Babel and the danger of togetherness: Genesis 10-11

After the genealogical confusion over Ham’s son Canaan is resolved, we are told more about the offspring of Noah’s three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth.

Shem is the supposed ancestor of the Semites, prominent among them the Assyrians and the Hebrews. The sons of Ham include many of the nations that were the most important influences on the Israelite story. Egypt and Canaan are perhaps the most prominent, but the city of Babylon is founded by a descendant of Ham. So in practice, many important Semitic-speaking peoples are described as Hamites. Japheth seems to be the ancestor of the fair-skinned peoples about the Black and Aegean seas.

This genealogy from three sons, like the prior one, at first glance appears to contain a confusion of ancestry. Ham’s grandson Nimrod the hunter founds the great cities of Babylon, Uruk, Akkad, and Calneh in the land of Shinar. We are then told that “from that land Asshur (Assyria) went forth and built Nineveh, Rehoboth, Kalhu, and Resen.” But Asshur is also Shem’s son!

However, the apparent genealogical confusion is better explained by the story of the tower of Babel.

Noah’s sons had many descendants, who were different from each other, and ought to have populated the earth with a variety of strategies and modes of organization. Instead, they all lived together. They were worried that they might eventually drift apart or lose track of each other, so they decided to make a “name” for themselves by building one gigantic tower you could see from anywhere, “lest we be dispersed across the face of all the land.”

Yahweh is unhappy with this plan, because it interferes with the project of creating distinct lineages in order to discover which strategies are best. If everything’s mixed together to begin with, such that Asshur gets his start in the cities Nimrod built, it will be very difficult to accumulate track records. Yahweh forces differentiation by making lateral transmission of information more expensive – by making different peoples speak different languages.

This echoes the earlier expulsion of Adam and Eve from Yahweh’s Mesopotamian garden, as part of the process of acquiring discriminatory knowledge. You get acquainted with many different things, and know them by their fruits. But you have to keep track of which fruits came from which seeds, otherwise you don’t learn anything you can use in the future.

This process bears some interesting resemblance to what is going on now in mass media. At first, the main effect of inventions such as the printing press, radio, television, and internet was to lower barriers to lateral transmission of information. People in different traditions could talk to each other much more easily. This led to a lot of intellectual progress, but eventually resulted in homogenization and confusion. With the rise of mass culture, it is harder for our society to generate new hypotheses to compare, or to be patient enough to compare them. There is a temptation for everyone to jump to whatever option our opinion leaders – all of them educated in the same system and acculturated by the same media – think is best.

Fortunately, a new development is limiting the damage caused by homogenization: filter bubbles. No longer constrained by geography, people can find others even very far away with a shared sensibility and sense of priorities, and affiliate with them almost exclusively. This makes information transmission between groups much more difficult – we can hardly hear each other, and can even less understand – but it might open up some space for real diversity.

Babel is the last story in which all humanity tries to stick together. After the definitive differentiation of lineages by means of languages, we can follow the generations all the way down to Abram of Mesopotamia, founder of the Abrahamic religions.

Eber and the Hebrews

Shem’s grandson is Eber (עבר), presumed ancestor of the Eberites or Hebrews (Ivrim, עברים). Eber means “across,” and one plausible derivation of the word Ivrim is “those who are across,” i.e. the peoples east of the Jordan River. From the perspective of people living in Canaan, between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, these peoples were across the Jordan, or Transjordanian. A few extant Egyptian, Sumerian, Mesopotamian, and Canaanite records mention nomadic Habiru or Apiru, nomadic Transjordanian raiders and mercenaries.

The historic Habiru do not appear to have been a single group with common ancestry, but rather a class of peoples defined by their niche outside the settled system, analogous to the Barbarian tribes north of Rome. The Bible does not call the line of Abraham by the name “Hebrew,” but as we will see later on, reports Egyptians calling them by that name.

Eber’s great-great-great-grandson is Terah, who has three sons: Abram, Nahor, and Haran. Terah moves his family from Ur-Kasdim (probably Urkesh) to the city of Harran (חרן, spelt differently than his son’s name, הרן).

Sexual reproduction

In the Elohist creation story, humanity was created dual – male and female. In the Yahwist Eden story, Adam’s wife Eve played a central role. But the genealogies of Genesis mostly focus on which men are the sons of which other men, occasionally mentioning a wife or daughter of note. Genesis also mentions the daughters of Adam more broadly, to say that they mated with the sons of Elohim. But, with whom did the sons of Adam mate? For every fathering of a child, there must be a corresponding mothering.

At this point in the story, the Bible starts keeping track of women again. Abram’s wife is Sarai. Nahor has a son, Lot (Abram’s nephew). Lot marries Haran’s daughter Milcah, who is thus Lot’s cousin and Abram’s niece. The line of Lot will see more very close intrafamilial mixing later in the story.

The intrafamilial mixing is not only interesting because of what it says about Lot. For all the talk about direct lines of descent, sexual reproduction is not a binary search. Unless men only mate with their sisters, there is inherently going to be some lateral transfer – and some genetic recombination. Whether you track lineages by the male line, or by the female line, the other sex will bring across some information from other lineages. If a clan practices exogamy, then its lineage will quickly blend with those of other clans. And if a clan practices strict endogamy, this limits the extent of differentiation of lineages within the clan.

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