The Tale of a Tower

I have been ruminating on this next blog post for some time, trying to come up with a way to communicate the complexities of the story as it was communicated to me.  I intentionally point out that it was "communicated to me", for the issues are so deeply rooted in the Hebrew language that I myself am most certainly not the one qualified to speak on them from a linguistic perspective.

I can make a few points that may help communicate what's taking place here.  At the risk of oversimplification, the ancient Hebrew language of the Bible is a language of consonants.  The vowels that are added to a Hebrew word act as the linguistic nuances that define "which word" we are using.  However, because the Hebrew words will share consonants, they often end up being grouped in what's been described to me as "word families" — words that share the same consonant base (the same root) and therefore are driven by a common image.

The classic example (transliterated, of course) is the Hebrew word DBR.  DBR are the consonants, obviously, and adding different vowels make different words.  DaBaR would be the Hebrew word for "speak" or "word".  DoBeR would be a word for "pasture" and miDBaR would be a related word for "wilderness" or "desert".  All of these words are using the same DBR root and the vowels are bringing the words to life.  All the words play off of the same image of shepherding.  A shepherd leads his flock in a PASTURE or in the WILDERNESS by SPEAKING a WORD.

(On a really cool side note, I have been told that when Jesus is speaking on trial before the high priest, his statement to him is a re-vowelization of two separate passages in the Psalms.  Essentially, Jesus keeps all of the consonants of the passages the same and changes the vowels [and shifts the consonants] in his response.  How well does Jesus know his Bible!?  That's astounding!)

Having tried to explain as simply as I can how the consonants of the Hebrew language work — again, noting I am not the expert in that area — I will say that the entire story of the Tower of Babel is a play on the Hebrew consonants.  I once listened to a teaching by Rabbi David Fohrman, where he recited the Hebrew and noted all of the play on words with the Hebrew consonants N'B'L'H and I was left sucking my thumb in a corner.

Needless to say, the story of the Tower, when heard in the Hebrew is chiastic.  The chiasm can best be seen in the English when you compare 10:32 with 11:8-9 and then finding the center of the chiasm in 11:4.  You can even see some of the other elements in the English when you notice the mention of "city with a tower" and even the "Come, let us..."

So why would the entire point of the story be God's desire to scatter humans over the whole earth?  Is God really threatened by their advances?

In a lot of ways, we've already let the proverbial cat out of the bag by noting that these post-flood stories are paralleling the earlier pre-flood stories.  We'll spend more time tying all of this together in the next post, but if we step back and view the last ten chapters in context, one might begin to gain some perspective on why God is so intent on scattering humanity.

God started the story by affirming the goodness of creation and inviting humanity to join Him in His rest and trust the goodness of the story.  Adam and Eve fail to trust God, fail to master their desires, and press on in pursuing themselves.  Cain is invited to trust in God's goodness and avoid the consequences that his fear (of personal loss/gain) will drive him to, but he fails as well.

God reaffirms the goodness of creation in the story of the flood and then Noah walks out of the ark and pursues revenge, stepping into the role of God — trying to become the Creator — and cursing his grandson.  In that context (and skipping a whole lot of ancient, midrashic conversation) is where we begin to find some clues.

Man's rebellion is starting to organize itself.  After eating from the Tree of Knowledge, mankind is indeed beginning to look like God, but not in a way that is helpful or beneficial to God's plan for them.  Man's rebellion started with a sense of exploration, then to self-preservation, then to revenge.  And now, God's statement is that if He doesn't step in a do something "nothing will be impossible for them".

In another sense, sin has started with an individual, moved into a family, curses an entire lineage and is now threatening to become an entire civilization.

God knows that man is not ready to exercise their creativity in it's fullness.  They haven't learned how to trust the story.  They haven't learned how to harness their desires.  They will not know "when to say enough".  They will not know when to stop destroying.

And so he scatters mankind.

A few observations to take away from this story:

This story, in one sense, is about the advancement of technology.  Humans have created the brick.  It is their new advancement in ordering creation.  It is significant to note that the advancement and progress is not a bad thing.  Within the story, God apparently has no problem with their creation of the brick, their use of the brick together, or even their building of the tower.  It is not until the people seek to "create a name" for themselves — to become like God — that God steps in to foil their plans.  The advancement of technology in our world is never the evil; we are confronted with the question of rebellion as we consider how we might USE this new piece of technology.  Will we use it further God's creative purposes to order and redeem creation?  Or will we use it further our own agenda and pursue our own unbridled desires?

Most scholars agree that the word used for Babel is a play off of the Hebrew word for confusion.  As God steps into the story, it is interesting to note what God does not do.  He does not condemn the work project in and of itself.  He does not curse anyone.  He does not deal out punishments and/or consequences for sin (as He does in Genesis 3).  What He does is confuse all of humanity with the disruption of language.

Which leads us to the question: Why would He do that?

To put it as Rabbi Fohrman so beautifully taught: It is interesting to note how in order for humanity to continue to progress as a whole, they will need to learn the language of others.  You cannot learn the language of another culture or people without learning something about their perspective.  Learning the diversity of perspectives always provides one with a sense of pause and consideration.  It requires a sense of learning how to control one's desires in order to reach a common goal together.  In the confusion of Babel, God has not so much slapped our hands as he has given us a new redemptive project that will cause us to be people that grow into the kind of humanity that bears His image.  A humanity that knows when to say enough.

A people that trust the Story.
A people that just might find a place of rest.


A Misplaced Curse

So, we've seen that the story of Noah could quite possibly be a parallel story — or a retelling — of the creation narrative of Genesis chapter one.

And Noah and his family exit the ark and Noah plants a vineyard.

Wait... Noah plants a vineyard?
Doesn't that sound eerily similar to God planting (same word) a garden?

In God's garden, Adam and Eve ate of the fruit and tragedy ensues.
In Noah's garden, he drinks the fruit and tragedy ensues...

Apparently, the parallels continue.  And not only is Noah just the "human tragedy" character in this story, but he's also seeming to blur the lines between his role and God's role.  He's not just the resident steward of the garden, but he is also the planter/creator.  But alas, I'm getting ahead of myself.

Noah drinks of the fruit and becomes drunk.  As he sleeps in his stupor, one of his sons, Ham comes in and "looks upon his father's nakedness".  He goes out to tell his brothers, who proceed to cover up their father by walking backwards with a blanket held up to their shoulders.  Then, Noah wakes up and discovers what his son has done to him.  In a rage, he curses Ham's son, Canaan...

Wait.. WHAT!?

Why in the world would Noah curse Canaan and not Ham?  That makes no sense at all.  There continues to be more problems with the Text.  And apparently, the author wants us to stop and start digging again.

To help us arrive at an answer, I'm about to explain what the Jewish midrash teaches about this story.  But before I do, I need to take a moment to talk about "midrash" — what it is and how it is used.  So prepare for a horribly oversimplified explanation of a very complex issue.  My attempt to simplify the issue is because any good Bible-believing Christian starts to get really nervous (as they should) when you start reading from extra-biblical texts for aid in biblical interpretation.  So first, an explanation for what midrash is:

The midrash is the collected, historical, Jewish conversation that surrounds the Text.  The fact of the matter is that the Bible is an ancient eastern book, in an ancient eastern world, written and read by ancient eastern people.  You and I are modern (or postmodern) western thinkers.  We have been taught for the last two-thousand years to think in terms of definition and propositions.  If a westerner wants to make a point, we write an article that has a proposition and the points that support it (deductive) or a bunch of points that arrive at a proposition (inductive).  An easterner does not think this way.  An eastener will never "tell you what to think"; an eastener wants to lead you to discovery.

So instead of a bunch of old Jews writing commentaries that tell you what to think, the ancients told additional stories that led you on additional treasure hunts and brought you to a place of discovery.  An eastener would try to convince you that you learn better and more profound truths that way.  The collection of additional stories, reflections, and commentaries is referred to as the midrash — the collected, historical, Jewish conversation that surrounds the Text.

Whether you like the method of midrash or not, this is the world of the Bible.  I pursue what I call a contextual hermeneutic, meaning that the way I interpret the Bible is that I want to understand what the writer meant when they wrote it and what the reader heard when they read it.  Essentially, I believe the correct interpretation of the inspired words is one read through the original biblical context.

This means that while I do not believe the midrash is inspired or authoritative (very important to hear me say), I do believe that one must use it as a tool to help us arrive at a contextual understanding of the inspired Text.

But enough about the academic details; back to the story (write me an email if you would like to discuss this more).

Why does Noah curse Canaan and not Ham?
The answer revolves around the phrase "saw his father's nakedness", which is a Hebrew idiom (figure of speech) that refers to one of two things.  Either Ham sexually molested his father while he was drunk or he castrated Noah.

(I have heard numerous opinions that state that the phrase is an idiom for sleeping with the father's wife.  This is based off of a reference to the same phrase used in Deuteronomy to refer to sleeping with the father's wife.  It is my historical understanding that the writer of Deuteronomy is using this idiom of molestation to refer to what you do to your father when you sleep with his wife.  You molest him — you rob him of his manhood.  But at any rate, it is somewhat irrelevant to the point...)

The midrash teaches that Ham castrated his father.

Now here is how the midrash functions.  The student is now driven to answer the question: Why would the ancients choose THAT option?  Why does it make a difference?  Why not molestation?

Do you remember those four rivers that I told you not to forget about?  I know you thought I forgot about them.  Those four rivers that seemed to have nothing to do with the story of the garden of Eden?  Well, didn't we demonstrate earlier that this story is paralleling the story of the garden?

A river and it's tributaries is often an image of the genealogical lineage of a family.  Jewish conversation will often refer to the branches of a family line as "tributaries".  Isn't it interesting that the story that parallels this story of Noah's garden is a story with rivers and the story of Noah (read the rest of chapter nine and all of chapter ten) is all about his descendants?

There is one problem.  There were four rivers.
Noah has three sons.

What was the only repeated command given to Noah upon his departure from the ark?
"Be fruitful and multiply..."

Noah is supposed to have more children.

This is why the midrash teaches that Ham castrated Noah; Ham has robbed his father of his ability to have children.

Why does Noah curse Canaan and not Ham?

It's as if Noah is saying, "You've robbed me of my children.  May I rob you of yours!"

I believe, if we listen, we can hear God's continued invitation to Noah: "Noah, stop!  I know you are angry, but just trust the story.  Don't hurt innocence!  Don't seek revenge!  It's not as if you MUST have children in order for me to love you.  Let me be God — let me deal with justice."

But Noah is blurring the lines between the Creator and the created.  Noah curses Canaan and the Hebrew word used for curse — 'arar — is only attributed to God throughout the Scriptures.  Noah is the only human being that ever uses 'arar in the Bible.

It's the same story, over and over again.  God keeps affirming the goodness of creation, His love for all creation, and His acceptance of people.  The characters, however, keep showing us that they are incapable of mastering their desires.  They don't seem to be able to tap into their 'God image-ness' and find the rest that God intended in Genesis one.


"Trust the story." God might say, "I declared you good and made you in my image.  Just rest in my goodness and my declaration that you are enough and what I've given you is enough.  Just trust that there is enough.  Let me be the Creator.  Just rest!  Adam and Eve — rest!  Cain, why are you angry?  Let it go and rest!  Noah, I know why you are angry, but just rest!  Don't make it worse, make it better."

Maybe it will get better when man creates the brick and starts building towers...