Chapters 10 and 11 of Genesis are severely under-appreciated. In comparison to the sweeping imagery of the previous chapters, the lists and genealogies seem dull. However, nestled into these two chapters is the bridge between the Creation/Crisis story and the world as the Hebrews knew it in their time and hope it would one day be. It remains chiefly a moral tale.
Plunderers and Empires
The lists of places and tribes in chapter ten are more than just histories, but actually moral judgments and the breeding ground of prophetic types. Magog (10:2) is more than just a Scythian tribe. They are understood later as the enemies of God’s people in Ezekiel and Revelation.
Even more notable is fearsome Nimrod.
Cush fathered Nimrod; he was the first on earth to be a mighty man. He was a mighty hunter before the LORD. Therefore it is said, “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the LORD.” (Genesis 10:8-9)
Why does the text need us to know that Nimrod hunts? And how does a solitary hunter build cities and nations (10:10-12)? This “hunter” should not be understood as a woodsman, but as a conqueror and plunderer.1 He is a hunter of men and spoil. He throws his violence in the face of God, unafraid of committing the very sin that led to the destruction of the earth. He is a “mighty man,” but not a good one. He is a tyrant.
What does his tyranny create? He begins with Babel, which not only features largely in the next chapter, but also in the fall and exile of Judah into the land of Shinar (Daniel 1:2). He also builds Nineveh “the great city,” the capital of the Assyrian empire which crushed the northern kingdom and pressed Judah to its breaking point. Nimrod is a plunderer and the father of plunderers.
Once you observe the moral state of Nimrod, the whole text takes a more negative hue. Egypt is the slave master of Joseph’s people. The peoples of Canaan are the adversaries of Joshua and the Judges. Sodom and Gomorrah is the moral bane of Lot. Even Shem’s children disappoint, including Aram (Syria) who figures often into the political intrigue of Israel (see for example of Isaiah 7).
This is not a geography lesson. It is a reminder that the sons of Noah became the enemies of God’s people. Violence was not eradicated by the flood. Instead, the family who left the ark carried with it the same taint of sin and ambition that had destroyed the earth.
Towers and Rebellions
To highlight this point, chapter eleven zooms in on one particular city, a city of Nimrod no less. Babel in the land of Shinar becomes a center of rebellion against God. God had said to multiple and fill the earth. Babel decided to build a tower. What was the purpose of the tower?
The text highlights that it was first to make a name (11:4). Their goal is a tower reaching toward heaven, not as a ladder like Jack’s beanstalk, but like a memorial to their greatness that would tower over the land. This was an act of rebellion against God. God had said disperse and multiply. Humanity said let us build a fortification, “lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” For Josephus, the tower is seen as the epitome of Nimrod’s rebellion:
He also said he would be revenged on God, if he should have a mind to drown the world again; for that he would build a tower too high for the waters to be able to reach and that he would avenge himself on God for destroying their forefathers! (Anitquities, 1.4.3)
As man goes up, God comes down (11:5). God has promised not to destroy the earth again, but that does not mean he must be idle while humanity repeats its sins. God sees where this is headed, having seen it already in the days before the flood: “this is only the beginning of what they will do” (11:6). His response is to use language to cause confusion among those who work evil, just as he would one day use language to create unity among those who work good (Acts 2:4-7). Likewise, God diminishes the span of human lives, reducing the amount of evil one person may accumulate (11:10-26). Evil has been limited against the day it may be vanquished. Ellul states it as follows:
Men can live in their towers, they can build their skyscrapers and their giant cities, they can cover the world with a web of interlocking cities, but these have no more meaning for them. Babel will never be finished.2
What Is To Come
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The creation was good, but humanity chose rebellion and so spoiled it. God chose to end the rebellion with the force of flood waters, but as God extended to Noah compassion, he also permitted the seeds of evil to continue. God then restrains evil, and starts the long story toward its complete defeat. Adam failed. Noah’s sons failed. After chapter eleven, no longer will God focus on humanity as a whole. Instead, he begins the march through the history of one family toward one man who could resolve the creation story’s unfinished business. Terah fathers Abram (11:27), and so the primeval history ends with the beginning of the ethnic history of Israel and the hope of God’s continued faithfulness.
However, the story of Genesis 1-11 has one chapter still to come. It is a final chapter, placed appropriately and hopefully at the conclusion of the canon. In Revelation, John sees God picking up where he left off and reversing the sad history of humanity. “Fallen, fallen is Bablyon the great” (Revelation 18:2). Humanity’s rebellion will be defeated, not by floods, but by the Lamb (Revelation 19). With the fall of the tower and its city comes the restoration of creation, “a new heaven and a new earth” (21:1). The sixty-six books of the Bible tell the story of how God has worked in humanity to reverse humanity’s sin. It is the story of how the world we have broken is made a new creation in Jesus, the second Adam. At the last, humanity returns to the side of the river by “the tree of life” and the presence of God (22:2).
May it be so.