The Imperial Building Project
Genesis 11 begins with the development of a great building project, under the rule of the mighty empire-founder, Nimrod (10:8-12). This great city and the tower that reached up to heaven were designed as a means to arrest the drive of history and to protect man against YHWH’s judgment. The strong tower reaching to heaven would serve as protection against any future flood. Secure against YHWH’s judgment, man would be able to pursue their designs, without fear of being scattered over the face of the earth, as the command to fill the earth and subdue it entailed.
They were all of one language and one ‘lip’, or ideology (11:1), committed to the same rebellious project and worship system – a single pagan world religion and imperial endeavour. Like the descendants of Cain before them, these men were violent city and empire-builders, seeking to dominate the world. If YHWH did not stand in their way, like the thorny sons of Cain prior to the Flood, their thorny coalition would stifle the growth of the world. YHWH confuses their language and scatters them, shattering their ideological and political unity, a process which, reading between the lines of the text, happened over the course of a century or more. By preventing the rise of the hegemony of the wicked, YHWH preserves the world for the righteous.
The Babelic building project should bring to mind a number of other accounts of great building projects. It should recall the city-building of Cain (Genesis 4:17). It should also remind us of Noah’s great ark construction project, where the building ingredients are also described. Finally, and significantly for our purposes here, it should recall the Egyptian building project, another occasion where we see Shemites serving a Hamite imperial construction project. In the run up to the Exodus from Egypt, the Egyptians are seeking to establish a civilization that is secure against the assault of time, safe from divine judgment and scattering. Like Nimrod, they build great cities out of brick and mortar on the back of oppression and injustice (Exodus 1:11-14).
It is also a story of apostasy, as descendants of Shem rebel against YHWH. The builders of Babel are the Shemites described in Genesis 10:21-31. It is the Shemites who are journeying from the east in 11:2 (cf. 10:30). The civilization that Abram came from was one that was committed to Nimrod’s rebellious Babel venture. In a similar manner, the Israelites prior to the Exodus served Egyptian gods (Joshua 24:14).
A key dimension of the Exodus is a divine thwarting of the evil empire and the humiliation of its false gods. YHWH ‘sees’ the rebellion and oppression and ‘comes down’ to assess, to judge, and to crush the rebellious and oppressive empire before it expands. We will see this in due time in the story of Sodom, much as we see it at the start of the Exodus (Exodus 3:7-8). The Exodus is not merely a deliverance of Israel from the clutches of Pharaoh, but also a breaking down and scattering of Pharaoh’s evil Babelic project. Much as the plagues served as a decreation of the land of Egypt, so YHWH’s deliberation, ‘let Us go down’ (11:7; cf. 1:26), suggest that a decreation is occurring here too. Man’s evil creative ‘gathering together’ (cf. 1:9-10) will be broken apart and scattered.
Against the background of the tearing down of this anti-YHWH civilization, we see a Shemite, Terah, and his descendants preparing to leave Ur of the Chaldees. One of Terah’s sons, Haran, the father of Lot, dies before they leave Ur. Sarai, Terah’s daughter-in-law is also described as being infertile and childless. The civilization of Ur is framed for us as a place of death and barrenness.
Terah’s family were obviously powerful and influential figures. Sarai’s name means ‘princess’ and as we go through Genesis we will see that both Lot and Abram had considerable wealth and large numbers of people and sizeable flocks and herds with them. In Genesis 14:14, we see that Abram had 318 trained fighting men, which suggests that he was the leader of a sheikhdom of at least two thousand persons. The movement of a large people group from one place to another with their flocks and herds is a staple exodus theme, which we see here.
Terah and his family set out for Canaan (11:31), but don’t make it the entire way. They end up settling in the Haran, presumably named after the son who died in Ur. Terah dies in Haran, never having made it to Canaan. The settlement named after the dead son suggests that the death associated with Ur still attaches itself to Terah and his people.
The fact that the exodus of Abram occurs in two stages is significant, but often is unnoticed. The exodus begins with the older generation of Terah, an exodus that does not arrive at its destination of Canaan. The final part of the exodus only begins with the call of Abram himself in Genesis 12:1. As in the later Exodus, the older generation dies out in the wilderness, before the land is entered.
The Call of Abram
While Abram was in Haran, YHWH called him to leave his father’s house and to complete the journey started by Terah, entering into the land that YHWH would show him. YHWH promised to make him a great nation, to bless him and to make him a blessing. The calling to make a break with the land of one’s father’s dwelling and to journey to a land of promise should be familiar to us from the narrative of the Exodus. Abram is being called to undertake this journey, in faith that YHWH will make a great people of him.
A departure from the land of one’s father for such an uncertain venture from a human perspective was a serious move to make. However, on the strength of YHWH’s promise, Abram does so. Like the Israelites at the Exodus, Abram had to throw himself upon divine provision and protection and act by faith. The Israelites were led by YHWH out of Egypt: they were not to chart their own course. In a similar manner, Abram won’t discover the promised land for himself, but must go where YHWH shows him.
Yesterday we saw that YHWH confirmed his covenant with Adam with Noah. In Genesis 12, YHWH promises that Abram is the heir of the Adamic blessing. He will be fruitful and multiply and be blessed upon the earth. Just as in the later Exodus, there are themes of ironic reversal here. The men of Babel had sought to make a great name for themselves by gathering together and rooting themselves firmly in a single place to resist divine scattering (11:4). In contrast, YHWH uproots Abram and sends him away from the place of security and certainty, yet it is through this that YHWH will make Abram a great name and nation (12:1-3). While the various nations arising out of Babel were born from a curse, Abram’s people are born out of a divine blessing.
Genesis 12:5 speaks of the ‘people’ or ‘souls’ that Abram, Sarai, and Lot had ‘acquired in Haran’. While one could read this purely as Abram’s acquisition of servants, I would suggest that during his time in Haran, Abram, like Noah, seems to have acted as a ‘preacher of righteousness’, declaring YHWH’s promise and, through his faithful commitment to leave the security of the settlement of Haran for a land yet to be shown to him, inspiring many others to join him. While Noah’s message seems to have met with no success, Abram and Lot gather a large group around them, so that, when the time came for them to depart, they were accompanied by a large group of persons. Understanding that Abram was a leader of a significant body of people is an important detail if we are to make sense of the story of Genesis. Abram was a Moses figure, a figure who, having received a call from YHWH, summoned a body of people to leave the realm of their fathers and to journey to a place yet to be shown to them. We also see the Exodus theme of the multiplication of the righteous here. Just as Jacob’s children and flocks were multiplied during his stay with Laban and the children of Israel multiplied in Egypt, so Abram and Lot were greatly multiplied during their sojourn in Haran.
Conquest of the Land
The story of Babel was one of rebellious religion, of a single apostate ‘lip’ (see my discussion of the theme of the ‘lip’ here). The story of Abram is one of the restoration of a pure ‘lip’ or worship. Abram’s conquest of the land isn’t a military conquest, but a spiritual conquest. Abram arrives at the land of Canaan and passes through the land, while the Canaanites are still living there. YHWH promises to give Abram and his descendants the land that he is walking in. In his itinerations, Abram is acting as a Joshua-figure, claiming the land for YHWH.
Abram claims the land through worship. Where YHWH promises Abram the land, Abram builds an altar to YHWH, establishing true worship within the land (12:7). Abram’s journey through the land reaches its end when he arrives at the mountain between Bethel and Ai (12:8). As we shall see, the journey to ‘the mountain’ – typically Mount Sinai or Mount Zion – is a key exodus theme. On this mountain, Abram built an altar and called upon – or, rather, proclaimed – the name of the Lord (11:8).
Like Christ journeying through Israel, forming communities of faithful disciples, who would later become members of the Church following his death and resurrection, Abram journeyed through Canaan, proclaiming the true worship of YHWH and presumably summoning many of the Canaanites to join him and his people, or to give their allegiance to YHWH. Abram’s altars weren’t just private places of worship, but were sites established for new religious worship. Abram wasn’t just worshipping for himself and his family, but was probably a religious leader of thousands, whose presence would have drawn considerable attention.
In this exodus of Terah, Abram, and Lot from the Babelic civilization of Ur, we see YHWH’s overthrow of wicked civilizations and the gracious foundation of a new people, founded upon his true worship. We see the faith of those who set out as pilgrims, following the calling and leading of God, not knowing where they are being led, but trusting entirely on the one who summons them. We see the spread and expansion of the people of God through conversion and faithful witness.