Reading for January 9th (MacArthur Study Bible): Matthew 7; Genesis 10-14
Now I am a bit in trouble. I spent so much time commenting on the first chapters of Genesis – hardly scratching the surface – that I’m way behind in my reading. So for the next few weeks, I need to read more of Genesis to catch up. And I have skipped the rest of the Flood narrative. Hope this will still work.
The Narrative of Babel
What a great story! It is as deep a philosophy about language as you can desire, and yet it has such vivid images that it reads like a film script. It has, despite its brevity, a highly complex structure as shown in the figure below. Besides that, it is wonderfully chosen as the interlude between the genealogies of Eber-Joktan and Eber-Peleg.
a. The Genealogical Context
Let’s start with that first. Chapter 10 gives us the generations of the sons of Noah: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. When the list comes to Eber, we find two sons: Peleg “for in his days the earth was divided”, and his brother’s name was Joktan. Is this “divided” earth the result of the confusion of languages? It might be. In Genesis, we often find that first the events are mentioned and only then the explanation is given. We read indeed in verse 31 that this is a list of descendants of Shem “by their languages.” So before the plurality of languages is explained, we find mention of the phenomenon.
Now in chapter 10, the genealogy of Joktan, the son of Eber is followed. It even suggests that it is the descendants of Joktan that migrate to the east. But after the Babel narrative, we find from 11:18 on, that the line of Peleg is followed. From his descendants came Terah, and Abram who is the main character in chapters 12 and further. Besides this context of the genealogies of Shem, we find echoes of the Shemite history in the fact that the word “name”, which is shem in Hebrew, plays such a great part in the Babel narrative. We should be mindful of the fact that Babel was founded by the Hamite Nimrod according to 10:10. Canaan, the fourth son of Ham, was cursed because of the sin of his father, the younger son of Noah. The Canaanites, maybe because of this curse, trying to make it as difficult as possible to force them to submit to Shem (9:26), dispersed – verse 18.
The narrative of Babel is therefore supremely important for the future of the family of Shem, out of which Terah and Abram would come. To mention just one striking element: chapter 10 gives us a list of nations and chapter 11 tells us that people had the urge to move eastward, away from the land of blessing. But in chapter 12 Abram is called to leave his nation and family, and move to the west – to return therefore to the land of blessing, the vicinity of Eden and the blessed land of Canaan.
b. The Attempt to Achieve Self-sufficiency and Autonomy
What is going on in Babel? In the mass migration of peoples to the East, they found a plain in Shinar – probably close to the Ur of the Chaldeans where Abram lived. They Settled there. They stopped wandering and took this plain as their possession. The groundwork for autonomy was laid. But what is the goal of this migration? We find that out through their own words, in the common language of Mankind.
The text reads:
Then they said to one another, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” (They had brick instead of stone and tar instead of mortar.) 4 Then they said, “Come, let’s build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens so that we may make a name for ourselves. Otherwise, we will be scattered across the face of the entire earth.”
So first we have the new technology of baking the bricks instead of letting them dry in the sun. They would be bricks without straw included, so the result would be like stone. The baking process made the bricks much stronger and allowed buildings that had more than one or two stories. Of course, stone would have been even stronger, but in the plain, that was not available. Technology had to come in to make this possible. Apparently, tar was in plentiful supply and could be used as cement, even stronger than the normal mortar.
It’s the technology that now makes it conceivable that a strong city is built. Not content with a dwelling place – that as a city would have fortified walls to protect it from enemies and to keep its own citizens inside – they were also contemplating erecting a Tower. It seems to have been thought of as a religious symbol, expressing not so much their piety towards God but celebrating their own achievements.
For that reason, the goal of both city and Tower is now expressed as to “make a name for ourselves.” Such a Name would be in competition with the Name of God that was supposed to be worshipped. Replacing God’s Name would imply forgetting the basic fact that human beings were created in the image and likeness of God. It would be expressive of the attempt to reach towards the divine world, instead of waiting patiently and with confidence for Divine assistance reaching us from above.
The ultimate goal, however, is to establish a unity that cannot be divided, to prevent dispersion by which this city would lose its autonomy. Notice that the autonomy and self-sufficiency is now a trait of a society and no longer the aspiration of an individual. But this fear of dispersion is nothing less than resistance to Gods purpose in Creation. The safe homogeneity that is established, implies a forced cohesion, social coercion, and mechanisms of oppression by imposing conformity. The unity of the language allows for all that.
Technology makes the building of a city in the plain possible. Cooperation by coercion allows for huge building projects that celebrate the glory of the builders. The unity within society that is demonstrated in the Tower, is a religious symbol. It is a new kind of religion that under the guise of worshipping divinities that are above humanity, actually reveres the idealized image of their own humanity.
The chiastic structure of Genesis 11 shows the precision with which God answered the ambitions of the citizens of Babel.
c. Gods Answer to Human Social Rebellion
While Babel builds a Tower that reaches into heaven, God comes down to them. That already should remind us that God in His care for humanity will come down to them – as He also walked in the garden and stood before Abel and Cain. But this time He comes not in love but in judgment.
A wonderful element of the narrative is the congruity between the two expressions, the first of the people “let us build”, and then God’s reply “let us go down.” It is as if the people in Babel try to perform a human version of God’s creative words in Genesis 1:26, “Let Us make man.” Just as Man is the being that expresses God’s sovereignty and character, so the city and its tower are supposed to reflect the people’s sovereignty and character. It is the quintessence of idolatry in its social form.
Then we find a diagnosis.
“If as one people all sharing a common language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be beyond them.
The emphasis should be put on “this”, they have begun to do “this.” What is “this”? The common language makes it possible to build a city that is religious, zealously devoted to enhancing its reputation, establishing a Name, and itself in a permanent dwelling – linking the life of the people to a soil – Blut und Boden. The result is that human beings will no longer be seen as the bearers of God’s image, but the collective, the city as a whole will fulfill that function. Individuals will then be simple members of the social organism, expendable and submissive. The “let us” is a phrase that includes also those who do not desire to do, what authorities propose.
The diagnosis is, that people will indeed be able to do this. It is not the technology, not even the social structures that allow for such a grandiose human achievement. It is the language.
Now language in a materialistic society is merely descriptive of realities and prescriptive in the context of labor and justice. Indicatives and imperatives form the dual method of communication. Language is highly functional for social cohesion. Language in an oppressive society – but maybe that is an oxymoron – can become ideological and to some extent always is. Words can function as directives without specific contents and without an identifiable human agent that is responsible for its contents. They can function as shibboleths that identify you as belonging to a certain group and excluding you from others. They can function as passwords, allowing you access to social goods – gaining acceptance, showing yourself to be well adapted and suited for the role you have been given. Words like equality, democracy, freedom, justice, but also words like young or racist can function in such a way.
If there is some general agreement on the meaning of such words, without the ability to put the concepts they express to the test, language can become an instrument of oppression. As George Orwell’s book 1984 eloquently illustrates with his idea of “newspeak”.
So what is God doing about it?
Come, let’s go down and confuse their language so they won’t be able to understand each other.
The confusion of languages is now precisely the taking away of this unexpressed and oppressive mutual understanding, that makes technological domination possible through description, and human manipulation and slavery possible because of its prescriptive force. To speak without the ability to hear – in the translation it says “understand”, but literally it says “hear” – implies that obedience becomes impossible and so is any attempt to achieve something great through the forced cooperation of the many.
The result is the breaking up of this destructive unity and the dispersion of the people of Babel. Their attempt at unity and their refusal to be dispersed is now thwarted because the necessary condition of their attempt was taken away: the unity and simplicity of linguistic communication. Now we need to really listen because other people will express a different culture and history in their language. The dispersion leads to the celebration of differences. Any attempt to achieve this kind of homogenous unity is just a way to lead us into a destructive – ultimately fascist – uniformity.
In the end, these people that would make a Name for themselves, that expressed their power and unity, get a name. God gives them a name. They are called Babel, which in itself reflects the confusion of languages. Maybe they would have liked it to mean Bab-El, the gate of God, but the Hebrew language knows better: it is Bavel, confusion.