Friday, January 06, 2006

Genesis Now

Join me in reading my most recent selection from Genesis Now, the blog I've created to self-publish the Sunday School Lessons/Commentary I've been writing. I'm simply engaging in some shameless self-promotion. I hope you enjoy what you read, and, if you want to comment, I'd prefer you to comment at Genesis Now, so that I can encourage you to read there also. Again, I appreciate you being here and reading along with me as I write.


Strange Languages
Or
“Hey! Let’s Build Something and Become World Famous!”


Genesis 11: 1-9

We have here the famous story of the Tower of Babel, a key scenario in the propagation of peoples around the globe. Many would say that this scene is a metaphor or a folktale, akin to something out of Aesop’s Fables, and I would be inclined to agree with them. It’s not that I doubt intentionally because of the content of this story, but because many other cultures around our world have similar stories and myths outlining the dissemination of languages and peoples.

Do not interpret this statement in a manner that might describe me as a purely inclusive universalist. I simply feel that there is much the reader & listener can learn from the tale described in these 9 verses. That is what makes this narrative valid, not whether it actually happened or not. The worlds of the historical fact and nonfiction description are not the exclusive purveyors of truth.

The events of this story are very straightforward. At the time, all of the people in the world were of one language, of one common speech pattern. And this makes much sense, as everyone was very nearly related to everyone else. That’s what happens when men and women have very long life spans and procreate very extensively. And with the advent of these large immediate and extended families, people were running out of livable land relative to the size of those families. Thus, according to this story, people moved eastward to the plain of Shinar, a region that will come to be known as Sumer, Babylon, Persia, the Ottoman Empire, and Iraq. We aren’t sure where these people moved east from, though some feel they could have been living simply more to the west in the historical “Fertile Crescent”, in present-day Israel, or in eastern Africa. But regardless of their origins, they arrived and settled there.

What follows is an anthropological lesson in the development of cultures and their engineering practices. These peoples had made the transition from collecting and assembling rough stones to harnessing fire so that they could bake bricks and melt tar for mortar. This being the Middle East, there was lots of petroleum byproducts readily available. Moreover, they were choosing to build a city in which to live, deciding not to live in tents and wander about seeking their fortunes as hunter-gatherers.

This is actually fairly significant in terms of measuring a civilization’s status and progression. Not only had they made a long journey to settle a new homeland, they possessed the tools and knowledge necessary to inhabit the land. Kilns in which bricks were to be fired were not hallmarks of migrants; they were tools that befit a tribe/people/ethnic group that was set down long-term, stable roots. Also, their knowledge had progressed to where they were experimenting and researching in order to better their lot in life. One has to burn lots of clay to finally determine a process by which you achieve a building-worthy brick. These were not migrant peoples of the stereotypical Bedouin archetype; this was burgeoning civilization.

Where these people went wrong was when they decided to do more than just build a city in which people could live and start families. They openly declared that they were going to build a tower that would reach to the heavens so that their name would be known in all of the earth. You would think, by now, that humanity (especially the descendents of Noah) would have a pretty decent idea of what God, His judgment, His opinions, and His preferences would be throughout the Old Testament. But no, not humans – we always seem to choose what’s so very wrong for our well-being. This whole free-will thing is such a blessing and such a curse.

And I would say that the issue would not be the people’s desire to settle permanently as a civilization. I’ve heard it preached that God wasn’t pleased because these people were trying to do everything (building a city and/or building a civilization) on their own terms, not in God’s time. My response to that would be that the core issue is the blatant fact that the builders & organizers were building primarily for their glory, as opposed to building for God’s glory or for functional purposes by the city’s inhabitants.

In verses 5-7, God comes down from Heaven to see what the people of the city were doing, to what extent this building project was being pursued. And God was astonished at the scene, prompting a response that still rather confuses me. “The Lord said, ‘If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.’” (Genesis 11:6-7, TNIV) Why this reaction? Yes, I can see why God would have issues with people exalting themselves and attempting to achieve permanence, even though humanity has proven to be rather temporary & ephemeral. However, why God feels that it is necessary to create new languages in order to facilitate the dispersal of these people is beyond me.

And that’s why God is God, and why I’m not.

But here’s this thought – it’s not just how God dispersed the peoples of the world, but why God did so. I can’t quite wrap my mind around God’s reasoning – if people keep building and working together, they will be able to do just about anything. This flies in the face of God’s usual penchant for letting humanity use and abuse its collective free-will. God sent languages to confuse the builders of the city, dispersing them, and separating them purposefully because of their unified ambition. Did God feel they weren’t ready to work together? Does God think we still aren’t ready to work together? Does God only want people working on good things, ready to stop people if their purposes don’t line up with God’s?

Regardless of my questions and concerns, I must return to the discussing the fundamental lesson that anyone who reads this story should be able to intuit. The people of Babel were dispersed because they built and created with the sole purpose of immortalizing themselves throughout the world, in defiance of God being God. Whenever people try to exalt themselves to a position equal to or above that of God’s, they should realize that they are stepping outside of their role as created beings. I am not advocating that people should live in fear of God’s impending and imminent judgment upon our wrongdoing, but I do believe that too many people throughout world history have lived as if they were gods unto themselves, to typically tragic outcomes. God has promised many things to people throughout the Bible, and all of them are dependent upon people fully recognizing their status as the creations of God. I just hope that my life can serve as an example of someone who looks to God first in deciding what is best for my life, because I know that I’ve listened to myself too often and for too long.

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