BEMA 6: A Tale of a Tower
14 Apr 22 — Initial public release
9 Mar 22 — Transcript approved for release
A Tale of a Tower
Brent Billings: This is the BEMA Podcast with Marty Solomon. I’m his co-host, Brent Billings, and today we’re talking about the Tower of Babel and some of the observations we’re able to take away from the story. Welcome, Marty.
Marty Solomon: Thank you.
Brent: I think we’re just going to dive right into the text here, aren’t we?
Marty: We really are. Alright, let me make sure I get the whole story that we want to be dealing with here today.
Brent: We’re in Genesis 11.
Marty: Indeed we are, and I’m going to make sure I start in 10:32, we’re going to catch that last verse here. Start last verse, chapter 10, and the first 9 verses of chapter 11.
Brent: These are the clans of Noah’s son, according to their lines of descent, within their nations, from these nations spread out over the earth after the flood. Now the whole world had one language, the common speech, as men moved eastward, they found a plane in Shinar, and gathered there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone and tar for mortar. And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language, they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language, so that they will not understand each other.” So the LORD scattered them from all over the earth, and they stopped building the city. This is why it was called Babel because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there, the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
Marty: Alright, let’s do our typical thing. What kind of problems you got here in the story, Brent?
Brent: Right off the bat, we see the people trying to become more Eastern, and God says no.
Brent: Which seems to go against everything we’ve been talking about.
Marty: It’s such a wonderful observation, it almost seemed that God is the west, God is found —
Brent: God is in the west.
Marty: God is in the west, God is more Western! No, of course not. [chuckles] But you actually do point out something very, very interesting to the story. Because we don’t notice this, as Westerners. See, I did that, but we don’t pay attention to geography. We read right over that because we don’t see it as important or trying to get to the proposition of the story. But in fact, if you’re noticing what’s happening, every single story, the people are moving farther east.
Adam and Eve leave the garden towards the east. Cain and his family and his lineage move east, and then Noah and the flood happens and God brings the people back west. There’s a story of recreation, and he brings them back. And then they leave the ark, and they head east, and then Noah in the vineyard and the family is heading east, and now all the nations of the world are heading east. One of the things you keep seeing is people are continuing to move further and further away from God’s desire, even geographically.
Again, that’s about image; it’s about picture. But the picture here is that people keep moving away from God’s original intent and if that sinks into your consciousness, all of a sudden, you start to realize evil is really moving; evil is starting to organize itself. Like, it started as an individual, and then a family, and then it was about a lineage, and then it was about all of humanity, and even the corrupt earth — as Kevin pointed out in a couple of podcasts ago — and now evil is starting to organize itself. Like, evil is starting to become a civilization, and this is what God seems to address in the story. What other kind of problems you got?
Brent: Well, in the end, God scattered them over the earth, that’s what He did. But before God even shows up in the area, or in the story, they’re worried about being scattered over the earth. Which is weird to me, like, why is that a worry? Why do they even consider that as a possibility?
Marty: Right. I think it’s going to be really key to what we look at today. What else?
Brent: How does everyone speak one language? Because, I don’t know, you have all of these other stories of people who’ve gone off and done their own thing at various times. How do they all have the same language?
Marty: Sure. Absolutely. Got anything else?
Brent: Seems about it from where I sit.
Marty: Alright. Excellent. Okay. I’ve been working on this story for a little bit trying to figure out how to teach it the best way because when I was first taught about this story, where everything started to click for me, man, it was very complex. And I’m not even the expert that is able to even explain the things that were explained to me. Hand it off and give it to somebody else, I can point in the right direction, but I don’t want to try to presume to be somebody and something I’m not.
I’ll try to hand that off in a way that would be helpful, but one of the things we need to talk about today is that Hebrew doesn’t have vowels. Hebrew just has consonants. The vowels are done by what’s called breathing marks that are placed over the consonants that tell you what guttural sounds to make in between those consonants. The Hebrew language, especially the ancient biblical Hebrew language is a mass of consonants. And you can hear that if you listen to Hebrew; audibly, you definitely don’t catch any of it if you read it in English, but one of the things that are happening here and in the tower — the story of the Tower of Babel — is the consonants are very repetitive. If we were to talk about transliterated consonants, the constants that are at play here are N as in — what’s the callsign for N?
Marty: November. B as in boy.
Brent: I went military.
Marty: Okay, I like that. L as in?
Marty: Okay, and H as in?
Marty: Okay. N, B, L, and H, and these consonants continue to appear in the same order, and then halfway through the story, they reverse. Now, if you catch that, you realize that — what are we dealing with, yet again?
Brent: Seems like a chiasm.
Marty: And I should have probably caught this by the time I got to the story of the Tower of Babel, but just story after story, after story, after story, after story, have been chiastic.
Like all these stories are chiastic, there’s a chiasm in every one of them. You even pointed out I think when you notice the language about scattering. There’s language at the beginning, there’s language at the end, there’s language in the middle, and in fact, it is the middle. When you take these consonants, the N, B, L, and H consonants, you look at how they’re being played in the story here in the Hebrew, and you realize that there’s a front half and a back half, the center of the story ends up being the phrase, in 11:4, where it talks about them being scattered all over the earth.
If you want to see this chiasm in the English, it’s very, very tricky, almost impossible, but you can see it by looking at 10:32 as the beginning. I started there last verse of chapter 10, and compare 10:32 with chapter 11:8 and 9, and you’re going to definitely see the bookends of that chiasm. You might even see hints of the chiasm maybe throughout the story, but the center is going to lie there in 11:4b. You can see there if you look in your text, but that raises a question because you raised this question. Why is the story about scattered? Now, by the way, we have been talking about how all these stories parallel each other. Noah paralleled creation, Noah and the curse paralleled Adam and Eve, which means the Tower of Babel should parallel what?
Brent: Cain and Abel.
Marty: Cain and Abel. Now Cain’s curse was that he was going to what?
Brent: Be a wanderer.
Marty: Be a wanderer and the center of this chiasm, the point of this story is about the people being scattered, and God not wanting them to settle. When you look at 11:4, you’re going to see that the point of the Tower of Babel chiasm, is that God does not want his people to settle. He wants them to keep wandering, and I think I hear allusions there to the same principle. We discussed in one of our Moscow discussion groups, a few weeks back, about the Garden of Eden, and the cherubim guarding the tree of life.
God does not want His people to settle and to be in a fixed state, away from His will, or we could say, east. God does not want His people to settle until they come back home, west. Anyway, we have what we’re going to deal with here, but it just raises this question. Why would the entire point of the story be God’s desire to scatter humans over the whole earth? Is God really threatened by their advances? Like there’s this weird dialogue all throughout the story. “If we don’t…” One of the problems I have in the story, is God saying, “If we don’t do something, they’re going to be able to accomplish anything.” Isn’t that what God wants us to accomplish? Later in the New Testament, we’re going to hear, “I can do all things through God who gives me strength, through Christ who gives me strength.”
Isn’t being able to accomplish anything a good thing? Wasn’t that the point of the beginning of the story, and now God’s like, “Well, we can’t let them accomplish anything.” So why is God threatened by their advances? We have looked at these parallels, and a lot of ways we’ve let the cat out of the bag, I think you’d say, by noting that these post-flood stories are paralleling the earlier pre-flood stories, and we’re going to spend a lot more time tying this all together in our very next podcast.
God started the story by affirming the goodness of creation, all the way back in the Garden of Eden. He invited humanity to join him in trusting Him, trusting the story, to join Him in His rest. Adam and Eve failed to trust God. They failed to master their desires, they failed to say enough to their creativity, in a sense, and they pressed down and pursued themselves. Cain is invited to trust in God’s goodness and avoid the consequences that our insecurities and our fear bring us but he fails as well. Then God reaffirms the goodness of creation in the story of the flood.
He recreates creation, in a sense, you could say but then Noah steps right out of the ark and pursues revenge trying to step into the role of God, trying to become the creator, not knowing when to say enough, not knowing when to stop destroying. Here we find ourselves in what seems to be an escalating narrative where man’s rebellion is starting to organize itself after eating from the tree of knowledge. Mankind is indeed beginning to look like God not in a way that is helpful or beneficial to God’s plan. Man’s rebellion started with a sense of exploration. I’m reading some excerpts here from a blog post that I wrote.
God knows that man is not ready to exercise their creativity in its fullness. They haven’t learned how to trust the story. They haven’t learned how to harness their desires, they will not know when to say enough, they will not know when to stop destroying, and so he can’t let them settle and so he scatters mankind. Now, to that end, I make a couple of observations that I learned from Rabbi David Fohrman who we’ve referenced before.
The first observation doesn’t even come from Fohrman at all, but other teachers. I’ve heard this story in a lot of ways. It is a story about technology. They have created the brick, which is a fabulous creation. You can imagine the pillar of light shining down out of heaven onto the brick. This whole story is about the advancements of technology. You’re actually just showing me a wonderful Kickstarter campaign for — what was it called?
Brent: The Fidget Cube.
Marty: The Fidget Cube. $4.8 million raised for a fidget cube. The wonderful things we can do with technology. This is really what the story is about. They create a brick and they decide they’re going to build a tower. Now one of the things you noticed in the story, God doesn’t have a problem with them building a tower. They say, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” The brick is not a problem because God doesn’t say anything. If you look at the beginning of verse four, it says, “Then they said.” Whenever the Hebrew interrupts a dialogue by putting — it might be talking about Abraham.
Abraham said, 1, 2, 3, and then Abraham said 4, 5, 6. If it’s all one conversation, the Hebrew is not going to interrupt that. It’s just going to say Abraham said 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. If there’s an interruption there, it means there’s two separate conversations. We’ll talk more about that in discussion groups, but hopefully that makes sense for our listeners on the podcast. The people say, “Come, let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” God’s like, “Great.” He doesn’t have anything to say; God says nothing. Apparently, the brick is fine. God’s fine with advancements in technology. Technology is not a bad thing. New innovations are not a bad thing.
The thing that we have to ask ourselves is how we’re going to use technology, the internet is this wonderful gift but how are we going to use it? We can use it for incredibly bad things. Or we can use it to incredibly wonderful ends. Cell phones. What a wonderful creation, but how horribly they can be used. Technology is not the problem, but how are we going to use it? Are we going to use it for God’s redemptive ends or are we going to use it for our own selfish means? Are we going to know how to harness our desires and when to say enough? They say, “let’s make bricks” and God says nothing, because that’s fine. Then in verse four, Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city with a tower that reaches to the heavens so we may make a name for ourselves.” By the way, what was Cain’s story rooted in? Cain’s story was rooted in his…
Brent: Well, his name being “acquired.”
Marty: Here, again, we have a story about acquiring and names. Just yet another parallel, but it’s at this point that now God enters the story. The brick was fine, but the question remained, how were they going to use the brick? When they decided they’re going to use the brick for themselves, this is when God enters a story and says, “That it. If they’re going to keep going down this road, they’re going to be able to do anything. So we’re going to mix this up.”
Which leads me to my next observation which I find to be really interesting. Most scholars agree that the word used for Babel is a play-off of the Hebrew word for confusion. God steps into the story and it’s interesting to note what God does not do. God does not punish them. God does not condemn the work project in and of itself. God doesn’t do that. He doesn’t curse anybody. This story is free of curses. He does not deal out punishments, consequences for sin. What he does is He confuses all of humanity with a disruption of their language. Why would He do this? Let me tell you what I wrote about what I learned from Rabbi Fohrman and some of my journal entries here.
It’s interesting to note how in order for humanity to continue to progress as a whole, they will need to learn the language of others. You cannot learn the language of another culture or a people without learning something about their perspective. Learning the diversity of perspectives always provides one with a sense of pause and consideration. It requires a sense of learning how to control one’s desires in order to reach a common goal together. In the confusion of Babel, God has not so much slapped our hands as He has given us a new redemptive project that will cause us to be the people that grow into the humanity that bears His image. A humanity that knows when to say enough. A people that trust the story, a people that might just find a place of rest.
When God confuses the people, what he does is he says, “The only way you’re going to succeed is if you learn how to work together.” I’ll tell you what, I’ve had a lot of assessments in my career, and the one thing that I always get low scores on is teamwork. Because teamwork requires me to shut my mouth, and teamwork requires me to control the things that I don’t want to control. Teamwork requires me to be less about self and more about the other. What God does here is He says, “The only way you’re ever going to succeed is to become the people that you were created to become, and that’s a selfless group of people that know how to control their desires.”
I just loved that observation from Fohrman because I realized this isn’t even a punishment. This is God setting up His people for success and the moment they want to learn this lesson, is the moment that they’re going to find their way back to the story, but as long as they are going to not learn this lesson, though, as long as they’re going to be destructive, they’re going to continue to sit right where God wants them to be until they learn the lesson.
Brent: The other thing, we will definitely get to this much more later but God has a very specific purpose for His people in the Western portion of the world. Moving east is not going to be where God’s people need to be.
Marty: Absolutely not and for those who know your Bibles, God’s going to meet a guy that’s willing to go west. God’s going to meet a guy that operates on a completely — God has been looking for partners this whole time, and He hasn’t had a whole lot of luck finding them up to this point. A lot of people that want to do it their own way; they want to do their own story and God has got — right about the time we start to get hopeless, “I don’t think humanity’s ever going to learn this lesson,” we meet somebody who shows us that, in fact, this can be done, and God’s going to find a partner.
Brent: We see the whole world is evil, but Noah found favor in God’s eyes. But then nobody else does, apparently, because that’s not mentioned again.
Marty: And Noah blows it, right?
Brent: And Noah blows it.
Marty: It’s going to be an interesting journey. We’re just about ready to turn a really interesting page, Genesis 1 through 11. We’ve been invited to rethink and reframe what we believe to be true about the world and what we believe God is asking us to do. Trust the story.
Brent: If you live on the Palouse, we hope you join us for our discussion groups. Marty mentioned a moment ago, we’ve got one in Moscow on Tuesday and in Pullman on Wednesday. If you want to get a hold of Marty, you can find him on Twitter at @martysolomon. You can find me on Twitter at @eibcb. You can find more details about the show at bemadiscipleship.com, including all kinds of little scheduling tidbits, how to support the ministry, whatever you want, all kinds of stuff there. Thanks for joining us on the BEMA Podcast. We’ll talk to you again soon.