Adventist Media Response and Conversation

Friday, November 19, 2010

Glenn Beck and Daniel Lapin unique view of the tower of Babel

I have a friend who is always seems to be surprised  by my critiques of sermons or articles I hear or read. When he hears the same sermon he only appears to focus upon the things that he agrees with and discounts and maybe even forgets anything that could be troubling to a discriminating listener. I think the reason he does this is because if the sermon ends with a point that he agrees with…a point that he agrees is a good point or has had some good points somewhere in the sermon it was a good sermon. How the person got to his good point if it involves logical fallacies or simply completely wrong facts or even absurd theology, well those things don’t matter if the overall point is regarded as good. I am not like that. If the point is arrived at through false information I look at the point as being unjustified. I may agree with the overall point but if the case is not made the speaker or article has wasted my time. If you have a good point; make it with a good case and factual information rather than made up information.

Recently Glenn Beck produced a great example of this kind of false information to a good point. As I have said before I like Glenn Beck and agree with him on a lot of things but when it comes to the Bible and theology he is an absolute amateur. I have found that to be true of the several Latter Day Saints I have talked with personally. Interestingly the Latter Day Saints did better on general religion knowledge in a recent survey.

“On average, Americans correctly answer 16 of the 32 religious knowledge questions on the survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. Atheists and agnostics average 20.9 correct answers. Jews and Mormons do about as well, averaging 20.5 and 20.3 correct answers, respectively. Protestants as a whole average 16 correct answers; Catholics as a whole, 14.7. Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons perform better than other groups on the survey even after controlling for differing levels of education.”  

Of course general religious knowledge is much different from actually understanding the Bible or its stories. In this case Glenn Beck brings in Rabbi Daniel Lapin to tell us of his unique view of the story of the tower of Babel. You can read the transcript of the Glenn Beck Television show here and I will quote several sections below as I compare their version to the Bible and standard Biblical reference works.

You all know the story of the tower of Babel…well no you don’t most Adventists think that the tower was built in the hope to save the people in case God sent another flood. Of course that is not in the story and the story is really quite short so I will post the relevant verses here.

Genesis 11:1-9
1          Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.
2          As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.
3          They said to each other, "Come, let's make bricks and bake them thoroughly." They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar.
4          Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth."
5          But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building.
6          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.
7          Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other."
8          So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.
9          That is why it was called Babel-- because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth. (NIV)

From the Transcript:

[Beck says] Let's just look at the legend itself. I don't believe it's a legend. But what is it teaching? A great king says let's build a tower. What's wrong with that?
LAPIN: Right. Well, a few things are wrong with it.
First of all, he didn't actually say — according to Chapter 11 in Genesis and these nine verses really reveal this dark secret that lies at the deepest recesses of the human soul, which is our susceptibility to become slaves. It's there. It's ready. It can pounce at any moment and transform us into serfs.
And sure enough, these nine verses in Chapter 11 in Genesis, as you say, the King Nimrod doesn't say let's build a tower. He starts off with this extraordinary pronouncement: Hey, everybody, let's build bricks. And then he says let's build a city and a tower.
Now, ordinarily people would say, hey, let's build a city and a tower. A shining city on the hill, said John Winthrop. And people will say, how are you going to do it? Well, we'll make bricks. No, here, the key thing was let's make bricks.
And what's more he's not identified necessarily or early as a king. He's first identified as a hunter back in Chapter 10, verses 8-10.
Now, here's the key thing about that, Glenn — everybody was hunting.
BECK: Right.
LAPIN: Today, it's just the good guys hunt. But back then, everybody hunted. That's how you ate.
Why on earth would this one man, Nimrod, be identified as a hunter? Because he hunted, not animals, he hunted people. Not to kill them, he hunted people to seduce them into becoming his subjects and to allow him to become their master.
BECK: OK. So, he said — Nimrod, a great hunter of man, he says, let's build bricks. And then let's build a city. Why did he say let's build bricks first? What do the bricks represent?
Since Lapin begins with Nimrod and honestly the Bible says very little about Nimrod here is what it does say:
Genesis 10:8-12 Cush was the father of Nimrod, who grew to be a mighty warrior on the earth. He was a mighty hunter before the LORD; that is why it is said, "Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the LORD." The first centers of his kingdom were Babylon, Erech, Akkad and Calneh, in Shinar. From that land he went to Assyria, where he built Nineveh, Rehoboth Ir, Calah and Resen, which is between Nineveh and Calah; that is the great city. (NIV)

1 Chronicles 1:10 Cush was the father of Nimrod, who grew to be a mighty warrior on earth. (NIV)

Micah 5:6 They will rule the land of Assyria with the sword, the land of Nimrod with drawn sword. He will deliver us from the Assyrian when he invades our land and marches into our borders. (NIV)
That is it; the Bible says nothing else about Nimrod. Granted there are all kinds of legends about Nimrod after all The Two Babylons by Alexander Hislop has quite a bit to say about Nimrod and the dastardly influences of Nimrod upon Christianity. But then Hislop’s book is terribly inaccurate, even the mythology he uses is inaccurate. Of course most of the books that Hislop quotes are relics of history so who knows if he is quoting them accurately or not. But comparing his material with more scholarly works dealing with ancient myths the differences are profound. But that is just a side note to our story. For our purposes let’s just acknowledge that the Bible says nothing about Nimrod being a hunter of men whether as big game or politics. He is never said to even be a king in the Bible but does found a number of cities. It is often assumed that Babel is the beginning of Babylon, as the Expositor’s Bible Commentary points out:
“One ends in Babylon, the other in the Promised Land. It is hard not to see this positioning of the account of Babylon as deliberate on the part of the author of Genesis, especially in light of the continuous interplay between the name Shem (shem) and the quest for making "a name" (shem) both in the account of the building of Babylon (11:4) and in the account of God's election of Abraham (12:2).”
The writers of Genesis rather liked to imply somewhat less than complementary beginnings for the nations that surrounded the Hebrews. Aside from the confusion of the failed tower of Babel, a couple of other nations were attributed to Lot getting drunk and having sex with his daughters.
Genesis 19:36-38  So both of Lot's daughters became pregnant by their father.
The older daughter had a son, and she named him Moab; he is the father of the Moabites of today. The younger daughter also had a son, and she named him Ben-Ammi; he is the father of the Ammonites of today. (NIV)
For now we can just note the tendency, what it means…if it was true or an attempt to denigrate is up in the air depending upon your method of interpretation.

The most obvious answer to the Genesis statement about let’s build bricks is to introduce the idea of city construction. After all there is only so much you can do with building by placing stones upon stones. If you quarry and cut stones you can do much higher but that does not appear to be the intention in Genesis 11 here it explains the establishment of a city and of course the tower which many scholars think is a ziggurat. But Rabbi Lapin has other ideas.
LAPIN: Two differences between bricks and stones.
Number one, every brick is the same as every other brick. That's the whole point. They're totally interchangeable. If you want to turn people to bricks, you are able to turn them into interchangeable social economic cogs that can be just plugged around society.

The second thing about bricks is they're made by man. Stones are each unique. When we have a tradition in Western civilization that man is created the image of God, what it really means is that just as God is unique, so is every single human being is unique, just like a stone.

Don't allow other people to turn you into bricks, retain the personality of a person for which you are created.
That is quite a leap from the building of a city to stones or bricks representing people. It does not follow the story at all if one interprets the bricks as people. After all in the story as they build all having a common language what happens? God says look at these people nothing can stop them they can do anything. In the story God comes down to stop the people from being so successful. In the story as it compares the two lines we can see that it is done so that the Hebrews can be established through Abraham. God is setting back the people at the city of Babel apparently so that the line which introduces Abraham will be able to compete.
BECK: OK. So, Nimrod is a guy and he says, we want — I'm going to build — I'm going to build bricks. Was it — was it a real religious society? Because this is right after the Great Flood. Everybody is wiped off and everybody is scattered their own way. They all have their own language, right?
LAPIN: Many different languages.
BECK: And they're all — and they're all worshipping God.
BECK: And Nimrod comes and there's something about — you know, he had a — he had a new idea, right? Tell me about the new idea.
Here Beck and Lapin disagree with the very story they are telling. Saying they all had their own language when the Genesis story said everyone had the same language. It never says they were all worshiping the same God. As the story says of the children of Noah, they spread through the world.
Genesis10:32  These are the families of the sons of Noah, after their generations, in their nations: and by these were the nations divided in the earth after the flood. (KJV)
Who they were worshiping is not known, but it is likely that if God was upset about Babel and if the tower was actually a ziggurat it is likely that there are religious implications involved. As that was the key issue that separated the monotheists of the Hebrew religion from those around them.
BECK: OK. And the mortar that holds those bricks together.
LAPIN: Yes now, in Hebrew, mortar is very related — same word really as the word materialism. And you can actually even hear the similarity transfer into the English language. Mortar — M, T, R are the key consonants. Material — matter — same word essentially.
Now we don’t have to read Hebrew to know what word is used and how it is translated. We have numerous scholars who have written numerous reference works on these words and the word for mortar is not materialism. As Strong’s says:
2563  chomer (kho'mer); from 2560; properly, a bubbling up, i.e. of water, a wave; of earth, mire or clay (cement); also a heap; hence, a chomer or dry measure:
KJV-- clay, heap, homer, mire, motion.

Water and clay, slime that sets, cements things together. The word makes complete sense as mortar because that is the context of the story. It makes no sense as materialism. Even when you build with stones you use mortar. It is frankly a bizarre bit of reasoning if it can even be called reasoning. Ultimately with this style of interpretation we see Beck say:
This may seem like a new story to you, but a new world order is not. The very fist time that this was tried — let me bring in Rabbi Lapin. He is the president of the American Alliance for Jews and Christians.

Rabbi, the very first time socialism or communism or new world order was tried was the Tower of Babel, right?
BECK: He said, Let's make people all like bricks, all the same, not like stone. The mortar that will hold those bricks together is materialism.
BECK: And we'll have this utopia. We'll build a tower that will reach the heavens.
LAPIN: Yes. You will be able to fulfill your highest aspirations in that fashion.
BECK: We're all bricks.
LAPIN: And I urge people to read the story and to listen to us, not as if we're describing some long forgotten historic event, but we're describing what is really happening today and will happen in our grandchildren's generation somewhere in the world again.
It will happen over and over again.
This conclusion… this main point I agree with but it is not really found in the story of the tower of Babel and that makes the case not made at all and it frankly makes their attempt look foolish…at least to anyone who takes the time to actually read the story and check the word usage. Not that you can’t draw lessons from the story but they are not as far fetched as Beck and Lapin submit. As the Expositor’s Commentary says:
“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."






Anonymous said...

Agree that their logic is way off-kilter. This reminds me of how a literal reading of scripture coupled with the belief that since the words are inspired one can use them analogically to guide modern life can result in very flexible applications that are completely disconnected from the biblical author's original intent (as best we can understand it). It reminds me of Richard Davidson's Sabbath School quarterly of a few years ago where he read type/antitype relationships into entire books of the Bible where I would never have thought to look for them. Amazing how much the Bible can be made to speak a modern author's perspectives in this case!

One criticism of your commentary, though, is that you said, "He is never said to even be a king in the Bible" whereas the text you quoted referred to Nimrod's kingdom (I think we can agree it was referring to Nimrod and not Cush there, right?). Having a kingdom would seem to imply that he was a king. Or do you think it refers to "his kingdom" only in the sense that he was a resident of it but not the king? Somehow I doubt the Biblical author would have referred to it as his kingdom in that case as it would be a trivial point not worth mentioning.

Ron Corson said...

I think you are right about Kingdom there. In fact looking it up in the concordance we see that it is the first time the word kingdom is used in the Bible. And it makes sense to the story. As the point of much of the first half of Genesis is about trying to explain how things became the way they were to these people just coming out of years of slavery in Egypt. So the creation story tells us about where everything came from and how come snakes crawl and weeds and annoying plants came to be. The flood story tells us how everything came to look so strange with layers of dirt and rocks and animals as predators and food. Then the tower of Babel to explain the establishment of nations. First by Babel as a city that then gets disturbed so that people go out and found other cities and people like Nimrod found several cities thus establishing nations. And of of the numerous languages of all the nations are also explained in the story.

That is what I see as the reason for these stories. Now of course the Genesis accounts are not consistent altogether with that idea because even in the Cain and Abel story Cain goes off to other cities and founds cities. But that does not explain so many nations and languages and building techniques so this one more unified tower of Babel story accomplishes those tasks as well as moves the story along to the creation of the nation of Israel which is the primary goal of Genesis.

David said...

I don't think Beck's point was that far off, nor do I think it was so wrongfully obtained. A few thoughts:

-I would question your use of the NIV when translation is so important for this issue. NIV was edited for readability, whereas ASB or NASB is a more direct translation. For example, NIV and NASB translate Genesis 10:10 differently - NIV says Nimrod's kingdom began with "Babylon" while NASB says "Babel." A considerable difference for this purpose.

-I find it interesting that Genesis 11:3 states that the people of the city told themselves to be sure to burn the bricks thoroughly.

Normal brick-making procedures would dictate a standard length of time to bake the bricks given the clay being worked with. One wouldn't need to be sure to bake them for an extra long period of time unless there was a concern that the material the bricks were made of would be unstable or not easily hold its form as brick.

This fits with Lapin's analysis. If the bricks are a metaphor for people, it makes sense that they would need to be "burned thoroughly" because not all people would want to be molded into nearly identical units. It is a form unnatural to man's natural, i.e. God-created, state, which is diverse and unique – like individual stones.

-Genesis 11:3 states that the people used tar for mortar: "They said to one another, 'Come, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly.' And they used brick for stone, and they used tar for mortar."

The last sentence of the verse demonstrates that this contrast is meant to parallel that of stone and bricks - just as brick was a deviation from the normal stone material, so too was tar a deviation from the normal form of mortar. And like brick, tar must also be artificially produced.

Like the brick, the tar contrast implies that the deviation is less desirable than the norm. It also suggests that the Strong's reference you produced is invalid in this case because the verse expressly states that the mortar being used is not real mortar at all!

From an interpretive point, one could argue that this frees up the MTR consonants in the original Hebrew to mean something else. As in Lapin's interpretive analysis, that could very well mean matter or materialism.

The Strong's reference is, however, helpful in defining normal mortar. As you quoted:
"2563 chomer (kho'mer); from 2560; properly, a bubbling up, i.e. of water, a wave; of earth, mire or clay (cement); also a heap; hence, a chomer or dry measure"
These are natural and earthy/organic materials, unlike tar. This fits in with what Beck has argued on his show for some time, that the elements that bind a society together are natural (history, culture, religion, common purpose), not artificial.

The only other times Tar appears in the Old Testament is in the Moses story when his mother waterproofs his basket (Ex 2:3) and when the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fall into tar pits trying to escape the calamity of God (Gen 14:10). In both cases, impure dealings are afoot, suggesting that this usage also implies a level of impurity.

By Lapin's analysis, this fits too - materialism is an impure means by which to bind together a society, when compared to the normal mortar of common cultural and spiritual themes.

I think that all this reinforces Beck's point about the story of Babel being a warning against human attempts to create a utopian society - if the materials, methods, and intentions being used in its creation are not of God's will, the product will not be of God and it will ultimately fail.

I agree with you that in the portrayal of this on air they did get some points confused during crosstalk. I also think that an hour of television was a really crummy way of condensing what could also become a well-researched book. Beck did the same thing with social justice, and look at the controversy that's still going. But I don't fault him for trying.