Tower of Babel, the call of Abraham, and the Year of Faith

Tower of BabelJohn Deehan

When Abraham was suddenly called to set out on his journey of faith, what was he leaving behind? The biblical myth of the Tower of Babel offers a context. John Deehan is parish priest of St Thomas More Church, Eastcote, Middlesex.

Pope Benedict's call to a year of faith1 is a response to his observation that Christianity is no longer the cultural matrix that gives society its values, though many Christians still continue to think of the faith as a 'self-evident presupposition for life in society'.2 In his Apostolic Letter the Holy Father goes on to note that the starting date for the Year of Faith coincides with the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church twenty years ago, and later in the letter he proposes that a systematic knowledge of the faith based on a study of the Catechism will serve to bring about the goals of the Year.3

A focus on the Catechism would appear to be an important part of the strategy for those implementing the Year. Whilst the Catechism, used appropriately, has its place, I doubt that simply reading it will bring about a change of minds and hearts, which must be the starting point for all reflection, whether in the home or in academia. To use the traditional terms, fides quae (faith seen in terms of its content) only makes sense in the context of fides qua (which we might understand as 'the lived faith'). It is the lived faith which is first in the order of witness.

In order to stimulate the 'lived faith' we have an older resource which, strangely, is not given the emphasis that one would expect in a letter written by Pope Benedict, and that is the Scriptures. No one who has read Verbum Domini4 cannot but have appreciated the Pope's great love for the Scriptures, the Old Testament as well as the new; the need to read the Scriptures, and the importance of reading them critically. The Scriptures contain a wonderful fund of stories of faith which, used appropriately, can touch hearts and minds. One particular cycle of stories in the Book of Genesis can help people discover to what extent they are living the faith themselves, what they need to do in order to live it, and how that links up with the opening of Pope Benedict's letter where he talks about baptism as the door of faith leading to a living relationship with Jesus Christ. The story in question is the story of Abraham and his calling in Genesis 12-25.11. However, the story of Abraham needs to be read in the context of another story, the attempt to build the tower in the valley of Shinar, otherwise known as the 'Tower of Babel' (Gen. 11.1-9).

Biblical myths do not claim to be true in terms of historical fact, but they do point to a truth about the human condition

The story of the building of the tower is the last of a series of famous myths which begins with the creation of the world and of Adam and Eve, and their fall from grace, and continues with the stories of Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood. People who are not familiar with Biblical scholarship may recoil from the language of myth with its connotation of 'not being true'. Biblical myths do not claim to be true in terms of historical fact, but they do point to a truth about the human condition which applies to individuals and society as a whole and which we experience as historical beings, namely that within the human race there is an innate suspicion of God's intentions, and a tendency to rebel against divine authority. That suspicion is very much with us today.

The story line of Gen 11.1-9 is deceptively simple. At a time when the whole earth had a common language, human beings decided not to populate the earth but to keep themselves to themselves, building a city with a tower reaching to heaven, where they could be powerful and secure within their own bubble. But when God saw it he confused their language and scattered them over the face of the earth, so that people might no longer understand one another's languages.

When, however we read the story in the light of its historical background and pay attention to its literary features we dis- cover that it is far from simple. In modern parlance we might say it is a sophisticated analysis of the situation to which Abraham's journey of faith will be the response.

In terms of its historical back- ground, the myth had its origin in the community of exiles from Judah who were deported to Babylon in 586BCE after Jerusalem was invaded and the temple razed to the ground. Having lost their land, temple and monarchy, the people had only their memories from which to reconstruct a narrative which would give them a basis on which to rebuild their lives. The tower mentioned in the narrative evoked the Esagil, 'the house with the raised head' which was the main temple for the great gods of Babylon. Bricks and bitumen were common building materials in Mesopotamia, in contrast to the stone and mortar used back home (Gen 11.3). The contrast in building materials is mentioned not as a comment on Babylonian construc- tion methods, but to suggest that the project itself does not have an authentic goal and so it will go nowhere.

A feature of such temples was their tower built high into the air, which the Babylonans understood to reach into the home of the gods. In the myth this viewpoint is mocked " the tower is so far from God that he has to come down and look at it (Gen 11.5). Babylonian tradition also spoke about another important ingredient of the story, a time when people either spoke one language or would all speak the same language in the future. Set against its historical con- text then, the story originates as a polemic against the religious system of Babylon, with its portrayal of gods who at heart are ruthless, capricious and violent, with no concern for the good of human beings.

Set in the context of a people in exile who had lost everything through foreign invasion, it is little surprise that their myths of origin (Gen 1-11), culminating in Babel, suggest a gradual deterioration, a growth of evil and violence, which the authors perceive to be characteristic not just of their own people but of the whole human race. The biblical mythology is intended to cast doubt on the Babylonian myths that suggested that humanity was getting better. The extent of this deterioration is revealed in this final myth when we examine it, paying close attention to its literary features. It suggests that after the flood the human race begins to build itself up again, but in the process it has learned nothing.

The opening verse sets the scene for the story. 'The whole earth had one language and one kind of speech' (in Hebrew, one lip and words one). The reader might ask, 'Is this a blessing, or does it suggest some kind of sinister ideology, a kind of political correctness symbolising a paradise where everything is the same?5 How does this concept of an undifferentiated human mass square with the original creation, when God separated the elements from one another " the heavens, the earth and the waters " so that they might take form and so come into existence, and where the man only becomes himself when he is placed in relationship with woman? This theme of 'uni-language' will appear again in verse 6 at the turning point of the story.

What kind of society does the language of the narrator describe? It is a collective of the anonymous, because everyone is the same. No persons are mentioned, the different actors have no individuality, so we read that 'one says to another, let us make bricks'. In the Hebrew the author deliberately attributes to them a poverty of vocabulary. Literally translated the Hebrew might read, let us brick bricks and let us burn them to burn them. The work is repetitive, no personal initiative takes place within this great anonymous mass of people. Indeed the reference to brick building anticipates the beginning of the book of Exodus where forced labour brick-making will be the means by which the Pharaoh dictator of Egypt tries to bring the people to its knees and to oblivion. Here the people willingly desire their own forced labour, their own slavery. 'Society has become an ant colony, a far cry from a voluntary association of free minds'.6

What is the purpose of the project? 'Let us build ourselves a city, and a tower.....and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth. In the biblical writings the name is always a gift of God, not something humans make for themselves. Desiring to make a name for themselves in this context implies that this is a collective wish to be total masters of their own destiny and their conscience. There is no point of reference in anyone else, let alone in God, and its motive is primarily inspired by fear, fear of its own fragility and a desire to shore up its fragile power7. The tower reaching up to heaven reflects a humanity whose project is to make its own closed society heaven on earth, with no need to form relationships with others, to know any other paths, or to embrace transcendence. A fourth century Rabbi described it thus; 'no one among them deplored the accidental death of a worker at the tower, but all would grieve for the loss of a brick.8 'Theologically this is a society which claims to create itself in its own image and not in the image of God. The irony of this is subtly hinted at by the fact that the people choose a valley (Shinar) in which to build their tower to heaven.

It is against the myth of Babel that the story of Abraham's vocation is to be read

The cohortative form (let us...) is only used three times in the Primaeval History (Gen 1- 11). It is used first in Gen 1.26 of God, in 11.4 by the builders of the tower, and finally in 11.6 by God again " let us go down, and confuse their language. This would seem to suggest that the builders have usurped the role of God as the one who can create simply by saying so.9 God has to set his creation back on course. So the fear of the builders becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The security of their project and the mutual understanding required for it will be undermined and instead of all living together in one place, which went against the original plan of God to fill the earth, they will after all be scattered. A society which began by alienating itself from others will find itself alienated from everyone else. The co-operation and mutual understanding required for human living will have gone.

It is against the myth of Babel that the story of Abraham's vocation is to be read. We can detect this in reading the genealogy that comes between the myth of Babel and the beginning of the Abraham story (Gen 11.10- 31). One of the functions of this genealogy is to relate the primaeval history (myth) to real-time human history. For our purposes the point of interest is Terah, first mentioned in 11.24, who was the father of Abraham. Genealogies generally stress continuity between past and present, and there are some subtle indications that Terah and his family reflect the same closed human condition as the society who tried to build the tower. The family continues, but the signs suggest it is going nowhere. Nahor becomes the father of Terah at 29. Terah does not produce a child until he is seventy. Of the three sons of Terah, the youngest, Haran dies before his father, Nahor takes as his wife a close relative, and Abram's wife Sarai is his half-sister, a daughter of Terah by another wife: it is emphasised that Sarai is barren.

In Gen 11.31 Terah sets out to migrate from Ur to Canaan, but he never completes the journey. Arriving at Haran, he settles there, and he dies there. This corresponds to the people at Shinar who reach for heaven, but settle for creating heaven according to their earthly project. The reader will note that all the characters in Terah's family are defined in relation to him. Abraham is his son, Lot is his grandson, Sarai is his daughter-in-law. And when Terah sets out, he takes them all with him, as if they were objects belonging to him. The family of Terah lives according to the same way of thinking as the people of Shinar.

Abraham's call (Gen 12.1ff) is an invitation by God to break out of this vicious spiral. To do so he has to leave the place he lives in, his family and his father, all the things that pro- vide for his security, and make a break with the past. The beginning of the story of Abraham is quite simple and stark, 'The Lord said to Abraham, Go!' The author offers us no insight into how God called Abraham. What gives the call its mystery is that Abraham is old, he is settled, in terms of his family situation he has no need to move. He has apparently accepted his place within the Babel world. Yet the three things God promises " a home of his own, children and 'a name' or reputation, are the things which still provoke people into striking out in new directions or even migrating. Is this an example of grace working with nature, God working with some fact of human discontent, a realisation that the world is not as it ought to be, that I am not in the place I ought to be, that I have not fulfilled what I ought to fulfil? Certainly the call is to depart from an idolatrous way of living and perceiving life, but it is only later that the journey is expressed in the 'religious' terms of covenant. In fact on the earliest part of the journey Abram continues to set up shrines to the gods of the locality. But right from the start there are hints of change. Lot goes with Abraham, rather than be taken by him.

Abraham may have been taken out of a place of idolatry. But idolatry is not instantly taken out of Abraham. So we see in the story of Abraham's journey a constant tension between Abraham's tendency to follow the logic of the inhabitants of Shinar, and his hope in a promise which never seems to reach fulfilment. We see this for example in his decision to have a child by Hagar, given Sarah's barren state. We see it in the two stories where he gets Sarah to pretend to be his sister (Gen 12.10-17, Gen 20) out of fear for his own security, and because he imagined enmity where no enmity existed. And in the process he creates situations which can lead his imagined enemies into sin and injustice.

As we begin the Year of Faith our reflection on these Old Testament texts may alert us to the danger of reducing our plans and activities to a human project designed to restore or increase our numbers, or to create more efficient Christians. They may also alert us to the danger of getting sucked into and trying to impose an ideological way of thinking, whether we are on the side of aggiornamento or resourcement, championing 'the spirit of Vatican II', or getting back to 'real' Church teaching. Babel is alive in us all, within and outside the visible Church, and can all too easily confuse what we think is the language of faith.