Quaker Theology #9 -- Fall-Winter 2003
Nimrod and the Tower of Babel
Genesis 10-11 in Seventeenth-Century Quaker Writings
Esther Greenleaf Murer
This paper grows out of the Quaker Bible Index, an attempt at a
comprehensive Scripture index to make readily available Seventeenth and
Eighteenth-century Quaker writings. The first version, which appeared in 1993
and is available on CD-ROM, included about 10,000 Scripture references to works
by Fox, Barclay, Penn, Woolman and others. Since then, many more early Quaker
writings have appeared in print (and yet many more on the web) and I am
currently working on a greatly expanded edition.
The index began as a self-education project. I hope that it will provide a useful tool for others who are more knowledgeable than I about the Bible and Quaker history in determining how Quaker uses of Bible texts differ from those of other sects, past and present.
In the interest of providing some counterbalance to the labor of collecting references, I have undertaken to compile selected Quaker texts referring to Genesis into a sort of “Quaker commentary.” This paper is a first attempt at explicating some of it. I offer some examples of the use made in Seventeenth-century Quaker writings of the Biblical narrative about the Tower of Babel, found in Genesis 11:1-9, as well as Babel’s putative builder, Nimrod (Gen 10:8-10).
I chose the Tower of Babel partly because it’s a manageable chunk, but also because it’s dear to my heart. As I child I loved Jeremy Ingalls’ retelling of the Hebrew legend about the rebellion of Nimrod, and as an adult I wrote a musical fantasy using the Tower as a metaphor for the permanent war economy.
1And the whole earth
was of one language, and of one speech. 2And it came to pass, as they journeyed
from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt
there. 3And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them
thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. 4And
they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto
heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of
the whole earth.
5And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. 6And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. 7Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. 8So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. 9Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.
–Genesis 11:1-9 KJV
Babel appears in early Quaker writings as one of many biblical
equivalents of “the mystery of iniquity” [2 Th 2:7], a phrase which Douglas Gwyn
defines as “the power that continues to defeat personal transformation and
social justice.” 1
The 1993 Harper-Collins Study Bible (NRSV) says that the name “Babel” derives from Akkadian bab-ilani, “gate of the gods” – which of course is also the source of “Babylon.” Early Friends often conflate the two, but it is unclear to me whether they understand them as historically the same. Their hermeneutic was heavily typological, and the identification may be on that plane.
References to Babel are comparatively few; Friends, like other radical sects of the period, made much more use of “Mystery Babylon,” its counterpart from the book of Revelation. Yet they tend to associate Babylon with confusion. According to Fox, for example, “Babylon signifies confusion, which is the false church, and is called a woman [Rev 17:3-5], and a city of confusion [Gen 11, Rev 17:18]...” (FOX: 8:184f ).
In a tract against music, Humphrey Smith identifies Babel with Babylon in an Old Testament context:
And when them in Israel who had Harps (the Musicioners) them who delighted in music, were carried captive into Babylon, the land of Confusion [Gen 11:6-9], in which land Nimrod the mighty one in the earth went hunting before the Lord [Gen 10:9], and by the River of Babylon they sate down and wept, who were before the Musitioners with their Harps; these went into captivity because of the sin, and hanged their Harps upon the Willowes, and sate down mourning by the River of confusion, and that which delighted in the Musick caused the seed to be captivated, and leads into bondage that which should come to liberty, whereby sorrow, weeping and mourning comes in the end; for the songs of the temple is to be turned into howling [Amos 8:3] and their delight in the musick was turned into weeping; and they led captive from Zion, who were come to the land of promise, and there took liberty in these fleshly delights, Psalm 137, the mind that hath wisdome may read this. 2
Ancient tradition attributes the building of the Tower of Babel to Nimrod. The Bible itself makes only brief mention of Nimrod, in Genesis 10:
8And Cush begat Nimrod: he began to be a mighty one in the earth. 9He was a mighty hunter before the LORD: wherefore it is said, Even as Nimrod the mighty hunter before the LORD. 10And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. 11Out of that land went forth Asshur, and builded Nineveh, and the city Rehoboth, and Calah, 12And Resen between Nineveh and Calah: the same is a great city. KJV
The Oxford Companion to the Bible notes that “the list of the cities of his vast kingdom … seems to trace Mesopotamian history up to the beginnings of the Neo-Assyrian empire, when Nineveh and then Calah served as imperial capitals.” Nimrod’s name means “we will rebel” or “let us rebel” in Hebrew, “likely a polemical distortion of the name of the Mesopotamian god Ninurta, who had cult centers in Babel, Calah, and other cities, and was a divine patron of Neo-Assyrian kings.” 3
Nimrod has been an archetype of tyranny since ancient times. Appendix 28 of The Companion Bible (online) gives several quotations from ancient extra-Biblical sources. According to the [Roman/Jewish] historian Josephus (Ant. Jud. I. c. 4. 2), “Nimrod persuaded mankind not to ascribe their happiness to God, but to think that his own excellency was the source of it. And he soon changed things into a tyranny, thinking there was no other way to wean men from the fear of God, than by making them rely upon his own power.”
The Jerusalem Targum says: “He was powerful in hunting and in wickedness before the Lord, for he was a hunter of the sons of men, and he said to them, ‘Depart from the judgment of the Lord, and adhere to the judgment of Nimrod!’ Therefore is it said: ‘As Nimrod [is] the strong one, strong in hunting, and in wickedness before the Lord.’ ” 4
Coming closer to our period, the 1599 Geneva Bible’s marginal notes interpret “mighty one” in Gen 10:8 as “Meaning, a cruel oppressor and tyrant.” The note to v.9 adds, “His tyranny came into a proverb as hated both by God and man: for he did not cease to commit cruelty even in God's presence.”
Christopher Hill devotes several pages of to a discussion of Nimrod’s significance for the radical sects of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries. 5 In two pamphlets of 1648 and 1649 (around the time of Charles I’s trial and execution) the Digger Gerrard Winstanley “generalized from Nimrod that ‘the whole Scripture declares kings to be no better than tyrants and usurpers…in that they were kings they were tyrants’”….”[The Seeker] William Erbury in 1654, using Winstanley’s pejorative phrase, spoke of ‘Nimrod, that kingly power….Kings with their nobles, lords, and dukes all proceeded from a cursed pedigree.’ They formed ‘a race of oppression over the people of God ’.” (218)
These quotations are from the time of the revolution and the years immediately following, when hopes of a government realizing the biblical vision of the Kingdom of God were still bright. I have so far found no Quaker references to Nimrod from this period. Those that I do have are from the Restoration, after disillusion had set in and the Quaker emphasis had shifted to the soul as the primary locus of the Lamb’s War.
Two epistles from the 1660s show that for George Fox, Nimrod’s chief sin was “hunting before the Lord,” i.e. outrunning his Guide:
[Christ] will crush and bruise to pieces all giddy, wandering, and unestablished spirits, and confound them who are cunning, and hunt before the Lord; for the Lord should go before them, he should be the guide. For they that hunt before him, will not have the Lord to be their guide, who is the same to-day as he was yesterday, and so forever [Heb 13:8]. 6
It was the hubris stemming from this disobedience which resulted in the tower and led inevitably to the confusion of tongues:
The priests say, that Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, are the original; but the many languages began at Babel, which Nimrod, the hunter before the Lord, began to build, after God had destroyed the old world with water; then would he go build a tower, which should reach to heaven; and God came down and confounded them into many languages. So he hunted before the Lord, but the Lord followed him, and confounded him in his work, as he will all the builders that run before him. 7
Fox’s exegesis will hardly convince modern scholars that
knowledge of Hebrew and Greek is superfluous. The Hebrew word translated in the
Authorised Version (KJV) as “before” is lipnē, literally “in the face of.” It
can mean “in the view of” or “volente, by the will of.” The Jewish Publication
Society renders “before the Lord” as “by the grace of the Lord;” the Anchor
Bible has “by the will of Yahweh;” New Jerusalem, “in the eyes of Yahweh.”
Note, however, that Calvin’s reading of the Hebrew word has a certain kinship with Fox’s. In his commentary on Gen 10:8 he says, “The expression, ‘Before the Lord,’ seems to me to declare that Nimrod attempted to raise himself above the order of men; just as proud men become transported by a vain self-confidence, that they may look down as from the clouds upon others.”