22. The Promises

Now let’s look briefly at the stories after the Flood, but before the Hebrews came out of Egypt, because they raise other important questions about the nature of God. They begin with a list of the offspring of Noah’s sons, and the nations they founded, after God caused them to speak different languages. It is often called the “Table Of Nations.” 1
   Modern historians tend to ignore it, or treat it as legendary, because it assumes a historical Flood; but it also provides an explanation for the origin of many of the ancient nations. The Jewish historian Josephus provides additional details. For example, he informs us that Chus (Cush) was the ancient name for Ethiopia, Mizraim was the origin of the Egyptians, Javan was the origin of the Greeks, and Elam was the ancestor of the Persians. He also tells us that Peleg, an ancestor of Abram, was named this because he was born at the dispersion of the nations to their countries, the name meaning “division.” 2
   The Table of Nations is followed by the story of the Tower of Babel. There are similar stories in Sumerian and Assyrian culture, so it is assumed that the Biblical one came from one of these, although they could also derive from a common source. Curiously, there are similar legends throughout the world, suggesting that they could be rooted in a historical reality.
   The Biblical version says that Nimrod, the grandson of Ham the son of Noah, was the first one to be described as “mighty” after the Flood. The beginning of his kingdom was Babel, also known in English as Babylon. Out of that land, either Nimrod or Asshur went forth and built Nineveh, depending on which translation you use. The Hebrew suggests it was Asshur who actually built Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. Collectively this kingdom became known as “the great city.” 3
   Although the Genesis account doesn’t directly say Nimrod built the Tower of Babel, it says that certain people traveled east and came across a valley in Shinar. They wanted to build a city and a tower there, and since the place was named Babel, it is likely that Nimrod was their ruler. They were one people and spoke one language. Their purpose was to make a name for themselves, so they wouldn’t be scattered across the face of the Earth.4 I suppose we could think of it as the first United Nations.
   According to Josephus, Nimrod gradually changed the government into a tyranny, to turn people away from God and into a constant dependence upon his power. In this regard, we could say that he became the first world leader.
   He exploited the people’s fear of another Flood, arguing that if God decided to flood the world again, they would build a tower too high for the floodwaters to reach, and thus he would avenge himself on God for destroying their forefathers.
   The people were all too ready to follow the determination of their leader, and they considered it an act of cowardice to submit to God; so they built the tower. It grew very high, and was strongly built, made of burnt brick and bitumen as mortar, so that it wouldn’t let water in. 5
   According to the Genesis account, YHWH saw what they were doing, and decided to confuse their language and scatter them over the face of the Earth. While this story is perhaps easy to dismiss as mere legend, it is curious that we find ancient megalithic structures with little or no historical precedent in distant places around the world.
   If the Tower of Babel was a megalithic structure, as the account implies, and the builders were scattered over the face of the Earth, they might be inclined to build yet more megalithic structures in the places they found themselves. For example, the ancestors of the people who built Stonehenge in Britain apparently came from Anatolia, which today we know as Turkey. 6
   Whatever the case, it is intriguing that some ancient humans seemed to have had an obsession with creating megalithic structures, which is perhaps alluded to in the story of the Tower of Babel.
   Now, the main theme of the Bible begins with Abram, the first person God interacted with directly after Noah, at least according to the Genesis account. God made Abram a unique promise. “YHWH said to Abram: ‘Go your way from your land and from your people, and from the house of your father, to the land which I will show you. And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, and you will become a blessing. And I will bless those blessing you, and I will curse him making light of you; and by you, all the families of the ground will be blessed.’” 7
   This promise was repeated several times over many years. The account says that Abram “believed in YHWH, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” 8 Nevertheless, God also gave him evidence to back up his faith and to confirm the promises he had made. Abram was told to take a three-year old heifer, a three-year old goat, a three-year old ram, a turtledove and a young pigeon. He cut them in two, and put each piece so as to match the other, although he didn’t cut up the birds. When the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon him, along with a dread of great darkness.
   God then said to him: “Know for certain that your offspring will become foreigners in a land not theirs, and they will serve them. And they will humiliate them for 400 years. But I will also judge the nation which they will serve, and after that they will come out with many goods. As for you, you will go to your forefathers in peace. You will be buried at a good old age. And the fourth generation will return here, because the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” 9
   After that, “the sun set and it became twilight, and look! a furnace of smoke, and a torch of fire that passed between the cut up pieces. In that day YHWH made a covenant with Abram, saying: ‘To your offspring I give this land; from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.’” 10
   Abram’s offspring were to inherit the land possessed by tribes such as the Amorites, but they would have to wait, because “the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” For whatever reason, we aren’t told here what their iniquity was.
   Some years later, God once again restated his promise to Abram, saying that he would become a father of many nations. He renamed him Abraham, meaning “Father Of A Multitude,” and his wife Sarai was to be called Sarah, meaning “Princess.”
   God also introduced a physical component to the promise, in the form of circumcision. “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you, and between your offspring after you. Every male of yours is to be circumcised. And you are to circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it will become for a sign of the covenant between me and you.” 11
   This way of making a covenant or contract might sound odd to the modern reader, who would perhaps prefer just to put their signature on a dotted line, rather than have bits of their body cut off. But it was a striking way of passing on a reminder of God’s promises to Abraham’s descendants down through the generations, and a way of making them physically different from other people, in a manner that was hard to forget. It was also physical evidence that such a covenant had been made, since contracts written on paper can be lost, or dismissed as forgeries by skeptics.

1 See Genesis chapter 10. 2 Josephus, Antiquities Of The Jews, Book 1, Chapter 6. 3 Genesis 10:8-12. 4 Genesis 11:1-4. 5 Josephus, Antiquities Of The Jews, Book 1, Chapter 4. 6 See the article “Stonehenge: DNA reveals origin of builders” by Paul Rincon, published at bbc.co.uk on April 16, 2019. 7 Genesis 12:1-3. 8 Genesis 15:6. 9 Genesis 15:13-16. 10 Genesis 15:17,18. 11 Genesis 17:9-11.


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