Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Friday, July 01, 2016

BIBLE: Genesis (The Tower of Babel)

Genesis gives an account of how the earth and everything in it came into existence.  But the real focus of the book is to tackle bigger topics: the nature of Man and the nature of God.  Genesis says Man is a creature prone to make mistakes.  Adam disobeyed God’s one commandment in the garden of Eden.  This shows Man’s rebellion against authority.  Cain killed his brother.  This shows Man’s propensity to commit violence.  Noah got drunk after the great flood.  This shows Man’s addiction to pleasure.  Rebellion against proper authority (or good government), the tendency to commit violence and addiction to pleasure pretty much sums up the source of Man’s problems, even in the modern world.  We know it’s true from personal experience and by perusing daily news sources.  On this topic Genesis is fairly clear and easy to understand.

The nature of God is harder to pin down.  Genesis doesn’t try to prove the existence of God.  It just states as fact “in the beginning God…”  The question in Genesis is not whether God exists.  The question is what kind of God is this?  God told Adam “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.”  But Adam did eat of it and he didn’t die (at least not immediately).  Instead Adam was expelled from the garden.  What could God have meant by “thou shalt surely die”?  Cain murdered his brother and then lied about it.  So “the Lord set a mark upon Cain” and told him that from now on he would be “a fugitive and a vagabond” on the earth.  Why didn’t God kill Cain in response?  Wouldn’t justice best be served by doing to Cain what he had done to Abel?  So far God seems like an easy-going, lenient sort of god.  But later on when “God saw the wickedness of man was great in the earth” he sent a great flood and wiped out everyone except Noah and his family.  This seems like a vengeful sort of god.  What’s going on here?  What kind of God is this?  Easy-going and lenient, or vengeful?  The answer in Genesis is, yes.  This is a confusing answer.

The story of the Tower of Babel only adds to the confusion.  After the flood the earth was repopulated and many people came together in the land of Shinar.  They decided the best thing to do was to “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.”  This doesn’t seem unreasonable.  In fact, Aristotle (GB1) said politics is “the highest good attainable by action.”  These folks weren’t going to just sit around.  They wanted to build up civilization and enjoy the pleasures of living in an urban environment.  A city seems like a worthy goal.  And yet God says “Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language… let us go down and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”  What’s going on here?  What kind of God is this?  Does He want to confuse us even more?  Here’s a new topic taken up by Genesis.  The nature of Language.  What is language for?  And what do we mean when we use words like Man, God, Government, Pleasure and Justice?  That was the same question Socrates asked in his Apology (GB1) and other dialogs.  Even if we speak the same language, are we talking about the same thing?  Take the idea of Government.  Most people say they want “good” government.  But good government may mean one thing to me and something entirely different to you.  Are we even speaking the same “language” when we talk about Government?  And is our disagreement primarily about what Government is, or about what Good is?  Genesis, like Socrates, makes us think more deeply about what we’re saying.  Genesis says the world was created “and God saw that it was good.”   God saw a city and a tower under construction and it was not good.  Why?  What kind of God is this?  Genesis turns the question around.  What kind of people spend all their time and energy building cities and towers?

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