God Questions His Creation: Genesis 11:1-4 (b)

See:   God Questions His Creation:  Genesis 11:1-4 (a)

Genesis 11:1 Now the whole earth had one language and few words. 2 And as men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 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. 4 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, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

Unite enough of anything moving in the same direction and there will be consequences

“Come, let us..”   The humans demonstrate some unity, common mind, and willingness to work together.   So far the text has not suggested any strife on a large scale between families, clans, towns, nations, peoples.  But human unity, something many modern peoples crave, is not going to produce something of which God approves.  Human unity does not axiomatically lead to human unity with God.   So it should give us great pause when we hear Jesus say, “that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.  The glory which you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one,  I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you hast loved me”  (John 17:21-23).  Even with the coming of the God incarnate Christ and the Holy Spirit, has humanity progressed enough to be ready for international unity?   Apparently God thinks so.   Of course then different Christians at different times have tried to realize this unity in various ways – the one cup of the Eucharist with one bishop, or the one empire under Constantine with one God and one religion, or one holy, catholic and apostolic church with one heart and mind which voices one creed, or the one church under one Papal authority, or the broad and perhaps vague oneness of modern ecumenism. 

‘….let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens…”    When God first made the humans, he planted a garden for them to live in (Genesis 2:8).   Humans left to their own devices build a city to live in.  A city in Genesis is a place of human ingenuity.  The first builder of a city was Cain the murderer of his brother Abel (Genesis 4:17).  God did not command humans to build a city nor did He build one for them, rather He commanded the humans to fill the earth and subdue it and to have dominion over all the other animals.  While building a city does not countermand God’s order, city building tends to be done by excluding wild animals and curtailing their numbers within the bounds of city not spending time to develop a dominion over them.  Some city building demands that the animals be exterminated within the precincts of the city and once the city is rid of the animals to treat most wild animals as vermin.   God’s idea of humans having dominion over animals and subduing the earth seems more related to ideas of farming, being park rangers, or natural resource managers.  God did not speak of erecting buildings or fences or walls or barriers or gates.   Cities were often built as a means of protecting a population.  However, so far in Genesis there has been no mention of war or invasion of enemies.  The human vision for what they should be doing is protecting themselves from nature having dominion over them!  Humans had been created by God to subdue the earth (Genesis 1:28), and yet the flood certainly showed the humans that they in fact were at the mercy of natural forces and were no better off than dumb animals who were not rational.     So perhaps the humans imagined by building a city they could protect themselves from God too.   Did they imagine they could wall a capricious and angry God and unpredictable nature out of their city?   Genesis 10:32 which leads into the Tower of Babel story says this is where the descendents of Noah spread out after the flood.   Is the destructive flood what is on the mind of these men of Shinar?   Is building a city the best plan they can come up with as a defense against the forces of God and nature?  Perhaps the tower to heaven is being built so that if another flood occurs they can have a way to remain above the flood, or perhaps even escape into heaven from the flood.  Or, is the Tower to heaven being built as a hoped for way to control God?   Perhaps if they can control God’s entrance into their city – if God has to come down through the Tower, they can somehow predict where and when God appears and thus control what He sees and does.  But the humans’ anthropomorphic thinking about God so limits their understanding of Him and underestimates His real power.   God scatters the men in the imaginations of their hearts, bringing their plans to naught.  Certainly a theme of Genesis 11 is man proposes but God disposes. 

Protection of the Theotokos: Dayton

Jesus uses the imagery of the man who plants and vineyard and builds a wall around the vineyard and a tower in it as a parable about God who does all of this work in order to yield an abundant harvest (Mark 12).  But Jesus doesn’t see the building of this protected space as a place to live but rather a way to protect the grapes from harm so that they can produce an abundance of fruits.  Jesus’ own ideas about building buildings and cities may be best summed up in Mark 13:2 when asked about the great buildings that Herod had recently built, Jesus said, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down.”   Interestingly, John in the Book of Revelations envisions the final abode of all in God’s kingdom as being a city not a garden planted by God.  “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelations 21:2).   The eschaton is not a return to the Garden of Eden, but rather a move to a heavenly city.  This city is not built by men, but is established by God.   There is no tower reaching up to heaven, for the city itself comes down from heaven as God Himself does in Genesis 11:5.

Next:  God Questions His Creation:  Genesis 11:1-4 (c)

Walking the Bible

I will recommend to any Orthodox if you have the opportunity to obtain Bruce Feiler’s DVD, WALKING THE BIBLE: A JOURNEY BY LAND THROUGH THE FIVE BOOKS OF MOSES, to be sure to look at Episode 3, Part 2, “Saint Catherine’s Monastery.”   Bruce was on his own photographic journey which became a spiritual sojourn.  One may or may not find his personal spiritual search interesting, but his look at St. Catherine’s is worth the few minutes it takes to watch.    If you like table top photo books on the bible, you might enjoy his WALKING THE BIBLE: A PHOTOGRAPHIC JOURNEY.   It must be nice to get paid to visit the Holy Land  and to earn money to take photos of that visit.

Towards the end of his photographic journal, Feiler writes about God denying Moses entry into the Promised Land, as he (Bruce) sits atop  Mt. Nebo (the mount from which Moses is allowed to see the Promised land, but there he dies, denied entry to it by God) :

St. Moses: Coptic Icon

“Still, it’s impossible to see all the things that the Bible says Moses sees.  The only way for Moses to see the complete dimensions of the land is by looking inward, toward his own internal geography.  This is the lesson of Mount Nebo and the poetic twist at the end of the Five Books that helps make them such a hymn: the land is not the destination; the destination is the place where human beings live in consort with the divine.  Ultimately, it doesn’t matter that what the Bible describes is impossible to see.  Because at the end, Moses wasn’t even looking at the land.  He was looking where we should look.  He was looking at God.”

God Questions His Creation: Genesis 11:1-4 (a)

See:   God Questions His Creation:  Genesis 10:15-32 (b)

Genesis 11:1 Now the whole earth had one language and few words. 2 And as men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 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. 4 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, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

It is not surprising that there is only one language on earth since, according to the story, all the nations have descended from one family – all are children of Noah. One would expect members of a family to speak the same language.   But what is surprising is this text contradicts Genesis 10:5, 20, 31 which had already explained the multiplication of languages as a natural process of humans spreading throughout the earth and attributing each language to the familial differences (which also is consistent with current linguistic theory and evidence).   Genesis 11 sees the confusion of tongues among humans as God’s reaction to a sinister plot by sinfully arrogant human beings.  The contradiction does support the Source Theory notion that there were different authors for different portions of Genesis.  The final editor of Genesis did not try to harmonize or gloss over inconsistencies and differences but rather accepts the differences as equally inspired by God.  It is possible that the “source” who wrote the Tower of Babel story wanting to affirm the omnipotence of God attributes the multiplication of languages to an intentional act of God rather than allowing it to occur by natural human migration and geographic isolation.   It may have seemed more pious to explain the many languages on earth as the result of God’s intention rather than as an accidental result of random human choices.

“…as men migrated from the east…”  The implication of the text seems to envision the entire human population en mass migrating and settling in this region.  According to 10:32 this is part of the migration of humans following the flood.   A trivia note:  in Genesis 1-11, the only direction specifically mentioned is “east.”  This is the direction of the sunrise.

“Come, let us make bricks…”  At this point in Genesis humans are determined to use their own ingenuity and technology to accomplish something great for themselves.   The making of bricks is a heretofore unheard of technology in Genesis.   The emphasis on building buildings is also a startling new occupation for the simplest of homes has not even been mentioned yet and now they are building towers.  One noticeable feature of the early chapters of Genesis is the virtual total lack of reference to any kind of commerce, trade, craftsmanship, skills or industry.  There is no mention of clothes, jewelry, furniture, basic tools, cooking utensils, or any of the other common features of human society.  Brick making stands out as one of the rare exceptions in the narrative.   In Exodus 1:14, when the Israelites are reduced to slavery at the hands of the oppressive Egyptians, they are forced into  brick making and brick laying.  The industriousness of builders of the tower of Ba’bel is closely related to enforced labor that the Jews suffer – brick work. 

“let us build ourselves a city”    The humans appear to be acting without any reference to God.  God has not directed them in this project, nor have they sought God’s blessing and approval for it.  Is the story suggesting that not only are humans alienated from God, they no longer even remember their Creator? At this point in the narrative, divinity and humanity are on separate tracks no longer working in sync.  Synergy between God and mankind last occurred with Noah.  Both God and humans speak in the story but never to each other.  Humans speak to each other, and God speaks within Himself.  The humans show no awareness of God and do not even mention his existence.  Dialogue between the Lord and His intelligent creatures has ceased to exist.   God seemingly no longer has a role in the lives of the humans as they make their plans without Him, thus atheistically.  From the human perspective their action looks good, but like Eve in Genesis 3 who saw the forbidden fruit as all good, the humans fail to take into account how God might judge their goal.   The humans are basing their decision to build the city and a tower which reaches heaven upon their own ingenuity.  They obviously believe they have the capabilities to do this thing.  What is lacking is a discussion as to whether they ought to be doing this.  Maybe this is the first incidence in human history in which technology and morality come into conflict.  Because it can be done does not mean it should be done.  Albert Einstein had mused that science tells us only what we can do, it can’t tell us what we should do – that he felt is the purpose of religion.    Humans are capable of doing many things through technology, but well reasoned discussions about the morality of these “accomplishments” is often lacking.  What we are capable of doing and what we should be doing are not the same thing.  Humans not only construct their cities and their science, they also decide they are capable of constructing their own ethics while denying God’s existence.  In effect they declare themselves to be God (or at least not in need of God or beholden to a Creator).  Humanity is saying humans alone are able to determine what is good and right based on their own presuppositions, self interests and prejudices.    Any people or subgroup which does not allow open discussion of ethical issues blinds itself to its own faults, shortcomings, sins and limits   Truth and goodness are revealed when humans are open to admitting error, wrongdoing, and the limits of our knowledge.  Thus we always need the voice of God’s word from the past and also the voice of prophets in the present.

Next:  God Questions His Creation:  Genesis 11:1-4 (b)