Sunday, February 25, 2007

In which Michael5000 returns to the task at hand

Gen 9:18 - 11 has a lot of geneology in it. I don't know about you, but I find listings of who begat whom a little weak as sacred text.

There are two ways of looking at the Bible. Well, there are gazillions of ways of looking at the Bible, I suppose, but I think this two-class system is pretty reasonable:

  • religiously -- the Bible is a sacred text, a message from God to his creation, or

  • historically -- the Bible is the collected writings of a society from a place, time, and context far from our own.

Old Testament geneology is easy to explain historically, as it's just a paternity-obsessed culture's method of establishing a legacy for themselves, as a society and as individuals. But in trying to look at the Bible religiously, it's a little harder to see how the geneologies make the cut. To know that, for instance, Arphaxad was the father of Shelah, and Shelah the father of Eber [10:24] is all fine and good -- I guess -- but how does it help me understand God, or to become a better person? I suppose that, taken in the aggregate, an overall message of "lineage is important" might be drawn, but this seems a little oblique.

I bring this up not only because geneology is so notoriously abundant in Genesis, but because the meatier episodes of today's readings are also easy to interpret historically, but hard to swallow religiously. Take, for instance, the matter of:

Noah's Family Values

The floodwaters having receded, Noah plants a vineyard. Soon, he is making wine, and shortly thereafter he is passed out naked in his tent. (I am not being flip: he became drunk and lay uncovered insdie his tent. [9:21]) Ham, one of his three sons, sees him in this condition and tells his brothers. Here's the full description of the incident: Ham saw his father's nakedness and told his two brothers outside. [9:22] The two brothers, good lads both, go inside and cover Dad up.

What happens next is pretty bizarre. Noah wakes up, finds up that Ham saw him naked, and because of this puts a curse on Canaan, Ham's son, condemning him to be a slave to his brothers. With no further commentary offered, we are apparently supposed to think that Noah is righteous in doing this.

The historical interpretation? A slam dunk. The story provides Noah's own blessing of the Israelites' conquest and enslavement of the Canaanites, whom the accompanying geneologies show to be decended from Canaan (Hence the name, yeah?).

The religious interpretation? Troubling for anyone who has ever seen a parent naked. It's awfully hard to see Noah as a representative of Godliness as he condemns his grandson to slavery for his father commiting a gesture of disrespect on the scale of putting his elbows on the dinner table. And, to the extent to which this story has the imprimiteur of God's word, it does not make a strong case for a family-friendly Old Testament God.

The Tower of Babel

Here is another Genesis story, so integral in our culture, that is almost unbelievably compact:

Then they said "come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches
to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered
over the face of the whole earth." But the Lord came down to see the city
and the tower that the men were building. The Lord said, If as one people
speaking the same language they have bugun to do this, then nothing they plan to
do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their
language so they will not understand each other."

Historically, no problem. It's a twofur story, explaining both the mystery of diverse languages and the ruined ziggerats you would bump into occasionally out east.

Religiously, we are generally told that this is a story about human arrogance and divine punishment. The people of the city, as I was taught, challenged God or sought to outdo God by building their cities so high, and so naturally set themselves up for a comeupance.

But here's the surprise -- that tale of hubris punished isn't in the text. What you've actually got in the text is a group of people acting with what most of us would consider commendable ambition to build a city that fostered community and commanded respect. God doesn't set out to punish them, he sets out to thwart them. With everyone speaking the same language, he says, "nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them." This is what parents and teachers say hopefully of promising children. But for God, this is a bad thing, and must be stopped.

I find the notion that God hates the human ambition to build and create very difficult to swallow. And if the yardstick for excessive amibition is building cities with tall buildings, well -- uh oh.

See you next week. I promise.


Karin said...

What you fail to comment on is the other part I find most interesting about the tower of Babel, when God says--

"Let US go down and confuse their language."

Um..."us?" Us? What the heck?

I'm thinking the monotheistic God Of The Jews had a little MPD (multiple personality disorder) OR perhaps some adherants to Judaism of the time were polytheistic. Gasp.

Oh, and isn't the boring-as-all-get-out lineage meant to eventually prove that Jesus is the Messiah?

Jean said...

So glad to see that you're back to the bible reading, so the rest of us who are too lazy to take on the task can still reap the benefits of your efforts.

Anyhow, just wanted to comment on the Noah and his sons story. And remember that the story of Ham is also what was, and still is in many respects, so frequently used to justify slavery in the US and probably across the globe. So Michael, as if you didn't already have a big enough task at hand in reading the bible, I'm going to reccomend an author (a Portland author, actually) who's writing is far less tedious to read: Inga Muscio. And you might want to start with the chapter entitled "Tiptoeing around Noah's Big Drunk Ass" in the Book "autobiography of a blue-eyed devil". Or maybe you're already familiar with inga's work. Anyhow, if she's ever speaking in Portland, please go see her on my behalf...

Mark Witteman said...

Let me be the third commenter to say, glad to see you back at this blog, Michael. Honestly, it's always fun to read.

Shortly after the attacks of 11 September 2001, I remember some stating that the fall of twin towers was a reprisal of God's destruction of the Tower of Babel. A quick google search turned up one example from

However, we cannot overlook the fact that the World Trade Center Towers could certainly be a type and warning to us as a nation that our money and pride has reached into the heavens and it is now brought down by our own sins. In the Old Testament there was another tower that God did not approve of -- it was the Tower of Babel. This is how Babylon got its name. Nimrod and the men who were building this tower had the wrong motives for doing it; therefore, the Lord confounded their languages so that the work was not completed and the men were scattered abroad on the face of the earth.

The same web page also hopes to make you feel small and stupid if you disagree with interpretations of scripture.

The Book of Revelation is a coded book and was written for Christians so that only they could understand it. Those who do not have the Holy Spirit are bewildered by its imagery.

So don't blame them if it's not all crystal clear!

michael5000 said...

Thanks for your comments, guys!

@Karin - I've wondered about all of the first person plural before too. I think I decided to assume it's a kind of "Royal 'We'." But it would be interesting to hear what a historical linguist thought of it.

@Karin - Since the Old Testament is also the Hebrew Bible -- the sacred text of Judaism -- it can't JUST be about proving Jesus is the Messiah, I wouldn't think.

@Jean - Yes, the "Curse of Ham" was a key justification of slavery, so it's kind of a hoot to realize there ISN'T a "Curse of Ham." It's a Curse of Canaan. A pretty fine distinction to make, I suppose, to someone who justified owning another human being on the basis that one of his ancestors many thousands of years ago once saw his dad naked.

@Mark - I'm starting to realize how much many vocal Bible enthusiasts rely much more on a kind of Bible study tradition that has no necessary anchor in the text. The bit about "Nimrod and the other men who were building the tower"? Well, the Bible doesn't identify who built the tower, and it certainly doesn't specify Nimrod as being involved. To get to that conclusion, you have to conflate the Babel story with some begitting and begatting a page or two earlier, and -- again, based solely on the text -- it's a connection that is plausible but by no means certain.

But perhaps I've been bewildered by the imagery.

chuckdaddy2000 said...

Wow, the Bibleblog is back and then some. I'm already behind.

Some random thoughts based on your entry and comments...

1. Not only did Ham see his dad naked, but he saw his 100+ year old naked. Ouch.

2. "Tiptoeing around Noah's Big Drunk Ass" is a hilarious name for a chapter of a book. I laughed out loud reading that Jean.

3. The tower of Babel story always struck me as very Greek mythology. Here's why we have languages!

4. I had a different take with the line, "Let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches
to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered". To me, the very idea that they could build a tower to heaven did imply hubris. Although I do see what you mean, God does seem more interested in thwarting progress than teaching them a lesson. It is certainly different from the Icarus story, which is much more clearly hubris gone too far.