The narrative of the flood and the family of Noah occupies much of this week's portion. Compared to the previous portion that dealt with creation and the family of Adam and Eve, these early chapters deal not with the ancestors of the Jews but with the generic ancestors of all humanity.
Adam and Noah represent a vision of creation that extends from a single person out to humanity at large. By the time we reach next week's portion, the focus of the Torah shifts to one family within that common humanity, the family of Abraham that becomes the Jewish people.
The transition from the universal narrative of Genesis 1-11 to the particular story beginning with Genesis 12 is almost imperceptible, and occurs at the very end of the portion for this week.
The familiar narrative is the story of the Tower of Babel. The story sits in a curious position. Genesis 10:32 tells us that "these are the groupings of Noah's descendents, according to their origins, by their nations; and from these nations, they branched out over the earth after the Flood."
But then the text reads: "Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there." (Genesis 11:1-2)
Although some commentators read the swarming in Shinar as a critique, the plain sense of the sentence is that, after dispersing "over the earth," the many peoples began to contract to one shared space. There, they decided to "build a city" within which would be a tower "with its top in the sky." (Genesis 11:4) The Torah represents God as distressed, and suggests that God disrupts the unified language of the diverse clans and peoples.
Breaching the Heavens
The common way this story is remembered is that with the peoples now unable to communicate, the construction of the tower halted. The explanation for God's subsequent punishment of those in Shinar is that they presumed to be godly by breaching the heavens. Their sin would then be hubris.
But the text does not support that reading. While we tend to focus on the tower, the Torah seems more concerned with the city.
There is a powerful voice throughout the Hebrew Bible, evident especially in such narratives and in the books of several of the prophets, that sees the urban city as antithetical to the preferred pastoral field, the tribe and the clan. After the murder of Abel, Cain is exiled to the land of Nod (Genesis 4:16) where he "then founded a city." (Genesis 4:17) The progenitor of urban culture is, thus, the first person in history to commit murder — hardly a ringing endorsement.
From this perspective, the concern of God is not the hubris of Babel, but seems to be the creation of an urban culture.
While the pacific profile of the pastoral life implicit in the critique of the urban environment is an idealized one, it continues to be powerful. In contrast, urban culture is more often characterized as stratified by economics, class, employment and housing. The powerful prevail, and the powerless suffer.
So it is not surprising that, at the end of this week's portion, the Torah introduces Abram (Abraham) and states that his father, Terach, was taking the clan to "Haran." According to the Etz Hayim commentary, Haran was some 550 miles from the city of Ur, with a name meaning something like "route, journey, caravan." In other words, the progenitor of the Jewish people will come not from a city but from a transient place far from an urban setting.
In modern times, the majority of North American Jews have lived in urban, suburban or exurban locations. With the exception of some parts of early Zionism (such as the kibbutz movement), the biblical preference for the field over the city has long since been eclipsed. But implicit in the early chapters of Genesis is a concern that remains a challenge: how to make urban culture a more balanced and equal setting in which people of various traditions can share more equitably.
Rabbi Richard Hirsh is the executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.