Monday, July 28, 2008

“The Same as it Ever Was”

Genesis 9.18–11.32:

The post-diluvian narrative is striking, to me, for this one remarkable reason: The intense energy the narrator has expended recounting the story of the Flood — God’s execution of judgment on human sin and restoration of creation through Noah and his sons, who “alone [were] righteous before me in this generation” (7.1) — is followed immediately by the account of Ham’s sin and Noah’s curse on Canaan, Ham’s son. And of course the story of Babel follows immediately after the genealogies of Noah’s son. Do we describe this as God’s failure to eradicate sin? or does this simply illustrate the radical failure of humanity to faithfully be the image of God? If the latter (which I prefer), I am struck by God’s patience persistence in dealing with his recalcitrant creation. I am similarly struck by God’s faithfulness here; he has laid aside his weapon of vengeance in 9.12–17, and despite humanity’s continued depravity he leaves his weapon aside and chooses another course of action to handle human sin: election and covenant (cf. the next post, on Gen. 12.1–15.21).

As I read about the tower of Babel and the thoroughly comical account of humanity’s humbling, I notice the usual features of this oft-commented upon story. There is the contrast between humanity’s efforts at ascending into the heavens to make a name for themselves (11.4), on the one hand, and the Lord’s descent to earth to scatter and confuse the people (11.7), on the other. Similarly, there is the human concern that “we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (11.4), which results in their efforts to build the fabled tower, and the result that “the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth” (11.8) precisely because they we, in their our pride, had sought to ascend to the heavens and make a name for ourselves. The all-too-human fear of anonymity and meaninglessness (have I phrased this inappropriately? I don’t know.) have motivated action that has resulted in the very things we fear.

I’m reminded of the woman’s deception and the man’s rebellion in Genesis 3: the serpent promises, “When you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God” (3.5), and the woman sees “that the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (3.6). But, like the Sumerians in Genesis 11, the man and the woman sought to “be like God” without speaking with and listening to God. The results in both stories are disastrous. In Genesis 3 the result is alienation (especially from God, but also interpersonally), which continues through the narrative until at least Enoch and through to Noah. In Genesis 11 the result is the frustration of human communication (again, I think especially with God, but this time explicitly interpersonally). At the risk of prematurely anticipating the narrative’s next scene, both of these issues will be addressed in the story of Abram’s call and covenant.

As with the preceding stories from Genesis (as well as those yet to come), these stories begin and define the traditional heritage of both Jews and Christians. As a Christian I read these stories refracted through the themes and ideologies of the gospel. Abram anticipates Christ; the Abrahamic covenant is the promise that antedates Moses and Torah and guarantees the place of the nations at God’s banquet (cf. esp. Romans 4). And inasmuch as the biblical narrative is a unified narrative, these connections and interweavings (between Abram and Jesus, Abram’s family and the Church, Abram’s promise and the gospel) instantiate at least some of the rich possibilities of layered potentialities and resonances that continue to make this ancient narrative meaningful to me millennia after they were originally told.

But I am intrigued by the possibility of navigating these connections and interweavings in the other direction. Not simply what Jesus can teach me about Abra[ha]m but also what Abra[ha]m can teach me about Jesus. And here the Jewish (better, Judaic) heritage of my own faith plays a vital role not just in understanding but in exploring my connection to the God who scratched his head and wondered what those silly people were up to with their baked bricks and architectural plans. My unimpressive gesturing after spirituality, like my efforts at everything else, remind me not to put black hats on Babel’s builders (neither on Cain, Lamech, Ham and Canaan). Neither do Abram and his descendents don dazzling white hats. Like our forebears in the narratival world of Genesis, we, too, strive after God, sometimes to be frustrated and scattered, but sometimes to be called and blessed. Nevertheless, like the Sumerians as they abandoned their plans no less than Abram as he traveled westward toward the land of Canaan, our striving after heaven always awaits the next scene of the story.

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