Noah, Babel, and the Scriptural Narrative

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Parashat Noach, Genesis 6:9–11:32

David Wein, Tikvat Israel Messianic Synagogue

God blessed Noach and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth.” (Genesis 9:1, CJB)

What are we doing here on earth? What is our main purpose in life? Who are we? Genesis develops these themes in the first few pages, gives us our origin story, and helps frame our sense of identity and calling. In fact, the basic elements of most narratives (setting, characters, plot, conflict, and resolution) are all there in the first few pages of Scripture, last week’s parasha. The most fundamental origin story is there, the foundational unfolding of creation, from which we get the building blocks of our theology, which is a kind of narrative as well. 

Hashem tells Noach after the flood, “Be fruitful and multiply.” The first instruction given to the first humans, Adam and Havah, is reiterated here to Noach and his family. In other words, the primary calling of human beings, as described in the first chapters of the scriptural narrative, is this same instruction given to Noach. The p’shat (plain sense) reading would inform us: make some more people. As enjoyable as this is in itself, this instruction has been interpreted a little more deeply, in context of the Creation narrative, to mean: 

1)      Bring the knowledge and love of God throughout the earth.

2)      Bring all things in creation under dominion of the Creator King.

3)      Steward and co-rule (in a sense) over creation with God.

4)      Reflect his goodness and compassion because we are image-bearers of God.

5)      Reflect his actions through our actions, such as (pro)creation, resting on Shabbat, and affirming the identity and goodness of creation.

Here we are starting to approach the identity and calling of humanity, or character and plot in the narrative. Conflict is there as well, the sin problem from Genesis chapter three, despite the flood designed to clean everything out. The prototype of the sin problem is illustrated in the tower of Babel, or Bavel. The humans get hold of the latest tech wonder: the brick. Not so fancy to us modern folk with our i-tchotchkes, but a big deal back then. And the humans get to work with their newfound innovation:

Then they said, “Come, let’s build ourselves a city with a tower that has its top reaching up into heaven, so that we can make a name for ourselves and not be scattered all over the earth.” (Gen 11:4, CJB)

The kingdom of self, fueled by pride, is conceived. The Hebrew for “build ourselves” has the word lanu. Perhaps we could render it: “let’s build for ourselves,” or “let’s build ourselves up.” And the lanu is repeated: “Make for ourselves a name.” Shem, or name in Hebrew, implies reputation, character, and identity. We have the same idiom in English; humanity was making a name for itself. So, let’s build our name, identity, and reputation by reaching up to the very heavens, to the throne of God. This reflects the evil promise from that mysterious serpent in chapter three: eat the fruit, and you can sit on the throne of Hashem. Reading the Bavel tower narrative in light of Genesis chapter three, we can summarize the conflict in the human story against the identity and calling we’ve already seen:

1)      Let’s become like God, not in his goodness, but to overthrow his authority.

2)      Let’s reach up to the heavens and usurp the throne.

3)      Let’s redefine good and evil in our own terms.

4)      Let’s propose a new, alternative purpose: it’s all about me, making myself great.

 The word Bavel, universally translated as “Babel,” appears over 250 more times in the Tanakh, and is hereafter always rendered “Babylon”.

Babylon, or Bavel, is used as an archetype in the Scriptures of this kingdom of self, evil, rebellion, and the rejection of God’s kingship. It shows up in the kingdom of Pharaoh in the Exodus story, in the literal kingdom of Babylon, and even in the kingdom of Israel when we get off track. The kingdom of Bavel manifests as gross rebellion against Torah, murdering of babies, willful idolatry, oppression of the poor, sexual immorality, prideful worship of self, redefining good and evil, using others in a perversion of power, and hateful vengeance.

Nebuchadnezzar, the king of the eponymous Babylon, sums it up like this: “Bavel the great! I built it as a royal residence by my power and force to enhance the glory of my majesty!” (Dan 4:30 [27]), CJB).

And so we have setting, characters, plot, and conflict. But what about the resolution? In this week’s parasha, we have the first covenant made between Hashem and humanity:

“I will establish my covenant with you that never again will all living beings be destroyed by the waters of a flood, and there will never again be a flood to destroy the earth.” (Gen 9:11, CJB)

The grace and covenantal faithfulness of Hashem are established as a promise for the first time in the narrative of Scripture. God has covenanted with us, promised us, that his purpose is not just to bring judgment and correction like a mighty flood (confronting the kingdom of Bavel) but to bring healing, redemption, and blessing: that is, the kingdom of God.

This sets up next week’s parasha, Lekh L’kha, where the redemption and resolution plan unfolds even more. In Parashat Noach, God begins to resolve the conflict of the narrative by reiterating to Noach his purpose to Adam and Havah to be fruitful and multiply, and by addressing the Bavel problem through covenantal faithfulness to Noah. Next week, we will read how God calls out Avraham (from the realm of Bavel) to be a new, holy nation. God’s unfolding plan to confront the kingdom of Bavel finds fulfillment in his irrevocable calling of the children of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov to bless all the nations of the earth through them. But that, of course, is another parasha.

Russ Resnik