In chapter 10 of Genesis we have this curious list of the Table of Nations. It appears that the outcome of the command to Noah and his sons after the flood, to be fruitful and multiply and fill is the ethnic diversity of the nations of the earth.
This is God’s ideal for the world. But look what happens at Babel. There the energy of human beings is directed at maintaining unity, God seeks diversity; human beings seek one centre; God seeks dispersal; Human beings want to be safe with homogeneity; God welcomes pluralism. Here in the story that emerges in chapter 11 the centrifugal energy of God is in conflict with the centripetal force of human beings.
But before we get there, a wee word on another city builder, this time it’s Nimrod the hero.
In Chapter 4 of Genesis, Cain builds the first city and intends it as a city of refuge in an attempt to escape the judgment of God. Cities emerge as places to hide. Here the cities built by Nimrod are launchpads for Empire.
It is as if Cain, exiled from the environment of his origins, seeks to construct one of his own bounded this time not by rivers but by walls. If the open reaches of the creation were to be places of threat and condemnation for him, then he chooses instead to establish a secure community, where that threat, which was part of God’s judgment, is removed.
Given time however, the security of the walls of the city are breached, not by outside enemies but from within the family itself, with the violence of Lamech who glorifies his actions in song, one of the cultural developments of the city. It seems that violence is never far from the one who is alienated.
The story moves on then to the great hunter Nimrod. He is described as a ‘mighty warrior’ (Gen 10:8) who grew to be a ‘mighty hunter before the Lord’ (Gen 8:9). Unlike his ancestor Cain, who sought refuge from violence in the building of a city, Nimrod becomes the first empire builder and builds cities as the staging posts for his expansion.
“The first centres of his kingdom were Babylon, Erech, Akkad and Calneh, in Shinar. From that land he went to Assyria, where he built Ninevah, Rehoboth Ir, Calah and Resen, which is between Ninevah and Cala; that is, the great city.” (Gen 10:10-12)
Jacques Ellul draws our attention to the curious phrase ‘a mighty hunter before the Lord’ (Gen 10:9) and argues that ‘before the Lord’ may indicate some sense of condemnation or approbation and that, in reality, Nimrod is separated from the Lord His designation as hunter may also be termed ‘plunderer’ or ‘conqueror’. Ellul thus argues that Nimrod is a man of violence who launches his mission of empire building in defiance of, or distance, from God. Whatever the merits of this argument, it is clear that city building becomes the means by which Nimrod gains a formidible reputation and this leads Ellul to comment that,
“The city is now a centre from which war is raged. Urban civilisation is a warring civilisation. Conqueror and builder are no longer distinct. Both are included in one man, and both are an expression of that desire for might which is revolt against the Lord.”
The centrifugal force of the creation mandate is opposed by the centripetal force of human will expressed in urbanisation, and the conflict is centred on the city of Babel.