The finale of Season 2: Genesis. Please join me for the third Season!
We think the story of Babel is about God punishing people for building a tower that reaches the sky; that is why God makes them speak in different languages. But, what if it’s much more than that? What if the Tower is not really God’s primary concern, and the goal of God making people speak different languages, is simply that—that they would speak differently?
(Genesis 9 ~ 11)
2:17 The logical progression of Genesis primeval narratives
9:13 Noah’s descendants and Noah’s curse
15:55 What is strange about the story of Babel
22:45 God wants humanity to speak different languages
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When I was a child, I thought that what God does to the people building the Tower of Babel was kind of… petty. God punishes them, by making them speak different languages, but there was no clear reason why. This was quite different from other stories in Genesis when God brings the Flood that engulfs the world, or when God later brought destruction upon the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah; each time, it is stated quite clearly that people filled their world with violence and evil. But, with the story of Babel, all it says is that people were working together to build a tower that reaches the sky. Did God punish them because they were arrogant for doing that? But, if so, wouldn’t they have failed anyway? If anything, God speaks as if they could do it—to build such a tower—and stops them! And that sounds as if God felt threatened by what they could do! Why though? God is all-powerful!
But, what if all of this isn’t simply about sin and punishment? What if, just as the other primeval narratives in Genesis, it is describing a key feature of our Reality— specifically, what happens when humanity comes together to build something? Again, all of that is God speaking. So, what if the story of Babel is not about God simply punishing humanity, but rather, God speaking forth a fundamental feature of who we are, which undermines our every attempt to build a unified, ideal world?
After all, we’ve never quite succeeded in building one that lasts. And maybe Genesis is telling us why. So, let’s consider that here on…
[ music / ]
…"What do you mean, God speaks?" where we explore important ideas, insights, and stories in Christianity, for the skeptics who want to understand religion, to the Christians who have questions about their own beliefs. And everyone in between.
I am Paul Seungoh Chung, and this is our finale of the second season, "Why what happens at Babel is not simply a punishment—the reason why our Utopia fails.”
[ / music ]
It is difficult for us nowadays to place the events described in Genesis—Creation, Fall, the Flood, or Babel—into our modern, scientific chronology of the world, and the past episodes of this Season explored why. First, we often forget that Genesis was written for the Hebrews who lived long ago and viewed the world differently from us, so that physical things like water, sky, earth, seed, trees, and so on, were more than what they are to us; they represented, quite literally, something like the metaphysical elements of the Cosmos and its history. So, the Creation of the sky, for example, is about far more than the formation of our planetary atmosphere; and humanity eating from the Trees in Eden is not about hominids eating fruits from the trees in the rain forest; and the Flood is not simply about a catastrophic change in weather. What this all means is that we often misunderstand what these accounts are describing—to be specific, we miss the sheer scope of the accounts regarding Creation, Fall, or the Flood, and so on, so that we basically look for the wrong things. Also, I raised the possibility that these narratives are not describing merely a single event in the past, but something like a summation of every such event—every fall from God, every murder, every unraveling of our world.
But, you can review all of that on our previous episodes; for here, I want to point out that even if these events cannot be placed into a strict chronology that we use in modern cosmology, geology, anthropology, or archaeology, there’s still a logical sequence to the ordering of these narratives—there’s a metaphysical chronology, you can say. This was basically what Augustine thought regarding the opening Creation account, but, I think this is true for the first eleven chapters of Genesis in its entirety—all of what scholars call the Primeval History. The scope and scale of the account becomes smaller and more focused with each narrative, moving from the entire Cosmos, to humanity, then to the living dilemma of every human being, and so on; more precisely though, each narrative in the sequence depicts further realization of one set of possibilities over others. Here’s what I mean:
Genesis begins at the broadest scale—indeed it’s limitlessly broad—the Spirit of God breathing forth an infinite expanse of unfathomable possibilities. And as God speaks forth each Creation in this opening Genesis account, this infinite sea of possibilities becomes a more specific world, with particular features. God speaks forth the Light, so that the world becomes where things can happen, and events can be perceived and referenced. Then, God speaks to separate the expanse of possibilities, so that different things can exist at the same time. Then, God speaks so that the world becomes tangible and material, with shapes and forms, and then, God speaks so that matter becomes capable of bringing forth Life. As God speaks further, the Cosmos becomes filled with stars and objects that move with order and fixed sequence, and myriad of different living species emerge to fill every habitable part of the world. And finally, creatures with the capability to understand what God speaks, and represent God, is brought forth into the world. Each time God speaks in Genesis, the unimaginably infinite way that reality could have been, step by step, becomes our world that we now inhabit. But, this also means that each time God speaks, God is bringing forth one kind of world, rather than others that could have been; the universe could have been just a single, momentary flare of Light; or the cosmos could have been chaotic brew of particles, which never formed into stars that move in orderly sequence; matter could have been incapable of becoming alive; and humanity could have never emerged. And perhaps, God is speaking forth that kind of world elsewhere, if speculations of some cosmologists about the Multiverse prove true. But, Genesis Creation account is following God, speaking forth our world, instead of every other possible world that could have been.
However, this sequence does not end with Creation; God then speaks to humanity to live and shape their world that is presented to them, as the image of God that speaks and shape all worlds. Humanity also begins with limitless possibilities; they are to go and fill the world that God speaks forth, to encounter and govern its vast array of creation. Genesis then follows each step that humanity has taken since. Their first step begins in Eden, and there they go down one possible path over all others—a path of distrust and fear against God and each other. Their next step is taken by the brothers Cain and Abel, who now engages God with this condition of distrust, established by the previous step; Abel overcomes it, Cain does not, and out of self-deception, envy, and resentment, murders his brother. Humanity’s next step is to follow Cain’s example in large-scale, establishing their society and thus shaping their world with violence and corruption. And that world unravels into the Flood, leaving just one extended family in their Ark, to begin their world anew.
With each step, the world of humanity became one particular kind of world; it still remains a world capable of engaging God, loving others, and justly governing the rest of creation, but it has also increasingly become a world that is profoundly interwoven with humanity’s sin—their tendency to distrust, to lie, to murder, to betray relationships and forsake their responsibilities to each other and to the rest of creation. It has become a world that has unraveled, and still on the brink of unraveling, yet somehow preserved by a strange and impossible promise from God. And all of this in turn means the world can no longer be what it could have been, if those paths had not been taken.
And it is from this world, already shaped and formed in a certain way, that all of humanity gather together to build a city and the tower that would reach the sky.
[ pendulum ]
Before we go there though, we need to cover a couple of things more with Noah. Genesis reports that Noah’s sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, had children who became the ancestors of peoples and nations after the Flood. So, the names of their children that it lists are similar to the names of the peoples who inhabited the lands around the nation of Israel—namely, the world as the ancient Hebrews knew it. If you were wondering, these are the geographical areas of today’s Middle-East, Northeastern Africa, Turkey, Greece and the Balkans; they didn’t know about the lands beyond that, like the rest of Africa, Europe, or Asia, or the continents across the seas, like the Americas, or Australia. Now, some of the children of Shem were identified with peoples living to the East of Israel, in Mesopotamia and Persia, the children of Ham with those in Egypt, Ethiopia, and the Levant, and the children of Japheth with those around Greece and the Balkans. From this, some people in the past proposed that the descendants of Shem were Asians, Ham were Africans, and Japheth were Europeans.
Now, this was problematic for several reasons. First is that as one of the primeval narratives of Genesis, it is by no means simple to state clearly how much and in what ways Noah’s account is supposed to be historical. I do think historical threads are woven into these narratives, but as a whole, they depict much larger ideas and patterns of how reality unfolds, beyond any past events. Second is that even if we dismiss that problem, the account about Noah’s descendants is limited to people who inhabit the regions I mentioned before—lands the ancient Hebrews knew of. So, how the peoples listed in Genesis are supposed to be related to the peoples living beyond those lands are pure speculations at most. Third, there are some lose threads as to who actually survived the Flood even in the Bible; for example, Genesis reports that before the Flood, there lived a people called the “Nephilim,” who were gigantic in stature and were heroes of legends. Then, long after the Flood—the book of Numbers reports that when the Israelites were about to fight for a land they can inhabit, there were descendants of these “Nephilim” among their enemies. Now, there are several ways to understand this; for one, Genesis may have been describing a local, rather than a global Flood, since it often uses the words, “the whole world” to mean the whole of the known world—the Middle East and its surrounding lands. Or, it could just be that “Nephilim” is just what you call someone who is gigantic and strong. There’s far too many unknowns.
However, I brought up this entire issue though mostly because of the fourth and the last problem. This largely unfounded and wild speculation about racial ancestry was historically used to justify enslaving Africans. And it came about like this:
According to Genesis, sometime after the Flood, Noah planted a vineyard—he is supposed to be the first to do so. He then drank some wine until he became drunk and was passed out, naked, in his tent. His son, Ham saw him uncovered, and told his brothers, Shem and Japheth. Shem and Japheth then covered their father with a garment while turning their face away so they wouldn’t see him naked. When Noah woke up, he cursed Ham—or to be precise, Ham’s son, Canaan. “Canaan shall the lowest of slaves to his brothers!” Noah said. “And blessed by the LORD my God be Shem, and may God make room for Japheth and let him live in Shem’s tent. And may Canaan be their slave!”
It isn’t clear what happened that made Noah curse Canaan; the phrase, “uncover the nakedness” for the Hebrew culture, meant much more than just being without clothes. It is often used for sexual act or offense; so, if a person had sex with his father’s concubine—this is an actual example listed in the Bible, in the book of Leviticus—he is said to have “uncovered the nakedness” of that woman, and also his father’s nakedness. Again, it is not clear if something like that is what is meant here, and even if it is, Genesis provides no detail on how Canaan is implicated in that, especially since it’s Ham who sees his father “naked,” whatever that means. And believe me, there are many theories posed throughout the ages on what exactly Ham may or may not have done. For my part, I haven’t figured out yet what this entire narrative is trying to communicate… well, other than maybe, don’t get drunk, and don’t mess with Noah.
How is this related to slavery in Africa? Since Ham seemed to be incriminated in this story, and Noah curses Canaan to be a slave, and Ham was rather flimsily associated with Africa… you can connect the dots. Now, the obvious problem is that it isn’t Ham that Noah curses with slavery—it’s Canaan. And Canaanites didn’t live in Africa; they lived in today’s Israel and Palestine, before being displaced by the Israelites in a war, and Israel’s ancestry is traced to Shem. So, Noah’s curse is clearly a reference to that war. And of course, this curse was rarely referenced in Christianity to justify any slavery until after Western Europeans needed slaves to work the plantations in their colonies in Americas. And the passage became much more popular among Christian slave-owners in the southern U.S., for example, when there was a powerful movement among other Christians to abolish slavery.
It’s sort of like how, now that we have a more secular and materialistic standard for our ethics, words like “security,” “prosperity,” “freedom,” “equity,” or the “common people,” and so on, have been frequently used to justify wars, coups-d’états, or mass prison camps. We will draw upon whatever the wider society in our time will regard as valuable, especially if we are about to do something we know is deeply wrong. I mean if we don’t do that, people would think that we are monsters!
[ pendulum ]
It’s time to return to the story of Babel.
Genesis reports that some time later, the descendants of Noah migrated to a plain in the lands of Shinar, which is a southern region of Mesopotamia—in today’s Iraq and Kuwait—and it is specifically, the site of the city of Babylon. Upon arriving in this land, people started making bricks, mortar, and asphalt. Then, they said to one another, “Let’s build a city, with a tower that reaches the sky; let’s make a name for ourselves; otherwise, we will be scattered across the entire world.”
It is then that God comes down to look at the city and tower humanity is building and speaks, “Look, they are one people, all speaking one language, and this is what they’ve started; nothing they propose to do will be withheld from them. Let’s confuse their language, so they can’t understand each other.” And Genesis states that God scattered everyone across the whole world, and they abandoned building their city. The city was thus called Babel, which is Hebrew wordplay of Balal, which means to confuse—and this, Genesis suggests, would become Babylon.
However, there are a number of odd things about what happens, if we assume that God was simply punishing the descendants of Noah for building the tower. First, God does not clearly say that what they are doing is evil, which is notably different from when God brings the Flood; God speaks to Noah that people have filled the world with violence and corruption. And this isn’t a one-time thing. Later in Genesis, God clearly says that the outcry against the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and their sin is exceedingly grave, before these cities are destroyed. Throughout the Bible, whenever God is about to bring judgment on a people, the prophets from God clearly and specifically list what they did—which acts or sustained practices of injustice, deceit, violence, idolatry, or mercilessness. If anything, the prophets list them quite thoroughly so that people may stop doing them, and so avoid judgment. So, it is odd that this is missing, or at least, remains unclear.
Of course, there have been numerous speculations in later Jewish and Christian traditions regarding how the people at Babel offended God. The most popular idea is that the Tower that reaches the sky was a direct challenge to God. Those who follow this view, often point to a man named Nimrod, a figure that appears in the previous chapter in Genesis, as the one who instigated this. According to Genesis, Nimrod, the son of Cush, the son of Ham, was a mighty warrior, and a great hunter before God, and he would go on to rule a kingdom that would include the cities of Babel, Erech, and Accad in the land of Shinar. The Hebrews reading this passage would quickly recognize these names as direct reference to the cities of Babylon, Uruk, and Akkad in southern Mesopotamia. Nimrod would go on to build cities in northern Mesopotamia, such as Nineveh and Calah. And this set aflame people’s imagination; who is this ancient hero who founded and ruled over these famous ancient cities? And what did he do at Babel? Genesis does not say—which didn’t keep people from speculating. For example, a 1st century Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, wrote that Nimrod was a tyrant, who led the people to show an affront and contempt for God, by building a tower that would be taller than any Flood.
But, Genesis itself does not say anything negative about Nimrod; he was a warrior, a hunter, and a builder and ruler of cities. That’s it. Nor does Genesis clearly state that those at Babel built the tower to challenge God; we think it’s implied because it is supposed to reach the sky. But, Genesis actually records their stated goal, and it’s something different; they say, “Let’s make a name for ourselves, or else we’ll be scattered across the entire world.” They want to build a center of civilization, a towering marker that would hold together all people in one place.
And what God speaks in response to the people at Babel also notably lacks a curse; when God speaks to Adam after they distrust God and eat from the Tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God says, “cursed is the ground because of you, and it will produce thistles and thorns” and when God speaks to Cain after he murdered Abel, God says, “You are now cursed from the ground, and it will not produce anything for you.” Even Noah explicitly pronounces a curse. With Babel, there is no curse. We assume that God confusing the language of the people there is a curse, but it is odd that Genesis does not call it that.
Nor does Genesis clearly say that God is offended by the tower. Again, we think it’s strongly implied. Subsequent traditions say that God saw the tower as prideful rebellion against Him, and destroys the tower after scattering the people across the world. But, in Genesis itself, God does not destroy the tower; in fact, the only stated result of God confusing the language of people at Babel is that they leave, and scatter across the world. This is especially interesting because the only stated goal of the people at Babel was to not be scattered; that was why they built the city and the tower—to anchor them in one place.
Then, what if we’ve confused God’s goal? What I mean is that we think God’s goal was to stop people from building the tower, and that is why God made people speak different languages and scattered them across the world. But, what if God’s goal is to scatter humanity across the world, period? To scatter them and have them speak differently? This, after all, is the only thing in this narrative that God clearly says He is doing; and this is the only thing that Genesis clearly states that God does—in fact, it states it twice. What if the problem with the city and the tower is not that they’re building some tower, but that they keep staying in one place, speaking the same one language, and nothing can force them to change? Once people are scattered, Genesis does not even bother mentioning what happened to the tower; it only says that people abandoned building their city—a place they built to stay in that one place.
But, why would that be a problem?
[ pendulum ]
Think back to the Genesis creation account. Humanity is created in the “image” of God, which gives them the responsibility to represent God to each other and to the rest of Creation. God then speaks to them with a blessing to “flourish and fill the world, and govern all living things.” The subsequent path that humanity has taken in Genesis means they have failed in this responsibility, but nowhere in Genesis does God withdraw what was spoken. When Noah and his family emerge from the Ark after the Flood, God repeats the original blessing, “flourish and fill the world.”
In the fourth episode of this season, we observed that God’s call to humanity to “fill the world,” means to go everywhere. As long as you walk with God, as long as you speak truthfully, act justly, and treat others with compassion and love—which by the way is how later prophets would summarize this call—you can go anywhere, reach toward anything, and in doing so, fill the world as the “image” of God—God who fills all worlds and beyond. And so, humanity is to encounter God Who is everywhere, to hear God, Who speaks forth everything, and walk with God, Whose Spirit moves in every place. So, God’s call is: go everywhere; learn everything; build a life in every place.
Yet, the people at Babel want to build a city large enough, and a tower tall enough, so that they wouldn’t need to go anywhere else. Why? I would consider how the story of Babel is placed in the sequence of Genesis narratives. The descendants of Noah now inhabit a world shaped and established by the prior steps humanity has taken. With each step since the Fall, humanity and their world has become increasingly estranged from God—from that which speaks forth everything around them, and the voice that speaks to them every truth. Adam and Eve lives among the Trees of Eden, speaking with God. But, this relationship fractures when they introduce distrust and fear into the very foundation of how they live, and thus how they relate to God. Their son, Cain engages God with this distrust, then with self- deceit and resentment and finally murder—making this fracture into a chasm, not only between humanity and God, but with each other; now every other humans being is a threat, to be subdued with power, and so the world becomes filled with violence. This widens the chasm with each passing generation until everything unravels into the Flood. Now, even for Noah’s descendants, the chasm between humanity and God is as wide as the distance between the earth and the sky. God is now distant and seemingly silent; God spoke with Adam and Eve; God spoke with Cain, at least until he murdered his brother and left God’s presence; God spoke with Noah. But, as the descendants of Noah build their city and the tower, God speaks only to Himself, and not a single human being hears God speak.
And so, the descendants of Noah, who no longer hear God speak, forget their call. Moreover, the world God speaks forth is threatening. Other human being, outside their own circle, is threatening. But, here in Babel, together with people they know, they are secure, united, and strong. Yet, this unity and strength comes from a suffocating kind of sameness; same words, same language, same people. And with that sameness, they work together to build a city and a tower that will give them a lasting legacy—a name—which will anchor them in this safe place, warding off anything that will make them venture into the unknown, the world “out there,” beyond their city. That is what it means to build a tower that reaches the sky— remember that in ancient Hebrew cosmology, the waters above the sky is the infinite expanse of possibility that humanity can peer into, as opposed to the deep below, which is the infinite expanse of possibilities humanity cannot ever grasp. So, by building such a tower in their city, they are trying to build a legacy, to which nothing more can possibly be added, nothing more can possibly be imagined. Then, that there would be no need to journey further—no need to heed the call of God that beckons endlessly from the horizon, which will send them into every corners of the world.
But, of course, we can’t actually build that kind of legacy. To be convinced that what we have reached the sky—even though we haven’t—to lie to ourselves that we have taken hold of every possibility that God speaks forth, we cannot have voices that speak differently. Everyone needs to be like us; everyone needs to speak the same, act the same, think the same, and imagine only the same things. So that if we can’t imagine anything more, neither can anyone else. That is what it means to have a same language; for the ancients, to speak a different language means much more than linguistic difference; it’s to belong to a different culture, to follow a different way of life, to think and reason differently.
And whenever humanity has sought to build a lasting Empire, we have sought to do away with difference—to unify thought and language, culture and values, under a single, dominant power. This enlarges the empire and strengthens it for a while, but inevitably brings about tyranny. We, Canadians know what happened when English language and culture was imposed upon the indigenous children in residential schools. The Japanese Empire tried to the same when it annexed Korea in the first half of the 20th century. Empires can also impose not a linguistic unity, but an ideological one, as nations like the Soviet Union and the Maoist China have done. But, such societies sooner or later start coming apart at the seams.
Because reality does not work that way—which is to say, that is not what God speaks forth. We, human beings, don’t work like that. Even as we come to build something together, speak together, and work together, we differ. Even when we speak the same language linguistically, there are times we don’t understand each other; I mean, when was the last time you saw a conservative and a progressive converse meaningfully with each other? How often have we heard conversations about, say, a contentious social or political issue, or questions about religion, where people seem to talk past each other, and they don’t really respond to what the others say, so that it might as well be two people talking to themselves?
And on the one hand, this is a problem; but, on the other hand, it is God speaking to scatter humanity across the world. Why? It is because we go in different directions, do different things, think and imagine in different ways, that humanity fills the world in every sense—and that makes us see things we’d otherwise miss, to hear God speak in places we would never have listened.
But, there’s a catch. We need to speak to each other again—not with a single language, in the confines of our own city and tower, but “out there,” where the others went. In Genesis, God scatters those that gathered at Babel, by making them speak different languages. In the New Testament Bible, in the book of Acts, the Spirit of God comes upon the Jewish disciples of Jesus, and the first thing that happens is: they start speaking in different languages—languages of people in Parthia, Elam, Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, Egypt, Lybia, and on and on. But, this time, it is so that they can bring a very different kind of unity and legacy than one envisioned by the Tower-builder of Babel. Rather than staying in one place, speaking and thinking one thing, the disciples of Jesus were being sent out, with a message to bring together all people; but they are to do this by being scattered across the world, to every people in the places where they dwell, and speaking their language. Whether they are doing this properly, time is yet to tell.
However, this series isn’t anywhere near that yet. We’ve only just arrived at the world we can now recognize as our own. It is only now that we can speak of a generational project that God initiates; raising up a people that will walk with God.
[ closing music ]
No, that’s not quite correct. A people that will have to wrestle with God. To struggle with what reality unfolds—with what God speaks personally in their lives—and wrestle with the questions of where they’re going, and who they are engaged with. Sometimes with fear, with distrust, sometimes with courage, and faith, sometimes justly and lovingly, sometimes deceitfully and spitefully, and then experience how God responds.
So, join me next Season, in March: “What do you mean God speaks, Season 3: Those who wrestle with God.”
Before then, I will have one extra episode before the end of the month, and in the meanwhile, please continue to support this series, by following, subscribing, and sharing this series with others. Also, please take a moment to rate or review this series on Apple podcast and other platforms!
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