The story of the tower of Babel is another iconic episode in these foundational chapters.
Ham has been cast in the role of slave – a slave who will provide shelter for the descendants of Shem as God leads them on an epic journey. But the slave chooses, instead, to build a shelter for himself, in one place. If they will not spread out – ultimately becoming Egypt and Canaan and Babylon and Assyria and Philistia – they will not be in a position to serve a nomadic Shem. If Ham won’t scatter across the earth, Shem will not be able to either.
The descendants of Ham assume that they will make a name for themselves only if they do not scatter. However the story-teller has already let us into the secret that it is in scattering that they will make a name for themselves as the great Empires, or indeed several names as the greatest Empires the ancient world had known.
God confuses their common language. Yet again, God co-opts chaos in order to limit chaos. Yet again, what looks like judgement turns out to be commissioning.
With Ham in place ready to serve, the story turns back to the descendants of Shem, bringing us at last to Terah, the father of Abram (who will later be known as Abraham). With his family, Terah sets out from Chaldea to live in Canaan. To the descendants of Shem being hosted by the descendants of Ham.
But on the way, the journey becomes stalled.
Here we pause and look back. The story so far has introduced the delicate balance of chaos and boundaries, blessings and curses, life and death (which does not separate us from our self, our fellow humans, or God), being set-apart or clean and being set-aside or unclean, the end of the world and how it isn’t the end, slaves who are hosts. Whatever these marks scrawled in ink are, this story is far from black-and-white. It paints a world of almost unimaginable wonder.
Only a story can do that. And this one is the mother of all stories.