September 26, 2012 0

Supplement – Torah Deleted Scenes: Babel! Zipporah! Sodom! Gomorrah!

By in Blog, Podcast


Hey gang, it’s Josh here. We’re about to move on to some major new material here on BOOK, but before we do that I thought it might be fun to take a quick look at a few strange little bits and pieces from Genesis and Exodus that we omitted for time on our first pass. Consider these our “deleted scenes.” Remember, we read the Torah as a single, continuous and coherent work of literature, not a grab-bag of morality lessons or religious claims. These passages, while some of them are very problematic, all contribute to the story, themes and argumentation of the Torah, albeit in some strange ways to our way of thinking. Here they are for your consideration:

First up, there’s the story in Genesis 11 known as the “Tower of Babel.” It is the last of the “primeval” narratives in the beginning of the Torah, and it bridges the gap between Noah’s genealogy and Abraham’s. It’s a short little blurb, so let’s just read it:

[11:1] Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. [2] And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. [3] And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. [4] Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” [5] And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. [6] And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. [7] Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” [8] So the LORD dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. [9] Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth. And from there the LORD dispersed them over the face of all the earth.

The invention of bricks leads mankind to build “a city and a tower” as high as heaven to “make a name” for themselves. God seems threatened by their efforts, so he confuses men’s languages and disperses them around the world. On one level, it looks like a straightforward etiological myth. “Etiology” is a fancy word for stories which explain how something got to be the way it is. In this case, it explains why the cultures of the world are different and why language is a barrier. But there are several other things going on here, relating to both history and literature.

Let’s start with the literary aspect. For this, I turn to an observation from one of my seminary professors, Dr. R. Bryan Widbin. Widbin notes that this story comes right after the flood story, and puts a nice cap on a double cycle that has been running since Genesis 1. The first cycle goes like this:

  1. DISORDER (pre-creation chaos)
  2. GOD ORDERS (creation)
  3. MAN DISORDERS (Adam and Eve in the garden)
  4. MAN REORDERS (Cain’s descendants build cities)
  5. GOD DISORDERS (sends flood)

The second cycle follows the same stages:

  1. DISORDER (uncreation – flood destruction)
  2. GOD ORDERS (recreation – flood recedes)
  3. MAN DISORDERS (Noah and his sons in the vineyard)
  4. MAN ORDERS (Ham’s descendants build nations)
  5. GOD DISORDERS (dispersal at Babel)

This suggested literary structure is compelling for the way it gives unity to the seeming hodge-podge of material in Genesis 1-11. It also sets up the sorry state of the world out of which God will “call” Abram to be a “great nation” and a “blessing” to all the other nations. This is a world that needs a blessing, according to the literature.

Historically, or rather anthropologically, this is a story about humans and technology. Man develops an amazing new tool: the brick. He can build walls faster and higher, and his ambition can reach further. This is the stuff of heroes in a work like Mesopotamia’s Gilgamesh or the Babylonian Enuma Elish. (In fact, “Babel” is most likely a reference to Babylon.) Here in the Hebrew Scriptures, however, this kind of overreach is viewed as man’s folly, trying to counterfeit God’s accomplishments in creation. This is another critique of the pagan worldview. And that’s the “tower of Babel.”

Next up is a sub-plot from Genesis involving Abram’s loser nephew Lot. From a literary perspective, if Abram represents a faithful (though flawed) man after God’s own heart, Lot represents a dumb guy. When God calls Abram to settle his family in Canaan, Lot decides he’d rather hang his hat in the southern Jordan valley, in and around the charming hamlets of Sodom and Gomorrah. On more than one occasion, Abram must save Lot’s sorry tuchas from imminent danger, risking his own reputation and the future of the covenant in the process.

The first of these incidents involves a small war in Genesis chapter 14 in which Lot becomes a prisoner. Some local chieftains go to battle, including the mayor of Sodom. His army is defeated, and the people of Sodom are pillaged and carried away, including Lot and his family. Abram, who has tried his best to live peacefully among the locals, gathers an army of his own men (an indication of just how wealthy he was) and rescues them – not just Lot and family, but everyone. In the aftermath of the battle, there is a very strange little incident. Starting in verse 17:

[17] After his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley). [18] And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High.) [19] And he blessed him and said,

“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
Possessor of heaven and earth;
[20] and blessed be God Most High,
who has delivered your enemies into your hand!”
And Abram gave him a tenth of everything.

Melchizedek, the King of Salem, is also a “priest of God Most High” (El Elyon in Hebrew). He “blesses” Abram, and Abram tithes ten percent of the spoils from his victory in battle. Who is this king/priest? How does Abram recognize him as a priest of El Elyon? And why is he giving him a tithe? Where did he learn to tithe, for that matter? Remember, this is all long before the law and before Israel. Once again, a pre-Israelite Hebrew is acting very much like a future citizen of Israel. And the key to this might just be Melchizedek’s home city of “Salem,” which many historians believe will later be called “Jerusalem,” which will, of course, become the political and religious center of life in Israel.

This is the only appearance of Melchizedek in a narrative text, but he will be invoked later in one of King David’s worship songs (called Psalms), and then again in the New Testament book called “Hebrews.” According to Israel’s law, a king may not perform the job of a priest and vice-versa. But the odd precedent of Melchizedek will not be forgotten. File him away in the back of your minds and we’ll come back to him later.

Now we come to the delightful tale of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18 and 19. This is a notoriously “difficult” passage for modern Western readers, but once again we must carefully investigate the literary presentation to be sure we understand what is really going on.

In Genesis 18 word comes to Abram through two visitors that God is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, where his nephew Lot is living. Abram intercedes, begging God to have mercy and spare the cities if he can find ten “righteous men” living there. God agrees, then in chapter 19 the two visitors head off to Sodom, where Lot welcomes them into his home. That night, every person of every age in Sodom surrounds Lot’s house and the mob demands that he hand over the visitors so they may “know them” sexually. Lot, bright as ever, offers his own daughters instead, but the crowd insists. By morning, the visitors (revealed to be angels) instruct Lot to escape with his family. He does, but his wife has doubts and looks back, and is turned into a “pillar of salt” (pillars of salt, it turns out, are a real geological feature of the southern Jordan Valley to this day). Then God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah with tar and fire from the sky, as he promised he would if no righteous men could be found within them.

What’s the deal with this story? Well, let’s talk a little bit about what is NOT the deal with this story. Here’s not how to read this as a modern reader: The people of Sodom and Gomorrah are not destroyed because they are homosexual, or even because they are simply breaking commandments. The people of Sodom are completely given over to violence and destruction, and are even raising their children to behave in this way. The text goes out of its way to set this up in terms of oppression and injustice, not as God randomly zapping sinners. Here’s chapter 18 verses 20 and 21:

[20] Then the LORD said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, [21] I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know.”

There’s that word “outcry” again, as when Abel’s blood cried out from the ground in Genesis 4, or when the cry of the oppressed Hebrew slaves rose up to God’s ears in Exodus. According to the text, God doesn’t randomly choose Sodom and Gomorrah for destruction because they violated his rule book. The offense of their behavior is so rank and the cry of their terrified neighbors so loud, that God has no choice but to step in and administer justice. And note that, despite the “fire and brimstone” imagery here, we’re still not talking about a heaven/hell situation. God doesn’t damn Sodom and Gomorrah to eternal suffering, he puts an end to their reign of terror and gives relief to their victims. For the moment, set aside what you believe or disbelieve or approve or disapprove of regarding the Bible. We’re just trying to get a glimpse of the internal logic of the literature. Sodom and Gomorrah is about justice and judgment. And in the Bible, judgment is just as much wonderful news for the oppressed as it is bad news for the oppressor.

In the charming epilogue to this story, Lot and his newly widowed daughters flee to a nearby cave, where his daughters get Lot drunk and have sex with him so the family line can continue. And – surprise, surprise – the children born of this backwoods union will be the fathers of the Moabites and the Ammonites, two more of Israel’s future enemies.

One more deleted tidbit, this one from Exodus. There’s a very strange little paragraph early in the scroll about Moses and his wife Zipporah that has baffled modern interpreters. It’s found in chapter 4, right after God gives Moses the three magic tricks at the burning bush, and right before he goes back to Egypt. It goes like this:

[24] At an encampment along the way, the LORD met [Moses] and sought to kill him. [25] So Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it, saying, “You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me!” [26] And when he let him alone, she added, “A bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision.”

Some aspects of these few verses are very elusive: the meaning of phrase “bridegroom of blood” is not well attested, for example. And the pronouns of the text are quite vague. It’s actually not completely clear who is being circumcised here, Moses or his son. Then there’s the question of why God suddenly wants to kill Moses, whom he’d just recruited to be his prophet in the previous verses.

However, with careful attention to some literary cues, we can at least begin to understand the point of this little interlude. It’s reasonably clear that the episode centers around circumcision, and that helps to explain a great number of things. Back in Genesis, when God prescribed circumcision as a visible sign of the Hebrews’ covenant, it was made clear that any son of a Hebrew who was not circumcised would be “cut off” from the covenant (Gen 15:). If Moses has failed to comply with this covenant requirement, and left his son un-circumcised, he will have to straighten that out before he heads off to Egypt as the people’s representative.

As for God wanting to kill Moses, it sounds a bit drastic but I think it makes literary sense as a foreshadow of the tenth plague, wherein God will kill the firstborn son in every Egyptian household unless there is lamb’s blood on the doorpost. In both cases a deadly threat looms, and blood functions as a deflection of the wrath. Before Moses can leave Midian for Egypt, he must comply with God’s demand. In the same way later on, Israel must comply before they can leave Egypt for Canaan. That’s just a suggestion. Your mileage may vary, consult your physician.

And those are our Torah “deleted scenes,” and now you know why I left them out.

This has been a supplement of the BOOK podcast, a bible podcast for everybody. I have been Josh Way. Find much more content at, and I’ll see you next time.

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