, “Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed this one shall bring us relief from the toil of our hands” (vs. 29). While being a bit cryptic, this statement links Noah’ story back to the story of Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the garden. When God discovers that the first couple had eaten from the fruit of the forbidden tree, God curses them both. The curse for Adam goes this way. “…cursed is the ground because of you (Adam); in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth…” (vs. 3:17). It is as if Lamech is hoping that his son will reverse the curse that has evidently been handed down across these ten generations. As we will discover, this hope does not come to fruition, and the curse continues into the generations ahead.
Reflection: This chapter helps us to begin to get a sense of the linear nature of the Biblical story. What I mean by this is that while some Eastern religions are cyclical, as people are born and reborn, just as gods and goddesses were/are born and reborn, Judaism and Christianity are linear. As Christians, our linear story has a beginning (creation), a middle (the death and resurrection of Jesus) and an end (the restoration of creation as described in Revelation). Every story in the Bible is tied to that larger story. Thus, when Lamech speaks of the hope of Noah ending the curse, we know that this can only be done later in the story, through the work of Jesus of Nazareth.
Read Chapter 6
We now enter two of the more interesting and yet problematic stories in the book of Genesis. The first story concerns giants and the second a world-wide flood.
The first story is contained in verses 1-4. In these verses we see the people of God doing what they are supposed to be doing, multiplying and filling the earth. At the same time though, we see creation (meaning heaven and earth) continuing to wander far from God. The wandering in this story is that “the sons of God” or “Nephilim” look favorably on human women, have children with them and those children become the ancient heroes and warriors of antiquity. This mixing between heaven and earth is not part of God’s orderly plan for creation, where there is a place for everything and everything has its place. In a sense, even those in heaven are not living as God desires. Though much ink has been used by those claiming to know who these sons of God/Nephilim are, the reality is that we have no idea. This is one of those Biblical stories that borders on legends shrouded in the mists of time. All we can do, as has been said, is to see this story as another reminder that creation is slowly moving away from God.
The second story, begins in verse 5 and continues not only through the rest of this chapter but to the end of chapter 10. This is the story of Noah. In this article and the next four, we will only focus on that part of the story contained within the individual chapters. The Noah story begins with a reflection on humanity; that it was wicked, that evil was at the center of their hearts (vs. 5) and that it was “corrupt” (vs. 11). One thing that we need to note about the Noah story is that it is two different Noah traditions woven together as a single story. This is why there seems to be repetition and some disagreements within the story. We will point out these differences as we proceed. With that being said, both strands of tradition agree that God’s heart was broken by creation’s self-destructive tendencies. God’s response was that God would start all over, hoping for better results the second time.
In the first strand of tradition, God is going to wipe out everything, including the animals, but decides to begin creation again through Noah, who was the one person that seemed to do what God desired of him. He was righteous and blameless. In the second strand, God is in communication with Noah (just as God had been with Adam and Eve in the garden) and lets Noah in on God’s plan for the flood. It is at this point that God instructs Noah to build the ark. God offers verbal blue-prints for Noah to follow and Noah follows them exactly (as would a righteous and blameless man). In addition, Noah is to fill the ark with two kinds of every animal, male and female, along with adequate supplies.
Reflection: Almost every ancient near-eastern civilization has a flood story. And each one uses their telling of the story to make different points about the gods and humanity. Israel’s retelling lets us know some very important things about God.
First, God loves the world. Long before the Gospel of John, the Genesis writers tell us that God’s heart was broken by the evils of humanity. God’s heart could not be broken if God did not love.
Second, God takes sin seriously. Sin, in this case humanity’s evil and destructive deeds, matter to God because they destroy the goodness of creation.
Third, God will act to deal with evil. God’s love for creation does not allow God to walk away from what God has made. God has a plan for creation and come hell or highwater God will win.
Read Chapter 7
The previous article set the stage for the flood that is about to be unleashed on the earth. It told us that God is both angry and sad. God is angry because humanity has become evil and has filled the world with violence. God is sad, because God loves humanity, which is God’s own creation. The question is, what will God do. The answer is, God will begin again with a new humanity through Noah and Noah’s family. Though Noah’s story may seem a rather cruel way to create a humanity 2.0, it is only the first of many “humanity restarts” in the Bible. God restarts God’s people (who are to demonstrate what humanity 2.0 ought to look like) through the wilderness wanderings, through the words of the Prophets, through the Babylonian exile and through Jesus of Nazareth. Restarts are part of the story.
In this portion of the story we encounter one of the many anomalies that remind us that the Noah story is composed of two strands of tradition. The anomaly is that at one point, Noah is instructed to take seven pairs of each kind of “clean” animal and birds, while only taking two of each other kind of animals. Yet a few verses later it is stated that only two of all “clean and unclean” animals entered the ark. The origins of the seven clean animals and birds is shrouded in mystery, but the assumption is that in a later generation in which the Temple in Jerusalem was at the center of worship, Noah would have “needed” clean animals for the appropriate sacrifices. Thus, in order to not immediately eliminate all clean animals through sacrifices, seven pairs were needed.
We see these two strands of tradition again with similar, yet slightly different, accounts of Noah and his family entering the ark. In each story we find similarities. We read that Noah was six-hundred years old when the ark was built, that Noah and his family went aboard the ark, that the animals entered the ark and that the flood waters began to come upon the earth. We also find differences. In one story we learn that the rains began immediately, while in the other the rain waited seven days to arrive. Even with their differences, these accounts show us two things. The first is that God is faithful to God’s word. God promised to flood the land and begin again, while at the same time protecting Noah and his family. God does both things. The second is the faithfulness of Noah. Noah continues to be the person who does exactly what God tells him to do.
Finally, we witness creation almost returning to its primordial state. If we remember the original creation story, the waters covered the earth. There was no separation of land and waters. There was no separation of the waters above (in the sky) and below (the oceans). This is where the Noah story takes us. Once again, the mountains are covered in water as the water wells up from the deep and comes down from above, and all creatures die off. This is truly a new beginning. The only difference between this story and Genesis 1, is that Noah and his family are saved so that humanity can have another chance at life.
Reflection: What is interesting about the church is that when it used this story it usually focuses on Noah and the ark and ignores the death and destruction that raged around them. We create wonderful arks filled with fun loving animals and give them to our children, careful not to mention that all the other animals (and people) died. Maybe it is time then that we look at the larger picture offered by the story. First, that God desires a creation in which violence and evil are extinguished. Second, that God desires a creation in which humanity lives in peace, justice and compassion. Third, that God will do what it takes, even dying on a cross for us, to make it happen.
Read Chapter 8
In the last two articles we examined God’s reasons for the flood (humanity had become evil and all the thoughts of their hearts were wicked) and the flood itself destroyed all life other than Noah, his family and the animals on the ark. The theology behind these stories was that God desired to start over; to create, in today’s jargon, humanity 2.0. In the process God had almost returned creation to its beginnings when the waters covered the earth and the earth was without shape and form. It is at this point that we rejoin the story.
The writer begins by stating that “God remembered Noah and all the wild and domestic animals that were with him on the ark.” The term remember here does not mean that God had forgotten them, like we forget about something we have left in the oven. To remember means to act in accordance with one’s promises. Thus, when God remembers, God keeps God’s promises, firstly by seeing Noah and his family safely through the waters and returning them to dry land and secondly, by acting upon the chaos of the flood in the same way God acted upon it in the original act of creation; by letting loose God’s wind/spirit over the face of the deep, pushing the waters back to their appropriate places and bringing order once again to creation.
The story then, once again, meshes the two Noah traditions. One tradition offers a timeline for the drying of the earth that takes one hundred and fifty days and as the waters receded the ark came to rest on Mt. Ararat. Sometime later the rest of the mountain tops could be seen. To see if the earth has dried out Noah sends forth a raven who flies here and there until the ground is dried up. As a note, the landing of the boat on a mountain and the sending of the raven are integral parts of the Babylonian flood epic, the Epic of Atrahasis (1647-1626 BCE). A second tradition focuses on the forty days theme. After forty days Noah sends forth a dove, which, on its first flight returns empty beaked, then on its second flight brings back an olive branch and then on its third flight does not return at all. Only then does Noah remove the covering (the only time this is mentioned) from the ark and peer out. Finally, God tells Noah that he, his family and the animals can leave the ark. Their exit, “by families” insures us that order has been restored to God’s creation.
Noah’s response to his salvation is appropriate. He offers sacrifices, using some of the extra clean animals that he brought with him. God “smells” the odor of the sacrifices and even though God understands that human “hearts are evil from their youth”, declares that God will never again destroy creation and that there will always be the seasons (again returning order to a chaotic world).
Reflection: As noted above, the Noah story has its origins in the Babylonian flood epics (the other flood story is contained in the Epic of Gilgamesh). It is likely that the Hebrews encountered these epics while they were in exile in Babylon. Rather than simply retell those earlier tales however, the Jewish community altered them to make theological declarations about God. These declarations include 1) God is faithful and does not forget humanity 2) God desires an orderly creation, meaning peaceful and harmonious 3) humanity tends to be unfaithful to God’s plan for creation 4) however, humanity can, like Noah, be faithful if they so choose. These four declarations will form the central narrative of the rest of the scriptures.
Read Chapter 9
This chapter brings the Noah story to its conclusion. Previously we examined God’s reason for the flood, God’s calling of Noah, God’s directing the building of the ark and the collecting of the animals, the loading of the ark, the flood, the cessation of the flood, the unloading of the ark by “families” Noah’s sacrifices of thanksgiving and finally God promise to never again flood the earth.
The story resumes with a command, a gift and a warning. The command is that Noah and his sons are to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth”. They are to do so because humans are to care for God’s creation, so there needs to be enough humans to fulfill the task. The gift is that human beings can go from being vegetarians to carnivores. This gift comes with one proviso, and that is the blood was not to be consumed. The blood was to be drained first and returned to the ground. This act was a reminder that the life force of all animals (the blood) belongs to God and therefore should be returned to God’s creation. The warning is that human beings are not to shed the blood of other human beings. This is given because every human being is created in the image of God, and as such, is precious to the creator.
The writer now turns to the first great Covenant of the Biblical story, the Noetic Covenant. (We will encounter the second of the great covenants in a couple of weeks when we discuss Abraham and Sarah.) A Biblical covenant is an agreement between God and individuals in which promises are made. In this case, it is a covenant in which only God makes a promise. And even though God makes the promise to Noah, it is a promise intended for all of creation. The promise from God is that “…never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” What this means is that if God desires a humanity 3.0, God will create it in a way other than the destruction of most of humankind; which sets in motion the rest of the Biblical story as God seeks to redeem God’s good creation.
One of the unusual aspects of this covenant is that it has a “sign” attached to it. This makes it different from the other Biblical covenants which don’t have signs, but have positive outcomes attached to them (things such as a new land, family and blessing). The sign of this covenant is the rainbow. It is a reminder to God and to humanity, that God will never again destroy the earth by flood. Some commentators have noted that if we think of the rainbow as an archer’s bow, it is pointed toward heaven and not earth, thus showing how seriously God takes this promise. That if God breaches it, God will pay the price.
This covenant immediately matters because human beings return to their evil ways as soon as they are off the boat. Noah plants a vineyard, makes wine and gets drunk. His son Ham engages in some illicit sexual activity (“he saw his father’s nakedness”) and is thereby cursed by his father. Thus, humanity will always be dependent on God’s covenant because of their continuing unfaithfulness.
Reflection: As Presbyterians, we are covenantal people. What this means is that we believe that across time, God made covenants, or promises to humanity. These include the Noetic covenant, plus covenants with Abraham, Moses, King David, and ultimately the new covenant, through Jesus. The heart of these covenants was God’s ongoing promise to restore creation so that people can live in right relationship with God, neighbor and creation itself. Though some Christians believe that the new covenant through Jesus replaces all the other covenants, we do not. Each remains in effect, building on the one given before it.
Read Chapter 10
This is one of those chapters that appears easier skimmed than read. It is, on the surface no more than an interesting genealogy of the descendants of the sons of Noah. Each of the sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth are listed along with their descendants and the geographical locations to which they wandered. The only outlier is the brief mention of Nimrod, who was the first great mighty man and hunter. It would be easy then to dismiss what is contained within this chapter, except, as is often the case, there is more going on in this genealogy than meets the eye.
First, it is an affirmation that the command to Noah to be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth, was being fulfilled by his descendants. They were procreating and traveling. Though the areas mentioned in this chapter only encompass the immediate geographic location of the nation of Israel in the time of Solomon, they are intended to represent all of humanity. This part of the story will however, cause a bit of a problem when we get to the next chapter in which the people of the earth seem to have a single language and live in a single place…but more on that in Chapter 11.
Second, the story reminds us that we are part of a one world family. Even though the peoples move out and become a whole host of nations, it is made clear that they are all related to one another through Noah. This unity will, in a few chapters, form the basis for God’s care for all of humanity and not simply one small people group.
Third, the people of Israel are not mentioned, which might appear to be an oversight. After all, when most of the other nations around Israel are named (Canaan, Egypt, Accad, Jebusites, Amorites, etc.) why shouldn’t God’s people get their own mention? The answer is that Israel will be a unique creation of God. It will be a people called out from among the other peoples. It is not a political entity, but a chosen community.
Fourth, the divisions are human creations and are based on political/geographic choices. This means that God has not “assigned” certain people to certain areas and that race is not the basis for division. While there are divisions by language and location, there is no one group that is understood to be better than another group. They are simply people living in different places, speaking different languages.
Reflection: I want us to spend a moment connecting this chapter with the previous one in which Ham is “cursed.” “The curse of Ham” as it has been called has a long history within ancient Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It was first used to explain the dominance of Israel over the Canaanites (Ham=Canaan), but was later used to justify the enslavement of others. In Europe in the middle ages, all serfs were thought of as being descended from Ham, and thus deserving of enslavement. Later, this same argument was made about persons from Africa, because they were from Cush (Africa), who was a descendant of Ham. This concept was so prevalent in the United States that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King had to speak to it directly as a “blasphemy”.
As often happens with scripture, it is twisted by the powerful to oppress the weak. If we take this chapter seriously, such a use of the “curse” cannot be justified. Within this chapter there is no mention of race or class, and thus no basis for discrimination. All human beings are represented as equals in the eye of God, and should, therefore, be treated as such.
Read Chapter 11
This chapter is the final installment of what commentators have referred to as either the pre-history stories or the sagas of Genesis. What they mean by this is that the stories of creation, fall, Cain and Abel, Noah and now the Tower of Babel are not about actual people or events, but are told to make deep, theological claims about God and humanity. They tell us that God loves the world and desires the best for it. They tell us that humanity regularly chooses to not listen to or love God, neighbor or creation. This final story about language, a tower and scattering perfectly illustrates these themes.
The Tower of Babel story comes from the same strand of tradition as the second creation story. In these stories we read about a God who creates man out of mud, woman out of man’s rib, takes walks in the Garden of Eden, has conversations with people and talking snakes, and now comes down to check out the city and tower that human beings are building What God discovers on this visit is that human beings are not simply constructing a new metropolis, but are constructing a fortress from which 1) they cannot be scattered across the earth by God and 2) they can storm heaven and replace God and God’s plan with their own. Upon discovering these plans, God heads back to heaven and in a conversation with the heavenly community declares that something needs to be done to stop this effort.
To fully appreciate this story, we need to return to the previous stories in this tradition in which human beings were given the task of being fruitful, multiplying and caring for God’s creation. By so doing they would discover the joy of being who they were created to be. In addition, they were to avoid confusing themselves with God (this was the temptation of The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the garden), recognize their own limitations as human beings and live in right relationship with their creator. Therefore, if the people in Babel could complete their tower and storm heaven, the results for themselves and for creation would be disastrous. They would lose the possibility of being in right relationship with both God, each other and creation.
The way that God chooses to scuttle their plans is to confuse their language so that they would no longer “understand” one another. What is interesting about the Hebrew word translated as “understand” is that it can also be translated as “listen.” In other words, God changed their language so that they would no longer listen to each other, but hopefully would once again listen to God. The result was that the people, because they could not listen to one another (perhaps implying they could not trust each other) are scattered across the earth to fulfill their mission.
The chapter ends with a genealogy that begins with Shem (one of Noah’s sons) and continues to Abram. What we learn about Abram is that his father Terah had intended that his family, including Abram, travel to Canaan, but they settled instead in Haran (in modern day Turkey). It is from this location that the story of the people of Israel will have its beginnings.
Reflection: The prehistory/sagas of Genesis end with a simple question, “Does humanity have a chance?” The people are scattered. They cannot listen to one another. They have chosen not to listen to God. There is evil afoot. In some ways this may be our impression of the world in which we live and therefore we too wonder if there is any hope for us. Fortunately for us, we can see that the Biblical story didn’t end at the end of Chapter 11, but became a rescue mission, which begins in Chapter 12.