Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Lord is a Jealous God

Bible Study for Atheists takes on God's dislike of skyscrapers:
Ah, the Tower of Babel story.

I could see how this could be a reasonable message — if God had made it clear that there was a right way and a wrong way to get to Heaven, that you had to earn it through good deeds. But God doesn't seem to have provided any kind of guidance beyond don't kill each other, and he's been a piss-poor role model, with his barely justified and outrageously excessive punishments.

It seems that the people who built the tower were demonstrating a healthy desire for togetherness and an impressive aptitude for teamwork.

God, in what seems to be a continuing theme, is jealous of man's ascent, and he decides to fuck us up by making it harder for us to communicate with each other and by breaking up a happily tight-knit culture.

This holiday season, if you're shopping for a God, see if you can find one who wants man to aspire to the greatest heights possible, not an insecure one bent on cutting us down.
There seem to be three issues to be addressed here. The first is whether Babel was about "getting to heaven" at all. This, of course, is another area where the modern reading is going to mislead us unless we understand the history behind it.

In VL's defense, it does appear on first reading that such was the purpose of the tower, as Gen 11:4 states the builders' intentions thus: "And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth."

It's a two part motivation, to build a tower to Heaven and to make a name to avoid scattering. The first as I've noted before (though the post seems to have disappeared) is that the purpose of the tower was not to physically build a stairway to Heaven. As they had just left the mountains, we are asked to believe that the ancients could not have figured out that to be successful, their tower would have to be higher than mountains, at least. They were not so stupid (or if they were, one must wonder how they ever managed to make bricks, much less pile them up in a way that did not fall down on their own). Middle Eastern Ziggurats often held astronomical observatories on top, and this tower had literally (by which I mean excluding the italicized words added by the translators) a "top unto Heaven." In other words, it was made for the study of (or given the polytheistic proclivities of the ancient near easterners, the worship of) stars and planets.

But it is the second motivitaion that is truly the problem, to make a name for themselves to prevent their scattering. That was, of course, in direct defiance of God's prior command in Gen 9:1 to "fill the earth." By actively working to avoid the scattering that God commanded, they were defying what (admittedly little) guidance God had given*.

So the second question that must be addressed is, was this a "barely justified and outrageously excessive" punishment? If God said "fill" and they said "no," was it outrageously excessive to muck up their languages so they had to? I'll let the reader decide.

The third issue is whether it was because God was jealous of man's cooperation or for another reason that this specific judgment came? I'll mention only briefly that the ancients did not consider it a happily-knit culture at all, but that Nimrod, the organizer of the building, "also gradually changed the government into tyranny, seeing no other way of turning men from the fear of God, but to bring them into a constant dependence on his power." (Antiquities I/4/1). and the reason I'll only mention it briefly is that I can't vouch for Josephus here, I can only say that the ancients did not consider Babel a happy place. That's a modern assumption.

But is there another reason? I think so, and we can see it in our own nation. Here we call it "separation of powers," (and we worry about excessive executive power and totalitarianism and dictatorship) and it's one of the reasons most Americans get the willies when people talk about one-world government. If that government becomes corrupt, to where can the persecuted flee? Paul much later tells the Greeks of Athens that God "has made of one blood all nations of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined ... the boundaries of their habitation so they can seek the Lord." (Acts 17:26-7). In other words, division into nations is designed to protect people from tyranny and to preserve their religious freedom.

So in retrospect, it appears that rather than God acting in a fit of jealousy because he couldn't build a tower as cool as Babel, he acted to protect the long-term survival and freedom of mankind by dividing power on the earth among many nations. The confusion of languages, rather than being an excessive punishment, was the least painful way to accomplish that purpose.

* It appears that no matter how many or few commands God gives, men will still ignore them.

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