Of Temple Towers & Human Arrogance
For the benefit of anyone present who has not been here over the past few Sundays, we are wrapping up a series of sermons about the first 11 chapters of Genesis , known to Biblical scholars as the Hebrew mythology sectikon— a rich tapestry of vivid stories about a time before normal human history began to be written. The final myth in this part of the Bible, familiar to those of you who won gold stars for perfect attendance at Sunday School, is about an ancient enemy of Israel who built the Tower of Babel, and how the Jewish god, Yahweh, broke up that project by confusing their language. It’s a fascinating fable, and we’ll consider it together in a moment, but I need to preface it with a comment about two different kinds of knowledge.
Some kinds of knowledge are practical, like learning how to use a computer, or drive a car, or open a tight jar lid by tapping it on the counter top. Other kinds of knowledge may have little or no practical use, like two essays I just read in the National Geographic about human origins and about the incredible maze of tunnels underneath New York City, and an article in another favorite magazine, the Smithsonian , about the interesting life of dung beetles. There isn’t much I can do with those pieces of information, but they were a joy to read, and they fed my curiosity about the wonders of the world I live in. Today’s sermon is in this non-practical category. It won’t help you be a better parent or spouse or neighbor, but if you wonder at all about how some parts of the Bible were composed it will feed that curiosity and increase the joy of being alive. So tune in for a few minutes — really concentrate — and let’s see what we can make of a strange little story which found its way into our Bible.
Its nine verses which tell about the Tower of Babel are the last pieces of primitive folklore before we leave the early chapters of Genesis and enter the real world. For several weeks we’ve talked about the fabled Garden of Eden with its talking snake, and the angry god whose creation goes so sour that he decides to wipe it out in a flood and start over. But once we finish today’s story, and turn the page to meet a man named Abraham, the world is suddenly much more normal. Whereas people in the first eleven chapters of Genesis were said to live as much as an incredible 900 years, the moment we enter history with Abraham in Chapter 12, the life spans become believable.
But for one more Sunday morning we are still in the world of mythology, in a story that begins in the New English Bible with the words you heard earlier when ______________ read the Scripture text for the morning: “Once upon a time all the world spoke a single language and used the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came to a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.” This “plain” in the “land of Shinar” is the great alluvial valley between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers of what was once known as Babylonia. The Greeks called it Mesopotamia, “land between the rivers.” It is now called Iraq, from an Arabic word meaning origin — a reference to the ancient cultures that flourished on those plains which archaeologists call “the cradle of civilization.”
The author says next that having settled there the people said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and bake them hard” — and then, because he is writing for an audience in Palestine who had plenty of stones for walls and buildings, he adds a little footnote about a strange country where builders had to make bricks out of clay and bake them in the sun or burn them in a kiln, and then cement them together with pitch or asphalt. Then, for the second time, he has these exotic foreigners say, “Come, let us” do something — this time, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and make a name for ourselves; or we shall be scattered all over the earth.” It will turn out that in this writer’s view, the scattering these proud city people are trying to prevent is exactly what his god Yahweh wants.
So he tells us next that Yahweh “came down to see the city and tower which mortal men had built.” If someone is not familiar with the word “Yahweh,” it will help to know that it was Israel’s favorite name for their god. It’s unfortunate, in my opinion, that only a few English translations print it; most of them translate it as LORD in block capital letters. To have the author say that this god Yahweh “came down” to look things over, instead of having him know everything without the need of a personal visit, is simply one more piece of evidence that this is ancient folklore in which God still has very human qualities. When Yahweh sees the impressive building that is going on, he becomes worried. From now on, he says, there is no telling what these people might do, and they need to be stopped right away by having their language confused so they can’t understand each other anymore.
This seems an odd thing for an omnipotent god to say, but remember that this is the same writer who told us earlier how Yahweh did not want the first humans to eat a certain fruit for fear they would become like gods, and how after they did eat and became wise he drove them them out of the Garden. So the author continues his favorite theme of a god greatly concerned about human arrogance and ambition, and has this god mimic the humans’ words: “Come, let us go down there and confuse their speech, so that they will not understand what they say to one another” Then he tells us that Yahweh “scattered them from there all over the earth, so that they stopped bulding the city.”
The natural question right about now would be: Why is this god so worried about human ambition, fearful that if these city-builders continue to speak a single language there will be no limits to what they can do? Well, for one thing, there is some evidence that back in the days when they were nomads and farmers the Hebrew people thought very poorly of cities. The early Genesis legend has Cain, a murderer, become the founder of the first city, and there is certainly a strong hint in this Tower of Babel story that the primitive Hebrew god wants his creation scattered and not huddled up together in places like the Big Apple. So , in this myth, he confuses their language so they can’t communicate and have to quit building the city which, the author tells us in one of his many puns, was called Babel because it was there that the god Yahweh made a babble of earth’s languages.
One thing you can learn from a story like this is that these early folktales were not nearly as solemn as our Sunday School teachers made them out to be. Scholars versed in the Hebrew language will tell you that this story is full of clever little puns, along with that literary device called assonance, along with a very artful arrangement of consonants and a few other linguistic tricks, which means that the author was having fun, and meant for his original audiences to have fun with him — touches that are lost when the story gets translated into another language. If it is annoying to be asked to take this on faith, you can always read commentaries by great German scholars like Gerhard von Rad and Claus Westermann, or one by Umberto Cassuto who taught at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, or my personal favorite by a fine Catholic scholar named Bruce Vawter. They will all amaze you in pointing out how much verbal gameplaying went into the telling of these stories. I had to fight myself all week to keep from taxing your patience by demonstrating some of them, but I do want you to realize how wrong those evangelists are who tell you what a simple book the Bible is.
When as a child I first heard this story about people planning to build a tower with its top “in the heavens,” as our old King James version translated it, I accepted my preacher’s extremely literalistic interpretation that the folks in Babylon were actually plotting to pierce the clouds and walk right in on God’s living quarters, but the author does not even hint at this. From his opening tale about Adam and Eve, through the story of their son Cain, and on through the story of the great flood, he has emphasized the great danger of human pride, of ambition over-reaching itself, and that is exactly what he is doing again in this story. He has heard about the ruined cities of Babylonia, including the great pyramidal towers they built, and it is his belief that they fell into decay because his Hebrew god does not tolerate such proud ambition.
When he speaks of “the city” he probably has Babylon’s famous capital city itself in mind, and when he speaks of “the tower” he is undoubtedly describing the terraced temples built in other cities throughout the Babylonian empire. Any good enclopedia or dictionary will show a picture of these temples, called “ziggurats,” which rose in stepped or “staged” terraces to a kind of shrine at the top where it was thought the gods came down from their lofty dwelling places to interact with worshippers. The Flemish artist, Peter Brueghel (broi-g l), imagined in a stunning painting what what these temple-towers may have looked like. I’ll leave it on the table in case anyone wishes to take a closer look.
Whatever may have been its exact appearance, the one in Babylon certainly impressed the Greek historian Herodotus when he saw it about four and a half centuries before the birth of Christ. He describes how an ascending walk around the outside of the tower leads one to the top, with a resting place midway for people to stop for a while and catch their breath. On the topmost level, he says, there is a spacious temple with a bed for the chief of the Babylonian gods, named Marduk. The walls of this particular temple-tower, we are told was “plated with gold and decorated with enameled brickwork of a blueish hue, which glittered in the sun, greeting the traveler’s eye from afar.”
Modern historians say these ziggurats were built to honor the gods, not to be in competition with them — that instead of pride and arrogance they were a symbol of humanity’s reaching out toward divinity, and of humanity’s hope that the gods would come through the gate at the top to visit. The Jewish people shared that hope. The prophet Isaiah once cried out to his god, “Oh that you would split the heaven, that you would come down.” (64:1). Seen that way, the Babylonian ziggurats seem no different from the cathedrals we build or the New England Colonial churches with their tall spires, but our ancient Hebrew author, obsessed with sin, interprets the whole thing differently. We must remember that by the time he wrote this story, Babylon with all its power and pride had become the most hated name in the Jewish vocabulary. What to the Babylonians may have been a hand stretched out in supplication, a cry to heaven for help, was for him just one more example of inflated human ego.
To sum it up, he probably wanted to do three things. One, which seems to have been incidental, was to explain the origin of languages. He had no knowledge of scientific theories about linguistics, and would probably have ignored them anyway. In his world, God is responsible for everything and therefore God must have caused all our different languages and dialects for some good reason of his own. A second purpose, as I have suggested already, was to showcase his conviction that the hated Babylonian empire got too proud and was punished by the one true God. If he could have known about Rome’s pride in its military power, or the confident British prediction in the 19th century that there would always be an England, or Hitler’s boast that the Third Reich would last a thousand years, or the peculiar arrogance which speaks of America as “God’s country,” he would have enjoyed adding those to his rebuke of human ego.
But perhaps the best interpretation, finally, is that he was using his little parable as a teaching device to show how his Jewish countrymen understood God’s plan for the world. Out of this scattered humanity, God would choose one tribe and out of that tribe one man, Abraham, to be the father of a Chosen People who would teach mankind about the one and only God. All the rest of Genesis will deal with Abraham and his descendants. The Old Testament, we must remember, was never meant as a scientific history of the world. It was created by people convinced that God had elected them to save the world, and for whom everything they see or hear about is interpreted in light of their unique faith.
And so ends the first 11 chapters of Hebrew sacred writing, chapters which far from being original have borrowed from a wide stock of common religious ideas in the world around Israel, and modified them to express its own theology. A sombre thread is woven through all these chapters: that human beings, meant to use their powers responsibly, are forever tempted to put themselves at the center of existence and find security in themselves. In some ways, I suppose, it now sounds as quaint and oldfashioned as the motto one modern country has engraved on its currency: IN GOD WE TRUST — words that may be as difficult to relate to the way we actually live as the ancient story we have just talked about.
Thank you for being patient and attentive during this six-sermon series on the earliest legends of the book of Genesis. A new series begins next week from the New Testament in which you will be invited to meet the man who influenced what Christianity would be like more than any other single person during the first 300 years of its existence. You will also meet our new associate minister, Gary Cox, who with his family will be presented next Sunday as special new additions to the UCC family. Please come back.
Be with us in this new week, Eternal God, that we may become more and
more what we claim to be: a church of free minds, shared values, and open
hearts….in the spirit of Christ our Lord. Amen.