God Questions His Creation: Genesis 11:5-9 (d)

See:  God Questions His Creation:  Genesis 11:5-9 (c)

Genesis 11:5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. 6 And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore its name was called Ba’bel, 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.

 “So the LORD scattered them abroad”   Not only does God create confusion among the humans by creating many different languages, He also scatters them abroad as He did to Eve and Adam by expelling them from Paradise.  Now God scatters the human from proximity to each other, moving them far apart so that they are separated both by language and geography which will soon give birth to cultural separation as well.   God who originally blessed the humans to fill the earth, now scatters them in such a manner that they will be pitted one against the other.  And instead of subduing the earth they will turn instead to subduing each other.

“…the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth…”    The scattering of humans across the face of the earth and the rise of diverse languages will bring an end to the universal nature of the story unfolding in Genesis. Furthermore, humanity will lose its oneness and unity of focus after this event and become scattered not only geographically but also in terms of goals and agenda.   Although the story has paid special attention to one lineage of people, it still has generally been the story of all people, of any people, of humanity and of being human. 

At this point in the story however Genesis will cease being the story of all humanity and will concentrate its focus on the man Abram, toward whose birth the narrative was leading, and on his descendants.   Now the story is to become God working out His plan for the salvation of the world through Abraham and the Jewish people.  But the scattered people of the world will be reintroduced into God’s story at the Nativity of Christ: “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,  Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him” (Matthew 2:1-2).   With the arrival of the Magi, we have the beginning of all the nations and people of the world realizing that they are indeed part of the promise to Abraham and are to be recipients of God’s special favor.  God promised Abraham,  “by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves”  (Genesis 22:18).   The Magi lead all the nations of the earth to come to worship Abraham’s descendent and to enter into the eternal promise of God.

This scattering of people as an act of God in Genesis 11 contrasts with the more natural spread of the growing human population described in Genesis 10.  This is certainly indicative of there being more than one “source” contributing to the Scriptures.  The final editor of the Scriptures places both stories side by side in the Bible.  He doesn’t try to harmonize the stories nor did he choose between them.  Neither should we.  The final editor of the text accepts both versions – contradictions and all – as inspired by God.  So should we.  But what lesson are we to learn from the fact that texts with contradictions and inconsistencies get accepted into the Scriptures?   One possible lesson is not to read these verses purely literally.  Perhaps their true importance lies somewhere other than in the plain reading of the text.  As many Patristic writers suggested, the text is telling us to dig deeper beyond the literal – don’t reduce this text to a history lesson, it is about God’s revelation.  Seek out that deeper and more important meaning.   Our work is to interpret the scriptures we have received, not to change them or ignore them or to eliminate their challenges and mysteries.

Some speculate that in the modern world there is a new single language which is uniting humanity together.  It is the language of mathematics, which is the same in every culture and tongue.  It has a logic which is not based in any one language but is universally recognizable.  And it is sometimes said that the universal language of mathematics which dominates conversations around the world is closely linked to two other phenomenon.  First there is the Internet which is based in computers which are completely based in the language of mathematics.  The Internet has made global conversations a reality.  The Internet whose foundation is in mathematics makes it possible for the humans to again work for a common language for the world.  The other phenomenon related to math is finances and economics.  It appears in the 21st Century world that one form of economics – capitalism – dominates the language of commerce.  It is the bottom line which determines so much about what we think of things.   Will math, the Internet and capitalism – the modern trinity unifying humanity cause some in the world to create a new Ba’bel?  God has not forbidden humans from using their brains, but it has been His desire that knowledge will lead us back to Him.

Next:  God Questions His Creation:  Genesis 11:10-32 (a)

God Questions His Creation: Genesis 11:5-9 (c)

See:  God Questions His Creation:  Genesis 11:5-9 (b)

Genesis 11:5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. 6 And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore its name was called Ba’bel, 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.

“…only the beginning of what they will do …”      Though God blessed the humans to subdue the earth, there are apparently limits to what is acceptable to Him.   The humans appear to be on the verge of again breaching that which distinguishes the Creator from the creation.  Eve was not satisfied with being in God’s image and likeness and wanted to be like (equal to) God.   Here too the story suggests humanity is bent on laying certain claims to that which has not been given them.   Eve had all the fruit of the Garden to eat, but the only thing she is recorded taking and eating is the one thing forbidden to her.  Here humans have an entire earth to subdue but they are intent on reaching heaven.  And God sees this only as the beginning of the trouble.  So, as He decided to prevent Adam and Eve taking fruit from the Tree of Life, now too God scatters the plans of humans in building a tower to heaven.  The text does not tell us that the humans once more wanted to be like God, but their actions speak of a goal which God condemns as unacceptable in His eyes.  Humanity continues to rebel against any limits being imposed on it.  Humanity embraces entitlement thinking completely.

“…only the beginning of what they will do…”   Some very modern thinkers reflecting on the Babel story have suggested maybe God is not so much worried about Himself in this passage but is truly as a prescient parent concerned about what the humans might do in the future if one language unites them.  Perhaps the multitude of languages helps establish barriers that protect humanity from the insatiable and uncontrollable grab for power that tyrants and despots might make if language barriers did not limit their pursuit of power and abuse.  Hitlers and Stalins and modern terrorists would have found paths open to them to seize control of information and the hearts and minds of untold numbers if they were not hemmed in by people of other languages.  So the polyglot created by God is perhaps for human protection not punishment.

“ Come, let us go down…”   These words in verse :7 seem out of place, in verse :5 God had already come down to see the city.  Perhaps this is another sign of more than one source contributing to the story.

“And the LORD said…”let us go down, and there confuse their language…”   In a passage very reminiscent of Genesis 3:22-24 (where the LORD unhappy with [afraid of?] what the humans might attempt to do expels them from Paradise), God chooses to come down (a “pre-incarnation”?  Anthropomorphic images of God contribute to notions of pre-incarnations before Christ) and insure that the humans do not accomplish their goal and wreck even more havoc in the cosmos.  God speaks, but to whom?   Christian tradition has this as another witness to the notion of God as Trinity.   Is God afraid of what His creatures might do?  “This is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” (:6).  Is God’s sovereignty somehow threatened by what the humans can do?  God in this text is very anthropomorphic – He feels threatened by the puny efforts of a people whose goal could never be attained.  But the fact that they thought they could reach the heavens (in a “Jack and the beanstalk” way) incites God to act against them.   And this becomes the biblical explanation for why there are many so many different and incomprehensible languages on earth – it too is the result of human willfulness and sin.  The fractioning of the human race into different people and languages and nations is portrayed as the continued downward slide of humanity, the effect of sin and the cause of future divisions on earth.

“confuse their language”     God is again displeased with what He sees the humans doing.  He has already accepted the fact that humans imagine evil in their hearts from their youth.  God acts against the humans, but not against their tower.  He doesn’t destroy the tower which might simply result in the humans trying again.  Instead God decides to introduce division among the humans by confusing their languages.   Does God imagine that somehow the confusion of language will curtail the spread of evil which lurks in the humans’ hearts?  The Virgin Mary sings of God’s might and plan to deal with the evil imagination of the heart:  “He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts” (Luke 1:51).    God has promised never to destroy all the humans again, so He scatters them to prevent them from conspiring to do evil and He divides them by creating many diverse languages for them.  But like the heavy metal mercury spilled on the floor this also will scatter the evil throughout the world and with no easy way to reunite the divided humanity.  

Kontakion Hymn of Pentecost:  “When the Most High came down and confused the tongues, He divided the nations, but when He distributed the tongues of fire He called all to unity.  Therefore with one voice we glorify the all Holy Spirit!”  Christians traditionally have interpreted Pentecost as a reversal of the evil effects of the many tongues of Ba’bel on humanity.

Next:  God Questions His Creation:  Genesis 11:5-9 (d)