23 December 2010
To Make a Name for Ourselves
So further with the tower...
Really this is a fascinating bit of literary history and you could do worse than to spend your time unpacking the borrowings/layerings in this very brief passage.
My initial post and my gut response to this has always been somewhat incredulous as I imagined someone considering this as a "real" event. It's hard to pull oneself out of that visceral response of "what 21st century human would believe this story is true" and move into what does this story contain?
This is why, I think, Genesis is really the only book I find remotely interesting--though the David stories are also lively reading--it is chock full of literary/mythical history.
It's not my intention to untangle the history here because, as I said, you could simply read the Wikipedia page or buy yourself one of the Oxford Study Bibles or the Anchor Genesis and you don't need me to recapitulate what is readily available. Trust me, it's worth looking up. I will give some of the readily available details.
I am trying to simply work through what it comes to mean to us now--or how it means to us. (I guess I should say "to me" rather than "to us".)
It seems that we don't, as modern readers, understand the nature of the books of the Bible...they all have an historical purpose of some kind. One can postulate that perhaps the Pentateuch or first 5 books (those "of Moses") is a narrative rendered to achieve a "wished for history" of a people in need of a legitimizing story as well as instructions for living as a people.
These books constitute a history, a theology and philosophy (a culture?) of a people/tribe--written to fit the needs of a period and then stitched together to create a larger narrative that assumes a kind of chronological coherence.
So, that said we should understand that this story contains MUCH of that narrative cobbling and revision--using the elements of the past to create a fable that serves as an explanation of differing languages and a cautionary tale of human presumption and hubris.
Okay, blah, sorry. We are post-flood here and we are on the way from Noah and his sons (repopulating and naming the known world) to Abram (not yet Abraham)--from the general (Noah must represent the whole of humanity, the way that Adam and his family did prior to Noah) to the specific (apparently some of the descendants of Noah were not worthy of Yahweh's further attention) and tribal deity of Israel. (And which fascinatingly goes on to reach the "general" again in the form of Jesus who is to serve as the bridge for all humans to Yahweh once more.)
What it comes down to is this: Babel (Babylon) represents all of humanity as it builds its own world and attempts to "make a name" for itself and it is doing this via human agency and ingenuity (brick baking)--technology. But also we can see language as human ingenuity as well as it takes shape in writing and communication (clay tablets begin as accounting sheets after all)...and we see why "confusing tongues" might also represent an attempt to block human ingenuity.
The "Lord" here, I think, in some ways must simply "represent" the wisdom of the spiritual aspect that is forgotten in the striving after human ends. The Lord may as easily represent the "natural" world that will (and has) destroy our monuments and "sacred truths".
It would be easy for me, one who believes we are devising our own doom daily, to really think of all of this literature as a warning against human striving without wisdom. Prayer is meditation--prayer takes you outside of the self--the representation of the deity requires you ask is your task is meaningful or valuable.
In this sense, "the lord" is contemplation.
There's more, of course--and I could easily bring my buddy Gilgamesh into this, but let's take a time out for the holidays!
Posted by Douglas Storm