Adventist Media Response and Conversation

Friday, November 10, 2006

Lesson 6 Babel without the Babble

Have you ever wondered why we add so much to the stories in Genesis? Think about that some time. Perhaps write down what you think a particular story in Genesis says and then read the story and see how accurate you were. As an example what was the tower of Babel for? If you are like me you were told and believed for years that it was because they wanted to have a possible escape should God send another flood. But that idea is no where in the story. But the story is critical to the goal of Genesis which is the establishment of the nation of Israel in the Promised Land. The story is a link in that chain. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary gives a good description of what appears to be the author’s intent in this story. Maybe this will help us grow in our understanding and away from the idea of literalism that never made much sense and always needed speculative additions to have any real meaning.

The first scene of the story of the building of Babylon opens outside the "plain in Shinar" (v. 2). The narrative specifically notes that the builders "moved eastward" (miqqedem) to the plain where they founded the city. It seems important that we picture the starting point of the events of the story as a "land" (see Notes) west of Babylon. The builders started out in the land and moved eastward to build Babylon. It can hardly be without importance that the author has provided the story with such a geographical orientation. As early as Genesis 3, the author has shown his interest in marking the directions of travel taken in man's search for a home. When the man and his wife were driven from the garden because they had chosen the knowledge of good and evil for themselves, they were made to settle in a land "eastward" (miqqedem) from the garden (3:24). When Cain was cast out from the presence of God because he refused God's instruction, he went to dwell in a land "east of Eden" (qidmath 4:16). When Lot divided from Abraham and sought for himself a land "like the garden of the LORD," he moved "toward the east" (miqqedem) while Abraham remained in the land (13:10-12).

In light of such intentional uses of the notion of "eastward" within the Genesis narratives, we can see that here too the author intentionally draws the story of the founding of Babylon into the larger scheme at work throughout the book. It is a scheme that contrasts God's way of blessing (e.g., Eden and the Promised Land) with man's own attempt to find the "good." In the Genesis narratives, when man goes "east," he leaves the land of blessing (Eden and the Promised Land) and goes to a land where the greatest of his hopes will turn to ruin (Babylon and Sodom).

The central question surrounding this story is why God judged the builders of the city. Though the story is quite brief, the author has left the reader with definite, though subtle, indications of the story's meaning. The clues lie in the repetition of key words within the story, key words that also tie the story to the larger narrative context. We have already made note of the importance of the word "name" (shem) within the larger context of chapters 10 through 12. Within the story itself, the word shem also plays a central role. First, according to the builders of the city, the reason for building a city was "to make a name [shem]" for themselves (v. 4). Second, the conclusion of the story returns to the "name" (shem) of the city, ironically associating it (Babylon/Babel) with the confusion (balal) of their language (v. 9). Thus the builders' attempt to make a name for themselves is a central feature of the story both in terms of the internal structure of the story and its linking with the surrounding narratives.

The term "scattered" (pus v. 4) is another key word that ties the story together internally and externally with the surrounding narratives. The purpose of the city was so that its inhabitants would not "be scattered [pus] over the face of the whole earth" (v. 4). Ironically, at the conclusion of the story it is the Lord who "scattered" (pus) the builders from the city "over the face of the whole earth" (v. 8), a fact repeated twice at the conclusion (vv. 8-9).

The expression "the whole land" (kol-ha'ares) is a third key term in the story. The people had left "the whole land [NIV, "world']" (v. 1) to build a city in the east. The purpose of the city was to keep them from being scattered throughout "the whole land" (kol ha'ares v. 4). But in response the Lord reversed their plan and scattered them over "all the land" (kol-ha'ares vv. 8-9).

The story of the founding of the city of Babylon has been carefully constructed around key terms and ideas. The people of the land are at first united as one people sharing one language and living in the "land" (v. 1). They moved "eastward" (v. 2) and built a city to make a name for themselves so as not to be scattered over the land. When God saw their plan, he initiated a counterplan, one that resulted in the very thing the city builders were attempting to prevent: "the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole land" (v. 8).

Although by itself the story of the building of Babylon makes good enough sense as the story of man's plans thwarted in God's judgment, its real significance lies in its ties to the themes developed in the surrounding narratives. The focus of the author since the beginning chapters of the Book of Genesis has been both on God's plan to bless mankind by providing him with that which is "good" and on man's failure to trust God and enjoy the "good" God had provided. The characteristic mark of man's failure up to this point in the book has been his attempt to grasp the "good" on his own rather than trust God to provide it for him. The author has centered his description of God's blessing on the gift of the land: "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth" (1:28). The good land is the place of blessing. To leave this land and to seek another is to forfeit the blessing of God's good provisions. It is to live "east of Eden."

Within this context the events of the story of the building of the city of Babylon take on a greater range of significance. As Cain left the land and went eastward (qidmath -`eden 4:16) and there built a city (4:17), the people, who were once united in the land (the last-mentioned location of the sons of Noah was the garden planted by Noah, 9:20), left the land, moved "eastward," and founded their own (lanu v. 4; NIV, "ourselves") city, there to make a name for themselves (lanu). God, who saw that their plans would succeed, moved to rescue them from those very plans and return them to the land and the blessing that awaited there.

The story of the building of Babylon ends with only a hint of a return to the land of blessing; but in the continuation of the Genesis narratives (chs. 12 ff.), the next series of events brings God's plans into sharp focus: "The LORD had said to Abram, "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you.... I will make your name great and you will be a blessing'" (12:1-2).

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