Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Some thoughts on the city of Babel


I was struck by two thoughts from a sermon on Sunday. Here is the first of these.

I noted a little nuance of the Babel story that I had not picked up before. Those of you who have heard me talk about either the kings & priests theme, or about Eden, will be familiar with one aspect of the Biblical story that I talk a bit about. In quick summary, Adam and Eve have both kingly (representative rule), and priestly (representative presence) roles, which are mandated in Gen 1, and manifested in the Garden, and would have, sine lapso, seen them extended God’s rule and presence throughout the earth through multiplication and the spread of humanity, which would, I argue, involve the spread of the Garden itself. The fall disrupts but does not destroy that plan, but it becomes the ongoing work of the people of God, as kings and priests.

One aspect of this is the contrast pairs of going/gathering, garden/city, and garden/desert that weave through the Bible. Between Eden and Eschaton there is no permanent gathering of God’s people, only gathering that leads to further going. Mission and church are mutually intertwined, but church always leads to mission, until one day there is no more mission, only church.

Likewise, since losing the garden, we have been making cities, gathering in human structures that are ambiguous at best. Revelation also resolves the contrast pair of Eden/Jerusalem by offering a Jerusalem-Eden, a Garden City.

What was interesting to note, in yesterday’s sermon, was a reference to Gen 11, the tower of Babel story, being contextualised by the Noah story. Specifically post-flood Noah and his family are given the “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” command again, Gen 9:1, 7. In Gen 11 these migratory fledgling nations do not scatter, but gather, and build not only the tower, which we all remember, but “a city and a tower”. Their gathering, I would argue, is one more proto-attempt to ‘return to the garden’, figuratively speaking. That is, to resist the scattering of God, deny his mission, and build a human paradise. In Gen 6:6 I would suggest, tentatively, that there is an echo of God’s deliberation in Gen 3, having eaten the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, what next? SO too, “this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” It’s easy to hear this as God’s narcissistic ego getting in the way, and trying to put humanity down, but the thrust of the Gen 3 deliberation is that if, having eaten of the FTKGE, they go on to eat of the tree of life, that will be bad for humanity. A charitable reading here would see the same, if humanity in its present state, builds this city, it will be bad for humanity.

Note what you may never have noticed, in v8. “So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city”. It’s not the tower, but the city, that is mentioned in the last analysis. This self-salvation attempt is abandoned, and the people are scattered, because it is not then, not now, that a city will be built. Only, in the long view, through the death of Christ, can people be gathered back to the Garden, into a new city, to be scattered no more.

This passage is also the reason, theologically speaking, Esperanto will always fail. The confusion of the languages is, in anticipation, reversed at Pentecost, but not by unity of language, only by the miraculous speaking of tongues. Then, in Revelation, we get a vision of the heavenly community, the eschatological gathering, of every language and tongue. But that is almost another theme...

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