Blogging toward Sunday

May 20, 2007

The story of the Tower of Babel seems to
have such enduring and diverse cultural resonance that when it shows up
in the lectionary, I have a hard time leaving it alone.

The
Tower, according to Tarot card readers, is the scariest card in the
deck. It means that the foundations of someone’s well-constructed world
are about to shatter. In the Yu-gi-oh deck, it is a “trap” card. (My
son couldn’t explain to me what that means, but it seemed worth
noting.) According to Ernest Becker, skycrapers are blatant expressions
of humanity’s futile attempt to deny death. Franz Kafka has been called
the modern heir of the Tower of Babel story because he writes about
huge life-sucking systems, including institutions that consume
everything and everybody in a futile enterprise from which there is no
escape.

This
is only ten chapters away from the garden, where God has created life
and all is fruitful and multiplying and lush and teeming with species.
But in Genesis 11, the people have arrived at a flat plain and there is
one language and few words and they say to each other, “Come, let’s
make bricks and burn them hard and build a big tall hard tower.” As a
preacher I would juxtapose the garden’s loamy fecundity with hard,
kiln-baked bricks. In Exodus, after all, the people will become slaves
and one of their tasks will be to make bricks. The prophets will lament
that the people serve gods of stone, the work of men’s hands that
neither see, eat, nor smell. The envy and fear in these later stories
seems to me deathly when compared to the aliveness in the garden.

The
story of the tower is also a contrast to the story that precedes it:
Noah’s ark. The ark is a womb-like enclosure carved out of the water
where Noah will live right up next to “every creeping thing that
creeps.” Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg writes about the midrash surrounding
the story of Noah. “The core of the ark experience is Noah’s relation
to the animals he brings with him.” He will feed them, smell them, live
among them and learn from the experience: “Within the
intimate but teeming space of the ark, Noah becomes, in the midrashic
view, a new person. . . .The knowing of need is the highest measure of
(the) curious tender concern” that makes for redemption (The Beginning of Desire).
God’s plan for redemption (the cacophony of the ark—weasels, rats,
snakes, camels, hissing, snorting, yelling) seems a little messier than
what the people on the plain devise.

Harold Bloom suggests
imagining that the writer is a woman. “When script becomes Scripture,
reading is numbed by taboo and inhibition. Even if imagining an author
and calling her J is an arbitrary and personal fiction, something like
that imagining is necessary if we are to be stirred out of our numbness
(The Book of J).” Well, imagine a witty Hebrew prophetess
writing this story. She’s given birth to children, created live
beings—moving, flexible, blood and flesh and may have nursed them at
her breast. What are her thoughts as she observes the men on the plain
making bricks and building a tower? Is she saying something about the
irony of maleness? Of men who take “brick for stone and slime for
mortar” to build their empires (Haliburton, Enron, the military
industrial complex)?

In The City Coat of Arms, Kafka
talks about the tower of Babel—the inescapability, the bloody conflicts
and rivalry it caused, how everyone was so deeply involved in the
project that no one could leave. He says the legends that came to birth
in the tower were all filled with longing for a day when the tower
would be destroyed by five successive blows from a gigantic fist. The
tower in Genesis doesn’t end this way. God comes down. God doesn’t stay
removed, disgusted by the evil of their DNA. God wanders around among
them, not so much like a fist as a mischief maker. God doesn’t like the
direction things are going, so God messes it up, confusing their
tongues and scattering the people. Another translation for “scatter” is
“unbind.” It’s as if God actually frees them from their folly.

At
Pentecost the Spirit comes down and blows around and everyone starts
speaking in different tongues. It’s not a curse—it’s the beginning of
the church. And the people feed and need each other. If and when and
where the church happens, it’s more like the wind that blows through
the tower than it is like the humans laying brick upon brick.