Friday, June 4, 2010

Genesis 11:1-9's Tower of Babel

An overview of the Babel account

It is a short, powerful story. Sacks calls it “a compact masterpiece of literary and philosophical virtuosity”. Kass (218) says “It is astonishing how much is packed into this little tale.”

It is the last episode before Abraham—the end of the beginning. It is the first/prototypical story of a city (vs. Gen 4:17’s passing but interesting mention). It revisits earlier themes: speech, reason, arts and technology as human inventions and mixed bags; the quest for self-sufficiency, and man’s desire for fame. Kass observes that it is “a wonderfully artful narrative and the words it uses are most carefully chosen. Poetic craft and linguistic subtlety are enlisted to sound an alarm about language and craft.”

And most important, in the context of post-Law/Covenant and Noah’s mixed success in passing this along to the next generation—again, things aren’t progressing well (pointing us toward the need for trying another “solution”).

In Genesis 11:1-4…

Gen 11:1's unity is based on language and speech (the latter reiterates or perhaps refers to dialect)—for “the whole world” (perhaps hyperbole, but a key theme: 5x in the passage, including 1,9’s beginning and end), Moreover, Gen 11:3,4’s “they said” emphasizes the role of speech and reason in this story. More broadly, we also infer that language/speech implies correlation with a (troubling) worldview.

Gen 11:2’s “settled” at Shinar—is reasonable, practically. They’re in the fertile Euphrates valley to do agriculture. This leads to development and civilization—for better and for worse. More important: they’re not dispersing, as commanded by God (Gen 9:1).

Gen 11:4a’s city reference is troubling in its connection to Cain in Gen 4:17—and in contrast to the tent choices of Noah and later, Abraham & Co. The “tower” is probably a "ziggurat"—a temple-tower with a small shrine on top. At least later, this area featured a tower seven-stories and 300-ft. high with a base of roughly the same dimensions. Sarna says that: “The ziggurat constituted a man-made holy mountain in miniature...The ziggurat was thus a means by which man and god might establish direct contact with each other, and the construction of it would be an expression of the human desire to draw closer to the deity, an act of deep piety and religious fervor on the part of man.”

Things clearly go south with 11:4b’s goal I: "so that we may make a name for ourselves"—an emphasis on reputation and fame. Given their motives, they are "coming near to God—not in holiness, but in height". The connection to Gen 6:4's Nephilim is troubling here; their name meant "renown" or literally, "name".

Gen 11:3 is literally let us “brick bricks”. The verse also mentions the building materials (bricks & tar vs. stone & mortar)—a seemingly minor detail, but there’s much to say here and in the next post. For now, note that it’s interesting that bricks were moistened dust from the ground and refined by fire. This is similar to God’s creation of dust moistened by God’s breath, cleansed by water, and refined by fire. But although God’s adamah (ground) became adam (man); man’s brick turned reddish clay into a white brick (levenah from root word lavan, meaning white).

The Babylonians were ingenious in finding a brick substitute within their resource scarcity. (Stone and mortar were available in Palestine but not Mesopotamia.) But man-made brick is not as strong as God-made stone—a nice contrast on the efficacy of true religion vs. pagan idolatry. They are making (poor) bricks to “make a name”—ultimately, a futile if impressive effort.

Of course, Christians and non-Christians do this sort of tower-building all the time. With respect to salvation, they imagine that they can saved by their own works, instead of fully, by God’s grace. With respect to sanctification within the Christian life, we can make a variety of mistakes: failing to build, building improper things, or building improperly.

It’s interesting to consider that Babel is united and godless. Earlier, we had seen something close to anarchy—with murder dominating the disunity of Noah’s day. There’s also the possibility of unity through inappropriate compromise. Instead, unity's purpose is to bring glory to God. (As such, note Acts 2:4-11 as the opposite of this story—a very different kind of multiculturalism. Babel is the anti-Pentecost or Pentecost is the anti-Babel.)

At first, this might seem like an innocent project—perhaps even worthy: rational, unanimous, and peaceful. But it has a utopian foreboding as Kass notes: “Babel, the universal city, is the fulfillment of a recurrent human dream…of humankind united, living together in peace and freedom”. But as the narrative unfolds, “God may not like the absence of reverence, the vaunt of pride, the trust in technique, the quest for material power, the aspiration of self-sufficiency, the desire to reach into heaven—in short, the implied wish to be as gods…”

In Genesis 11:5-9…

We move from their view to God’s—and it gets off to an ominous start with “But…” In a word, what they propose in 11:1-4, God disposes of in 11:5-9. In fact, the passage centers on 5's "But the Lord came down"—to deal with them—what Kass (232) identifies as “a wry comment on the gap between their aspiration and their deed”. They didn’t “reach” God, but they got His attention and a response! Likewise, 3,4’s “come let us...” is contrasted with 7’s “come let us [go down]…”. This can be read as sarcastic mimicking and divine sarcasm (see: Num 11:23, Job).

All this is reminiscent of Eden: independence and disobedience to direct commands; the pursuit of inappropriate knowledge; Adam’s autonomy (choosing for self) vs. Babel’s independent creation (making a name for self). As Kass observes: “The road from Adam to the builders of the city is straight and true.” And interesting, in opposition to Creation, they are attempting to reverse a key theme in Gen 1—divide/separate 5x—by trying to cross that divide.

This issue here is unity, language, and technology, rather than technology per se. And this is not just a Gen 11 moment; we see elements of both in our day: from troubling technology like cloning to troubling unity like utopian views of the UN. There are universal languages today of a sort: English as the primary technical language, computers and the internet; mathematics, scientific method, uniform accounting standards, and manufacturing standards. Then again, one could probably point to similar technological advances and greater unity/language/culture in the past (e.g.,. under the Greeks and Romans). So this seems more universal than particular.

God’s punishment is mild but specific and effective. God doesn’t seem angry here. Perhaps He sees this as them trying to reach Him or an “understandable” failure with this as necessary to promote scattering. (See also: persecution and early Church in Acts.) As a small thing, it’s interesting that 7’s “confuse” reverses the three letters of “brick” (lvn vs. nvl). And 8-9's scattered is in direct contrast to 4b’s goal to "not be scattered".

A few other thoughts as we close out:

1.) Nations are God's idea (Acts 17:26-27; and in contrast to cities). Multiple nations will serve to challenge self-sufficiency; diversity and competition (esp. war) should allow people to more easily focus on God. Kass: “Opposition is the key to the discovery of the distinction between truth and error…The self-content have no aspirations…the self-content are closed to [what is higher].” Or again, it’s not good for man to be alone! So, this serves as the political analogue to the creation of woman.

2.) God lets them build the tower for quite awhile, but why? To allow freedom and to more visibly show how far they had gone wrong (Rom 1); allows time for repentance and a display of God’s patience; it causes a greater and more memorable loss (becoming a monument of sorts); and God's sovereignty is perhaps more impressive with unity having been displayed.

3.) This speaks to the Church, beyond our earlier comments about Pentecost. Michael Horton: "The whole Christian faith rests on a scheme of redemption. It's not about men and women climbing up to God, it's about God descending to save a rebel race. God appeared in the flesh, coming down to us because we had proved we couldn't save ourselves." And for us, “The mission of the Church is to reverse Babel…Such a reversal began at Pentecost...The mission of the Church is to speak the language of Pentecost, to introduce this voice into the city of Babel, to find and engage those voices in Babel that seek out and give expression to truth.”

4.) Looking back over Gen 1-11, we’ve seen three sets of fours.

a.) Babel is the last of four stories where people have sought their own significance, independence, etc.—rather than going God’s way (Adam & Eve, Cain, Lamech, Babel). b.) We’ve seen four conditions of life: innocence, life without law, life under primitive law, the dispersion of people under their own laws.

c.) Sacks notes four stories on failures in responsibility: Adam and Eve’s downplay personal, Cain denies moral, Noah fails collective (saves family and himself, but nobody else), Babel fails ontological (being/relationship to God). He then draws a parallel to human maturity: “The first thing we learn as children is that our acts are under our control (personal). The next is that not everything we can do, we may do (moral). The next stage is the realization that we have a duty not just to ourselves but to [our neighbors] (collective). Ultimately, we learn that morality is not a mere human convention, but is written into the structure of existence. There is an Author of being; therefore, there is an Authority beyond mankind to whom, when acting morally, we respond.”


At June 5, 2010 at 4:14 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beauty, unaccompanied by virtue, is as a flower without perfume...................................................

At June 7, 2010 at 11:39 AM , Blogger shirley baird said...

Congratulations on your Golden Leaf award.

At June 8, 2010 at 6:26 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At June 12, 2010 at 2:45 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At June 14, 2010 at 9:19 AM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

Thanks Shirley!


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