Where is the Mitigation in the Tower of Babel Story (Gen 11)?

A few weeks ago in my Intro to Scriptures class we covered the Primeval History.  Perhaps the most traditional view has been to articulate the overriding theme of this opening section of Genesis as being an ‘avalanche of sin’ (was that Augustine?).  I remain unconvinced that sin is at the fore in Gen 1-11.  The text very much seems to me to exhibit a deep interest in the grace or mercy of God.

The metanarrative I was proposing argued that there is a recurring pattern throughout Gen 1-11, one typified by disobedience followed by mercy/grace/mitigation.  The rough outline was as follows:

Creation: Initial Harmony (Gen 1-2)
Eden: Harmony Disrupted (Gen 3)
     -serpent as trickster
     -disobedience – eating from the tree
     -breakdown in relationships
          Mitigation: a divine seamstress (3:21)
Cain and Abel: God’s Unexplained Preference (Gen 4)
     -Cain kills Abel
     -Cursing the ground
     -Cain becomes a fugitive and wanderer
          Mitigation: mark of protection for Cain, vengeance assured (4:15
          Additional Mitigation: Adam’s genealogy (Gen 5; cf. Gen 1:28 –    humanity is fulfilling the Bible’s first commandment to “be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth”)
The Flood: Reversal of Creation (Gen 6-9)
     -“sons of God” and “daughters of men” (6:1-4)
     -utter wickedness of humanity
          Mitigation: “Noah found favor in the sight of YHWH” (6:8; cf. 7:1-3)
          Tempered Mitigation?: “All flesh died that moved on the earth . . . ”
               *revocation of curse on ground (8:21)
               *divine repentance? “Never again will I . . . ”
               *renewed commandment: Gen 9:1 – “be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth” (cf. 1:28)
Tower of Babel (Gen 11)
     -“let us make a name for ourselves” (11:5)
     -fear of being scattered
     –hubris – human attempt to be like the gods (cf. Eden)

AND MOVING FORWARD . . . . “Now Sarai was barren, she had no child” (11:30; cf. 1:28 and 9:1)
          Mitigation: ?????

Where is the mitigation for the Babel story?  Does the Primeval History end on a negative note?  I don’t think so.  Where, then, is the mitigation, you might ask?  Right here:

MITIGATION: “And God said to Abram . . . ” (Gen 12:1).

The mitigation for the Babel story is the ancestral promise in Gen 12:1-3.  This argument was popularized by seminal OT scholar Gerhard von Rad, who saw Gen 12:1-3 as an independent composition (attributed to J) serving not as the beginning to the ancestral narratives but as the conclusion to the Primeval History.  The ancestral promise bridges the two, joining the narrative together.

Strikingly, the narratives are connected in two other ways:
1) elleh toledot Terah (11:27) – the toledot of Abraham’s father, Terah, introduces Abraham in Gen 11, as well as his wife Sarai.
2) YHWH’s speech to Abraham, stating “I will make your name great” (12:2), cf. “let us make a name for ourselves” in 11:5.

So, after many false starts and restarts in the Primeval History, YHWH starts again, this time selecting a particular family, a particular people, in whom all the world would indeed be blessed (12:3).  It is a matter of universality through particularity.

So, what do you think?


12 thoughts on “Where is the Mitigation in the Tower of Babel Story (Gen 11)?

  1. Rob Kashow says:

    hmmm, but the pattern starts good then goes bad, good then bad, good then bad.

    wouldn’t this throw a wrench in the grace and mercy theme rather than seeing a sin/man or creation’s domination of man ruining things theme?

  2. John Anderson says:

    Claude: Thanks. I am in good company then with Westermann. Von Rad is the one I often credit with this idea.

    Rob: I’m not quite sure what you mean. If you are implying that you want the pattern to begin with the “bad” then fine, I can do that. Pre-creation chaos is bad, and YHWH’s harnessing of it can be seen as an initial act of mercy/mitigation.

    • Rob Kashow says:

      no i was saying the opposite. it starts good and always goes bad. this pattern would seem to argue for the other view.

      so then it would depend, i think, on what you do with 1.1.

      • John Anderson says:

        Yes, Rob, I recognize that is what you are saying. And my response was to say then that one could view pre-creation chaos as the initial “bad.”

        Aside from that, I don’t know how what you are saying is different than what I am saying. I acknowledge the bad, but I don’t think it is so sweeping. There are elements of mercy and grace, mitigation, throughout.

        I would suggest you read the relevant chapter on “Prefatory Theme” in David Clines’ The Theme of the Pentateuch; he looks at the possibilities and analyzes them thoughtfully.

      • Rob Kashow says:

        true, one could. what i’m getting at is that you would almost have to take this view otherwise a wrench would be thrown in the midst of the theory. so then the question becomes, do you in fact see the pre-creation chaos as bad. you seem to be distancing yourself from that view by using the indefinite pronoun, so what i’m interested to know is that if you do not hold to pre-creation chaos, then how else do you answer my objection?

  3. Sean LeRoy says:

    I’d be inclined to agree, esp as the Babel deals with the nations and thru Abe eventually comes the solution for all, incl the nations.
    I’d only tweak a couple points –>
    1. mitigation in Gen 3 is 3.15 and the promise of the Seed
    2. mitigation in Noahic narrative is the Covenant (since Noah had already found grace)
    Cool summary.

  4. John Anderson says:

    Sean: You make some additional very fine connections!

    On your two points, I would see those as signs of mitigation, yes (and I actually intended to mention the Noachic covenant; it must have slipped my mind), but not replacement of the ones I cite here.

    Thanks for your response!

  5. John Anderson says:


    Assuming I am understanding you properly (and I don’t know that I am yet), I would say I don’t see a problem. I very clearly articulate in the outline that what we have is a beginning point (creation and harmony) that is disrupted. The pattern begins with this initial disruption and carries forward from there.

    I do see precreation chaos as “bad,” I guess, but I wouldn’t work that into the pattern. Again, though, I don’t think that is important.

    I must admit to a bit of confusion still about what objection you are raising. My apologies. But, to hazard a response, I would say the pattern as I have articulated it does not “begin good” as you say, only then to “go bad.” The pattern begins with an initial act of disobedience with the eating of the fruit; all that precedes that is background. It sets the stage for things to come. And most importantly, it presents the original “harmony” that is disrupted by the beginning of the pattern with the disobedience in Gen 2-3.

  6. Rob Kashow says:


    The missing piece for me was:

    “all that precedes that is background. It sets the stage for things to come. And most importantly, it presents the original “harmony” that is disrupted by the beginning of the pattern with the disobedience in Gen 2-3.”

    If you somehow said this earlier and I missed it, I apologize.

    I’m still thinking through whether or not what precedes is simply ‘background’ however…. I hear what you’re saying—disruption to mitigation… I guess I’m having trouble not seeing mitigation to disruption. Nonetheless, there you are.

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