Monday, October 8, 2007

BEGIN AT THE BEGINNING: Address 8: Multiplying the Nations (Gen 11:1-9)

Address 8: Multiplying the Nations (Genesis Chapter 11:1-9)

We have seen that in a certain sense, Noah was a new Adam, and his offspring – Shem, Ham, and Japheth – were the ancestors of all the nations of the earth. We have also seen that even this new start, even under God’s law, has hardly restored the earthly Paradise, as Noah lies drunk and naked and his sons in their different ways expose and try to cover his shame.

“This is the account of Shem, Ham and Japheth, Noah's sons, who themselves had sons after the flood” (Genesis 10:1). Chapters 10-11 take up the saga of the sons of Noah in ways that are recognizable from earlier chapters of Genesis: genealogical lists and poignant stories.

The Birth of the Nations

“These are the tribes from the sons of Noah, according to their genealogies, in their nations; and from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood.” (10:32). Hebrew has several words for groups of people, which are variously translated. In chapter 10, the key words are mishpachah “tribe” and goyim “nations.” There is a third Hebrew word ‘am, which is often in the singular “people.” This word does not appear in this passage. It is the special word to designate the one Chosen People, the offspring of Abraham.

Now chapters 10 and 11 look at the history of the nations from two perspectives, which are not exactly chronological. I say this because chapter 11 seems to place the “whole world” on the plain of Shinar or Babylonia (modern-day Iraq), whereas chapter 10 describes them in their later homelands: the sons of Shem in the Middle East, the sons of Ham in Africa, and the sons of Japheth in Europe. There is a reason for the two treatments of the birth of the nations.

Chapter 10 defines nationhood primarily by location or to put it another, chapter 10 takes the perspective that geography creates ethnography. According to this perspective, our belonging to a tribe or a nation depends on where we live. The Baganda live in Buganda; the Acholi live in Acholiland; the Canadians live in Canada. This connection between land and people is natural, but it is immediately complicated by the question: how long does a tribe have to occupy a place before it becomes theirs. How long before the Bakiga can claim the territory around Kibaale? And what happens when two tribes are found squatting on the same land: the Hutu and the Tutsi, the French and English in Canada? And what happens when neighbouring tribes intermarry? Who is a purebread Muganda or Canadian?

Many of the wars of history have been fought over just these questions. There were wars between the Banyoro and Baganda over land, with the British lending a hand to the latter. The Balkan lands in southern Europe have been a source of centuries-old feuds and wars. And of course, the land of Palestine is the source of an age-old dispute, with Jews and Arabs both claiming it as their God-given homeland. The fact is, peoples throughout history have migrated, mixed and conquered each other. Take the UK: the original Britons were invaded by the Anglo-Saxons, who in turn were conquered by the Normans. These peoples did not simply disappear, but they intermixed in such a way that they became united by one language, English. Even today, the UK is undergoing a profound demographic change, as immigrants from the former Empire are multiplying faster than the muzungu population, such that we now have a Ugandan and a Pakistani as bishops in the Church of England.

Despite the complications, Genesis 10 makes an important point: God has assigned each tribe to a specific spot on earth, which in some sense has become “our land.” We could even call this the birth of property, when a family says “This land belongs to us and not to you.” Now in Buganda, it was the Kabaka who was thought to own all the land. In modern societies, real property is bought and sold like other goods. In Uganda, these two notions still clash: for instance, is mailo land freehold or is there some residual ownership to the state; and do squatters acquire a de facto right of ownership by staying on land over time, even if there is another owner with a legal title. Many Ugandans face a major decision as they approach retirement: where is my real home, the village or the city Kampala where I have worked for many years and bought a plot there.

Genesis 10, I think, establishes the local nature of human life. We should honour and respect the place of our birth and the people of our birth-communities. One should take pride in the fact that one is a Lango by birth or in my case a Virginian (USA). One should feel a longing to go back home, if not permanently at least for visits. To deny one’s roots is to deny something God-given in human nature and history. The practice of kyeyo is one of the ways that Ugandans who have gone abroad recognize this principle; however, unlike the Jews who chose to “return” en masse to Israel after the Second World War, it is clear that many Africans who have emigrated to the West have placed the benefits of advanced societies over the sentiments of home. Their children will be Ugandan-Americans with the emphasis on being American.

The Babble of Babel

Another synonym in the Bible for nations is “tongues,” as found in the Book of Revelation: “a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (7:9; cf. Isaiah 66:18). We normally think of a native of a country as one who speaks the native tongue. Open your mouth in Uganda and they know what region you come from, or whether you even come from Uganda at all.

This was not true at first:

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. (verses 1-2)

Not only did they speak one language but in contrast with chapter 10 they did not spread out around the world but migrated like a large flock of birds to one place: the plain of Shinar. Now the plain of Shinar is the river valley land between the Tigris and Euphrates River. This region, Mesopotamia, is said to be the “cradle of civilization,” because organized agriculture and city life grew up there 3000 years before Christ. There were obvious attractions to this settled way of life, over against the life of the hunter-gatherer or herder.

This life brought with it certain temptations as well. One was technology, the other divination.

They said to each other, "Come, let's make bricks and bake them thoroughly." They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 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." (verses 3-4)

The phrase “come, let us make bricks…” is the beginning of technological mindset, what today we call empirical science. Men put their heads together in a joint venture to make something new, something artificial. Each stage of civilization requires more collaboration and more expertise. What godlike powers are at our disposal when we think like this? At the same time, the thought occurs: maybe we are gods or can become gods. Maybe we can not only control part of our lives but all of our lives. In Mesopotamia, this led to the study of the heavenly bodies tied to a belief in Fate. The gods became embodiments of heavenly forces, and the experts could read their fate, their horoscope, in those stars. This kind of divination carries down to the present: just look at the Sunday Supplement of The New Vision if you want to read your destiny.

There is a subtle word-play in verse 3: in Hebrew, “come let us make bricks” can sound like “come let us make sons.” Today modern science has reduced the infant mortality rate, and yet the irony is, birth rates have plummeted below the replacement rate (about two per family) in those societies that are most advanced. Some people want “designer babies” that have just the right combination of genes, or worse yet are clones of their own genes. God designed one way to make babies, within the covenant of marriage. Let’s stick to that way.

The God of the Bible does not look kindly on astrology or designer babies or the technological impulse that lies behind these ideas:

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 begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. (verses 5-6)

Note that, even though the Tower of Babel reached toward the heavens, the Lord had to come down to see it. Heaven is not just physically distant from earth – so many miles or so many light-years away. It is spiritually distinct and distant so that no matter how far a spaceship went or no matter how far a telescope could see, God would still have to come down to make himself known. The Lord acknowledges the great and godlike power of a common language – we might think today of the binary language of computers; he says no feat will be impossible for them. To be sure, that is what many scientists and believers in science think today. But I think there is an element of irony in God’s comment; after all, with a simple word of command he undoes all the elaborate constructions of the Babelonians.

Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other." So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel--because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth. (verses 7-9)

Let us note several interesting things about God’s words. First of all, he uses the plural “Let us…” This reminds us of his original words “Let us make man in our own image…” Some people think this is the God the Father speaking to God the Son. Others think this is God consulting with his angels. I think it indicates that God “deliberates within himself, with His almighty Wisdom, before taking significant action. In this sense the biblical God is different from Allah of Islam, who is pure Will. Secondly, it repeats the phrase “go down.” It appears God had previously come part way down from heaven and has to go farther still to take action on the earth. But even this, in fact, is not all the way down: we might remember that in Jesus Christ God finally comes down, all the way down to save us, in taking upon himself the form of a slave, of sinful man (Philippians 2:5-11).

God confuses their tongues so that they can no longer confer together as they were doing. He causes the babble of nations to emerge. Linguists have identified that all human languages have certain common characteristics and grammars. In all languages, it is possible to convey meaning, even though some do so more efficiently than others. And all human beings, given the opportunity, can learn any other language. Yet it is also true that languages create a cultural barrier that goes beyond the surface differences of race and tribe, of food and drink and dress, even of religion. As an outsider, I can see things about your culture which you miss because you are in the culture, but there are other things about your culture I will never fully grasp because I do not speak your language, and even if I spoke it fluently, I would probably miss subtleties which can only be appreciated by a native-born speaker.


In 1974, the famous Russian dissident and author Alexandr Solzhenitzyn wrote an essay about the importance of the biblical notion of the nations (in a collection titled From Under the Rubble). He spoke out against a Communist regime that had declared that nationalities were oppressive remnants of a past that was now superseded by one great nation of workers. Solzhenitzyn argued that the existence of nations is a provision by God to preserve humanity. He said that local communities are where people find their true selves. It is also local communities that can resist the pretensions of a totalitarian ideology like Marxism. Fifteen years after that essay was published, the Soviet Union began to fall back and crumble into various ethnic republics, and Eastern Europe likewise returned to a more normal state of nationalities, imperfect though they are (note Serbia and Kosovo).

God’s will for a fallen world is that peoples and tribes and languages should remain distinct, even though this leads to misunderstandings, conflicts and wars. The alternative, according to the Book of Revelation, is the empire of the Beast who put his mark on all people and who demands worship of himself. We can see in our own day certain pretensions of globalization that remind us of the Beast, the claim to one global economy and culture.

However, standing against this empire is the community of the Lamb, the Lamb that was slain.

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, "Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!" (Revelation 7:9-10)

This community is also global in character, but the common citizenship is spiritual and trans-national, but it does not erase the individual marks of nationality and culture – at least not until the end time, and even then I suspect we shall know each other in our particular accents singing before the throne. 

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