Monday, January 3, 2011

Genesis 11-13 - Babbling about Sex, Lies and... Cattle?

Genesis 11

God vs. Babel.  Once again we learn that knowledge is frowned upon.
Abram lies to Pharaoh, God punishes Pharaoh for believing it.  Abram leaves Egypt a rich man.
Abram and Lot go their separate ways and Lot wishes he had gone west instead of east.


  1. bruce, one thing that might help communication is if the blog posts are put up in the am. that way people have all day to read and respond, and we'll likely have a lot more conversation. [i don't know what time zone you are in or what your lifestyle looks like, so this may not be feasible for you, but i figured it couldn't hurt to ask.]

  2. zee, I post the reading for the next day on the night before. This reading is for Tuesday. I did make a mistake in listing the weeks readings.

  3. okay, that is what i was using to see where we were and when, so i think i'm on the right page now.

    i'm suddenly reminded of being back in school, uh, mr. bruce? what page are we on?

  4. I suspect people might find


    a bit easier to read (the latter also allows quick switching among several translations).

    We also have the Tower of Babel which was probably a sharp dig at Babylon (we probably shouldn't go into creationists and linguistics).

    Note where Abram builds altars, between Bethel and Hai (or Ai) and on the plain of Mamre in Hebron. Bethel means house of God (beth - house, El - God) and will show up a lot later in the Bible. Hebron will also be important.

  5. At 13:6 and 13:18 there are references to "terebinths" of Moreh and Mamre, respectively. Terebinths show up a few times in Judges, but they are never really described. I've gotten that they're some type of "sacred tree", or pole representing a tree, and maybe associated with Asherah and/or Baal. Anyone know anything more about these?

  6. It's interesting that, even as God is choosing to elevate some men (Noah, Abram, etc), I have no sense of which virtues, if any, God prizes beyond obedience. I don't see any morality prescribed for relations with other people as opposed to God. I'll be interested to see how that changes, if at all.

    --Leah @ Unequally Yoked

  7. In these first few myths, God seems worried that his creations might somehow gain power equal to his own and ... what, make him obsolete?

    In Genesis 3:5 God tries to keep the very knowledge of right vs. wrong from man because it might make us 'as gods', and now that we're again proving to be clever (Gen 11:6) God gets scared and fractures us into tribes and nations ... just to make life difficult.

    These are such classic myths to explain the basics of the world - right from wrong, rainbows, languages and peoples, etc.

  8. @Leah
    I had the exact same thought. I think he just arbitrarily chooses people to bless. Considering his chosen people commit such immoral acts anyway (like Noah passing out drunk despite being "righteous" and "perfect"). I think you're right in saying God only values obedience, which is completely consistent with the modern-day Christian notion of who gets into Heaven.

    What is with the whole mess of lying to the Pharaoh and leaving with a lot of cool stuff? He assumes they'll kill him and tells his wife that he's going to say she's his sister so that they'll treat him well. Then he lets Pharaoh take her and essentially pimps her out for cool stuff! And Pharaoh lets them go after, saying he wished he'd known! So Abram either judged Pharaoh's character completely wrongly, OR he knew how it was really gonna go and just pimped his wife out for prosperity. Oh yeah, he's a keeper. >:/

  9. @Valerie
    I agree.

    I did not read any comments regarding the first couple chapters, but the reason God expelled Adam and Even was not because they ate form the tree of knowledge but to prevent them from eating from the tree of life.

    GEN3:22-23 And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever:Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.

  10. The almighty, unstoppable, omnipotent creator of the universe apparently feels threatened by ambitious architecture.

    This must be the silliest explanation for the geographical and linguistic diversity of humans that I have ever heard.

    The entire story of Sarai being asked to charade as Abram’s sister in order to keep Abram safe, thereby consigning her to what appears to be rape, is awful. This reflects the degree to which women were considered commodities in those days.

  11. As a seven year old I had nightmares after hearing about the Tower of Babel. I was so scared that I would be in a sky scrapper and God would collapse the building because he mistakenly thought that we had built the building in an attempt to reach Heaven.

    Also, I always wondered how making it so they didn't all speak the same language would prohibit them from being able to build a tower. Couldn't they just draw and point? Especially since they had already been building together for quite some time. I remember asking my Sunday school teacher about this and was just told that after God punished them they wouldn't dare try and rebuild the tower. Then she made me feel bad about asking my question by asking me if I would do something that God had already punished me for once.

    Now that I am an adult I wonder why God is so worried about them building a tower since he should have known that they couldn't build a tower that would reach heaven? Also, couldn't those that all spoke the same language build a tower, theoretically making it so that instead of just one tower being built there would now be several?

  12. @Leah
    Yeah, the emphasis on obedience is striking. Noah is nothing if not obedient and unquestioning. I believe the heroes in most of the other ancient flood myths (Deucalion and Pyrrha, Atrahasis, Utnapishtim) had some kind of "WTF!?, you're going to kill everyone?" reaction. But Noah's like "All right, sounds good. Let's build an ark."

  13. I think if I have learned one thing thus far, it is: The Bible is better understood as a cultural document, not so much as the literal word of a god, or gods.

    I think the tower of Babel as a literary attack on Babylon (as previously mentioned) is much more plausible. “The Babylonians speak jibberish, its all 'cause they were worshiping the wrong gods and trying to get to them by building towers.” It could be a dig at city building as well. The tower of Babel actually made me curious. I was always wondering how awesome a tower it must have been, and what it could have looked like.

    Why would god punish the Pharaoh for being gullible? Shouldn't Abraham, who gave her up, be the one who broke marriage vows? I think, I could be wrong, that this is accepted because she was infertile. Which, in that time probably made her even more worthless as property.

    So now we know how Lot came to be in the land of sodomy... er just Sodom. It is a shame god blesses men based on their directional preference.

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  15. @Erp: Regarding linguistics, I hadn't thought of that. I guess young earth creationists would have to be deniers of the evolution of language as well.

    @kpharri: I agree that giving your wife away to save your ass seems like pretty dubious morals from a book that is supposedly a moral guide. This is actually just the first instance of three where this same story is repeated in the Bible (patriarch in a foreign land passes wife off as sister, wife ends up in king's harem, king finds out and gets angry). Abram does it to Pharaoh and King Abimelech and Isaac does it to King Abimelech as well. It seems like this was a popular tale in the oral folklore of the Israelites and was told about various patriarchs and various kings on different occasions. I guess when they compiled stories for Genesis they just left three different versions in.

  16. @Paul
    "The Bible is better understood as a cultural document, not so much as the literal word of a god, or gods."

    For the sake of discussion, let be respond the way I would have when I was a believer. Could this be seen as a false dichotomy? Is it not possible that the stories of the OT are cultural documents written by ancient Israelites, for ancient Israelites, and at the same time are a divinely-inspired collection that sets up the New Testament.

    Perhaps God inspired the OT authors to write about the events of their history in a very human way, warts and all, but also in such a way to foreshadow a Messiah who will redeem mankind by becoming a sacrifice for their sins. Maybe Jesus is the ultimate plot twist. There are certainly an abundance of events in the OT (some great examples coming up soon) that Christians interpret as setting up this view of things.

    Could it be that God is a more sophisticated writer than we have been giving him credit for?

  17. It seems like this was a popular tale in the oral folklore of the Israelites and was told about various patriarchs and various kings on different occasions. I guess when they compiled stories for Genesis they just left three different versions in.

    For those interested in comparing, the 2nd incident in at Genesis 20 and the 3rd at Genesis 26. The characters go:

    Abram-Sarai-Pharaoh (J)
    Isaac-Rebekah-Abimelech (E)
    Abraham-Sarah-Abimelech (J)

    Interestingly, the Genesis 20 version is the first story from the northern E source, which begins in medias res. (Whoever combined J and E left out big chunks of both, sadly.)

    Perhaps God inspired the OT authors to write about the events of their history in a very human way, warts and all, but also in such a way to foreshadow a Messiah who will redeem mankind by becoming a sacrifice for their sins.

    Yeah, I hear arguments like that all the time. I just don't buy the initial claim, that the OT points towards Jesus. I've seen no evidence to that regard.

    It's pretty obvious that the NT is just an idiosyncratic 1st century exegesis of the Hebrew Bible. They read what they wanted into it and crafted their saviour-tales to "fulfil" prophecy (most which was never prophecy in the first place) and give their beliefs the sheen of authority.

    They did a pretty job with that!

  18. Again, to refer to the lectures at the Yale Open Courses, in the old polytheistic religions that preceded the Hebrews' shift to monotheism the world, and the gods, were morally neutral. One of the big things the Yahweh religion did was introduce the idea that God is not morally neutral but expects certain things from us in our relations with him and with each other. I get the sense from Genesis that the writers are sort of finding their way through what exactly that means. It was a totally new concept and they were making it up as they went along, essentially.

    Also, the name "Babel" meant "The Gate of God," the God being El, which is apparently the earliest incarnation of Yahweh. So if that story was written at the time that Yahweh was starting to be distinguished from El, it could also be read as a final rejection of the worship of El.

  19. Gen 10:5 By these were the isles of the Gentiles divided in their lands; ***every one after his tongue***, after their families, in their nations.
    Gen 10:31 These [are] the sons of Shem, after their families, ***after their tongues***, in their lands, after their nations.

    Re: Nimod is Noah's Great-Grandson. (Noah->Ham->Cush->Nimrod)

    Gen 10:10 And the beginning of his [Nimrod's] kingdom was Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar.

    Gen 11:1 And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.
    Now this is just bad story telling. They stop the lineages, after mentioning that everyone has their own language and then sort of just toss in the tower of babel story and go on with lineages.

    Gen 6:7 So the Lord said, "I will wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth--men and animals, and creatures that move along the ground, and birds of the air--***for I am _grieved_ that I have made them."***
    So God screws up?

  20. God screws up all the time. God also repents - that always used to confuse me. How could GOD have things to repent?

  21. "God vs. Babel. Once again we learn that knowledge is frowned upon."

    I don't think that is correct. I think the point of this story along with the Tree of Life is that God created Man in his image, but that Man is not and should not try to be God.

    Keep in mind that this is the origin story and that the rules are not yet explained. The rules come later but these stories establish the basis that man is beneath god and that god is to be obeyed or very bad things will happen.

    The God of the Old Testament is clearly not infallible and at this point is very much a force of nature.

  22. The Bible books were written as an attempt to understand God and his role in the world. Is it so much that God was changing, or was the peoples' understanding, and willingness to take in certain attributes of God, changing?

    Ruins the books as completely authoritative guides, but addresses the changing descriptions and attitudes toward God.

  23. @Brian Hitt
    I do agree, that is a false dichotomy. I was not intending to assert that it couldn't be both. I was stating my difficulties in understanding those who interpret it literally.

    Great recommendation about the Open Yale Courses.

  24. Why is it that every time man thinks for himself in the book of the Bible that it becomes sin, therefore man has become of more value than the so called God in the Bible? If the God wanted man to be mindless creatures then why didn’t he just make man that way? The God should have been proud to have made a creation that was able to build a city of brick and mortar and then a wondrous tower. Instead God separates the men and confuses their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. It sounds like to me that the God in the Bible was afraid that the creation he had made was beginning to think for themselves, therefore they would no longer have to depend on the God. Oh but then that is the whole point of the Bible that man must be beneath God or as was said in another post “very bad things will happen.”

  25. The thing that always got me was that god is going to hold Adam and Eve accountable for their actions before they have the knowledge of good and evil. If you don't give them the ability to reason right from wrong how can you hold them accountable for doing something wrong?

  26. @J. Northern
    The answer usually given for why God didn't create us as mindless agents, is free will. The idea that free will exists, and has some sort of intrinsic value is crucial to their whole equation.

  27. I am curious as to the nature of this blog. The site that referred me here from SpliceToday ( suggested that this site concerns itself with the literary contribution of the King James Bible and the need to be well versed in the origins of biblical allusions. Instead, I am dismayed to see hackneyed complaints and a shallow bolstering of agnostic ridicule. I am curious if such disdain were to be found if we were to read the Ramayana Epics central to Hindu cultural development, or perhaps the Luther Bible which standardized the German language. How easy is it to sit at our computers with all the innovation of science and mock people of old? "haha, stupid god thinks that it is bad to have knowledge." Time for refocus, I think.
    In regards to Gen. 11, the notion that to "babel" means to not understand someone is an important linguistic euphemism that requires knowledge of Genesis to understand. Also, in regards to the notion that the Hebrew deity is somehow against knowledge because of the confusion of Babel does not make sense from a linguistic, economic, or scientific standpoint. Consider how innovation often develops: employees spin off of companies and develop their own set of language/governance/product, and have a chance at prosperity because of it. Consider also how genetic diversity creates stability in a species. Larger genepool=greater chance at survival (the cheetah being the antithesis of such a concept). Perhaps the Hebrew deity was reflecting the importance of the prosperity, stability, and multiplication of the earth when he confused the people of Babel. Perhaps the Hebrew deity enjoys the idea of many cultures. If one were to use the lens of a systematic Christian theologian, the concept of the tower of Babel is reversed in Acts 2 with the completion of Jesus' atonement for sin and the spreading of the Hebrew/Christian message to all cultures, despite the lack of common language (the notion of people understanding the Gospel in their own language). Continuing with this thought, the Hebrew deity might be trying to establish a common language that is not spoken, something more universal and transcendent (a moral system, the worship of the god in creative ways, the bringing about of a "hero" or messiah, etc.). Any thoughts?

  28. @ betterthanesdras

    The connection between a terebinth (oak) and Ashera worship is interesting, since the prophet Hosea is often railing against sacrifices underneath shades of the terebinth with temple prostitutes. Oak trees can connote peace and rest, but can also be used for immorality or idolotry. Ashera poles were often created on high places as a means provoking sexuality amongst the dieties to create harvest.

  29. @Justin

    "Perhaps the Hebrew deity was reflecting the importance of the prosperity, stability, and multiplication of the earth when he confused the people of Babel."

    I think you're on to something here. In the creation narrative, Yahweh creates humanity to produce and multiply, and to fill the earth. Babel is an example of humanity rejecting their creational purpose. Yahweh's actions in Babel can be seen as an act of grace, helping humanity continue to fulfill the purposes they were created for, in the midst of a broken and messy world.

  30. @ Justin
    "Perhaps the Hebrew deity was reflecting the importance of the prosperity, stability, and multiplication of the earth when he confused the people of Babel."

    That is an interesting idea except that we already know there were many different culture and languages at that time, Egypt is just one of many already referenced.

  31. I just need to clarify that the recommendation on the Yale Open Courses came originally from Brian, not me! But I'm listening to the Old Testament course now and already it's influencing my understanding of the early Israelites and the origins of their religion. Go check it out if you haven't!

  32. I believe that the building of the tower to reach heaven and the subsequent punishment from God, was not due to Gods fear of man reaching heaven or attaining divinity, rather it was to dispel the notion that it was at all possible for man to become a god. This obsession of man to gain power should be found as nothing foreign. Do we not today yearn for power and prestige?

  33. Instead, I am dismayed to see hackneyed complaints and a shallow bolstering of agnostic ridicule.

    I think most of the commentators here are atheist. And I've noticed in the past that most atheists tend to indeed hold a simplistic view of the Bible.

    It's not hard to understand why. Nobody really pays a whole lot of attention to the Bible except devout Christians and Jews. And Christians and Jews promote very specific interpretations of their holy books. Because atheists reject these interpretations, they are left with... not much else to go on. A proper rational understanding of the Bible is not well advertised.

    I think a lot of atheists pick up the Bible and expect to read the foundation of Christian theology. But what they get is a different beast. You can't easily derive modern Christianity from the plain text of the Bible. So atheists start at Genesis, and find that, lo and behold, none of it makes any sense. God doesn't act the way we've been told he does.

    So the initial reaction is very predictable. God is CRAZY. These laws are HORRIBLE. None of this makes any SENSE!

    What's happening is atheists read it as a linear history, a straightforward narrative written about God and crafted to explain Christian Theology. But that's not what the Bible is.

    My cold medicine is kicking in, so I really must cut myself off here.

  34. And so the storytellers believe god/universe to be afraid of man's works. God/universe needs to break down the tower and scatter the people. It is a universe that does not want us to reach the heavens. Grand designs are pulled down. We moved like children with the idea a simple tower will reach the heaven. And when it did not we blamed the universe for its demised. That is true and not true for without the universe there would be no heaven to climb to. But with out our desire there would be no need to climb. We spoke with one voice perhaps with one word which all understood. Then as we scattered new things needed words. New ways needed verbs. And we begat and begat and begat. Creating new words. New verbs. Something in Africa drove us apart from the common story. We long for that story but the story never stopped. As we begat the story grew larger and from the babel came what is human. From the tower falling or the flood coming... whatever calamity gave rise to the tribes of the earth. Each finding a new and yet fearing the universe/god that drove them from the first story. The next story may have been about going to the mountain to reach god but falling to earth from it and starting anew. It is the story of reaching and falling and starting anew. Storytellers give testament to god's will in it.

    How can you separate the journey from the path. The means from the ends.In the mix it is all the same. If its babel or the mountain it was the truth that was handed to them. A truth that is relevant today. The universe/god is hard place to be. Thank God/universe we are here. And do you know the way back to the first story. I long for the first story. I will build Babel to get back to the first story.

  35. @ J. Northern: I don't think the intended audience of ancient Israelites would have seen it so much as God condemning thinking for oneself, nor condemning working together to create something. I think they would have seen this as a story about their proper place with respect to God. Much like in the story of Icarus, the heavens are the domain of gods/God.

    @ Justin: I like the symmetry you point out, with the gift of tongues in Acts 2 serving as a mirror image of the curse of different tongues in Gen. 11. The idea of the establishment of a common unspoken language is an interesting subject for speculation and may have been in the minds of the NT authors. However, I doubt that it was intended by the authors of Gen. 11. Given the historical and cultural context, the tower story fits squarely in the genre of etiology story, explaining the diversity of peoples and languages. It makes sense for the editors to have placed it at the end of the primordial history since many peoples with different languages appear in the saga of the patriarchs that follows while all people in the primordial history seem to be of one language. To serve this purpose, it appears the writers make the different tongues a clear punishment for a trespass (trying to be as gods, a kind of go-to crime of man in all ancient mythology of the region) that made use of their common language.

    As far as the purpose of this blog, regardless of how you found it advertised elsewhere, I believe - and Bruce, correct me if I'm wrong - that the purpose is a very simple one which is clearly stated at the top of the page. Bruce has decided to read the King James Bible in a year and has invited others to join him and comment here. Bruce is a former Catholic and non-religious skeptic so it is not surprising that many comments are from those with a similar view. The idea is that those participating will be of different religious backgrounds and levels of familiarity with the Bible. If anyone's comments strike you as "hackneyed complaints," this is precisely the place to point out (respectfully and civilly) why. I for one do not have the self-assurance to "refocus" someone else's blog.

  36. Could an additional point of the Babel story be to reinforce the idea that in this religion, as opposed to those past, there is no apotheosis? Man can never become God and so should never try?

  37. I am amazed that the Pharaoh was punished for Abram's lies...and the fact that Abrahm's lies and his giving his wife over to a harem concluded in bringing them great riches.
    What kind of message is that? Lie to authority, sell out your wife, and profit?
    While I AM a skeptic of the Bible, I was raised on its teachings...and I honestly would like somebody to show me the christian value of this part of the story.

  38. @hdauria: Indeed. Lack of apotheosis seems to be one of several innovations of the Israelite religion. Maybe the flaming sword guarding the tree of life in Gen. 3:24 serves this same purpose. I guess the cheat just a little bit with Elijah being taken up to heaven. Oh, and Catholics cheat a whole lot!

  39. Amanda, I'd really recommend the Yale Open Courses (online - google Yale Open Courses) that Brian originally recommended. You can't expect the Old Testament to have Christian value because Christianity was thousands of years away. What the first few books of the OT are doing is creating not only a new religion but a new type of God. Although the values may seem strange to us, they were actually moving in what we'd consider a "moral" direction from the older religions, that had no real concern with what we call morality. It's a continuum but they haven't yet worked all the bugs out, so to speak.

  40. I would have to say that Justin has gotten the closest to what I have been taught in conservative Baptist churches. The meaning behind the story of the tower of Babel doesn't appear to be very obvious at first glance, but most sermons I have heard on the topic has gone back to the commands that God gave to Adam and Noah to replenish the earth. The decision to stick together and build a city appears to completely defy that command and they were therefore punished for it.

  41. While I admire the decision to read the Bible and share your thoughts on it, I feel the King James version is by far the wrong version to use. The New Revised Standard Version is much closer in its translations, and you can also get an annotated version that sheds valuable light on many of the cultural differences that exist between these people of 6000 years ago and today, which can make their actions and ideals seem incomprehensible today. King James was significant in its being the first widely available English translation but his people were biased and had a strong agenda to push. Of course, King James may have been homosexual, which is an interesting irony to say the least. Better not mention that to your fundamentalist friends...

  42. You make a good point, Thomas, and you reminded me of studying Shakespeare. When you study Shakespeare, one thing you learn right away is how very culturally different the Elizabethans were from us today. Now if the Elizabethans, 600-ish years ago, were so different, the ancient Israelites must have been orders of magnitude removed from our own cultural ideas. And you also have to take into account that the books and stories were changed over the years from the earliest oral traditions, to the agendas imposed by those who collected the stories and wrote them down, and then those of the people who translated them. It's one of the things that makes the Bible so fascinating.

  43. @Justin

    You said "I am curious as to the nature of this blog. The site that referred me here... suggested that this site concerns itself with the literary contribution of the King James Bible.... "

    Evidently you were mislead by the site that referred you here. Bruce, the host of this blog, stated the goal of this blog as

    "Wednesday, December 29, 2010
    The Plan
    I've been asked what my plan is for accomplishing this onerous task. Does making it up as I go along count as a plan? But seriously folks, my 'plan' is simply to read the King James Bible.
    ... hopefully others will want to join me and contribute their thoughts in the comments section. I expect all comments to be civil and relevant to the days readings. ..."

    and later Bruce said

    "The goal is to read the Bible. Read the version you are most comfortable with.
    January 5, 2011 5:03 PM"

    Although the goal of this blog is not a discussion of the influence of the King James Bible on the English language, I hope you will elect to participate in discussing the text of whichever version of the bible you prefer.