Noah to Babel

The movement from Noah in his post-diluvial world to the next great judgment; the division of human language at the plain of Shinar (Gen. 11:2) is the history of the decline of memory.  Declension in the remembrance of God and His ways (i.e. God as He is) gradually dehumanizes us.  Suitably enough, the movement ends with the impediments to joint remembrance which the disparate languages inevitably brought about.

The first part of Genesis must be joined comfortably and naturally with the second half.  These two parts converge in the stories of Noah and the new beginning, and the nations who come from Shem, Ham and Japheth in chapter 10.  We are told that it is from Shem that the chosen line will come.  In 11:10 Abram is a direct descendent of Shem.  God is called the God of Shem in 9:26.

Of course, in order for the nations to develop there had to be a passage of time.  All came from Noah, who came from Adam, so that all the peoples of the earth stem from them.  Biblically, there really is only one race of men.  According to Genesis 11:1 there was one communal language.[1]  If we recall that language was designed for men to communicate first to God and then to each other about God and His ways, we can see that Noah’s “new start” with one speech had at least that advantage.  Yet human sin will always employ its greatest power – our bent towards independence, to come up with ways to redirect language and meaning away from its intended use.  Once human autonomy was became an ideology only a mighty work of God’s Spirit can turn things around; albeit locally and temporarily (cf. Gen. 8:21).[2]

Something is wrong here at the start of Genesis 11.  There is no stone in the valley of Shinar but there is clay and there is bitumen.  So bricks can be made, and buildings can be erected.  The great building that is mentioned is a “unity structure” – a great tower.  Not a tower to the glory of God acknowledging our creaturehood, but rather an open acknowledgement of the greatness of humanity and its potential as a self-determining unit.  The love of unity challenges the impulse to Noah to spread out.  Mankind’s willful “let us” (Gen. 11:3-4) is answered by God’s “let us”; a response to this insistant independence.  If one could go back and interview the leaders of this endeavor it is fairly certain that one would hear an encouraging message of human goodness and utopian promise.  The true reason though is pride: they want to make “a name” for themselves.[3]


[1] Interestingly, Genesis is not the only ancient witness to a shared language.  The Sumero-Akkadian text called the Enmerka Epic very possibly refers to a harmony of tongues in ancient Mesopotamia.

[2] Independence from God and His words became established in the human makeup when Eve became an arbitrator of God’s words.

[3]According to the “Eridu Genesis” we find the Babylonian goddess Nintur telling mankind to do the very opposite of what God wants then to do in the Book of Genesis.

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