Pax Hart

Genesis 11: From Babel to Ur

I don’t think the Tower of Babel is a parable of man’s folly.

I think it’s a simple mythological device to explain the diversity of language and tribes of men.

I could be wrong. Much wiser men than I have used the story of Babel as a warning of man’s arrogance with a little Original Sin tossed in: by their combined effort and imagination, they could reach heaven: “ye shall be as Gods.”

But let’s look at that. We have the people of man working together in harmony, sharing a common language and building a city with real brick. Civilization is taking root. God, frowning on their progress, sabotages them by scrambling their language and scattering them upon the earth. This is more critical of God than of man. Would an all-powerful God be that petty and easily threatened by lowly man? Who is the one with the big ego and the touchy pride?

We’ve already seen that God can throw tantrums: He wiped out the earth in a fit of anger and didn’t come around until Noah staggered out of the ark and made sacrifices to appease God. Or is this the whole point of Genesis? In showing God’s adjustment to his creation, are we showing the progress of the ego from utter narcissism to maturity?

Next come the generations of Shem. The beauty of the generational passages is that it traces the sons of Adam to Noah and now to Lot, and places them squarely within Mesopotamia and the cities of Nineveh, Babel, and Ur while stitching together Sumerian mythology.

This is not surprising as the authors of the Bible were in exile in Babylon when their history went from oral tradition to being written down. Babylon was the seat of learning and literature, the first Alexandria, having preserved the histories and mythologies of all the Mesopotamian empires which had come before. What’s remarkable is not that the Israelites grafted their oral tradition onto their host culture, but that they collapsed Babylonian polytheism and idol-worship into a single God with an intimate, paternal relationship with his creation. Like him or hate him, the generations of man had God the Father who had great interest in his children.

My own theory is simple: Adam, Eve marked the Cognitive Revolution. They and their descendants were the Natufians, hunter-gatherers living in the endless bounty of the Fertile Crescent from about 15,000 to 11,500 years ago. If you were a hunter-gathering, the area from Israel to Iraq was a veritable Garden of Eden.

The flood was a memory of the Younger Dryas impact event, about 12,000 years ago, which killed the megafauna, triggered a mini ice age, and transformed the Fertile Crescent into an arid region. This forced man to take control of his environment to survive, planting and cultivating wheat: the Agricultural Revolution.

When the glaciers receded, the Fertile Crescent again thrived, populations exploded, and the first settlements and cities were established, bringing rise to the Sumerians and the city-states of the Levant until the Israelites were exiled in Babylon in around 587 B.C.