So, God has explicitly promised Abraham an heir who is his son by birth. But Sarah has been unable to conceive and is well past child-bearing age. Where is this heir going to come from? Sarah has an idea: God said the heir would come from Abraham, but he didn’t say it had to come from Sarah. Thus, she’ll give her maid Hagar to Abraham, and Hagar and Abraham will have the child. Problem solved, right? No. There are complications.
Don’t ever let anyone tell you there are no elephants in the Bible. And no, I’m not talking about implied elephants on the ark. Nor am I referring to Solomon’s importing of elephants’ tusks in 1 Kings 10:22. Did you know that ever since Genesis 12, Abraham has been traveling with an elephant? In Genesis 12, as you recall, God promised to make a great nation out of Abraham and to bless the entire world through him. But Abraham’s wife is well past child-bearing age, apparently infertile. How will he become a great nation if his line of descendants ends with him? The elephant Abraham is traveling with is the elephant in the room.
The genealogies of the Bible, particularly those in Genesis, get a bad rap as containing little action and entirely too many hard-to-pronounce names. But while today’s chapter isn’t a genealogy and has no shortage of action, it’s still packed to the gills with people and places with names like Chedorlaomer and Zeboiim. Honestly, as I read these lists of kings at war and their home nations, my eyes gloss over and in my head I start thinking, “In the days of Guy king of Place, and Different Guy king of Other Place…” and if you do the same, I wouldn’t blame you. But that’s what we get for not possessing a native-level familiarity with the ancient Hebrew language.
One thing I appreciate about the Bible is that it’s not afraid to show its protagonists in an unflattering light. It’s open about the shortcomings and issues of its central characters. Just yesterday, we got a clear look at Abraham’s less noble side, as he caves to fear and instructs his wife to join him in a lie in order to protect his own skin. It didn’t shy away from introducing complications with even God’s behavior, as he afflicted Pharaoh’s household with seemingly-undeserved plagues. In today’s chapter, though, Abraham gives his nephew Lot first pick of the land near Bethel, so we are unfortunately without any seamy stories of patriarchal depravity at present, stuck instead with Good Guy Abraham.
Meet Abraham. He’s known as Abram right now. He’s the son of Terah, descended from Noah’s son Shem, whose name means “name.” In the last chapter, Abraham’s dad died, and in this chapter, God calls Abraham to go to a place where God will bless Abraham, his descendants, and finally all the families of the earth. Abraham follows God’s leading to the land of Canaan, which is named for the son of Noah’s youngest son Ham. Abraham builds an altar to God there, and he later moves on to Bethel, where he also builds an altar. But more importantly for today’s post, he goes down to Egypt to avoid the effects of a famine, and while he’s there, problematic stuff happens.
Behold: where we find the actual tale of the Tower of Babel! This is another favorite for the Sunday school classes. After all, it provides children with a narrative explanation of why some people speak using all kinds of strange words they don’t understand, and it also contains a cautionary tale against pride. But as I read it today, I found myself wondering what exactly motivates God to thwart the intentions of these would-be tower-builders. “Pride” may be a simple answer, reasonably accurate and easy to comprehend, but the reality may prove to be more nuanced than a single word.
I want to start this one off with an observation. Genesis 10 is Noah’s genealogy, and it starts by going down Japheth’s branch of the family tree. Talking about all his offspring, it concludes, “From these the coastlands of the nations were separated into their lands, every one according to his language, according to their families, into their nations” (5). I read that, and I thought to myself: hey, here we’ve got differentiation of language. No, wait, re-differentiation of language! It struck me that the Tower of Babel didn’t account for the multiplicity of human languages after all: Noah and his family represented a second choke point where everyone once again shared a single native tongue. Except that I got the chronology wrong. The Tower of Babel doesn’t precede the flood; it follows it.