Relevant Verses: Genesis 10-11
Theme: A Scattered World
Leading Question: Why is a unified world threatening to human life?
Life after the flood begins with God’s solemn oath:
“I will never again curse the ground [’adamah] on account of the human [’adam],
for the intent [yetser; “form”] of the heart of the human [’adam] is evil from his youth;
and I will never again destroy every living thing, as I have done.”
(Gen 8:21; my translation).
Note the following:
“Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of the human [’adamah] was great on the earth, and
that every intent [yetser; “form”] of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.
. . . The LORD said, ‘I will blot out the human [’adam] whom I have created from the face of the
land [’adamah] . . .”
(Gen 6:5, 7; my translation)
- The evilness of the human heart was already identified before the flood in Gen 6:5 and used as a reason to wipe out human life from the earth (v. 7).
- After the flood, nothing changed about the problem of the human heart.
- Nonetheless, in spite of, or because of the evilness of the human heart, God vows to keep His covenant for the sake of life which He created on earth.
There is a similar example in the story of the golden calf (Exodus 32–34), where the human condition is phrased as “obstinate” or “stiff-necked” (Exod 33:7; 34:9). This condition is first stated as a reason for God to give up on the people of Israel. But then, it is stated again in the same wording, as a powerful reason for God to continue His covenantal promises with Israel. Note:
- God says, “I will not go up in your midst, because you are an obstinate people, and I might destroy you on the way” (Exod 33:7).
- Then Moses appeals, “O Lord, I pray, let the Lord go along in our midst, because the people are so obstinate, and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us as Your own possession” (Exod 34:9).
Question: How does God’s acknowledgment of the human condition impact or change our view of God in the stories of the Old Testament? How does it impact our life with God?
After the Flood, “the whole world branched out” from the three sons of Noah (Gen 9:19). In chapter 10, this statement turns into an intricate series of geneaologies. Seventy nations are identified by their names, their lands, with their own languages (Gen 10:1–5). This chapter about human diversity stands in parallel to the biodiversity of God’s creation in Genesis 1, where a key-recurring word is, “after their kind” (used 10 times). God created plants, animals, birds, fish, according to their different kinds. The essence of Genesis 1 is ordered diversity, “and God saw, and it was good” (Gen 1:24).
After Genesis 10 with the list of seventy names, that are nations, languages, and lands, follows the opposite story—the tower of Babel (Gen 11). Here, “The entire earth had one language and a common speech” (Gen 11:1). Doesn’t this sound so much more peaceful and idyllic? Also, different from the people before the flood, the builders of this world are bent on construction, not destruction. But then God intervened and confused their language and scattered them over the whole earth.
Question: Why would God stop a project where people want to live together in unity?
Archaeological evidence helps us answer this question. Mesopotamia, which included Babel/Babylon and Assyria was the home of the world’s first empires. From the neo-Assyrians we know that they imposed their own language, Akkadian, on the peoples and nations they conquered. A cylinder inscription of Sargon II (722–705 BCE) states that he had conquered many nations “with strange tongues and divergent speech” and caused them all to “accept a single voice” (Dûr-Sharukkîn Cylinder). Also, Ashurbanipal II (669–631 BCE), who is known as one of the most brutal kings, boasted according to an inscription that he made “the totality of all people speak one speech” and made “the unruly and ruthless kings speak one speech from the rising of the sun to its setting.”
The ancient kings who forced unity of language and culture upon defeated nations was the endeavor of ruthless imperialism. The structure that still testifies to such imperialist power demonstrations is the excavated base of the Etemenanki ziggurat, a 6-floor high staircase pyramid with a temple on top dedicated to the Babylonian deity Marduk. Its name is given in the Esagila tablet as “tower with its head in the heavens,” which almost exactly describes the biblical story of the tower of Babel. When Genesis 11 is read in the context of such power impositions, it turns out that the diversity of languages is not a result of God’s punishment but about a critique of imperialism, the coercion of a single culture and language on a plural world.
Sometimes, Christians view cultural diversity as part of the fallen world, as a curse. This view has often been justified with the story of the tower of Babel. However, as a closer reading of Genesis 11 suggests, God’s confusion of “tongues” or languages at Babel was not a curse but rather God’s intervention to prevent imperial execution of power over other people groups. In effect, it was God’s intervention of grace.
The builders of the Tower of Babel held the false belief that through the unity that results from forced homogeneity, people could be at peace, could have access to heaven and could approach God. Babel was a project of ideological and religious uniformity, and God did not agree to it.
Question: So, is diversity a good thing? Does God want diversity?
“Biblical monotheism is not the idea that there is one God and therefore one gateway to His presence. To the contrary, it is the idea that the unity of God is to be found in the diversity of creation . . . Unity in heaven creates diversity on earth” (Sacks, The Dignity of Difference, 53–54).
When religious fundamentalism tries to impose faith on others by force, it builds a “Babel” tower!
Question: How does God react to our hubris?
The builders had constructed a stairway to heaven, “And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of man had built” (Gen 11:5). This is God laughing. On earth, humans thought they had reached the sky, but to God the building was so tiny and indiscernible, so microscopic, that He had to come down to see it. There is an old saying that what makes God laugh is seeing our plans for the future, seeing our delusions of grandeur. From the vantage point of heaven, the ultimate absurdity is when humans start thinking of themselves as more than human, as gods.