Genesis 11

The famous Tower of Babel. We remarked last week how in Chapter 10 a number of nations and their various languages are described, whereas in this chapter we have not only a common language but a singly existing language (11.1: “Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words.”). Scholars tell us that Genesis, and indeed the whole Torah, is composed of various layers with a number of authors, editors, and redactors reflected in the differing narratives and legal collections and so such inconsistencies should not concern us overmuch. We, anyway, neither seek nor expect perfection; and it should be noted too that a text “flawed” in this way does not preclude divine inspiration (but nor, of course, does it guarantee it); there is much worth to be found either way, as we have consistently argued.

What might be taken from this portion? A pair of verses strikes me as psychologically important and reflective (and that in a “human nature” way), namely four and six:

11.4: “And they [the people of the world] said, ‘Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.’”
11.6: “and the LORD said [looking at the city and the tower], ‘If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach.’”

In verse four we have the human point of view, and it is quite interesting in its need for recognition and insecurities. The people – they, but also we – wish to “make a name” for themselves, but they do not desire this for personal fame (this is presented as group-think, after all), rather for the sake of sureties, for the felt need to stand on a solid foundation as it were (playing with the construction theme), to attain at least this certainty: that here we are, and here we stay. The “else” conjunction is everything: They fear – and so we do too – being “scattered”, which is to say groundless, rootless, in a state of unwanted nomadism, wanderers. It will not go unnoticed that such was the very fate of Israel for long stretches of history. A people needs its land; literally but perhaps more importantly metaphorically in community, belonging, purpose and “place”. This verse gives us an overreach but I think the underlying cause must be a familiar one, and a supremely human one at that.

Then in verse six we are surprised to read of God’s/“God’s” assessment of the situation: These human animals, made by God/“God” in God’s/“God’s” own image (Genesis 1.27), are capable of anything! If humanity could only get it together there is no telling what it might do; and such, it seems, is perceived as threatening. Let us think on this a moment from our all-too-human perspective.

The notion is almost Nietzschean: Humankind as the ├╝ber-life form, but in its entirety instead of only those strong enough to take on the mantle. We together are limitlessly proficient, and yet we are so worried about fundamentals that we entirely misconstrue what are our proper concerns. We are staring at our feet and ignoring the sky above our heads (which the Babel builders tried to reach!); if that does not speak to an inherent lack of vision amongst us I do not know what does. I propose, then, that in this pairing we do not merely view God/“God” as a startled judge (and – again! – that God/“God” might be startled hints once more at a non-omniscience) who takes matters into its own and powerfully humbles us, rather that while we acknowledge the importance of humility in the face of the vastness beyond we also realize just how far we might go if we could but give ourselves a chance. Which means – mutatis mutandis – learning to see one another as co-workers towards a shared goal.

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