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Genesis 11:1-9

Genesis 11 addresses the failures of human self-centeredness and points toward hope to build communities of blessed care.

Genesis 11 points forward to the ability for God to establish a name for the person(s) of God’s choosing in order that human flourishing and God’s blessedness can be given freely to all nations. Genesis 11 establishes a subtle irony early in the story of the Bible about those who should seek to make a name for themselves whose names will not be recorded, set over against the many otherwise powerless persons (Shiphrah and Puah, Bezalel and Oholiab, Samuel, Esther, New Testament Disciples) whose names will be remembered in all nations for how God blesses them for their service to God’s purpose. When the book of Genesis is taught, it seems a significant emphasis is given to Genesis 1-2, taken as though they are one story of Creation, Genesis 3 for the “so-called” Fall, Genesis 6-9 for the Flood story, Genesis 12, 15, 17, for covenants with Abraham, the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22 – and then perhaps some compilation of narrowing the chapter 13 story of Joseph into a single, simple story. Genesis 11 does not come to the fore as most important in Genesis. And yet, in Genesis 11 we have a kind of “hinge” for reading the book of Genesis.

Genesis 11 marks both continuity and shift in the story of Genesis.

Genesis 11 begins with a claim of unified language for the people (v.1). As a direct claim in the Bible, this presents a difficult connection to what comes in the preceding chapter, specifically at 10:5, 10:20, and 10:31 where the Biblical text notes the descendants of Noah and his sons having their own languages. The Bible text though, in this Primeval History, does not seem to be presenting a seamless linear and sequential history as much as it is focused on the larger role of God’s activity in and with creation and persons in God’s creation. What is most important in Genesis 11 is not any potential disparity with Genesis 10 and is instead what is happening with this particular community of persons who settle in the plain of Shinar (v. 2). [1] As these inhabitants of this city gather, they engage in conversation with each other and determine to work together to make bricks. The NRSV translation: “Let us” (11:3 & again 11:4) work together might echo an attempt to think back to the “Let us” of God in Creation, purposing to create Humans (Genesis 1:26-27). The text of 11:3 begins with a phrase translated from Hebrew “and they said to one another” where the Hebrew literally has “a man said to his fellowman.” We have no named characters, only general “men.” These persons want to work together though, it has been suggested, they are already outside of God’s purpose as they (1) attempt to build a name for their glory, not for the glory of God. And, (2) human persons have been told to flourish in creation, being fruitful and filling the earth (Genesis 1:28 to human persons in Creation and Genesis 9:1 to human persons of Noah’s descendants.) What humans have been told to rule over in all creation for all of God’s image to be extended through faithful service, the human persons instead narrowly focus their efforts and in service to God fail to extend God’s rule and, it seems, think they can reach to the heavens to directly subvert the Ruler they have been put into the world to serve. 11:4 notes that the human inhabitants want to build a city. While there is not yet any provision against cities in the Biblical text, the attentive reader has reason to wonder if this will not be a failed program. Cain and Abel (Genesis 4) were the first humans to live their lives fully outside of God’s protected place (The Garden – Genesis 2-3) and yet still in the handiwork of the Creation (all of creation is always the place of God’s sovereign rule). Not only does Cain’s offering (and/or attitude) not receive acceptance by God, when Cain is subject to the “mark” of God (Gen. 4:15) and forced further east (4:16), Cain and the first descendants of Cain’s lineage begin to build cities (4:17). As the attentive reader of Genesis 11 reads about what the people will do as the “us” of this story, they must wonder if the same repeating patterns of retributive violence and extended 77x fold curse (Gen. 4:15 and