Old Testament (Genesis 10-16)
1. Genesis 11:1-9: What’s the main point of the Babel story?
At face value, the central thrust of the Babel narrative is that human hubris—symbolised in progressive attempts to build towards the heavens—leads to divine judgment, specifically taking the form of scattering the peoples and confusing their languages.
Set against the literary and historical context of Genesis, though, the meaning becomes a bit clearer. There is anti-Babylonian streak to the story which I hadn’t noticed before but which makes sense in light of the near eastern parallels against which Genesis 1-11 is written. With this narrative there is no specific parallel but rather the use of motifs related to Babylonian religion—for instance, Babel literally means “gate of the god” . As Wenham writes (ECB, 37): “The ridiculing of Babylonian pretensions is even more apparent in the tower of Babel story. Far from its vaunted tower touching heaven and the name Babel (Babylon) meaning “gate of the god”, the Lord had to come down from heaven to see the skyscraper—so far short of his dwelling did it reach; and its name means ‘confusion’ or ‘folly’”. The Hebrew roots for the word “confuse” (“let us confuse”) and “folly” are almost the same.
A final angle worth considering is the depiction of language in the narrative. Wenham notes that the Sumerian epic, “Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta” has all the world speaking a single language (proof of the dominance of that culture): Sumerian. Wenham therefore sees the diversity of languages is therefore proof of divine judgment on human sin, in this case hubris.
2. Genesis 14:28: who is Melchizedek and where is Salem?
Almost out of the blue and within a chapter about various military conquests, Melchizedek appears. Salem probably refers to Jerusalem (see Psalms 76:2; 110:2-4) Some traditions have equated Melchizedek with Zadok the priest.
In terms of the literary flow, Abram meets with two Kings, Melchizedek and the king of Sodom, and both react very differently to Abram. These reactions foreshadow very different fates for both Sodom (12:3a; 13:13, 18:16-19:29) and Jerusalem, the first nation to be blessed by Abram (see 12:3b).
New Testament (John 5:25-8:30 )
1. 7:27, 42: What are the sources of the tradition around the place of origin of the Messiah?
John 7 features disputes about Jesus’s origins (where he is from) and endpoint (where he is going). I was interested to know what the traditions were for the origin of the Messiah (Job 28:12-28 and Baruch 3:14-15 also both feature speculation about the origins of Wisdom, or Sophia, which also seems important for John). John appears to report two traditions about the origins of the Messiah (see Novenson, Grammar of Messianism p.87): first, that the Messiah is son of David and hence from Bethlehem (7:42), and second that no one knows from whence the Messiah comes (7:27). The first opinion correlates with other Synoptic texts concerning Jesus as David’s Son, in human terms, but also as his Lord, as the Exalted one (see Mark 12:35-37).
Relatedly, there are also further questions about Jesus’s place of origin which the crowd confirms twice as being Galilee (I tend to think that this comports well with Matthew’s account which has Jesus grow up in Nazareth, 2:23, though born in Bethlehem, as well as Luke, which has Mary in Nazareth and betrothed to Joseph, of David’s line, and giving birth to Jesus in Bethlehem, 2:4). Though of course, the irony for John, is that the crowd fail to reckon with Jesus’s divine origins and the fact that he is “from the Father” (7:29). Again we see Jesus’s interlocutors fail to grasp the deeper or spiritual significance of his identity and mission (see Nicodemus on “being born again/from above”, John 3, and the woman at the well and the “living water”, John 4).
Discipleship Reflection: Genesis 11 and Linguistic Diversity
In a creative re-reading of Genesis 11 (“Let Every Tongue Confess: Language Diversity and Reformed Public Theology” in Reformed Public Theology), James Eglinton develops an insight from the work of John Calvin and Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck which renders a slightly different reading of this story than Wenham’s. Calvin saw linguistic difference a partly a result of the fall, but as nevertheless something through which God worked. Linguistic difference in the Genesis narrative, according to Calvin, appears in chapter 10 ‘(vv. 5, 20, 31). As Eglinton writes, Calvin argued that
…the chapters [10 and 11] were indeed written in chronological sequence and that God was already orchestrating the spread of humanity across the earth [again, see chapter 10 where divergent human groups are already spread out in different locations and speak different languages]—a divine purpose resisted by the proud Babelites. As such, the process of increasing diversity of language appears to have been set in motion regardless of the events surrounding God’s wrath at the tower of Babel.
In other words, Calvin does not see God’s confusion of human language as the only thing to be said about linguistic diversity.
While Calvin had committed himself to the view that God had flooded the world with words at Babel in an effort to restrain the progress of sin, he also left the door open to another possibility: Without Babel, without a fall into sin, a harmonious and holy diversity of languages still would have arisen.
So while a tragic response to human hubris, the scattering of the peoples and the confusion of language is not the last word, as it were, on human words. Indeed, reading canonically, in Revelation 7 we see the diverse nations and tribes of every tongue before the throne, which is clearly a positive picture of harmonious difference and unity in diversity. Eglinton beautifully connects linguistic diversity with the creation mandate in Genesis 1:28. God encourages fallen humanity to disperse and explore creation, including the languages of the world, “and full the earth with diverse manifestations of culture and language”.
Further List of Questions
- Genesis 11:29: So are Abraham and Sarah related?
- Genesis 13:13: what was Sodom’s sin?
- Genesis 14:1-4: what is the significance of the kings mentioned and is there any historical basis for their existence?
- Genesis 15: what is the significance of the ceremony confirming the covenant?
- Genesis 15:16: what was the sin of the Amorites?
- Genesis 16:2: would the child from Hagar be considered “from Abraham’s own seed”?
- John 6:12: what is the significance of the numbers 5 and 12?
- John 6:65, 70: what do these verses say about predestination?
- John 6:66: why do the disciples turn back and what do they find difficult in Jesus’s teaching?
- John 7:3-5: which brothers do not believe in Jesus? How does this interaction inform our understanding of Jesus’s relationship with his family/relatives?
- John 7:53-8:11: what are the arguments around the inclusion of the pericope adulterae and its inclusion in modern bibles?