By: Scott Armstrong
*The following is taken from Lisa Sharon Harper’s book The Very Good Gospel.
The first uses of the Hebrew word goy (foreign ethnic group) in Genesis are instructive. The word is found in the list of Noah’s descendants, commonly called the Table of Nations (see Genesis 10). The word is found next in the story of Babel (see Genesis 11). Most scholars now understand that the same company of priests that wrote Genesis 1 also wrote the Table of Nations in chapter 10, while the writer of Genesis 2 also wrote Genesis 11. In the same way that Genesis 1 offers a sweeping account of creation and Genesis 2 offers a more detailed and separate account, the Table of Nations offers a sweeping foretelling of the fulfillment of the mandate to multiply and fill the earth, and the Tower of Babel story offers a more specific and separate account of how the mandate was fulfilled.
Before the Tower of Babel was destroyed, “the whole earth had one language and the same words” (Genesis 11:1). The people gathered there had come from the east to the land of Shinar, where they settled. Shinar exhibits the major characteristics of empire: a single trade language and a commitment to erecting tall buildings and monuments despite the oppression and exploitation of slave labor.
The enslaved laborers were working with materials – brick and bitumen – that are dangerous when erecting such a large structure. Brick is man-made and it crumbles over time. Bitumen, similar to tar, is an asphalt-like substance used to hold the bricks together, something like mortar or cement. A survey of monuments that have lasted throughout the ages confirms that structures built using stone are the sturdiest and longest lasting. A structure of brick and bitumen eventually will crumble. It is an unstable construction method. In an act of care for human life, God intervened by confusing the people’s language. Jehovah scattered them lest they bring great destruction on more and more people.
More than any other, this text lays the foundations for understanding God’s good intentions for shalom, ethnicity, and culture. Walter Brueggemann explains in his commentary Genesis: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching that the scattering of the peoples was not a curse, as some have interpreted it. It was a blessing.
As they were scattered, the people would settle in a wider area, having the chance to fulfill the basic human call to multiply and fill the earth. They would develop separate languages, cultures, and worldviews. And each group would experience distinct trials and triumphs and develop core strengths and weaknesses as a result. Their various ethnic heritages would be forged through common experiences of life together. According to Brueggemann, God’s kind of unity will be achieved as all parts of the diverse family “look to and respond to God” from their respective corners of the world.
As counterintuitive as it sounds, the confusion of languages was from God. Like the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis 2, the reality that humanity speaks a multiplicity of languages cannot be dealt with successfully without God. Like the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the confusion of languages serves as a reminder of our limitations. It draws us back to God, beckoning us to find shalom between ethnic groups in and through God. (pp. 141-143).
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