You Nimrod! (Adapting Genesis 10-11)

As I noted last week, the Tower of Babyl story poses a unique challenge for Bible Artists because of how it lacks a clear primary human character. Genesis describes the actions of the Babylonians as a group rather than as individuals. The only hint of a specific protagonist/antagonist comes just before the actual story, nestled away in the genealogies of chapter 10:

Cush fathered Nimrod; he was the first on earth to be a mighty man. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord. Therefore it is said, “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the Lord.” The beginning of his kingdom was Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. From that land he went into Assyria and built Nineveh, Rehoboth-Ir, Calah, and Resen between Nineveh and Calah; that is the great city. (Genesis 10:8-12 ESV)

Babyl is identified as the beginning of Nimrod's kingdom, and consequently many interpreters have suggested that he must be the king behind the doomed building project described in Genesis 11. This verse provides us with very scant information to create a compelling protagonist/antagonist from, but I think there are two basic directions you can take:

Nimrod is a Bad Guy

Genesis clearly portrays the building of the tower of Babyl in a negative light, and the rest of the Bible treats Babylon as an embodiment of the proud, imperialistic impulses of humanity, so it would be quite natural for Bible Artists to portray Nimrod, its first king (from a biblical perspective) as an antagonist of some sort.

One way Bible Artists can shape their adaptation around a villainous Nimrod is by treating him as a Villainous Protagonist. Building the kind of empire described in these verses would mean taking down a lot of smaller kings along the way - a conflict that may not be good vs. evil but rather evil vs. evil. We the audience may recognize that Nimrod is proud and brutal, but, at the same time, if he's charismatic and impressive enough (cf. House of Cards), we may nevertheless find ourselves rooting for him. This may allow us to experience as the audience a sense of how easy it is to get drawn in by the glory of empire.

Another way to shape an adaptation around a villainous Nimrod would be to make him the antagonist and to create a protagonist out of whole cloth to stand against him. Perhaps our hero(es) could be from a small village that gets conquered and enslaved to build Babyl - and perhaps the confusion of languages provides a chance to escape from slavery. Or maybe God sends a prophet or angel to warn Nimrod of his folly, bring about the judgment of tongues, and then lead oppressed peoples out of their enslavement there. The interesting aspect of this approach is that it would make the new character a kind of proto-Moses, and consequently create a link between Nimrod/Babyl and Pharaoh/Egypt.

Nimrod is a Good Guy (Kind of)

When I first began to study the Bible, I remember being surprised at how many interpreters associated Nimrod with evil. Because he is never directly associated with the Tower of Babyl story, it's easy to read the description of his character in Genesis 10 in a positive light. What's wrong with being a mighty man, a "mighty hunter before the Lord," and the builder of cities? Those all sounded like good things to me, particularly the bit that seems to suggest some kind of association between Nimrod and Yahweh.

Of course, it's hard to have Nimrod be king of Babyl and portray his character in a completely positive light as you tell a story about the Tower of Babyl. You can, however, give a more tragic quality to his actions rather than making him an outright villain. It's not uncommon to portray great conquerors like Alexander the Great in a positive light, while still recognizing that there were more ambivalent aspects of their empire building. Although Genesis 11 describes God judging the builders of Babyl, it describes their intentions in a fashion that invites sympathy on first glance (what's wrong with trying avoid getting dispersed and wanting to encounter God?) and only on further reflection is problematic in light of the context of the rest of Genesis.

What would this look like as an adaptation? In contrast to the "Villainous Protagonist" approach above, Nimrod would need to be not only charismatic but also well-intentioned. Maybe he would build his empire out of a benevolent desire to protect people from barbarian kings and to spread culture, and he would see the project of building the Tower of Babyl as an act of sincere devotion, rather than idolatrous pride. Moreover, the empire and tower building might not even be his idea to begin with. Remember, Genesis 11 focuses on the group, rather than an individual. Perhaps Nimrod, the noble hunter, doesn't even seek out the position that he ends up in but gets pushed into it by the masses because of his great strength and skill.

The challenge, of course, is to not make Nimrod appear so sympathetic that God's judgment comes across poorly. Perhaps Nimrod begins to listen too much to his own hype. Maybe he stops paying attention to signs or dreams that Yahweh once used to send him when he was just a simple hunter. Instead, maybe he gets taken in by conniving magicians or false prophets, who sell him on the whole "tower-building" agenda. It may even be because Nimrod's a bit of a nimrod. So, while starting off in a positive light, by the end we may see that he has tragically fallen to a more corrupt state and that God's judgment is, in some sense, a kind of mercy, preventing him from going further down the self-destructive road that he set out upon with (mostly) good intentions.

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