Babel, the Culmination of the Fall

We often think of the fall in terms of the temptation narrative in 3:1-7. This episode, however, is merely the introduction to a wide-ranging fall narrative that culminates with Tower of Babel. We have established that God intended humanity to spread out and fill the earth, expanding the garden in Eden throughout the whole world, subduing its wildness so as to make the whole earth a “holy of holies.” (This is called the Cultural Mandate.) With Adam and Eve’s failure, we see that Cain’s line reversed this original intention by filling the earth with violence, necessitating judgment and the flood.

In the last post we explored the idea that like Adam Noah also experienced a fall with wide-spread implications for humanity through his three sons. Japheth’s line is briefly passed over (10:2-5), for the main focus is on Ham’s line that sets up the critical conclusion to the fall narrative, the tower of Babel (10:6-20). More will be said about this in the next post. Shem’s line is then given in 10:21-31, but is taken up again after the Babel story, specifically focusing on Shem’s line through Arpachshad, the ancestor of Abraham. The overall effect of this is to sandwich the story of Babel with Shemite genealogies. This structure sets Babel in contrast to Abraham, through whom God will ultimately fulfill the cultural mandate.

Ham’s line directly challenges the mandate by building “a city and a tower with its tops to the heavens” so as not to be “scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (11:4). What we have here is the dark side of the city motif where humans unite together to create an alternative culture built on oppression, moral depravity, and violence. The tower is a proud attempt to re-create the original mountain of Eden, built by human hands. In effect, it was a “magic mountain,” or “cosmic mountain,” whose foundations descended to the underworld and its gods, its base on earth touching nature deities, and its top reaching to the great celestial gods. To build such a mountain was to create a magical cone of power, the focal point of the intercourse of the gods from the netherworld to the heavens.

The reason for this enterprise is that men wanted to “make a name for themselves.” The word “name” in Hebrew is, curiously enough, “Shem,” the name of Noah’s blessed son and ancestor of Abraham, whose genealogy surrounds this narrative. We will talk about this “bright side” of the fame motif latter. Here it connects with the Nephilim of the dark narrative of Genesis 6:4, who were “men of renown” (same Hebrew word “shem”). They were also motivated by fear; fear that if they are scattered over the earth that they will lose their autonomy, their control. Like Eve, humanity doubted God’s intentions for them, and therefore took matters into their own hands.

All this bluster is silly to God, who has “to come down and see” this sight, the Hebrew suggesting that for God, it took some effort to bend down from His lofty heights to observe this operation, which to its builders was of massive proportions (11:5 is the very center of the narrative structured in a tight chiasm). Rather than destroy by flood, God judges by confusing their language, thus forcing them to spread out over the world and fill the earth as He purposed from the beginning. However, implicit in this is the fact of linguistic, racial, and cultural walls that divide humanity and is understood here to be a product of the fall. Thus the fall narrative began with the false words of the serpent and ends with the confusion of words in multiple languages as judgment for rebellion.

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