Babel: Genesis 11

1. Babbling in Babylon
Superheroes were important in my childhood. As a child I first learnt to read for myself with Spiderman comics and the weekly adventures of the Fantastic Four. There’s a tradition with superheroes that they have an origin story. With Spiderman, part of his origin story is that he was bitten by a radioactive spider during a science experiment. With the Fantastic Four their origin story involved a freak burst of cosmic radiation whilst they were on a space mission.

There are usually some features of an origin story that have a legacy for a superhero. The account of the Tower of Babel is an origin story, and it has a far-reaching legacy. It is presented as the origin story for the immense variety of languages we find in the world. There are more than 7,000 languages spoken around the world today. This does not include dialects and extinct languages.

In Genesis we see God frustrating a building project—a massive city with its crowning glory, a tower that could reach the heavens. The people wanted fame and they wanted to avoid being scattered across the world. They got infamy but ended up being scattered.

The word Babel is fitting, as it sounds like the Hebrew for mix, as in mixing up. Babel also literally means ‘God’s Gate’—perhaps pointing to the interface of earth and heaven as the goal of the tower. This origin story has been received into popular culture. It is where the English word babble originates. But perhaps the most well-known example for us is the Babel Fish in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. A fictional fish that undoes Babel by translating any language if you are happy to stick one in your ear! As soon as we have different languages the problem of communication goes beyond words to culture. The Babel Fish is an illustration of this, known to many English speakers but probably not part of most other world cultures.

Douglas Adams is playing on medieval theology’s proofs for the existence of God (if you are not familiar with his version clicking here). What he failed to appreciate is that medieval proofs are not proofs in the modern sense. Rather they are an invitation into a worldview with not only an origin story but a wonderful goal in Jesus Christ the Son of God. Douglas Adams like many atheists refutes a God who is the construct of secular modernism rather than the creator revealed in and through Jesus of Nazareth’s life, death, and resurrection. As Christians we find that the Bible’s world makes sense of the world in which we live, of ourselves and of the God who lies behind both creation and salvation.

2. Scheming on Shinar
What were those people trying to do on Shinar plain? It seems to be a building project of a magnitude greater even than the efforts that created modern Dubai or Doha. What lies behind God’s concern? Why did God choose to confound them? This is the theological origin story. The first attempt to reach heaven, to overthrow God. From a pre-modern understanding this is a literal attempt to reach God’s dwelling place—God’s Gate.

What would have happened if the whole of humanity devoted themselves with singlemindedness to building this city and tower? What would have happened if they could have fulfilled the fullest extent of their desire for fame? What else would they have gone on to achieve?

Our modern world is a place of division between peoples, nations, and language groups. We might imagine that a common language would be a blessing, bringing people together, preventing wars, enabling solutions to world problems such as global warming. And yet the Bible says differently. It takes our sin, and fundamental inability to have good relationships, seriously. This would indicate that for all the failings and brokenness in our world it would be even worse if all humanity were not divided by language barriers. Unlimited building, unlimited science, unlimited cultural expression might just equate to unlimited sin. Genesis, and the wider Old Testament, tell God’s story of limiting sin as his first step to dealing it the decisive blow in Jesus Christ.

The scattering of the schemers at Shinar is both judgement and mercy. God’s actions of judgement and mercy belong together in story after story in the Bible—perhaps they are always two sides of the same coin. In the future, this currency of judgement and mercy will be the basis for the re-creation of heaven and earth. A future when we will be able to join all humanity with one voice in praise of God, in the heavenly city.

3. Building at Babel
The early chapters of Genesis detail, among other things, the gifts and capabilities that God gave humanity. The problem is that humanity has the ongoing ability to use them for both good and ill.

The beginning of agricultural technology in Genesis, via Jabal, can be for good or ill. We need efficient and effective agriculture to produce food. Without it the world’s population is unsustainable. And yet the environment and wildlife pay the price for careless use technology. Biodiversity is diminished. Toxic chemicals go into our bodies and the environment. Soil is vulnerable to being washed away. The list goes on.

The beginning of music technology with Jubal is also for good and ill. Music can be a source of great delight and is emotionally therapeutic. Music can also lie at the heart of darker cultural expressions.

Engineering and my own area of materials technology is no exception to this choice:

They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar.
Genesis 11:3, NIV

At Babel the possibility of taller buildings and a quicker building technology was founded on bricks and tar. In my view they could have done better than tar, but that’s not key right now. Today we do unnecessary violence to our planet by over-engineering with concrete and steel. In many cases bamboo might suffice.

The bottom line is that broken humanity cannot decisively solve its problems—this is counter to the world’s narrative, despite the overwhelming evidence. This should not lead to fatalism. Acknowledging the problem of sin still offers the possibility of real progress in undoing its pervasiveness and consequences, from a more realistic stance.

4. Kingdom Construction
That said, we eagerly await the heavenly city of peace where we will know unlimited life and joy rather than Babel’s unlimited sin and death.

God has the most remarkable alternative to Babel. Out of the nations, peoples and language groups he calls men, women and children to a subversive activity.

He calls us to gather and worship him, in and through his son Jesus Christ. It is subversive because the call is to serve him before all other things. Our commitment to Christ, to his Church, to the Kingdom of God comes ahead of our commitment to our nation, our ethnic history, our culture.

It is also remarkable because we are the body of Jesus Christ as we gather.

It is subversive because we believe that all humanity is called to join with us. Pentecost’s gift of interpreting languages is the first fruit of the undoing of Babel. The sign of the age to come which is the undoing of the sin that lay behind the scheming, building and babbling of Babel. As John the Elder saw:

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:

“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”

Revelation 7:9-10, NIV

Where Did It All Go Wrong?

A Reflection on Genesis 3:1–24

1. Certain Death
Many people are quick to dismiss the Bible—often without pause to think what it is they might be disowning. There is, however, an assertion of the Bible that is difficult to deny. Written on most pages, in different ways, is the bad news that precedes the good news we have in Christ Jesus. This underpinning claim is that the world is broken, and that humankind is at the heart of this problem.

We readily believe this biblical claim because it is evident all around us. Our newspapers, news channels and social media are filled with enough evidence to prove, beyond any doubt, that something is wrong with this world. Organised crime, sexual violence, war, and environmental damage, to name just four, cover a multitude of sins.

Early in Genesis we read this:

And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”
Genesis 2:16–17, NIV

Surely, on this basis, we now know what to expect if Adam should ignore God? This is storytelling at its bluntest: “you will certainly die” says God to Adam.

We have all seen TV dramas where what happens next is so obviously set-up, we don’t feel the need to watch the next couple of minutes. In the UK this is embodied in the hospital drama Casualty. The opening scene might have an elderly couple whose car breaks down close to a bend in a very narrow country lane. They get out of their vehicle to see what they can do. The camera cuts to a group of young people in a car. They are acting boisterously with more than a hint that alcohol, as well as the passengers, are impairing the driver. On this limited evidence we know what happens next.

In Genesis when Eve and Adam eat the fruit, they don’t drop down dead—this is no poisonous apricot. Nor is God’s judgement an instantaneous bolt of lightning from heaven. Rather, Genesis 3 is a slow unfolding car crash, far worse than two people poisoned or fried by lightening.

2. Naked Wisdom
Some people struggle with the apparent arbitrary nature of God’s command to Adam and Eve.

. . . but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”
Genesis 2:17, NIV

But this is the heart of the story. Captured in this act of eating a singular specific fruit, is our failure to recognise the creaturely need for instruction from the creator. To ignore God’s instruction is a denial that we are creatures, and a choice to break the created order.

Both biblical wisdom and our everyday experience testify that we are our own worst enemies. John Donne puts it well:

Nothing but man of all envenomed things,
     doth work upon itself, with inborn stings.
John Donne

In Genesis 3 we notice that the snake craftily nudges Adam and Eve:

but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”
Genesis 3:3, NIV

The added emphasis on touch seems to exaggerate the sense arbitrariness and invites another sense. They have seen this fruit, they know they should not taste it, and now the serpent suggests even touching it is out of the question. And yet the snake makes a good point:

“For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Genesis 3:5, NIV

There is nothing in this story to suggest that either Adam or Eve are more at fault. The women sins by her words, the man by his silence. But to even think about the blame game is a mistake. They fall into temptation as one, just as they are united in one flesh in Genesis 2. They fall as one, and this joint act sows the seed of future disunity.

They acted unwisely at the most fundamental of levels—by not fearing God. Where has their earthly wisdom got them? The first fruit of their action is the irreversible road to perceive right and wrong for themselves rather than looking to God. They now question everything, and most fundamentally they know shame. They know they have betrayed the one that made their bodies, and that they are naked before him.

3. Poetic Justice
Death is now inevitable as there will be no opportunity to eat of the tree of life. The good of creation—captured in the two creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2—has been marred. Genesis 3 captures the consequences in poetry. It is laid out in short lines in the NIV, and other most modern translations, to show this form. But why poetry? Its form highlights the importance of these verses. The consequences started with the first humans, but they are still with us today.

Hebrew poetry testifies to divine order even amid disorder. Some of the most difficult parts of the First Testament are poetry. The consequences of the fall are undoubtedly negative, but they are part of bigger story guided by a God of order.

The poetic justice is that Eve labours to bear children and Adam labours to grow food. Life is a struggle in this broken creation. And we know all of this is worked out in a morass of complexity to this day, and ironically amid a divisive web of irreconcilably different interpretations.

4. East of Eden
The first couple were made from dust—with no access to the tree of life, to dust they will return. Rather oddly, Adam only names his wife as Eve after the fall. Might it be that they were so united in idyllic Eden that they went by a single name? In any case Adam and Eve will both become adamah, or earth, on their death.

Now East of Eden, we can only guess how much they may have looked hopefully West, longing to go back to the garden and to be with God. In Near-Eastern and European culture the West has often been looked to in hope—the place where the sun sets as the place of blessing. Anyone familiar with Tolkien’s Middle-Earth will know the haunting appeal of the Undying Lands:

But islands lie behind the Sun,
That I shall raise ere all is done.
Lands there are to west of West,
Where night is quiet and sleep is rest.
Bilbo’s Last Song, JRR Tolkien

The problem is that there is no way back. Rather than the wide ocean of Tolkien’s fiction, Adam and Eve are thwarted by cherubim and a flaming sword. The way to God is shut.

And yet for us, on this Earth, the fate of the snake offers us hope:

And I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel.”
Genesis 3:15, NIV

Later theology sees this as the conflict between Church and the evil one. Genesis 3 might be the bad news. But this self-evident broken world is a constant reminder of the one who will redeem it, and us, by destroying evil, sin and death. It also provides the starting point for conversation with those who hastily dismiss the Bible—for they know the reality of the bad news, and this is the start of the road to the quiet and rest of the good news.

Nick Cave’s Seven Psalms

Generative Possibility
Nick Cave’s album, Seven Psalms, was released on the 17th June 2022. I discovered this collection because of the title’s likely nod to the Penitential, or Seven, Psalms. This post is a review of Cave’s short album, but one with a difference. By considering seven features—or signs—of the biblical psalms I address the question of how this recent work relates to the ancient Psalter. Whatever else might be said of the Book of Psalms, its generative potential cannot be denied. And however near, or far, Cave’s lyrics might be from ancient Israel it is psalmody that lies behind them. The simple cover of the work in question provides further insight into the way in which the Psalter has worked here. For a small simple cross is the singular graphic feature. These songs are to be understood as a Christian reception of the Psalms. When we hear the address ‘Lord’, it is presumably both Yahweh and Christ that are in mind. Doubtless like the biblical psalmists, Cave’s own context also supplies generative direction. From what I know of Nick Cave’s recent life he has experienced pain as acute as that known by the ancient poets. This is not, however, the place for biography as the goal here is not explanation. I aim to point, with Cave’s creation, to the Psalms and thence to the one whose breath generated them.

Poetic Nature
Cave’s album comprises seven short psalms or responses to the Psalms. In addition, an eighth much longer track—some eleven minutes, or so—captures the music and refrains of the seven but omits Cave’s poetic voiceovers. Probably inadvertently this one-plus-eight form alludes to the tension between psalms as single entities and the Psalter as a whole. More certain is that Cave’s words are to be seen as poems. Much modern music is poetry, with Dylan and Cohen providing ample evidence for such a claim. Here, Cave has made poetic intent unambiguous by using spoken word, rather than lyrics, along with the music. A key feature of Cave’s Seven Psalms is the centrality of figurative language. Much of the metaphor and imagery is biblical and connects with its source organically. Some is deliberately in tension with its origin. For example, whereas Psalm 84 celebrates that:

Even the sparrow has found a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may have her young—
a place near your altar,
Lord Almighty, my King and my God.
Psalm 84:3, NIV

By contrast, in Cave’s sixth psalm—Such Things Should Never Happen—the baby sparrow dies, and the swallow only finds a nest after experiencing grief. Troubling yes, but an honest nod to the perplexities of theodicy and death amid the life of faith.

A third group of metaphors and images beg the question of whether Cave tries too hard with his figurative language. I will leave the listener to judge for themselves, but I found that after some initial jars these softened with repetition and reflection.

Terseness
The terseness of Hebrew poetry is generally acknowledged as part of its very nature. Translators have had to wrestle for some two thousand years with the degree to which this can and should be preserved. All seven songs here are terse and have a form like the songs to which to which they point. More specifically each of them can be broken into two or three strophes, each comprising four lines. They also can be understood as following another common feature of biblical poetry in that each strophe comprises two bicola with the second cola (B) furthering the first (A) in a diversity of ways. Here is an example from I Have Trembled My Way Deep:

A:    I have trembled my way deep into surrender.
B:    I have stretched my aching body across the world.

Note how the second cola enriches and furthers the first and the two together are more than the sum of the two parts. In this specific example we also see how poetic terseness provides openness and polyvalence. This bicola, like so much biblical psalmody, asks us ‘who is saying these words?’. The first psalm of this cycle—How Long Have I Waited—asks another perennial question from the psalms, ‘how long?’. Such repetitive motifs are actualised by their terseness and intertextuality. They are in a sense world-defining—tangibly demonstrating Walter Brueggemann’s idea that the biblical text is the word that redescribes the world.

Prayerful reflection
Another frequent refrain of the Psalter is the cry ‘have mercy on me?’. And this is the title of Cave’s second psalm. This confession of sin is either hyperbole on Cave’s lips or he is writing of the sins of a nation or a dictator. Or perhaps the words reflect our common guilt as fallen humanity. Here a mirror is held up to Psalm 137 as the psalmist confesses that they have ‘dashed the new-born upon the rocks’. In this confession, and throughout, Cave is continually and prayerfully reflective which is surely the raison d’être of the Psalter. The beauty of psalm-based reflection is for all the clarity there is also a huge measure of open intertextual allusion and word play.

Faithful Questioning
Of course, questioning the apparent injustice of the created order does not make songs into psalms nor an album into a Psalter. The stance of the psalmist is also key. These seven songs make this extra step in that the questioning apparently arises from faith and trust. We have already noted that the one addressed is Lord. There is also an underlying assumption that the questioned Lord will answer, if not now at some later date. These songs are a cry from the depths like Psalm 130. This is no pitiful unanswered cry of someone drowning but rather a call to one whose saving hand has been glimpsed reaching out. Psalm 42’s ‘deep calls to deep’ in I Come Alone to You and the prayer, ‘pierce me deep’ in I Have Trembled My Way Deep reveal a rich relationship in a play of words where the problem is transmuted into a solution as is so often experienced in earnest prayer.

Pilgrim Songs
Like the ancient Psalter these songs provide overall a firm, but at times an inchoate, glimpse into the journey of faith. These songs are rich with the motifs of pilgrimage. The words ‘way’ and ‘wandered’ are found in the titles of two of the songs. This is someone who knows they have yet to find their home:

I have wandered all my unending days.
Shuttered your shining aspect in the stars.
Hidden alleys and tramp broken highways.
With little in my pockets but my prayers.
Nick Cave, I Have Wandered All My Unending Days

Perhaps here the pocketed prayers are the biblical psalms? Like the richness of the Psalms, we should note that Cave’s responses are not only words of lament and introspection, but they are also songs of praise like the Pilgrim Psalms of the Psalter:

Splendour, Lord, oh glorious splendour.
The world explodes amazing at your hand.
Oh glory, Lord, oh splendouring wonder.
March together across this loud and wild land.
Nick Cave, Splendour, Glorious Splendour

Expectancy
Throughout the seven songs there is the attitude of the biblical psalmist, a faith seeking understanding. Questioning is normal, or even required, as we make our way through the life of faith. Whilst the journey is important it can only make sense when the goal is something understood. This comes across in Cave’s collection most clearly in the refrain to I Have Wandered All My Unending Days: ‘There is a mansion in the sky’. This might be an intentional reference to the song by The Brian Jamestown Massacre of the same name. Both Cave’s work and that of The Brain Jamestown Massacre refer to the Johannine Jesus’ claim that:

My Father’s house has many rooms . . .
John 14:2a, NIV

This goal of our pilgrim wandering helps cultivate the psalmist’s expectation which turns to an attitude of trust. Such a way of reading the life of faith helps us pray the psalms aright, as well as generate our own echoes of this school of prayer. I hope I have heard the Seven Psalms aright and Cave and I share the same road.

Children and Heirs of God

A reflection on Psalm 148, Luke 2:36–40 and Galatians 4:4–7.

Anna the daughter of Phanuel makes the briefest of appearances in the Bible, in what we call the Christmas story. Only here in Luke’s gospel do we meet her and get the briefest insight into who she is. One of the remarkable things we find out, in this small window on the life of a widow, is that she lived in lockdown.

For us lockdown has mostly, perhaps entirely, negative connotations. Being stuck largely within the confines of a single building with all the freedoms we normally taken for granted removed is painfully restrictive. Unlike us, Anna chose lockdown. Perhaps her humble circumstances as a widow helped her make the choice. Perhaps she just wanted a life of devotion to the living God of Israel.

Her confines were larger than ours—the parts of the temple complex she was allowed in were a lot bigger than a typical modern house and garden. Nevertheless, choosing such confinement seems odd to us. In church history others have followed Anna’s lead. There have been countless individuals and communities who have renounced normality, if there is such a thing. Many have chosen lockdown, or confinement in one place.

Julian of Norwich is possibly the most famous example. She lived in a single room within a Parish church (now St. Julian’s Church) for more than 20 years, until her death around 1416. She was what is known as an anchorite —someone so anchored to Christ that they choose to anchor themselves to a single place as an act of extreme devotion. So serious was this act of confinement in the Middle Ages that Julian had the last rites read for her before being ‘locked down’—she was literally dead to her old life. Like Anna her experience was not total self-isolation, for both Julian and Anna were judged prophets—they had a ministry to others.

After nine months of the Hokey Cokey (or Hokey Pokey) of lockdowns—national and local—we probably don’t have the metal bandwidth to consider such confinement as a choice. But for Anna, and Julian, this was the exact point of their lockdown. It was not just a life choice but was the way they felt best able to honour the living God. We perhaps dismiss the likes of Anna, before giving serious thought to their singular commitment to recognise the worship of God in Christ as a priority that eclipses all others.

Many Christian confessions describe the purpose of humanity as the unceasing praise of the living God through Christ. For example, the Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Confession of Faith opens with the assertion that:

Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.

This sits well with the singular abandoned praise of Psalm 148. It chimes with the choice of Anna to live in the Temple grounds. It fits with the brave decision of countless men and women who have renounced everything for Christ.

Putting the words in a more modern vain:

Humankind’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.

This is certainly where things started in Eden and where they end in the Book of Revelation. In living in between, most of us don’t adopt the singlemindedness of Anna. She gave up distractions, whereas we have more than ever. And clearly this cannot be the normal call for all of us who know Jesus as saviour and lord. We would, however, do well to be inspired by Anna’s commitment and we should head the remarkable insight she is given about Jesus as the basis for the redemption of Jerusalem. Her insight might at first sound parochial—the redemption of the city, the place of her lockdown—but she perceived the bigger picture. For this child opens the way to the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem, the New Heaven and the New Earth. This will be a place for day and night worship for all. Where there will be no more distraction from our primary calling.

Anna understood that the fullness of time had come. She understood that the child, Jesus, born of a woman and under the law was a gateway to redemption. Paul, writing from the other side of cross and resurrection explains this further: We are, in Christ, made children of God. Of course, we were originally made as God’s children, but we need to be adopted once again because of our waywardness and distraction. In the new relationship found through Jesus Christ we are restored to our original relationship with the Father. Our Father can once again look upon us with delight, as our opposition to him, that comes all too easily, is taken from us in Christ.

Contrary to what you might have heard, Abba is not Aramaic for Daddy. The word is far richer than this. It has all the intimacy of Daddy but at the same time the recognition of absolute Fatherly authority. This richer meaning of the word Abba is the heart of the gospel. It is the four-letter appellation for God that captures the mystery of the creator God in all his majesty and glory who has nevertheless adopted us in a father-child relationship.

We don’t tend to enjoy having authorities over us. We might well feel we are slaves to our government’s laws, restrictions, and guidance, to the point where for the first time we think consciously on a daily basis about such matters.

Such slavery, if that’s what it is, pales into insignificance before the slavery that is the human condition. Without Jesus Christ, and our newfound adoption, we would be slaves to sin and slaves to death. Whilst we still sin, and we will die, we are now slaves to neither. Neither sin nor death bars us from an eternity with Abba Father. We know Christ crucified, who put an end to the slavery of both sin and death. We have seen Christ resurrected as the promise of this reality.

As Galatians 4:7 says:

So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God. [NRSV]

What did Anna inherit? What did Julian of Norwich inherit? What have we inherited? The same things as one another! Namely the steadfast hope of an eternity with our Father. We should rejoice here and now. We should avoid being distracted from both worshipping him and acknowledging his lordship. And yet our present reality pales before that day of glory when the one born of a woman, and born under the law, returns in splendour. God’s firstborn enables us all to be children and heirs.

Advent: Hope

At this time, even more than is normally the case, hope is in the air. Even the UK government is aspiring to offer us hope. The hope of a vaccine for Covid-19, and the hope of a Christmas in which family, friends, and hugs will be especially cherished. Perhaps this year a love of stuff and stuffing will be eclipsed by a love to be with others, and a love for others. Such a hope for the festive season, although encouraging, is not biblical hope. Although, of course, the love for family and friend accords with the love and relationships which are central to Christian hope.

So, what is this greater hope? The Apostle Paul said:

Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction. [Romans 12:12]

The hope that Paul says we must await in joy requires patience because it lies way beyond Christmas. This hope is characterised by love, but it lies beyond the earth. It is a hope in a new heaven and a new earth—a new reality—a place where love abounds, and friendship encompasses God, as well as family and friends. Perhaps we see the value of such things clearer after the events of 2020. Perhaps this is the gift of 2020 vision.

Such a hope is sometimes described as a sure and certain hope because of its foundation. It is founded on Christmas in as far as Christmas concerns God’s Son made flesh to dwell among us. It is founded on Easter too, in that the same Jesus was found to be God’s Son when he rose to life. The sure and certain hope of resurrection is our future hope.

In this way, our hope, is a future beyond our current earthly reality. Yet it is founded in the past events recounted in the Bible. But what of the present? The future hope, founded in the past, changes everything here and now. Christian hope provides new glasses, a God-given prescription to see the world anew.

No more tears. No more death. No more worries. No more frailty. No loneliness. Such a future hope puts the, all to obvious, fragility of our present into perspective. We can live life to the full now sustained by such a glorious future hope. This is the sort of 2020 vision we always need but we perhaps see it afresh this year.