The Tower of Babel
The Tower of Babel
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
This completes the section of Genesis called prehistory, that is, Genesis 1-11. With chapter 12 and the call of Abram, a whole new story begins as we move into the beginning of salvation history. That development waits for another time.
What has transpired to date: The marvelous saga of the creation or origin of the universe has unfolded in two distinct sagas. Genesis 1- 2:4a, is a highly codified priestly account recorded likely during the exile period in the sixth century BCE. The other more ancient tradition shares the story of the development of the earth creature, male and female, who are set forth to attend the garden and maintain it as good stewards.
Humanity’s creation was a huge risk for God, for he had been given a vocation: to till and tend the garden; permission [freedom] everything has been placed at humankind’s disposal [exercise dominion], and prohibition [limits have been set]. They are not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. These three ideas stem from Brueggemann’s useful commentary on Genesis.
Somehow, evil insinuates itself through a serpent who discusses theology with Eve. Did God say. Humankind cannot resist the temptation to assert autonomy and partakes of the forbidden fruit. New knowledge comes; they know they are naked and now the rupture in the relationship with God, leads to a rupture in human community. They find themselves hiding from God and each other.
Tragically, the net outcome of this rupture is exemplified in the Cain/Abel story where Cain murders his brother Abel provoking the famous retort: “Am I my brother’s keeper.” Evil appears to be on the ascendancy and so God responds by sending a flood upon the earth. A saga told by many ancient religions in the Near East. However, the uniqueness of this story stems from the heart of God. Change takes place within God. Incredibly, God repents, that is expresses grief within God’s own heart that humanity had been created in the first place. However God seeks not so much too destroy creation, but give it a second chance through one family, Noah and all the animal kingdom saved by being inside the ark.
A promise is given for all to see, a rainbow in the sky serves as a reminder to God and to all humankind, that God is about life and not destruction. God is about promise not judgment. When Noah disembarks from the ark, first thing he does is build an alter and offer a sacrifice to god. “the Lord smelled the pleasing odor.” When someone told a child that Noah built an altar right after getting out of the ark, the child said: “Yuk, he knelt in all that muck.”
Through a catalogue of nations we now come to this famous story of the tower of Babel. ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ They had one language and were supposedly together in one large community. Once again we may perceive an influence from the time of exile in Babylon where the city had many elaborate structures, some extremely high. However, this story may trace its origins further back.
What is at stake here is another veiled attempt to usurp the place of God. The desire to reach the heavens and make a name for themselves. In what ways does our modern society attempt to replace God with our own hubris. In the building up of empire, do we not see attempts to storm the gates of heaven and supplant God with our own sense of power. Was Hitler not attempting to build a thousand year Reich? It was legitimately claimed that the sun never set on the British Empire, circumventing the globe.
‘Make a name for ourselves.’ The Bible is not critiquing technology or urbanization here. Rather what is challenged is that humankind is going outside the limits once again. Moving forward on their own irrespective of God’s universe.
We have just celebrated an anniversary of landing on the moon. Neil Armstrong stated to the watching world: “One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.” Our son, Brent was watching with us at the age of two, in our living room in Waterloo. Here we are reaching for the stars or at least the very moon. Now we are selling tickets for travel to outer space, to the planet Mars. One thing this clearly demonstrates; - how vast is our universe.
From the human side, humanity stood back and marveled at this grand achievement building a tower to the heavens. From god’s perspective we have a very humourous note: The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Apparently, what was so large from earth ‘s perspective was a mere blip on God’s radar screen, so God had to get closer for a better view. God at that time did not have the benefit of a Hubbell telescope.
‘’Nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” The problem for God is that they can achieve all these things without reference to their creator, who made the human creative enterprise possible in the first place. It is not postulating that technology or urbanization or human enterprise is bad or even sinful. What God is saying to humankind and to us today, No matter what you do or what you accomplish, in order to truly be life giving and positive, it must always have a reference to the one who made us in the first place.
God said to humanity: be fruitful and multiply. Fill the whole earth. Humankind said to God: We will build a tower and supplant you. In Nietzsche’s book, Joyful Wisdom, in a section entitled the Madman, the creature goes out to find god and comes back with a report that God is dead. “We have killed him. the holiest and mightiest that the world has hitherto possessed, has bled ot death under our knife-- who will wipe the blood from us? With what water could we cleanse our selves... Is not the magnitude of this deed too great for us? Shall we not ourselves have to become gods, merely to be worthy of it.” quoted in How the World Began p. 277
God who loves diversity, God who has ordered limits to humanity so that the creature and creator should never be confused, now determines that humanity should divide on linguistic lines. “Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ In other words, the new community will be based not upon common language but upon the ability to hear and listen to one another. The ability to speak with common understanding. The miracles of Pentecost, when the Spirit ascended upon the crowds, was not that they had one common language. Rather they hear one another and could understand what each other was saying even when speaking in their own tongue.
How we need that today. How can the Arabic speaking Palestinians understand the Hebraic speaking Israelites so that instead of destroying one another. If the Israelis would spend a small fraction of their defense budget on building schools and hospitals in Gaza, would the population not begin to think differently on Israel’s right to exist. I would think that Hamas will have a fairly easy time recruiting new people to their cause after this is over.
Why did residential schools ban native languages. In order to take the Indian out of the child, one had to remove their language. It was absolutely barbaric and we did not understand what we were doing.
The marvel of Christian community is that we can come from so many different cultures and language groupings, but can hear each other; even understand each other and build not a tower or an empire, but build a solid foundation for a lasting community where we become our brothers’ and our sisters’ keeper; where we tend and care for the garden; where we treat the animal kingdom with respect and where we celebrate our differences being brought together not by hubris, but a very simple cross. To know in Jesus Christ, our sins are forgiven; therefore we are new creatures and as such can reach out to all humankind