East and West Meet at the Tower of Babel

I have been listening to the BEMA podcast. I highly recommend it. As summarized one the website, “‘BEMA’ (or bimah) is a Hebrew word that refers to the elevated platform in the center of first-century synagogues where the people of God read the Text.”

The early Christians knew their Scripture. They built their lives around it. They devoted themselves to it, and to prayer, and the apostles reaching, and to fellowship and shared meals. (Acts 2:42

The BEMA podcast attempts to approach Scripture the way easterners would have, the way the early Christians in the Middle East would have approached it. My Jewish professor in college told us one day that Jews were not westerners; they were easterners, and they thought differently than westerners.

Christianity quickly became westernized, but it’s origins are eastern. We would do well to gain some new perspective from a more eastern way of thinking. I encourage you to listen to the first couple of episodes of the podcast linked in the opening paragraph if you want an introduction to an eastern perspective of the Bible.

Reading the first 11 chapters of Genesis from an eastern, Hebraic perspective, opens up new insights. Not the least of which is the genre of literature these chapters represent. They are poetry. They are chiasms with intricate organization and emphasis that is found in the structure of the chiasms.

The Tower of Babel story is one of the chiastic passages in Genesis. The story actually begins in the Hebrew with the last verse of Chapter 10 (as it is organized in English Bibles), and it goes like this (ESV):

These are the clans of Noah’s sons, according to their lines of descent, within their nations. From these the nations spread out over the earth after the flood.

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

They said to each other, ‘Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.’ They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 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; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. 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.’

So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 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.

Hebrew has no vowels, only consonants. There are vowel signs over the consonants that denote where breaths should be taken for anyone reading Hebrew out loud. 

The consonants in this chiasm are repetitive: N, B, L, H; then H, L, B, N in reverse. There is a front half and a back half. The middle of the story is 11:4, which I have emphasized by bolding it.

The verse in the middle of the chiasm is where the emphasis lies: the peoples’ concern about being scattered over the face of the earth. They didn’t want to be scattered.

Why not? That’s the question we should be prompted to ask.

I am not sure I can do any justice to the layers of meaning and the questions that arise in these verses in a short blog post. I can only scratch the surface, but here goes….

One theme to note in all the stories in the beginning of Genesis is that people are continually moving east, further and further away from the garden where they began. God brings Noah back to the west, but people keep going east. This is a theme to notice in the rest of Scripture.

I think it’s fair to conclude that people naturally tend away from God and His plans. We tend to focus on ourselves. That seems to be the gist of the Tower of Babel story: the people set out to build a city with a tower that reaches to the heavens “so they might make a name for themselves“.

The people were intent on pursuing their own ends, to make a name for themselves, to reach up to the very heavens, as if they could rival God. Or, perhaps, they thought they could compel God to meet them there, on their own turf and and their own terms – to control their interaction with God.

The story doesn’t tell us. It leaves us wondering, and that is the point. Ancient Hebrews believed Scripture. invited questions, searching, meditating.

It also seems worthy to note that, though people were continually moving east, away from the garden, it was God’s intention for them to do so. The end of this story is that God scattered them – exactly the thing they didn’t want. This is what God desired, at least at that time.

It’s interesting, also, that the parallel story in the chiasms in Genesis is the story of Cain & Abel. Cain, whose name meant acquirer, was worried about wandering. (He was a farmer, not a hunter.) The Tower of Babel story focuses also on the peoples’ concern about being scattered.

Cain was cursed to wander. The Babylonians were scattered (though it was not a curse). They both were consigned to wandering and being scattered, the very thing they didn’t want.

Marty Solomon suggests on the podcast the idea that God doesn’t want people to settle until they come back home (west). There is something in the wandering and in the scattering that is meant to advance the purposes of God, which is ultimately to bring them back home.

Solomon also poses the question: Is God really threatened by their advances? In the passage, we see no response from God to the advancement in technology (making bricks). God doesn’t break into the narrative until the people express the desire to make a city and build a tower to make a name for themselves.

The issue isn’t the technology, but how it is used. God doesn’t condemn the project. He doesn’t curse them or punish them. He confuses them by disrupting their language because their use of the technology was taking them in a direction that was contrary to God’s plans for them. .

God wasn’t concerned about the technological advances. He broke into the story when they were motivated to use them for their own ends that were contrary to God’s plans and purposes for them.

Solomon asks, “Why does God express concern about them unifying and planning?” I wonder, “Was it the unifying and planning that was the problem?” I think not; rather it was their motivation in unifying and planning that was the issue.

God wanted people to trust Him. Adam & Eve didn’t trust Him when the serpent questioned God’s intentions toward them. Cain didn’t trust God when he held back the best fruits.

Solomon suggests that the people were not ready to harness their creativity in a productive way in keeping with God’s ultimate plans for them. They didn’t trust God, so their planning focused on their own ends.

One aspect of Scripture is stories and principals and the use of words build on each other in threads and themes. We understand in the Tower of Babel story that God scatters the people for a reason. Paul seems to pick up on that theme in Acts 17 when he speaks to the philosophers in Athens. He said,

“[God] made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us….” (Acts 17:26-27)

His ultimate purpose is that we would seek Him, feel our way toward Him, and find Him. The kicker is that God is not far from each of us. We do not have to build a tower to find Him. “For “in him we live and move and have our being….’” (Acts 17:28)

Paul quoted a pagan philosopher, Epimenides, to make his point, as if to say that God is at work everywhere people are scattered. He comes to us!

There is nowhere we can go that God is not there. (Psalm 139) God meets us where we are.

The scattering frustrates our efforts to unify, plan, and build our own projects to achieve our own ends. Paul says God has subjected the very creation to futility. (Romans 8:20) God’s response to Adam’s mistrust and desire to follow his own way included cursing the ground, requiring toil and pain to eat from it. (Gen. 3:17-19)

The theme of God frustrating our misguided ways runs through Scripture from the beginning. God’s intention, though, is always beneficent toward us. He desires for us to seek Him, to feel our way toward Him, and to find Him.

The writer of Ecclesiastes says that God put eternity into the human heart, but not so we would know the beginning from the end. (Ecc. 3:11) That frustration, that desire for eternity that God put into our hearts, gives us motivation to seek Him. The inability to know the beginning from the end requires us to trust Him.

Jesus said the greatest commandments love God and love your neighbor as yourself. This is God purpose. This is what God wants us to pursue instead of our own ends.

He wants us to trust Him. He wants us to learn to love each other

Solomon points out that civilization cannot advance after the people are scattered unless people learn each other’s language. People can only learn each other’s language by learning to listen and to put each other ahead of their own ends. People must learn to find common ground with each other and to love each other to work together.

In this way, God is putting us in position to engage in His redemptive purposes. He scattered people so that they would seek Him and find Him, and in the process to learn to love each other.

Paul says that our hope is in the creation being set free from its bondage to corruption – the corruption to which God subjected it – as we obtain “the freedom of the glory of the children of God”. (Romans 8:21) He says, [T]the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now”; and “we ourselves … groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for the adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies”. (Romans 8:22-23)

This is the end game God has planned. He wants us not only to seek Him, feel our way toward Him, and find Him; He wants us to participate with Him in redeeming the creation from the futility and frustration to which He subjected it. We participate with Him, thereby, in the creative process.

God wants us to partner with Him. He wants us to cease pursuing our own ends to make a name for ourselves. There is nothing in that for us. There is everything in partnering with God to accomplish His purposes.

Attempting to read the Bible as Hebrews read the Bible pulls out nuances a western-minded person might never see. It provides different perspective. I am going to continue to reflect and write on my attempts to do this as I have the time and inclination.

One thought on “East and West Meet at the Tower of Babel

Comments are welcomed

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.