The book of Genesis gives credit for building Babel twice. First, Babel is among the cities Nimrod builds in 10:10. In the more famous “Tower of Babel” story, a faceless crowd made up of everybody on earth builds the city named Babel before YHWH forces them to abandon it. Is this a difficulty a combination of approaches, the application of source-criticism to divide the text into its earlier sources and the application of contemporary literary criticism to its final form, might resolve?
The first step might be to divide Genesis 10-11 between the two hypothetical sources, P and J.
P (Priestly) J (Yahwist)
10:20, 22-23, 31-32 10:21, 24-30, 11:1-9
If this division is correct, what did J alone look like in its intact form? It is difficult to imagine that the story of Nimrod in 10:8-12, which includes the establishment of Babel, was entirely separate from the building and abandonment of Babel in 11:1-9. The abandonment of Babel would have involved the collapse of its king, Nimrod. The division above also means P would have had a story of human beings quickly differentiating after the flood under the headings of Noah’s three sons, while J had a story of the whole human community (11:1-2) still together under the leadership of Nimrod.
The next step is to ask why the redactor/author of Genesis made certain choices when arranging the material from the sources. One problem the writer of Genesis needed to solve in order for the larger narrative to work was to explain how Nahor and Abram, descendants of Shem, lived in Ur of the Chaldeans (11:31). When the redactor/author separated the Nimrod account, and placed it within the genealogical line of Ham, it created hereditary distance between Abram and the descendants of Ham, including Canaan and Nimrod. Retaining the dispersal story near the end of the Primeval Complex in Genesis 1-11 allowed the writer of Genesis to do at least three things. First, the dispersal created a plausible reason for a Shemite to be in Ur. Second, YHWH’s final statement on the evils of city-building, a central theme for all of Genesis 1-11, was a definitive defeat which set the narrative stage for Israel’s ancestors to emerge as nomadic sheep-herders. Third, if P originally contained two genealogies for Shem, 10:22-23,31 and 11:10-26, that did not fit easily together then the Tower of Babel story created some space between them, providing an explanation for the confusion.
The explanation above, which may or may not be convincing, moves in two different directions, using a procedure that used to be considered counter-productive. Now that artificial walls between methods are breaking down, can we divide existing material into earlier sources and ask questions about them, then put them back together and ask about the literary effects of the final form? Perhaps another reversal in direction is possible, if we return to the sources and ask whether it makes sense for P to have contained the two different genealogies of Shem and what that might have looked like.