Bible Study 9.12.11, 9.15.11, 9.18.11 For Worship 9.25.11

Bible Study 9.12.11, 9.15.11, 9.18.11 For Worship 9.25.11

Genesis 11:1-9

Genesis 11:1  Now the whole earth had one language and few words.

2  And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.

3  And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.

4  Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

5  And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which they had built.

6  And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.

7  Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”

8  So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.

9  Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.


Humans seem to like to locate worship spaces on top of mountains, or they have built towers or even artificial mountains for worship.  The oldest constructed worship place, Temple, has been found on top of a Hill, Potbelly Hill, in Southeastern Turkey.  It was built by people of the  late Natufian Culture about 9,000 BCE.  These people were making the transition from hunter gathering to agriculture.  As the Natufians domesticated early wheat stocks, they adopted a more sedentary life style, rather than the nomadic tendencies of true hunter gatherers.  Thus they stayed in one area long enough to build an elaborate structure for worship – use of large standing stones and carved pillars (see pictures).  There is evidence of religion dating back to almost 100,000 BCE, Neanderthal burials, but the Temple on Potbelly Hill is the first evidence of a religious structure that was probably serviced by artisans and a class of religious functionaries – clergy.

(Klaus Schmidt the excavator of Potbelly Hill makes some important and remarkable claims that may impact our reading of the Tower of Babel:  Schmidt’s thesis is simple and bold: it was the urge to worship that brought mankind together in the very first urban conglomerations. The need to build and maintain this temple, he says, drove the builders to seek stable food sources, like grains and animals that could be domesticated, and then to settle down to guard their new way of life. The temple begat the city.

Religion now appears so early in civilized life—earlier than civilized life, if Schmidt is correct—that some think it may be less a product of culture than a cause of it, less a revelation than a genetic inheritance. The archeologist Jacques Cauvin once posited that “the beginning of the gods was the beginning of agriculture,” and Göbekli may prove his case.)

So, we can note that the very first temple we have discovered was located on a high place.  The inhabitants of Mesopotamia had no mountains or high places, since they occupied the relatively level plains of the land between the two rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.  So they built giant artificial hills called Ziggurats around 4,000 BCE.  The Pyramids were tombs rather than temples, but they were not built until 2600 BCE.

While the Tower of Babel Story is myth, in the Ziggurats of Mesopotamia, we see historical foundation for the story.  By the time of Abraham circa 1,800 BCE the Ziggurat of Ur was over 2,000 years old and had already fallen into disrepair and was eroding, thus providing the basis for a story about a Tower that reached up to heaven and then fell into disrepair.

The Hebrews who maintained a semi-nomadic way of life, rather than the more settled Sumerian culture, who built the great Cities of Mesopotamia, saw the eroding Ziggurats as an expression of the vanity and arrogance of the overly organized and hierarchical society around which they lived on the edges.  The Hebrews grazed sheep, and goats and engaged in trade up and down the Fertile Crescent, refusing to establish permanent allegiance to any of the City States of Sumer.  One of the problems with the religion of the City States of Sumer is the State itself began to be deified in the person of the god-king who ruled the City.  Hebrew religion rejected the deification of political leadership.  The earliest Hebrew religion also rejected the development of a class of religious leaders – priests or temple functionaries.  Not until after the Exodus was there a priesthood, and there was no Kingship until Saul.  The Hebrews also did not build a permanent structure for worship until after King David.  The Tabernacle from the time of the Exodus until Solomon was housed in a tent.

The Hebrew story tellers developed the Tower of Babel story to explain the multiplicity of languages, and the eroding artificial mountains on the Sumerian plains.  As we examine the text we can first note that the Plain of Shinar was the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.  The Hebrews originated in this area, Abraham’s origins were traced back to the City of Ur.  We can still see the influence of Sumerian culture in Judaism and Christianity.  The People of Ur worshipped the moon and used a lunar calendar.  To this day the Jewish Calendar is a lunar calendar, and that influences the date for Easter.  (Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox.)

The story tellers also employed humor when they described the building materials as mud bricks for stone, and bitumen for mortar.  Mud bricks were the common building material in Sumerian culture, but bitumen, a tar like substance, would have been a very inefficient mortar.  On hot summer days the temperature in Mesopotamia can rise to 120 degrees, just ask the troops coming back from Iraq.  At 120 degrees tar would begin to melt, and a tower using tar for mortar would fall of its own weight.  The key to the story is that arrogance, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves. . .” arrogance makes us stupid.  God did not destroy the Temple in the story, the whole project fell of its own weight. The mixing up of the languages of humans is a metaphor for the divisions that separate humans once the competition between peoples supersedes the advantages of cooperation.

How often do we see great human endeavors come to naught, because our arrogance makes us stupid.  The famous historian Barbara Tuckman wrote a wonderful book on the subject of the tragedy of human arrogance:  The March of Folly.  For its time it was a controversial book, because she identified the Vietnam War as an example of the March of Folly.  If she were still alive, she would certainly identify the Iraq War as folly.  I believe we should also look at the present infighting in Washington as part of the March of Folly.  She opens her book with important questions:

A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests.  Humankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than almost any other human activity.  In this sphere, wisdom, which may be defined as the exercise of judgment acting on experience, common sense and available information, is less operative and more frustrated that it should be.  Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interests suggests?  Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?

After 390 pages Tuckman answers some of those questions:

A principle that emerges in the cases so far mentioned is that folly is a child of power.  We all know, from unending repetitions of Lord Acton’s dictum, that power corrupts.  We are less aware that it breeds fo

lly; that the power to command frequently causes failure to think; that the responsibility of power often fades as its exercise augments.  The overall responsibility of power is to govern as reasonably as possible in the interest of the state and its citizens.  A duty in that process is to keep well-informed, to heed information, to keep mind and judgment open and to resist the insidious spell of wooden-headedness.  If the mind is open to perceive that a given policy is harming rather than serving self-interest, and self-confident enough to acknowledge it, and wise enough to reverse it, that is a summit in the art of government.

Chief among the forces affecting political folly is lust for power, named by Tacitus as “the most flagrant of all the passions.” Because it can only be satisfied by power over others, government is its favorite field of exercise. . . Government remains the paramount area of folly, because it is there that men seek power over others – only to lose it over themselves.”

While the Tower of Babel story qualifies as myth it is deeply rooted in human history and human experience.  Humans are attracted to high places as locations of spiritual experience, over centuries we have tended to build monumental structures for worship.  We also know that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  The hope for the gains that might accrue in competition seem to override the possible benefits of cooperation.  Where is the appropriate balance between competition and cooperation? Differences in language mean we tend to talk past each other, rather than with one another.  Even when we supposedly speak the same language, we can use words so differently we cannot arrive at any common understanding.


I think the issues of power, language, and the historical stuff about the rise of religion and agriculture are inappropriate for children.  Also a God who comes down from heaven and plays the trickster by scrambling people’s languages is not a good image to use with children.  I think the theme of the difficulties that people have in learning to cooperate with one another, sharing, not fighting over who is “boss,” are appropriate lessons for children depending upon their age.  The lesson I like best, however, is what happens when we choose inappropriate materials to build something?  It falls of its own weight.  The analogy was used in this summer’s Vacation Bible School curriculum with cooking.  If you add the wrong ingredients, the recipe doesn’t taste very good.  This can be extended to the even more positive “stone soup” lesson.  When everyone cooperates and shares, a better soup can be enjoyed by all.


1. According to the text, when there was one language how many words existed?

2. Where did the people come from who inhabited the Plain of Shinar?

3. What building materials did the people use?

4. Who proposes building a City and a Tower?

5. According to the text what are the motivations for building the City and the Tower?

6. According to the text what is “the Lord’s” concern about the human project?

7. According to the text, how did “the Lord” frustrate the human project?

8. According to the text at what point did the people names the unfinished City?


1. How important do you think language is to human consciousness?

2. How do words shape human endeavor?

3. Why do you think humans seem to be spiritually affected by high places?

4. What do you think has motivated humans to build monumental structures for worship?

5. Many churches are no longer building structures for worship.  They meet in shopping centers or other “borrowed spaces.”  How do you think this might influence the development of faith in the 21st century. 

6. What are some examples in your mind of human endeavors, “falling of their own weight?”

7. Where do you think the balance lies between competition or cooperation in economic pursuits?

8. Where do you think the balance lies between competition or cooperation in political matters?

9. Right now the closest thing we have to common language is English.  Where do you see language going in the future?

10. Global communications have the potential to increase cooperation between people and peoples all over the world.  Where do you see this development going?

11. What lessons from the Tower of Babel story would you apply to our current political situation in the United States?

12. What do you think of Barbara Tuckman’s statement:  “Government remains the paramount area of folly, because it is there that men seek power over others – only to lose it over themselves?”


One Comment on “Bible Study 9.12.11, 9.15.11, 9.18.11 For Worship 9.25.11”

  1. Mike Stroud says:

    The last part of the analysis is of far greater importance than the first. Certainly archaeology can be used to give the account a “factual” aura, but this isn’t likely to convince skeptics who dismiss the Bible in toto, chiefly because they view stories like this as fairy tales. While it may be a plausible if facile explanation for the diversity of languages, and thus cultures, the Babel account is, very much like the pastor stated at the end, principally about human arrogance and transgression of human-divine boundaries.

    There is another significance about worshiping at so-called “high places” our pastor missed. The notion that the divine must be worshiped in a sense of majesty, or, as a more modern phrase puts it, “in the beauty of holiness,” tells more about the human taste for grandeur and vainglory than it tells about the character of God. By breaking up this racket and calling it for what it is (despite what would have been a likely justification from the builders, that they were seeking to honor God instead of themselves), God makes an important testimony about Godself: human beings are not to approach Me as an equal, or even a contender to equality.

    Modern readers (and theologians) sometimes bend over backwards to avoid the most profane, dirty word of all in discussions about the human condition: sin. The Babel story, with its obviously mythical character, gives plenty of opportunity for evading the true point. This writer has read suggestions that speculate that God was merely protecting people from themselves, from their dangerous aspirations, for instance. While that may be entailed in a theory of prevenient grace, or by whatever name it is called, that would only be a subsidiary point beside the main one. At the other extreme, some observers see the account as a microcosm of human civilization (government, religion, commerce) as defiance against God. The truth is somewhere in between, but lies closer to the latter than the former.

    Some would say that the Babel account was a prelude to the calling of Israel, via the breaking up of an undifferentiated humanity into cultural groupings, with God arbitrarily selecting Abraham to “build a new humanity” and a priesthood so that people could worship God in the manner God intended. This is probably a more sound interpretation when we realize, again, that Jews to this day pay fairly little heed to the Genesis stories before the calling of Abraham. Of course, we may well be making too much of this, just like the creation and Noah passages. But the story does stand on its own merits, marking as it does the beginnings of the notion that God is holy and separate from humanity–a notion that Christians in particular need strong reminders of from time to time.

    However, the boundaries between God and humanity this side of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus are positive ones. We therefore have no right to view this story as the exercise of divine punishment. And even if it was, the result would have been the same as the Great Flood: nothing would have changed. And without Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit He gives, nothing will change. If we follow Jesus in faith, we will lose much of our taste to build towers and high places, since the Divine has come to us and shared our pitiful, finite state. Jesus frees us from the need to go to the heights–and in the process, enslave others and ourselves.

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