Donald Andrew Henson II

Archive for the ‘Blogging the Old Testament’ Category

Tower of Babel

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the Old Testament, Religion and Society on September 24, 2012 at 1:48 am

English: The Construction of the Tower of Babe...

Read Genesis 11.

I know I’m supposed to be blogging the New Testament, not the Old, but indulge me if you will. As a student of several languages and the acquisition of language in general, this Biblical story is obviously of interest to me.

You don’t have to look at this Tower of Babel too closely to realize that it’s a complete and total myth, an etiology told to explain why the peoples inhabiting different regions spoke languages that were unintelligible to one another. The story was supposedly written by Moses, but context cues place it more probably in the time of the Babylonian captivity, in the 6th century BC, perhaps a thousand years after Moses’ death. It most likely incorporates the image of the Babylonian ziggurat, Etemenanki, which had been rebuilt by Nebuchadnezzar, with a traditional oral story about how the languages were separated. The impressive, foreboding ziggurats – erected in worship to the god Marduk, were meant to inspire awe; the captive Jews would have seen them as a trespass against the one true God.

Placing the imposing towers into a story about rebellion against God wouldn’t have been much of a stretch – to worship any God but Yahweh was rebellion. Babel, or confusion, would have been a nice play on words; Babylon, a place of confusion, not only of language, but of belief. Any city that shakes its fist at God in such an audacious way will certainly face retribution.

But if you don’t buy into this modern, secular explanation of the story – have a look at the scriptures themselves. I think you’ll find a lot of information that doesn’t quite fit together.

A few generations after God had flooded the Earth, some of Noah’s descendants have headed east to the Plains of Shinar, which is usually a reference to Mesopotamia / Tigris and Euphrates region / Babylon in the Old Testament. Once they got there, they decided to bake bricks – in the OT narrative, they decide to bake bricks first, then to build a city with them, but we’ll assume that the intention was to build a city and a tower all along. Why the focus on bricks? Since important Judean structures were made of stone, the Babylonian custom of building with brick would have been novel – if you admit that the narrative as we have it today were composed during the captivity. If not, it seems a rather strange detail.

These descendants, led by Nimrod, according to tradition, get the idea that they should ‘make a name for themselves’ by building a tower that would reach to the heavens. When I was in Sunday school, my teacher seemed to think that they were literally trying to build a stairway to heaven; later, other Bible teachers seemed to think that they were trying to build some kind of astrological tower, to ‘reach heaven’ in a metaphysical sense, not literally. This second rendering does seem to be more consistent with what we now know of Babylonian ziggurats in general, that they were places of divination and worship.

Now, let’s set aside for a moment the fact that the Bible only counts four generations between this event and the catastrophic, worldwide flood that nearly wiped out humanity. It would seem that such an act of defiance so soon would be unthinkable on the part of Noah’s descendants. What’s really astounding is God’s response.

First of all, the scripture says that God ‘came down’ to see the tower that Nimrod had built. Where was he in the first place? Why did he have to move to get a better view? If Earth is God’s ballpark, why was he sitting in the cheap seats? This sentence gives credence to the idea that whoever wrote the original story did not see God as omnipresent; he was instead an anthropomorphic god who shared some of the same limitations of other Semitic gods – including Marduk. If you believe that every single word of the scripture is inspired – you can’t write off the moving of a supposedly omnipresent God from one place to another as some kind of grammatical error.

Secondly, why was God so concerned about what they were doing? Because they had learned how to build a tower, God decides that “nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.” Is this a bad thing? Humans working together to do what seems to be impossible? And furthermore, confusing their languages didn’t stop them from building other towers – as evidenced by the Babylonians, Egyptians, Persians, Chinese, and other ancient cultures. And building a tower? Where’s the threat? It’s not like they split the atom – which, incidentally, God did not prevent either. So you’re telling me that God miraculously confuses language because people are building a tower, but stands by in silence while they actually do split the atom? It doesn’t make sense.

If they were trying to build a literal stairway to heaven, no intervention would have been required; they’d have all passed out due to lack of oxygen at around a mile. Actually God should have known that they’d have never made it this far with bricks anyway; kiln-baked bricks would have disintegrated under the weight of the structure long before the mile marker. If they were building an astrological tower, a way of ‘reaching heaven’ through divining the stars – why do the Pyramids, Stonehenge, Machu Picchu and myriad other structures still stand?

And why any need for such sudden intervention? Surely God is aware of the fact that as groups of people are separated by time and distance, their languages become unintelligible to each other without divine intervention. The US and the UK have been separate social and political entities for only a couple of hundred years, and we still technically speak the same language, but you try understanding a Glaswegian or a Yorkshireman with a scotch or two in his gullet – impossible.

Even the Apostle Paul casts doubt on the validity of he story, when he writes in 1 Corinthians 14 that “God is not the author of confusion.”

If this story isn’t literally true – which it certainly cannot be, no matter how you approach it – then it must be some kind of analogy or metaphor, a story with a moral. If the OT contains stories that aren’t intended to be taken as objective truths – who gets to decide which ones are allegory and which ones are literal?

Of even greater significance, to me at least, there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that God does anything to intervene – for good or ill – in our lives today. Thousands of innocents die daily while God looks the other way. But a tower made of tar and brick – a tower that had absolutely no chance of succeeding at whatever purpose it was being built for – required God’s immediate attention?

Quite literally – unbelievable.

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And We Hid Our Faces From Him

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the Old Testament, Nostalgia for God on September 11, 2012 at 1:00 am

In my last post, I discussed the documentary The God Who Wasn’t There, a fairly pedestrian movie promoting an idea which is much more prevalent than I knew – the idea that Jesus never existed. I suppose, coming from a fundamentalist background, that I always thought that almost everyone believed that Jesus was a historical character, but that unbelievers thought he was just a good guy, an unorthodox teacher, and Christians worshiped him as the Son of God. I wasn’t really aware of the fact that some intellectuals considered the life of Jesus to be entirely mythical.

That documentary showed a few scenes from another, much more powerful movie, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Brian Flemming, the narrator and director of the documentary, said that Gibson’s movie is far and away the most popular Christian movie of all time, and he criticizes Christians for their love of blood – if you’ve never seen The Passion, it is definitely not for the faint of heart. Seeing these scenes again stirred up a lot of old feelings in me, and I just wanted to think aloud about some of them. I once read a quote, something to the extent that agnostics are atheists with a nostalgia for God – if you know who said it, please drop me a line.

I saw The Passion of the Christ at a movie theater in Bangkok, Thailand, where I was living at the time, and I’m sure it was a very different experience from what viewers in the US might have enjoyed.  99% of the population of Thailand is Buddhist, and many have no understanding whatsoever of our Christian beliefs. I once had a Thai student ask me, at Christmas time, if Christmas was a distinctly American holiday. I replied that Christmas was a holiday that celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ, and that most countries with a Christian heritage enjoyed celebrating Christmas. The Thai student smiled and nodded her head, which is the Thai way of saying that I don’t understand what the hell you’re talking about, but I don’t want to look like an idiot by asking another question. So, I asked whether the student had ever heard of Jesus before. She replied that she had not, but she had read of other famous Americans, such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

Needless to say, when I arrived at the movie theater to see The Passion, I was surprised to see a full auditorium. I didn’t think all those Buddhists would give one whit about the life of Christ. But Thais love all things American, especially Hollywood movies, so they had come out in droves. They had no idea what the movie was about. I’m sure you think I’m kidding, but the same Thai student who can tell you every single aspect of the story of the Ramayana (Ramakien in Thai) couldn’t place WWII in the proper century, and couldn’t tell you if Washington, Lincoln, Plato, and Hitler all lived at the same time or in different centuries. Western Civilization is not taught in high school nor is it a mandatory course in college – why would it be? I could never be too critical as a teacher there – most American students couldn’t tell you how many years there are between Plato, Washington, and Hitler either – and wouldn’t know what the hell you were talking about if you said ‘Ramakien”.

Many Buddhists are vegetarian, as they can’t stomach the idea of taking the life of any sentient being, not even a fish or a bird. Imagine watching such a brutal movie with this group of people. They were totally unprepared for what transpired on the screen. I knew that Jesus would be beaten and spit upon, that by the time he reached Golgotha that he’d be nearly unrecognizable as a human being. But the gentle Thais had never heard of such a gory hero as Jesus. They flinched when the Roman soldiers slapped him, moaned when the cat-o-nine-tails dug into his back, shrieked when the crown of thorns was thrust upon his head, and wept as Mary kissed his feet as he hung on the cross.

This was powerful stuff, this passion story. I remember my sister, one year older than me, watching horror films, covering her eyes at the scary parts. The Thais did the same thing – they were so appalled at the gristly nature of the film, that they covered their eyes with their hands, hiding behind one another and the high-rise seats. I couldn’t help but think of Isaiah 53 –

He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.

Isaiah describes the natural response to such human misery; yet, we are so accustomed to the story of Jesus’ crucifixion that we can tell it to our children, perhaps with a smile on our faces. Yet, agnostic that I am, I still can’t watch such a graphic portrayal without choking up.

Isaiah 53 was always a favorite scripture of mine.  I thought of it as tragic poetry – real history, but expressed in beautifully painful language. That the Son of God could appear on Earth, and receive such vile treatment – it was finer tragedy than Oedipus Rex. Today, scholars attribute the writing to someone other than the Isaiah who wrote the first 50 chapters of the book named after him, some anonymous prophet who had been carried off by the Assyrian captivity. And Orthodox Jews contend that this scripture in no way, shape or form refers to an individual person, let alone the Christian Messiah. Nevertheless, for Christians, it resonates deep within the heart.

Amy Grant once recorded a rendition of O Sacred Head, Now Wounded  that I would listen to over and over again for hours. It seemed at the time to epitomize Christ’s sacrifice for us. Perhaps looming even larger in my childhood was a collection of songs recorded by Jimmy Swaggart; two albums named Worship and Healing. Each track of the albums featured a traditional composition of an old hymn, and Swaggart read a portion of scripture as the music played. With his Bill Clinton-esque ability to convey emotion in his voice, the combination of music and scripture was quite powerful.

My favorite was a song called ‘The Healer’. It was an old hymn that I had grown up hearing in church, one that I can remember my Dad trying to sing, and his mother as well – neither of them had any talent at singing, but they loved the old songs.

On the cross, crucified, in great sorrow he died; the giver of life, was he.

While this beautiful hymn was sung, Swaggart read from Isaiah, with emphasis:

But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.

I stopped believing in this sort of thing a long time ago, but it still has the ability to tug at my heartstrings. When my mother was so sick with cancer, she posted pieces of paper with scriptures on them all around her bedroom – scriptures that promised healing. I searched everywhere for a copy of the old Swaggart album she had once loved so much. I thought that listening to it would comfort her. I finally found a CD version online and ordered it – it arrived a couple of days after her doctor told us that she had only a few weeks to live. I tossed it in the trash.

The story of Jesus’ crucifixion is sad, but there’s no way to know if it’s true or not. A Tale of Two Cities is a sad story too, and O Henry’s The Gift of the Magi will make you well up every time you read it. But the difference is that these stories don’t promise something that they can’t deliver, they don’t give dying people false hope, nor do they try to persuade people that a man died for them a couple thousand years ago. My mother spent her whole life believing in the gospels, but she fought death off until the end – there was no “looking forward to being with Jesus” for her – something inside her knew.

I don’t really have any conclusion. I love the old gospel songs, and they can still move me. I appreciate the poetry and tragedy of some of the scriptures. I wish I could believe in some kind of afterlife where I might be able to meet up with loved ones again. But just because I choke up watching Toy Story 3 doesn’t mean I think it’s a true story; just because a scripture like Isaiah 53 is beautifully tragic doesn’t make it any more real than the movie Somewhere in Time.

I once cried to think that humankind would hide its face from God’s son; if there is a God, it’s obvious he turned his face from us long ago.