After the bit about the Tower of Babel (a song Elton John didn't play last night, but it would have been cool if he had), Genesis 11 goes on to trace the lineage from Shem to Abram, giving the lifespans of the patriarchs along the way. These lifespans gradually decrease, with Shem himself living 600 years, but Abram's grandfather Nahor dying at the relatively young age of 148. This is an example of a trend in mythology, with the earliest times being full of magic, giants, direct conversations with the gods, and people living for centuries. As we get closer to when the myths were actually recorded, though, things become more realistic. While the story of Abram still has plenty of magical elements (for instance, he lives to be 175, and has children when he's more than a century old), it's much more grounded in reality than the earlier tales in Genesis, making it more likely that it's at least partially based on a true story. To sum things up, Abram was a nomadic herder from the city of Ur in Mesopotamia, who wandered west to Canaan in the company of his wife Sarai (who was also his half-sister; the Bible seriously contains more incest than a West Virginia family reunion) and his nephew Lot. This is used the Bible to support the claim that the Israelites had on Canaan, despite the fact that there were already people living there even in Abram's time. In fact, they even had their own cities, and Lot chose to settle in the city of Sodom (official motto: "Birthplace of Sodomy"). Even though the Israelites eventually began dwelling in cities, it seems that the Bible tends to have a general distaste for urban life. Sodom in particular was a pretty nasty piece of work, full of people who didn't provide for their poor, and routinely committed ritualized acts of rape against strangers. Or, if you're an American fundamentalist, it was bad because there were gay people there. Regardless, God decided to destroy Sodom, because there was no one good there outside Lot and his family. And even that must have been a relative kind of thing, because we're talking about a guy who offered his own daughters to a mob of rapists, and later had sex with them himself. I have a hard time believing that even the children in Sodom were notorious sinners (and don't try to tell me there were no children, because that would have resulted in the city dying out pretty soon WITHOUT the need for the fireworks show), but contrary to modern religious ideas like the age of accountability, the God of the Bible never seemed particularly opposed to killing kids. But anyway, God blew up both Sodom and Gomorrah (official motto: "Now with 20% less sin than Sodom!"), and when Lot's wife looked back at her old home, Yahweh turned her into a pillar of salt. That strikes me as a pretty harsh punishment just for looking at something, but the bright side was that she greatly improved the flavor of Lot's soups.
Whether Sodom and Gomorrah actually existed is a point of some contention. If they did, they were near the Dead Sea, where I believe pillars of salt can frequently be found on the shore. Some people speculate that it was an earthquake or a volcano that destroyed the cities, and I remember seeing a rather kooky website that suggested nuclear weapons might have in play. I'm not sure we'll ever really know, but I think we can pretty much rule out the nukes.
Getting back to Abram, when he was in his mid-eighties, he remained childless, so his wife gave him her Egyptian slave girl Hagar (no, not the comic strip Viking), whom she had obtained by defrauding the Pharaoh, to have sex with. This union produced Ishmael, regarded as the ancestor of the Arabs. Once God finally allowed for Abram and Sarai (or Abraham and Sarah, as they were renamed in honor of the occasion) to have their own son, Isaac, Sarah ordered Hagar and Ishmael cast out into the desert. Those wacky Biblical women just can't make up their minds, can they? One of the most famous and disturbing stories of Abraham involves God telling him to offer Isaac as a human sacrifice, but changing His mind at the last minute. Muslims say that it was Ishmael whom he tried to sacrifice, but maybe he was just dumb enough to fall for the same trick twice. It was supposedly an example of Abraham proving his faith in God, but I have to wonder if it was actually a divine Milgram Experiment, and Abraham actually failed. Abraham eventually went on to have more children with another woman after Sarah died, but it's Isaac whom the Bible follows.