The Spiritual Gift of Speech

“The gift of speech was also given to us that we might understand one another, not through instinct, like the dumb animals, but through intellect.  Thus we verbally express our ideas, which are abundantly and clearly opened to us by our God-enlightened mind, the source of thought and word, in order that we might conduct intelligent, mutual, brotherly conversation on the aim of daily life and its regulation, for mutual edification and benefit, in support and consolation of each other, and the like. It was not given to us that we might talk idly; or judge, slander, and condemn our neighbors, pronouncing judgments on them like unmerciful judges and torturers rather than considering ourselves as their brothers, weak and sinful as they, if not still worse.” (Abbess Thaisia, Letters to a Beginner: On Giving One’s Life to God, pg. 72)

The Word, The Information, The Bit (II)

This is the 2nd Blog in this essay series reflecting on James Gleick’s book THE INFORMATION: A HISTORY, A THEORY, A FLOOD.   The first blog is The Word, The Information, The Bit (1).

Socrates (d. 399 BC) according to Plato (d. 347 BC) worried that humans would become increasingly forgetful due to the invention of writing.  The written word would mean memorization was obsolete.  There would be nothing for students to learn.

Repetition was the mother of all learning, learning mostly meant memorizing the wisdom of the past.   The written word was a technology that though making  a more permanent record (memory!),  threatened the very nature of what learning was thought to be.  You no longer needed to memorize to be wise if you knew how to read and how to research.  And the written language allowed not just memorization but also analysis.

“In the ancient world, alphabetical lists scarcely appeared until around 250BCE, in papyrus texts from Alexandria.  The great library there seems to have used at least some alphabetization in organizing its books.  The need for such an artificial ordering scheme arises only with large collections of data, not otherwise ordered.  And the possibility of alphabetical order arises only in languages possessing an alphabet: a discrete small symbol set with its own conventional sequence…” (p 58)


Ordering letters and then books by alphabetizing helped make the written language even more useful since greater quantities of information could now be found even in large collections of writings.  There was then a leap from the technology of writing to the technology of machines which could reproduce, use and code writing.

Charles Babbage (d. 1871) became fascinated by a loom whose weaving pattern was controlled by punch cards.

“Inspiring him, as well, was the loom on display in the Strand, invented by Joseph-Marie Jacquard, controlled by instructions encoded and stored as holes punched in cards.

What caught Babbage’s fancy was not the weaving, but rather the encoding, from one medium to another, of patterns.” (p 109)

An artist designed the cards, the weaver could use different threads and colors to produce the artist’s patterns.   A machine that could convert abstract ideas into physical things, and cards that could store memory – the artist’s patterns.  The basis for computing was being formed.  And collaboration between art and science was being established.

“The invention of writing had catalyzed logic, by making it possible to reason about reasoning—to hold a train of thought up before the eyes for examination—and now, all these centuries later, logic was reanimated with the invention of machinery that could work upon symbols.  In logic and mathematics, the highest forms of reasoning, everything seemed to be coming together.”  (p 177)

The use of machines gave rise to a mechanical view of the universe.  Everything was following a pattern, perhaps pre-determined, and science was intent upon discovering those patterns in order to explain the universe.  But then these machines opened to our observation the atomic world and sub-atomic world, and suddenly the world was not quite as predictable as thought.

“It used to be supposed in Science that if everything was known about the Universe at any particular moment then we can predict what it will be through all the future. . . .  More modern science however has come to the conclusion that when we are dealing with atoms and electrons we are quite unable to know the exact state of them; our instruments being made of atoms and electrons themselves.”  (Alan Turing  d 1954, p 212)

What science was becoming aware of is the notion of entropy – randomness that was actually related to the idea of information.    Randomness which could be measured – it contained information.  Heat for example is caused by the random motion of atoms.  That randomness can be measured, and so can the “unavailability” of energy be measured.   Such randomness and “unavailability” actually contain information! (pp 270-271)

Next:  The Word, The Information, The Bit (III)

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)

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

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

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.

If humans aspired to build a tower to reach the heavens, they have not reached their goal, for the Lord still has to “come down” to see the city and tower which humans are building.  The puny efforts of humankind to reach the heavens by human technology and engineering “miss the mark” which is what the word “sin” actually means.  The leaden literalism of the humans causes them to think of heaven as a location which they can reach by their own physical labors.  A hard lesson is about to be learned – there is more to the cosmos than the physical.   Heaven is not a physical place, nor is it located “somewhere” in the universe.  The concrete thinking of humans has got to be changed so that they can come to understand the reality of the spiritual.   Have the humans totally forgotten that they are spiritual beings, created in God’s image and having a soul where the Spirit of God abides?   In the Genesis account, their theology is completely wrong.  They have forgotten about their own spiritual nature and their anthropomorphic descriptions of God have caused them to think about God completely in human and physical terms.  God comes down to see their city, but they apparently are incapable of seeing God.  God is not communicating directly to any of the humans.  The Lord’s thoughts recorded in this passage of Scripture are His inner thoughts.  He is saying nothing to the men of the city.  Is it possible that not only can they not see God, but they can not hear Him as well?   In Isaiah 44, Isaiah warns the

Osiris: god of the dead

people what is the end result of making false Gods:  “They know not, nor do they discern; for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their minds, so that they cannot understand” (44:18).   The result of making idols and having false ideas about god is that God closes your eyes and mind so that you cannot see or understand the living God.  It is an ominous warning – close your mind to the truth about God and God will help close your mind to Him.  The text however makes no reference to idols; if they are anything, these humans are portrayed as atheists.  They live without belief in God.

“And the LORD said…”   God is not talking to the humans, these are His inner thoughts.  Some Patristic writers saw God’s musing within Himself as yet another sign of the Trinity.  God is not talking to His lonesome self, but rather the Three Persons of the Trinity are communicating.   In Judaism God is talking to the angelic hosts.  Modern non-traditional scholars see in God’s talking ideas being adapted by the biblical writers from pagan sources, in this case the God talking with the gods.  Genesis remains so totally monotheistic, that even if the story is taken from pagan sources, it is completely reworked to keep within the framework of the absolute monotheism of Judaism which knows there is only one God and His Name is YHWH.

God endeavors to stop what He sees as an evil plan.  The confusion of tongues is interpreted by some Patristic writers as the way the merciful God prevented even worse sins from occurring.  But once again, the humans will turn what is done for their own good, and done to help prevent them from committing even more sin, into another tool for further sin.  The many languages on earth will give rise to endless wars and disputes. “So the tongue is a little member and boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind, but no human being can tame the tongue–a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brethren, this ought not to be so” (James 3:5-10). 

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

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

See:   God Questions His Creation:  Genesis 11:1-4 (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.”

Dubai Tower

“a tower with its top in the heavens”         The heavens so far in Genesis seem to mean mostly the sky which is envisioned as some form of solid ceiling which stretches above the earth.   In Genesis, heaven has not been described as the place where God dwells – the heavens are part of what God created in the beginning (Genesis 1:1) so they belong to the physical creation not properly as the “place” where God resides.   The heavens might suggest the dividing wall which separates the created cosmos from the dwelling place of God.   What exactly the builders thought they could reach is not clear.  God’s reaction seems to indicate that humanity’s place is on earth, not in the heavens and so the Lord is determined to prevent the humans from realizing their plan.  God has to this point not said that humans might attain heaven, even if they are righteous, or even after death.  God had made a very orderly universe with separate realms for the appropriate beings – the earth for humans and mammals, the sky for the birds, the sea for the fish, heaven for His angels and Himself.  The building of the tower seems to suggest to God that humans do not wish to respect His order, nor His realm.  The crossing from one realm to another implies the greatest of chaos and threatens the order of the universe.  One need only think of the parable of Laz’arus and the rich man in which Father Abraham explains to the rich man why those in heaven can’t help those in Hades: “And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us”  (Luke 16:26).  There is an appropriate place for everything under heaven to paraphrase Ecclesiastes 3.

“Come… let us make a name for ourselves…”        The Church has tended to see the residents of Ba’bel as being sinfully arrogant, and in the hymns of Pentecost contrasts the confusion of tongues at
Ba’bel with the giving of tongues of fire at Pentecost which enabled the disciples to begin preaching to all nations.   “The arrogance of those building the tower caused the languages to be confused of old; but now the tongues are gloriously enlightened by the knowledge of God.  There God punished the infidels for their sin; but here Christ enlightens the fishermen with His Spirit!  There the confusion of tongues was done in vengeance; here they are joined in unison for the salvation of our souls!”  (From Matins on Monday of the Holy Spirit).  The Holy Spirit’s tongues of fire overcome the polyglot division which has divided humanity since the time of the tower at Ba’bel.  There is a time and a good reason for humans to be able to communicate in a common tongue – when it is time to proclaim the Gospel.

“…make a name for ourselves…”   Were these men thinking about making themselves immortal?   Humans have long aspired for immortality.   Did these men imagine by reaching heaven in a tower they could claim immortality for themselves – a lasting name?  If so they have failed to understand the very role sin has played in bringing death into human existence.  It is not reaching heaven that can give them immortality.  Eternal life is related to holiness and requires an entirely different pursuit on the part of humans than building towers and demonstrating human prowess. 

“… lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”     Strangely the very rationale the men of Shinar use for building the tower becomes the result of their efforts.  Whom did they feel threatened by?   Why was being scattered abroad such a serious threat?   Why did they believe they might be scattered?    The story doesn’t explain their fears, but it sets in motion the events that lead to them being separated not only geographically but also linguistically.

“lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”      One more indication that perhaps more than one hand wrote Genesis, in 10:32 the story says, “from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood.”   Chapter 10 envisions humanity spreading naturally across the face of the earth as the population grows.  Chapter 11:4 portrays any spreading of the population in a threatening way – something humanity wants to avoid.

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

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)

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

See:  God Questions His Creation:  Genesis 10:1-14 (b)

Genesis 10:15 Canaan became the father of Sidon his first-born, and Heth, 16 and the Jeb’usites, the Amorites, the Gir’gashites, 17 the Hivites, the Arkites, the Sinites, 18 the Ar’vadites, the Zem’arites, and the Ha’mathites. Afterward the families of the Canaanites spread abroad. 19 And the territory of the Canaanites extended from Sidon, in the direction of Gerar, as far as Gaza, and in the direction of Sodom, Gomor’rah, Admah, and Zeboi’im, as far as Lasha. 20 These are the sons of Ham, by their families, their languages, their lands, and their nations. 21 To Shem also, the father of all the children of Eber, the elder brother of Japheth, children were born. 22 The sons of Shem: Elam, Asshur, Arpach’shad, Lud, and Aram. 23 The sons of Aram: Uz, Hul, Gether, and Mash. 24 Arpach’shad became the father of Shelah; and Shelah became the father of Eber. 25 To Eber were born two sons: the name of the one was Peleg, for in his days the earth was divided, and his brother’s name was Joktan. 26 Joktan became the father of Almo’dad, Sheleph, Hazarma’veth, Jerah, 27 Hador’am, Uzal, Diklah, 28 Obal, Abim’a-el, Sheba, 29 Ophir, Hav’ilah, and Jobab; all these were the sons of Joktan. 30 The territory in which they lived extended from Mesha in the direction of Sephar to the hill country of the east. 31 These are the sons of Shem, by their families, their languages, their lands, and their nations. 32 These are the families of the sons of Noah, according to their genealogies, in their nations; and from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood.

Despite Canaan’s being cursed by his grandfather Noah, it is not clear that his fate to be enslaved to his uncles actually happens.   Rather the text shows Canaan’s descendents will include many of the people who stand in the way of the Jews being able to enter into and conquer the Promised Land and also many of the traditional enemies of the Jewish people.   His descendants “spread abroad,” suggesting not forced slavery but freedom of movement.  These people will prove to be a trial to the Jews as they will be involved in testing their faithfulness to God, and they will also be a curse to the Jews as they serve as stumbling blocks to the Jewish aspiration for keeping God’s law and inheriting God’s chosen land.   In Exodus 3:8, God promises to liberate the Israelites from bondage in Egypt and “to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Per’izzites, the Hivites, and the Jeb’usites.”  The Promised Land by the time of the Exodus is in the hands of the very people (Canaan and his descendents, see Genesis 10:15-17) whom Noah had cursed to be slaves to Shem and his descendents, the Hebrews.   It is an odd turn of history that Shem’s descendents become slaves, while Canaan’s descendents inhabit the Promised Land.  And the Israelites are going to have to fight Canaan’s descendents to receive the Promised Land.

Among the descendents of Canaan are those who inhabit Sodom and Gomor’rah – perhaps another clue as to what Ham’s sin really was.

St. Luke the Evangelist

Shem is especially recognized as an honorable man in the biblical tradition.  According to Sirach, “Shem and Seth were honored among men, and Adam above every living being in the creation” (49:16).  In the Gospel according to St. Luke it is through Shem that Christ’s ancestry is traced.     “…the son of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham, the son of Terah, the son of Nahor, the son of Serug, the son of Re’u, the son of Peleg, the son of Eber, the son of Shelah,  the son of Ca-i’nan, the son of Arphax’ad, the son of Shem, the son of Noah, the son of Lamech,  the son of Methuselah, the son of Enoch, the son of Jared, the son of Maha’lale-el, the son of Ca-i’nan,  the son of Enos, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God”  (Luke 3:34-38).  Shem as noted in a previous reflection is also commemorated in the Orthodox Sacrament of Holy Matrimony.

Shem’s son Eber is the one from whom the Hebrew’s derive their name (Eber, Hebrew).   Though the text is offering a brief explanation for the Family Tree of Nations, its focus is clearly on one people – the other people are all purely background, though still within the Creator God’s purview.   The text is completely monotheistic – there is only one God for all of these many and diverse peoples and languages.  There is no mention of other gods or of other religions.  Humans may be spreading across the face of the earth and their languages may be multiplying, but they share a common life under the one God.

“…Peleg, for in his days the earth was divided…”    While the text in general shows the spread and multiplication of humanity in a natural and peaceful way, Peleg son of Eber from whom the Hebrews derive their name, is associated with a division.  What was that division?  Some believe this is the beginning of the scriptural treatment of the Jews versus all of the other nations of the world who are the Gentiles.

God had commanded the humans from the beginning to be fruitful and to multiply (Genesis 1).   We have already seen in the story that one way the humans multiplied was the amount of evil they did, which obviously was  not what God had in mind.  Now the multiplication of humans continues, but with another twist – not only are there increased numbers of humans but there also is a multiplication of nations and languages with each new descendent seemingly creating his own nation and language.  The description of a proto-people spreading out across the earth is consistent with current theories in linguistics about how languages develop, morph and evolve through time. The blessing to multiply turns into further separation, divisiveness, and alienation with ever increasing chances for conflict as each human nation develops its own language and an inability to communicate with the other nations.   Humanity is growing but also growing apart.

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

God Questions His Creation: Genesis 10:1-14 (a)

See:  God Questions His Creation:  The Conclusion of the Flood (b)

Genesis 10:1 These are the generations of the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth; sons were born to them after the flood. 2 The sons of Japheth: Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech, and Tiras. 3 The sons of Gomer: Ash’kenaz, Riphath, and Togar’mah. 4 The sons of Javan: Eli’shah, Tarshish, Kittim, and Do’danim. 5 From these the coastland peoples spread. These are the sons of Japheth in their lands, each with his own language, by their families, in their nations. 6 The sons of Ham: Cush, Egypt, Put, and Canaan. 7 The sons of Cush: Seba, Hav’ilah, Sabtah, Ra’amah, and Sab’teca. The sons of Ra’amah: Sheba and Dedan. 8 Cush became the father of Nimrod; he was the first on earth to be a mighty man. 9 He was a mighty hunter before the LORD; therefore it is said, “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the LORD.” 10 The beginning of his kingdom was Ba’bel, Erech, and Accad, all of them in the land of Shinar. 11 From that land he went into Assyria, and built Nin’eveh, Reho’both-Ir, Calah, and 12 Resen between Nin’eveh and Calah; that is the great city. 13 Egypt became the father of Ludim, An’amim, Leha’bim, Naph-tu’him, 14 Pathru’sim, Caslu’him (whence came the Philistines), and Caph’torim.

Since according to the Genesis story of the flood all humans except Noah, his wife, his sons, and his daughters-in-law drowned, it really is through Noah that all the nations of the world come to exist as was noted in Genesis 9:19.   All other lines of humans – including Cain’s were destroyed by the flood.  So whatever accomplishments they did, or skills they learned or cities they built, would have died with them.  Here in Genesis 10 comes the story of the nations – of populating the world with different people all of the same stock.  This chapter does offer a family tree for all of the known people of the ancient Jewish world. 

Japheth’s descendents include those people who occupy Asia Minor and territories to the East. 

“…each with his own language…”    This text seems to suggest the occurrence of diverse languages and nations was simply a natural process of expansion.   The text seems unaware of the tower of Ba’bel story (Genesis 11) which explains the confusion of tongues among humans as a result of human arrogance and sin.  Here at the beginning of Genesis 10 the multiplication of language has nothing to do with punishment but with the diversification of humanity as it spread throughout the world.  This again gives suggestion that Source Theory is correct – there was more than one author of the Genesis text that we have today, or at least the one author/editor of the text blended different stories into the final text. 

The list is fathers and sons.  Wives/mothers are not even mentioned let alone named.  No sisters are mentioned either making one wonder where the women who gave birth to all of these sons were coming from.

Ham gives birth to the founders of many great nations and kingdoms which included Arabia, Egypt and Africa.  Because Ham defiled Noah, is there some sense of prejudice indicated in the fact that Ham’s descendents include Arabs and Africans?   The “Land of Ham” will become in the Old Testament another way for the Israelites to speak of Egypt.  Canaan who is cursed into servitude to his uncles has plenty of brothers to witness his enslavement.    Ham’s other sons are not cursed by Noah and show great promise and success in starting great nations.

Hunter with Dog

“Nimrod a mighty hunter”        This is the first mention in Genesis of a hunter and the first indication that humans are killing animals for food.  Hunting would by implication also suggest the development of hunting tools to capture and kill animals, which would be the precursor to weapons of war.   Nimrod the hunter begins the Kingdom of Ba’bel, which is the ancient Jewish reference for Babylon.  Indeed one day the Babylonians will hunt down the Jews.

The genealogies.   Scholars have noted that Americans (with their disinterest in history and their constant striving for what is new, ever looking hopefully to the future) have a hard time grasping the biblical sense of time. In the Old Testament one is always facing the past.  The past is what is before us, it is the only thing that we can see for it already exists and is known.  The future on the other hand does not exist yet, so it cannot be seen; the future in this thinking is thus always behind us, out of our vision, the unknown, waiting to catch us by surprise.  The genealogies help keep the past right in front of us.  The Old Testament keeps us looking to the past in order to help us see truth and to give us hope for the future.   The genealogies put before us what we can see – that which already exists/existed.  They connect us to all that is real and known, and we learn from history about ourselves and our mistakes.   In this thinking what can be seen is what we can remember, and what we can remember is what we can truly see.   Remembrance and seeing are thus the same thing. 

The Divine Liturgy is the Christian remembrance (anamnesis).   When we remember as Christians we see what we remember, we make Christ present before us – Christ crucified and Christ risen.   The priest prays at the Liturgy:  “Remembering this saving commandment and all those things which have come to pass for us: the Cross, the Tomb, the Resurrection on the third day, the Ascension into heaven, the sitting at the right hand, and the second and glorious coming.”  We remember in order to see the reality of God in the world.  We remember what God has done so that we can have hope that God will act again as He has done in the past.   The future does not yet exist for us ephemeral beings, so we cannot see what God will do, but we can see clearly what He has done and from this know where He is leading us. Remembering the past is thus the firm foundation for hope and faith.   We call to remembrance salvation, which means we can see salvation – what God has done –  for it is real, even if it is but the tip of the iceberg, the foretaste of the kingdom which is to come.   The Christian Liturgy, especially that of St. Basil the Great, is a true calling to remembrance all that God has done for us so that we can see salvation, see God’s hand in the world, see the breaking into the world of the Kingdom of God.  Knowing what God has done is the firm foundation for our hope in what God is going to do.  Yet it is happening in time, and so we often experience it as happening way too slowly.   But the reality of salvation is that we need to fit eternity and divinity into our world, into that which is “not God”, into our lives, into our hearts.   That takes time – not because God needs time, but we do and we can only receive things in time.  God enters the world through the incarnation – it took the history of humanity to bring about the Theotokos, the one who could receive God into her womb.  Then it took nine more months for the Incarnate Word to be born and a lifetime for him to mature;  it now additionally takes the time of the Holy Spirit to allow God’s Kingdom to be revealed in the world.  Each Liturgy reminds us of what has happened, so that we can see it, and understand it is coming.  We are to be thankful for what we know is coming even if it also requires infinite patience on our part.  We remember the past not to recapture some Golden Age, but rather as Fr. John Behr says, to help us envision the future.  What we can see of what God has done speaks to us about how much more glorious is what He is doing.   “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).    As St. Paul has it, “one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).

Next:  God Questions His Creation:  Genesis 10:1-14 (b)

Evolution of Language

I have been listening to The Teaching Company series THE STORY OF HUMAN LANGUAGE taught by Dr. John McWhorter – a fascinating account of what linguists have come to know about the development of human language and languages.  I’m learning more than I ever wanted to know, but still it is very informative.

What stood out in my mind was McWhorter’s presentation on languages and dialects naturally changing through time with new combination of sounds and other combinations of prefixes and endings and grammar occurring constantly in every generation.     It sounded exactly like the descent with modification which occurs genetically in evolution.  Language is living, not static and constantly undergoing change and thus new dialects emerge and from them given enough time, new languages are developed.  Language seems like another natural model following the patterns of evolution.   Perhaps because genetics is presented through the recombination of the DNA nucleotides referred to at G A T C it seemed to me exactly what was happening in human language as well as letters/sounds are recombined to form dialects and then new languages.  We receive our languages from those around us but just like our genetic recombination, we do modify what we received and some of these modifications become part of a dialect.

Though major changes in language take long periods of time, changes in language – in pronunciation and in the meaning of words – are constantly occurring.     Linguists seem to think change occurs naturally, and even perhaps somewhat by chance, though the changes tend to follow certain now identifiable patterns.   The changes don’t necessarily serve a purpose even if they follow a path recognized throughout the family of languages.  (For example one word whose meaning has changed in my lifetime – gay.  The cartoon Flintstones theme song used to tell us that we’d have a “gay old time” if we joined them as also in “The gay ‘90’s” referring to the rowdy end of the 1800’s.  The word back then innocently enough just referred to a good time.  But eventually “gay” came to mean almost exclusively homosexual – the gay ‘90’s in the 1900’s had a new meaning – I don’t know if the Flintstones ever dropped “gay” from their theme song or if the cartoon series stopped production before the word gay became a synonym for homosexual.  The word underwent further change – a few years ago I began to hear some young people use the word gay in a negative way to mean “lame” or “stupid” or “worthless.”    When something frustratingly didn’t work right, they would say, “That’s gay.”  Even if that terminology has not caught on in politically correct society, it becomes slang within a certain population which can eventually become a distinct way of speaking).

As a language becomes written rather than just spoken, some change slows down especially as dictionaries and grammar books endeavor to record meanings and fix the “correct” pronunciation or spelling or grammar.  This I think corresponds in genetic evolution to modern medicine’s ability to keep many people alive into their reproductive years thus “unnaturally” keeping genes in the gene pool that would have been eliminated by nature.  We can and do alter descent with modification in the same way we can alter the way languages change over time.