A Walk Through the Old Testament, Part 2, Noah and the Tower of Babel

July 16, 2006



A Walk Through the OT, Part 2 (7/16/06)

Dr. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

We are spending some time going through the Old Testament, examining some of those great old stories we grew up with. Last week we talked about modern theories regarding the first five books of the Old Testament, sometimes called the Pentateuch or the Torah. And we discovered four distinct voices in those first five books, meaning that four different writers, now called J, E, P and D are responsible for the stories we find in the Pentateuch. We also covered the first few stories in the Bible—the two accounts of creation, and the story of humankind’s first family, in which Cain killed Abel.
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We’ll remain in the Book of Genesis this morning, since that first book of the Bible holds many of the stories we remember from childhood, stories that have shaped much of the western world. First, we’ll turn to the story of Noah.

There are ten generations of people from Adam and Eve to Noah. According to the Bible, over those ten generations, humankind had become thoroughly corrupt. These words are from the sixth chapter of Genesis:

The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.

And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.”

But Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord.

What an amazing and horrifying line we find in that passage! It reads, “The Lord was sorry that he had made humankind…” That has to be the most frightening idea in the universe. It is amazing how we sanitize this little story for our children. We put drawings on the Sunday School walls of Noah and all those pairs of animals joyfully walking along, entering the ark. We play down the fact that there is only a single pair of each animal—that almost all life on earth is blotted out by a God who is sorry he created human beings in the first place.

I’m not sure how to treat this story, except to say that it is indeed a story. In spite of a few rare fanatics who claim a flood did indeed cover the earth and wipe out almost all life, most scholars view this story as a metaphor. And the most important part of the metaphor is what happens after the flood subsides. I’ll read from the eighth chapter of Genesis:

Then Noah built an altar to the Lord, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”

God promises to never again kill of all humankind from the earth, in spite of their sinful ways. In chapter nine of Genesis, it reads,

God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”

It is a good thing God made that promise, because of what happens next. This is the part of the story we leave out at vacation Bible school, because it is one of those X-rated passages of the Bible that we have learned to ignore if at all possible.

The first thing Noah does when he sets foot upon dry land is to plant a vineyard. He proceeds to drink the wine from his vineyard and falls asleep in a drunken stupor. The Bible tells us that one of Noah’s sons, Ham, quote, “saw his nakedness.” This is what is known as a euphemism. A euphemism is the substitution of mild language, which is intentionally vague and indirect, in place of a thought that is simply too harsh and shocking to put into words.

Ham clearly did more than view his father’s naked body. We know because his two brothers, Shem and Japheth, are shocked by what Ham has done. And the Bible says, quote, “When Noah awoke from his wine and found out what his youngest son had done to him,” unquote, Noah curses the offspring of Ham. Most scholars will tell us that Ham raped his drunken father. So much for vacation Bible school!

I think its time to get that image out of our minds, but before we move on to the next great story in Genesis—the Tower of Babel—allow me to apply some of the scholarship we covered last week to the story of Noah. There is a glaring contradiction in the middle of the story which causes great confusion if one rejects the four-source theory of the Pentateuch we discussed last week. The question is, how many of each type of animal did Noah take on the ark? Listen carefully to this passage from Genesis 6, verses 19-20, God’s words to Noah:

And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. Of al the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every kind shall come in to you, to keep them alive… Noah did this; he did all that God commanded.

Well, that is clear enough. There are two of each animal, a male and a female. But listen as I read on in the same passage. The very next sentence says,

Then the Lord said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you alone are righteous before me in this generation. Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and its mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and its mate; and seven pairs of the birds of the air also, male and female, to keep their kind alive on the face of all the earth.

So which is it? Did God tell Noah to take one pair of birds or seven pairs of birds? This is clearly a place where two stories have been woven together. The story of God telling Noah to take a single pair of each animal is the more ancient story, either J or E. The story of God telling Noah to take seven pairs of clean animals was added later by P, the Priestly source. What was a clean animal? It was an animal worthy of sacrifice to the Lord. The Priestly source, who was so concerned with the law and with following Jewish ritual, would have wanted to make sure Noah had plenty of clean animals on the ark to sacrifice over the course of his voyage, and still had a pair left to sustain the species after the flood.

With that, let’s move on to the story of the Tower of Babel. I’ll read the story from Genesis 11:

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

There are plenty of layers to that story, and countless sermons have been written about the tower of Babel story, from a variety of perspectives. The first thing I want to say about this narrative is that it is what scholars call an etiological story. If you look up the word etiology in the dictionary, you learn that etiology is the study of causes. In medicine, etiology is the study of the cause of disease. In language, etiology is the study of how a word came about—the history of that word.

In Bible study, an etiological story is a story that attempts to explain how things got like they are. The Bible has many of them. For example, why do women suffer such pain in childbirth? There is a story that explains that. Her pain is the price of her disobedience to God in the Garden of Eden. Because she listened to the serpent and ate from the Tree of Knowledge, she must suffer in childbirth.

Obviously people would have wondered why there were so many languages. If we all came from Adam and Eve; and if we are all descendents of Noah; then why are there so many languages? Somebody wrote a story to explain it. Humankind tried to build a tower to heaven, and God refused to allow heaven to be breached. He reached down and confounded their language. In their confusion, they stopped building the tower.

That is the source of the Tower of Babel story. But hidden within the story is a great truth, and that truth involves the relationship of a human being to God. In the story, humankind attempts to build a tower to heaven, to the eternal. Who among us does not wish he or she had the power to do such a thing? Wouldn’t it be comforting, reassuring, to think that we could place eternity—heaven—under our control?

God alone is in control of eternity, and that is an underlying message of the story. We cannot storm the gates of heaven. We cannot live our lives in such a way that we can say, “I have earned the glory of heaven, God, and you must let me in. With the living of my life I have built a tower to heaven.”

No! We are always at the mercy of God when we face the mystery of eternity. God has given us lots of control over things on this side of the grave, and we are responsible for the things we say and do in life. But God alone is in command of our ultimate destinies.

There is one other truth within the Tower of Babel story that is especially significant for Christians. The tower of Babel story tells us that hundreds of different languages cover the earth. It is a world of confusion, where we can speak and speak but not be understood. It is a world where we can listen and listen and still not understand.

But all this confusion was reversed by the Holy Spirit of God at Pentecost. You will remember that at Pentecost the disciples had gathered together following the death of Jesus, and they started speaking in strange tongues. But the important element of the Pentecost story is this: they were understood. People from all over the world—people of radically different tongues—understood the gospel message. The gospel message of Jesus Christ does not put an end to the multiplicity of languages that cover the earth, but rather enables people from different backgrounds, and from different cultures, speaking different languages, to understand the one gospel message for all humankind.

And that gospel message is what we call the good news. And to complete the circle, the good news relates right back to the Tower of Babel story. The good news is that we have a God who loves us beyond our wildest imaginings, a God who was willing to become flesh and walk among us, a God who was willing to teach us how to live, a God who was willing to take the sins of the world upon himself.

And that is the very God who is in control of heaven, in control of eternity. That really is good news. You and me, we don’t want to be responsible for earning or working our way into heaven. We just don’t have what it takes, not in the long run. And that is okay. We are just as God made us: human, imperfect, and loved.