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Babel’s Larger Theme


Between the Flood and the call to Abraham, between the universal covenant with Noah and the particular covenant with one people comes the strange, suggestive story of Babel:

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:1-4).

The larger theme of the story of Babel is the second act in a four-act drama that is unmistakably one of the connecting threads of Bereishit, the Book of Beginnings. It is a sustained polemic against the city and all that went with it in the ancient world. The city, it seems to say, is not where we find God.

The first act begins with the first two human children. Cain and Abel both bring offerings to God. God accepts Abel’s, not Cain’s. Cain, in anger, murders Abel. God confronts him with his guilt: “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” Cain’s punishment was to be a “restless wanderer on the earth.” Cain then “went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden.” We then read:

And Cain knew his wife; and she conceived, and gave birth to Enoch: and he [Cain] built a city, and called the name of the city after the name of his son, Enoch (Genesis 4:17).

The first city, born in blood, was founded by the first murderer, the first fratricide.

In case one thinks otherwise, the story of Cain is not as founding myth because the Bible is not interested in Cain’s city, nor does it valorise acts of violence. It is the opposite of a founding myth. It is a critique of cities as such. The most important fact about the first city, according to the Bible, is that it was built in defiance of God’s will. Cain was sentenced to a life of wandering, but instead he built a town.

The third act, more dramatic because more detailed, is Sodom, the largest or most prominent of the cities of the plain in the Jordan Valley. It is there that Lot, Abraham’s nephew, makes his home. The first time we are introduced to it, in Genesis 13, is when there is a quarrel between Abraham’s herdsmen and those of Lot. Abraham suggests that they separate. Lot sees the affluence of the Jordan plain. It was “well watered, like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt” (Genesis 13:10). He decides to live there. Immediately we are told that “the men of Sodom were wicked and were sinning greatly against the Lord.” Given the choice between affluence and virtue, Lot chooses affluence.

Five chapters later comes the great scene in which God announces his plan to destroy the city, and Abraham challenges him. Perhaps there are fifty innocent people there, perhaps just ten. How can God destroy the whole city? “Shall the judge of all the earth not do justice?” God agrees: if there are ten innocent people, He will not destroy the city.

In the next chapter, we see two of the three angels that had visited Abraham arrive at Lot’s house in Sodom. Shortly thereafter, a terrible scene plays itself out:

Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom – both young and old – surrounded the house. They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them” (Genesis 19:4-5).

About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.


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