Our parsha devotes a full chapter (10) to the birth of ethnic and political culture in the world after the Flood. The seventy descendants of Noah who are mentioned in this chapter become, over the course of the years, the seventy nations of the world. In the midst of this genealogical list, we are suddenly presented with a curious story:
“Kushgave birth to Nimrod; he began to be a mighty one in the land. He was a mighty hunter before God; therefore it is said – “Like Nimrod, the mighty hunter before God”. And the beginning of his kingdom was Bavel, and Erekh and Akkadand Kalneh, in the landof Shin’ar.”
The connection between these verses is unclear. The first verse speaks about Nimrod, who began to be “a mighty one in the land”. The use of the expression “began” (hehel) usually indicates that this was the first person to do whatever he did in a notable manner, worthy of mention. The text does not elaborate as to what sort of “mighty one” he was; we are told only that his might was “in the land”. Was he a mighty warrior? Was he especially courageous in his exploits?
The second verse adds further details, but we are still left with many questions. Nimrod was a “mighty hunter before God”. Now, we know what sort of might is usually associated with hunting, but what is the meaning of the phrase “before God”? Doesn’t every person in the world do whatever he does “before God”? The Torah goes on to quote what people used to say: everyone used to talk about Nimrod as a “mighty hunter before God”. What is the meaning of this idiom?
The third verses adds a further difficulty: “The beginning of his kingdom.”. What does any of this have to do with a kingdom? Thus far the text has said nothing about kingship; Nimrod was a “mighty hunter”!
Hazal (in Midrash Rabba) as well as Rashi explain that the Torah is telling us here about the first leader in world history who rebelled against the Kingship of God. Their words serve to answer our questions:
Chapter 10 in its entirety deals with the development of the individuals who survived the Flood into nations. Inter alia, the chapter tells us how groups of nomadic gatherers/hunters became ethnic groups, city states, subject to local rule. This is the story of the birth of kingship within this culture, in Mesopotamia, the cradle of human civilization.
The kings of Shumar, Ashur and Bavel ruled by virtue of their being chosen by God. This is how they memorialize themselves in their inscriptions, this is how they claim religious and moral justification for their rule, and this is how their respective nations accepted them. How did they become God’s “chosen”? Were they really divinely chosen? It is these questions that the Torah comes to answer in the above verses, in the description of the origins of human kingship.
It all started with Nimrod. He was a “mighty one in the land”: his exploits were recounted at nights around the tribal bonfire. His “might” was manifest in the sphere of hunting. People wondered how it was that he succeeded where others failed; what made this person “mighty”. The obvious explanation, in their pagan world, was that he was uniquely blessed and aided by the gods. It is quite reasonable to posit that he himself, too, believed that his success reflected divine involvement in his life.
Thus Nimrod was a “mighty hunter before God” (or “before the god”). Over the course of time this perception came to be accepted universally, and it was common knowledge that Nimrod was successful before God and was chosen. The next stage developed quite naturally: every tribe wanted to be ruled by God’s chosen one. This, then, was the beginning of his kingdom – and that of human kingship in general – in the Fertile Crescent: Ur, Bavel, and Nippur(“Uruk”) are the most ancient cities in which culture and rulership existed, in the forms recognizable to us.
The same cultural root also sprouted human rebellion against God, and the foundation of the Babylonian nation which eventually destroyed the Templein Jerusalem. Let us now consider how this came about.
According to the above perception of divinely ordained rulership, who decides who is “God’s chosen”? It is not God who chooses. Whoever is strongest, fittest, most successful and victorious – he is the chosen one. God is subject, as it were, to human success. He must be the supporter of the victorious side in any contest – and it makes no difference how the victory is achieved.
Whichever mighty hunter hung a greater number of skulls on his belt than anyone else, any wicked dictator who managed to seize control of territory and to subjugate its people – he was God’s chosen, and by virtue of this he would reign. This view of rulership led humanity through rivers of blood, gave legitimacy to the reign of some of the most despicable specimens of humankind, and at times – for example, in the relationship between the Popes and the monarchies of Europeduring the Middle Age – even sanctified their reign.
This is the story of the first king in the Babylonian culture: the foundation of the ideology that spawned imperialism with its mantle of religious justification; the first attempt to “force” God to select a human leader, to place human kingship above the kingship of heaven.
“And from these the nations divided in the land after the Flood”.
In next week’s parsha, there arises in the east a man who will be the “father of many nations”, the one truly chosen by God – Avraham the Hebrew.