Place of Refuge

Place of Refuge

27 May 2010

Return to Genesis: Babel

It's been a little while since I've thought about
the Book of Genesis,
which happens to be my most favorite book
of all time.

I mean, think about it:
it has everything in it: 
a big ol' flood, 
and that wonderful story about the Tower of Babel.

Now, I wasn't planning on talking about
the Tower of Babel,
but I'm compelled to talk about it:


I was visiting some Jewish friends last week, and they invited me to go to synagogue with them for the singing of the Book of Ruth.  It was the celebration of Shavuot, but my friend also called it Pentecost.  And so we discussed what Pentecost is in the Christian Church, and what Shavuot is to the Jews.  For Jews, Pentecost is the fiftieth day after Passover, as it is for the Christians.  For Jews, Pentecost celebrates a harvest, and that is one of the reasons they read the Book of Ruth.  It is also the commemoration of God giving the Torah (including the Ten Commandments) to his people, and a few other things as well.

I must confess that when I recounted my understanding of what the feast of Pentecost celebrates in Christianity, it was burdened by my own interpretation: when I think of Pentecost I think of those pictures of the apostles with tongues of fire over the heads, sort of as if they had just been transformed into Bic lighters.  I don't mean to be disrespectful, it's simply that that's the best description I could come up with for this image that was ingrained in my mind so long ago:

( wikipedia pentecost )

Now, I know this has something to do with the Holy Spirit descending upon the Apostles; along with that, the thing I recall most readily about the celebration of Pentecost is that the disciples began to speak in tongues --

And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language (Acts 2: 1-6)

This always makes me think of the other moment of "confounding" in the Old Testament, the story of the Tower of Babel:

(Eikongraphia   very nice blog)

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.
And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.
And they said one to another, Come, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly.  And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar.
And they said, Come, 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.
And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.
And the Lord said, Behold the people are one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be withheld from them, which they have imagined to do.
Come, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one antoher's speech.
So the Lord scattered them abroad from there upon the face of all the earth: and they ceased building the city.
Therfore is the name of it called Babel, because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth; and from there did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.
(Genesis, book 11)

What is odd in the Christian Pentecost story is that humans become confounded
when the Disciples are able to speak
to communicate across the divide produced 
at the destruction of the Tower of Babel.

So how does one confoundment
another confoundment out?

In my limited limitless wisdom,
I declared to my Jewish friends:
the Christian version of Pentecost provides
the antedote
for Babel.

The Christian story of Pentecost suggests a power
that is capable of counteracting
the confoundment that resulted
when the totality of 
was rent asunder
because they were getting too big for their britches
too quickly.

It's another case of the negative meeting the positive;
another case of
the palindrome.

The First Tower
that was built
at Babel
was foolishness -
it was like a child
trying to build a structure
out of blocks
to reach his father's
tool bench.
It was
a physical attempt
to do something
that was physically impossible.

the power  of the Holy Sprit
is born
on something that is 
not necessarily
but is, rather,
the opposite
of physical.

Would it be too corny
to say that
the antedote to 
the physical destruction
of Babel
is love?

my Jewish friends liked that story of Pentecost
quite a bit,
but I now look at the literature and see
that that's really simply
my interpretation.

But I think it's a fairly cool

in our disparate,
corners of the earth,
we continue to try to build those buildings:

What does it mean to build a large building?
Many would call it some sort of
phallic obsession:

Look at it another way:
maybe our continued construction
(and demolition)
of large monumental buildings
is actually an
re-enactment of the performance
at Babel
where a people tried to
"make themselves a name"

For humans to try
to make for themselves a 
in the Story ofGenesis
is for humans
to step into the role
of God,
which they were never really supposed to do.
Our task has always been
to present a likeness of God,
not to be 

I have a vague thought, then,
that if we really want to restore
the power and unification of human souls
that existed before Babel,
we're not going to do it with a building;
we're not going to do it with anything tangible --
we'll do it with the intangible.

Could the counterpart,
the antedote
to the Tower of Babel
the internet?


This is not at all what I thought I would write today.
And it's halting - not a real pure
My own individual mind
got too much 
in the way.
That, and that glorious sun,
belting down
outside my window.

You know the years
can pass by,
one after another,
but one thing remains constant:
the earth and her seasons.

What a beautiful day
Hope yours is too.

with love

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