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Thursday, June 23, 2005

Church of Babel

Our English word “Church” comes from the Greek word ecclesia, which means “the gathered.” Genesis 11:1-9 tells about another ecclesia, or gathering. The church of Babel.

Gen 11:1-9 NRSV

1 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as they migrated from the east,* they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 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. (*Most new translations say “as they migrated eastward.” NRSV has a note that says this is an alternate understanding.)

The cursed and rebellious descendants of Ham had moved eastward. Again, the move east symbolized a regression toward chaos. They came to the plains of Shinar to build their cities. These cities become the home to some of the most formidable empires ever known including Assyria and Babylon.

4 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 mission God gave to Adam and Eve, and again to Noah, was to multiply and fill the earth. Cain rebelled and was cursed to settle in the east in Nod, “the land of being unsettled.” Cain’s answer to his dilemma was to start a family and build a city. The city would give illusory meaning to his life. It would give shelter to him and his posterity from the absurdity of their existence.

The rebellious descendants of Ham built cities in the east, just as Cain had. They gathered to create an illusory meaning for their existence, just as Cain had. However, their vision was now bolder. These people were led by powerful hunter-warrior kings. Not only did they build cities, but they envisioned conquering all other peoples and gathering them under there domain. The envisioned conquering the very heavens themselves.

The phrase “..let us make a name for ourselves” carries the idea of achieving renown. But that is not the central issue. To name someone or something in ancient culture was a way demonstrating authority over that someone or something. The effort here was to name themselves. They would be their own authority. They would build a tower to the heavens and bring God down. God had expelled Cain, and God had expelled them, making them wanderers on the earth. Now they would gather, dethrone God, and expel God from creation. Yahweh could then be relegated to myth and legend while they enjoyed their delusions and illusions in peace. A more virulent strain of the Cain virus was back.

5 The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 6 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. 7 Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another's speech."

Verse 5 belittles the Babel project by noting that the Lord “came down to see the city and the tower,” suggesting the tower was not so great. But the project was exceedingly dangerous. The people had become completely united in there deluded effort to dethrone God and establish an illusion of autonomy. Scripture does not say that they were given different languages. It does say that they could no longer understand one another. It is unclear exactly how this happened but whatever the case, they splintered apart into confusion and the project ended.

8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 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.

God accomplished his plan of spreading people across the earth (at least the known earth to the author of Genesis 11.) There were seventy people groups listed in the table of nations and, as noted in the previous post, this represented a large perfect number. But there was a virulent Cain virus among the nations. The Akkadian Babilu was the name given to the city by its builders and it meant “Gate of God.” In a Hebrew word play, the name became Babel which means “confusion.” God broke up the unified gathering of humanity against him and it became the project of countless factions to create their own illusions of purpose and existence. In place of one gathering, many gatherings sprang up. Instead of one church, many denominations emerged.

Make no mistake about the creation of "the city," and by extension civilizations. It was, and is, a religious project.


At June 23, 2005 3:18 PM, Anonymous will spotts said...

Interesting that the whole concept of empire -- with which we've been saddled ever since -- seems to emerge in that very region.

It doesn't much matter whether it is a democracy (as so many empires were originally), or whether it was gathered under one "leader" -- the concept of control -- all (the world) unified by force is the same.

Yes, I think you're on to something -- this is a religion.

At June 24, 2005 12:35 PM, Anonymous will spotts said...

Curious if we're going to Ur next.

I hadn't thought of it in these terms, but this reading seems to hold for large portions of Genesis.

At June 24, 2005 6:40 PM, Blogger Michael W. Kruse said...

I agree that there is a whole bunch that hits this theme. I have studied the first 11 chapters of Genesis more throughly than the rest. I expect to hit on some key stories in the OT. I would love to hear of any other biblical stories or insights others may have as we move through.

Thanks for hanging with me on this!


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