Wednesday, May 29, 2013
THE TOWER OF BABEL
or The Generation of the Dispersion
In between the genealogies of Noah's sons, is the nine verse story of the Tower of Babel. At first glance, this tale appears to be a curiosity, almost an afterthought by the writer, who inserted the story into the middle of the genealogies to explain the emerging differences between Noah's sons and their offspring. However, the Talmud says, “It was necessary to tell how the world was divided by language lest we forget that HASHEM [God] is the creator of all things, even languages. Man might look around and see the division and forget that once the whole world was united by the Holy Tongue of Hebrew, the language of God, and that all these people from the many different cultures came from one man, Adam.” The Talmud obviously gives the story greater significance than it first appears. The Rabbinic leaders have gone beyond using a simple deduction of the tale. They abhorred the idea of curtailing the substance of any scripture by reason of size or chimeric design, thereby coming to an impotent conclusion, or what they call in Hebrew a peshat exercise. Nor did this unusual tale seem to be too fantastical to be believed and should be dismissed, just as many Christians do. They tell us that there is a great deal more to tell here than is immediately observed. It is my conclusion that its time has come to assert itself in the public consciousness again given the violent and narcissistic culture spreading rapidly across the world.
II. Measure for Measure
Martin Buber, the great Jewish philosopher, wrote that it was inserted to show Man had failed again. The Flood did not teach Man to be submissive to the laws of the omnipotent God. These were reckless and selfish people, united in a conspiracy to bypass the seven Noahide Laws given to Noah by God which were to be followed by all mankind. They desired to set up a government of their own design and theology. This is also a story of divine justice by form, in Hebrew it is called midah kneged midah, meaning measure for measure justice. The greatest thing feared by this generation, which was to be dispersed, became the sentence of execution because this generation had used their unity for evil.
The Talmud scholar Ibn Ezra explains that this generation had adopted a philosophy of pragmatism which is in direct contradiction to God's holy laws. Their ego had ascended to towering proportions, no pun intended, although apropos. The tower was their ego made manifest. The philosophy of pragmatism, which had begun with Adam, but given true significance in the sin of Cain, had become an overweening character flaw in this generation. The truth was no longer constant and absolute but became a casualty of expedience. A fluid truth would conform the beliefs of the people toward the practical and physical needs of the community. It wouldn't be difficult to convince a people that God did not have their best interest at heart after the devastation of the Flood, which was still fresh in their minds. Just as Cain thought he could overcome the curse on the land through his efforts to control agriculture, the Generation of the Dispersion tried to control any further action from God to send a flood by building a tower tall enough and strong enough to withstand the surge of water. Through this unified attempt to safeguard themselves from the wrath of God, they would determine who or what would be the object of their worship instead of God, and they would create all laws governing behavior within their community. The desire for self-determination above the will of God was the true object of worship in this generation.
Although this generation had sinned against God, they had not sinned against each other. They were careful to not participate in violent sexual sins against their neighbor, so as not to follow in their iniquitous cousins' footsteps. They were a peaceful and cooperative generation. Peace is a powerful virtue to God and would spare them from destruction despite the heresies they committed.
III. Words Have Meaning
The story begins with the unity of their lip, or tongue, “Now the earth was of one language, and one set-of-words.” All the words this generation knew were of the Holy Tongue, the language of creation. God's first act of creation was to create the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. This is derived from the first sentence of Genesis, “In the beginning God created . . .” then follows the aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and the tav, the final letter of the Hebrew alphabet. In the New Testament this concept is reinforced when Christ is referred to as the alpha and omega of the Greek alphabet; the accepted language of writing at the time. He is the primal force, the Word of creation and the Law of God. His humanity, His human form is the proof that he is the physical embodiment of creation, because without Him is anything made that was made.
The twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet are revered as sacred, primal forces which are the raw materials of creation. These letters can never be lost or destroyed, such as the burning of the Torah scrolls by the Nazis, for they will return to God maintaining their potent force. The Hebrew people believe God's will is manifested through the combinations of these sacred letters as they are formed into words, phrases, and commands, such as those which brought the universe into being.
This concept was not lost on the people of the dispersion. The Talmudic writer Sforno says there was an agreement by these people to follow the one tongue. However, in order to speak and write this language, one must learn about it's creator and his precepts, and through this learning process the divine trait of humility would be instilled. The book of Leviticus, which explains the sacrificial laws, begins with a small aleph, the only book in the Torah, the five books of Moses, beginning with such a small letter. The aleph means to teach. The peculiarity of humility must be present to acquire the knowledge of true sacrifice. You cannot begin to understand the true meaning of sacrifice if your ego is larger than the size of the aleph. Therefore, the ego must be renounced, and then it becomes the very first sacrifice of the student.But something went very wrong in the process of learning the language in this generation.
The power of the spoken word is primal to the Jew, and it should be to everyone. The belief in a kosher mouth dates all the way back to this generation of the dispersion. Leviticus 11:47 states “You shall sanctify yourselves and you shall be holy.” The tongue must be tamed first to begin the journey to holiness. It comes as no surprise that the Epistle of James expounds so adamantly about the tongue to the first century Christians and Jews. Martin Luther wanted to throw out this epistle, but thought better of it later and kept it in his truncated rendition of the Bible. Perhaps his conscience was pricked by his antisemitic tongue and divisive attacks against the Church. The tongue is the expresser of the ego, the true self, as in my old adage, a twist on Proverb 23:7, “as a man speaketh today, so is he.” It has become fashionable to become disengaged from thoughtfulness and let any kind of vulgarity move directly from thoughts into speech.
This generation did violence to the Holy Tongue through the violent purposes of their plan, although they did not commit violence toward their fellow man like the generation of the flood. But they believed that it was right to tear themselves from God's Law. The one set-of-words translates as unified words, or their desire to be unified, on an equal footing with God in Heaven, or to storm heaven and take it from God. They believed the heavenly realm was the perfect residence since the Garden of Eden was closed to them, and it should not be held for God's discretion only.
The great writer Rashi points out that they were cutting words, or mutilating words (sound familiar), separating words from their source God, because their words were against the Unique One of the World. They were making plans to wage war with God, to storm Heaven and possibly place Nimrod on the throne of God. The Talmud says they had negated the reality of their situation. Man's ability for self-deception had reached its zenith in the Tower. Idolatrous thoughts are “qualitatively distinctive because of the pernicious power of idolatrous sentiments . . .” The substance of their ideas had no solidity. They were delusional. Self-delusion can only lead to chaos and violence, even though they began as a peaceful and cooperative group.
IV. Deliberation and Purpose in Movement
The character Nimrod is described before the story of Babel in chapter 10 preparing the audience for the most famous perpetrator of evil since Cain. Nimrod was elected king, either unanimously, or by fame, or even by himself and his elite guard. He was “the first to amass power in the world” by sheer force of personality. Genesis 10: 8-11 says “he was the first mighty man on earth. He was a mighty hunter before Yahweh. His kingdom, at the beginning, was Babel and Erech, Accad and Calneh, in the land of Shinar . . .” As the duly elected king he was a god and his temple would be the Tower. He was already described as a mighty hunter which signifies his cunning and militaristic abilities. It is possible that he hatched the idea to wage war with God on his own, convincing the rest to follow him. An excavation of the ancient city of Ur uncovered a stele with what appears to be a picture of Nimrod directing the building of a huge tower. He stands larger than life in the foreground. This would suggest that the ancients believed Nimrod was responsible.
They migrated eastward from “their dwelling place . . . the mountain in the east” (Gen 10: 30), in search of a suitable piece of land, “. . . they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there.” (Gen 11: 2) There was a single plan of action in the key phrase “they found a valley” indicating this was a “quest for a special place,” according to the Gur Aryeh. They didn't just stumble onto this great piece of land and say, “Hey, we'll build here in this fertile valley because it looks great!” There was deliberation in their movement. They were looking for a specific piece of land to suit their purposes. The Talmud says that by leaving the area they left the Garden of Unity with God, His influence on the land they had known since the beginning of time, and the tribe of Shem, the future recipients of the Law. The journey was a technical act by man in order to either rebel, to defend himself, or to bypass God's deeds.
They sought land to begin building a city and to fulfill their plan of action, Shinar, which is Mesopotamia, and the future city of Babylon, possibly the city of Ur. The Hebrew noun for land translates as erets, meaning the earth, as opposed to heaven. There was a perversion in the use of the Holy Tongue, illustrated by the use of these unified words which were represented in the choice of place. They settled in a valley, or bikah, which translated means a breach of the covenant God made with Adam, and, more profoundly, with the covenant God made with Noah after the flood when He gave the seven laws.
“They said each man to his neighbor: Come-now! Let us bake bricks and let us burn them well-burnt! So for them brick-stone was like building-stone, and raw-bitumen was for them like red mortar.” (Gen 11: 3) The building materials to be used were man-made. Only in one other place of the scriptures are bricks referred to and that is the bricks made by the Hebrews in captivity before the Exodus. All building materials before were carved out of stone. This city was to be created solely by man with no intervention by God either in materials or design. It was by no accident they were forced to make bricks for building materials. The valley of Shinar was deliberately chosen because it had no stones, but had the clay they were looking for to make bricks.
The Hebrew term lebenah which translates as brick or tiles also has the meaning of altar of and to be made white. The alternative meanings have an interesting hint of the future tower which was their altar to the elected god, Nimrod, who they believed would unseat God. It was as if this was a new creation in the image of Man. The bricks were burnt, well-burnt, a hardening process to ensure their safety from a cleansing fire of judgment sent by God. The fear of another devastating extermination, especially by fire, instigated their plan of action and their journey eastward in search of the perfect materials for the perfect altar, the ubiquitous ziggaratu.
The Hebrew word used here for burning is serephah and when translated has alternate meanings of burning the left-overs of a sacrifice, the disposable parts or diseased parts are destroyed through the use of a consuming fire. The practitioners of witchcraft collect the detritus of civilization they usually shadow, or from a specific person to be burned in homemade bonfires for casting spells on their victims. It also signifies the witch's contempt of order and law by exalting the cast-offs from society. In spite of the whitewash in Hollywood and popularized children's novels, the practice of witchcraft, in all its forms, is a way of usurping the power of God to control the destiny of humans and nature and placing a man or woman upon that throne. The word serephah can also mean the solemn cremation of human remains. The derivation of the root word also translates into saraph, the angelic being on fire standing vigil at the entrance of the Garden of Eden and before the throne of God. Their action here with the burning of the bricks is almost ritualistic. The play on words is phenomenal, a literal meaning within a meaning.
The term “Come-now!” is a denotation of their immense system of communications which operated in a two-fold manner. The communication between them had to be exact. Nimrod told the princes what plan to carryout, who in turn passed the information down a militaristic hierarchy to a final level of friends and neighbors informing each other in a one-on-one basis to ensure everyone knew the same thing. The Talmud relates the communication between one and one, i.e. Mizraim told Cush, and Cush told Put; Mizraim did not tell Cush and Put. The care of the individual came first to ensure their loyalty. The homes, farms, and sheep folds were built first. The needs of the people were met so they would give unequivocally to the princes to fulfill the plan of action against God. A starving and homeless people do not make loyal subjects. Does this plan of action sound familiar? We would do well to understand that communists and fascists take this concept seriously in their plan of takeover.
V. A Directed Vision
The building materials for their tower were amassed, and the people were waiting for the command from their leaders to build. The king and his princes gave the command, “Now they said: Come-now! Let us build ourselves a city and a tower, its top in the heavens . . .” (Gen 11: 4) for the time had arrived to bring forth their plan. The man-made sacred mountain, or temple, was to be a watchtower, much like Cain had constructed earlier to watch for anyone coming to kill him. His paranoic fears exalted in his tower, were followed by example and feelings into this generation. There on the heights the supervision of man could be done to create a militaristic peace amongst their fellows. The tower would also serve the purpose of being a structural support and height to survive a flood.
The giant of Talmudic fame Ramban notes this generation wanted to mutilate the shoots, because they wanted to disrupt the unity between God and His creation. His exegetical thesis was derived from the “Let us . . .” to mean this generation wished to make a name for themselves, not specifically from the building of a city. The introduction of sin in the vainglory project is apparent, but their intention was specifically the mutilation of the shoots, or the seed of the lineage which would produce the Messiah. The mutilation of the shoots would destroy the purity of the Messianic lineage not through sexual perversions, like the Generation of the Flood committed, but through the control and manipulation by man. This generation wanted to breed God out of the picture. There is debate over the introduction of this sin. Many scholars postulate the sin was in the planning of building the tower, conceived in sin and executed as such. God commanded them to disperse, they chose to move away from Him and stay together. He commanded them to be fruitful and multiply, they chose to manipulate their seed. God wanted them to stay close to His precepts and follow His Law, they chose to invent their own. Hence the choice of materials for building and what it would be used for in the end, which was to disrupt the unity of God and His creation.
VI. The Vision becomes Reality
The second “Come-now!” relates the fervent desire to build a base of power of physical grandeur and religious fervor. The literal size of this structure and the city would cause the entire human race to come and see the site of the deity of deities, Nimrod. The one who would rule over this magnificent city would rule the world. This is proved in the following verse, “let us build us a city, and a tower with it's top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed across the whole earth.” They wanted the world to come to them to worship in awe. Sforno writes the word for name is translated as idolatry, which is in keeping with the interpretation in the Sanhedrin. The Zohar, the mystical book of Judaism, expands on this meaning “let us make an object of worship.” The descendants of Shem were called the people of the Name, or the sons of God. The scripture refers to this generation as sons of man. Rashi writes this showed this generation had inherited the lack of benevolence shown by their father Adam. When God questioned Adam after he ate of the fruit, Adam blamed God for giving him the Woman. Indeed they were sons of man for they had not shown gratitude toward God for their rescue from the judgment waters of the Flood or the institution of God's Law under Noah. These sons of man would not see their redemption until Christ was made flesh marrying the divine soul into the body of a man.
This generation's aim was to storm heaven and unseat God. The Sanhedrin says, “We will beat Him with axes. We will go up and sit there. We will go up and fight Him. We will go up and worship idols there. Either we or He.” There they would place an idol with a sword on it's head to symbolize their fear and hatred toward God for destroying the world by a flood. They knew that God had promised not to destroy the entire world again by water, but this covenant with Noah would not prohibit God from using fire or water in an isolated case. The drowning of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea would prove that distressing point in the future. There was a palpable fear among them, and the agreement to peaceful cooperation would help them avert any future danger of extinction.
VII. The True Vision of God
The next verse “let us” is confusing for many because it denotes a multiplicity of personalities in God. Rabbinic teachings say that God descended infinitely. How is this possible? “God descended to look at the city and tower which the sons of man built, and Hashem [God] said, 'Behold, they are one people with one language for all, and this they begin to do! And now, should it not be withheld from them all they propose to do? Come let us descend and there confuse their language, that they should not understand one another's language.'” In God's descending to see, He determines the outcome of their behavior, He sees their end and how it affects everyone for all eternity. He sees all the infinite possibilities. In their acceptance of the one language and the one philosophy, according to Sforno, there was nothing standing in the way of their completing their intentions. The entire human race would turn to the new religion and reject the knowledge of their Creator. The Sanhedrin says, “The Torah descended to the depths of his intention.” God saw the depths to which they would descend, and although they had not committed sins serious enough at that moment to warrant severe punishment, they ultimately would if they weren't stopped.
The “let us” is the determinant of God's personalities coming together in that instant. God's judgment, mercy, and creative forces conversed and joined in their sentencing this generation to disperse. God does not exercise raw judgment, for His measure for measure justice exemplifies the exercise of His mercy and creative powers with the sentence of dispersion. His creative desire was for them to disperse and multiply, but the confounding of the tongue was his merciful personality preventing death. Judgment came by way of their fear, purpose, and unity of ideas. By inhibiting their delusional behavior through the confusion of their language, God put an end to their plan of action for a very long time. Their new enemy would be to conquer new terrain and to survive on their own, without the benefit of a great multitude of people forced to share in the responsibilities of building a home. They would turn back to God for help and guidance to survive these new obstacles.
I believe the use of “let us” in this next verse of the scripture was used by God as a meaning within a meaning to confront the sin of pride in this generation. Only God is allowed that kind of unification; the combining of purpose, personality, and power. God's “let us” immediately negates this generation's use of the term. God is the unifier and the disperser.
VIII. A Choice
Martin Buber writes the quintessential state of being is in wholeness or kavannah. Kavannah also means an inner devotion wholly subscribed toward God. When the individual chooses to regard only themselves and their desires, wholeness is lost. God is the only Absolute Person. We can never aspire to be the Absolute Person, or we aspire to be God. Wholeness can only be achieved by the abrogation of the self and submission to the Creator. Submission to self leads to self-delusion, which was the result of the generation of the dispersion. When the entire populace is devoted to the self, the ultimate result is a nation without a soul. Cultures, traditions, and then morality must conform to the atheistic law of the self.
The measure for measure justice exacted upon the generation of the dispersion was the ultimate end of the road they had taken corporately. Self-delusion can only lead to chaos and violence which can only be quelled by the use of brute force. Nimrod held that hammer over the heads of the people, and so they cooperated peacefully until they became thoroughly indoctrinated into the philosophy inculcated by their leaders.
The lessons learned from this story resonate today more profoundly than at any time in history. Let us examine our willingness to be cared for by the government rather than by each other directly, and lose the joy of seeing the face of God in the person we help. Taxing diminishes us by disconnecting us from the virtue of sacrifice and love. Contrary to what Martin Luther taught of faith alone, our works cement our faith, give life to our faith, and shape us as children of God, and not of men of small conscience spouting scripture but not living it. Let us also examine if we have made parts of our lives inaccessible to God, by isolating those parts inside impenetrable walls that even we are unable to scale the longer we keep them hidden. Finally, let us examine whether we have declared war upon God by placing an idol on the royal throne only He should occupy. This means entertainment personalities, political personalities, sports personalities, or nature, or our feelings. The governance of our bodies and our minds should be given over to God wholly and without reservation in joy in the full expectation that only God knows what's best for us. Have you built a tower in your life?