The Tower of Babel is a story that often presents a challenge to contemporary readers—a straightforward reading leaves a number of unanswered questions. Is this really how diversity of language arose on the Earth? Why exactly was the Tower built? And what was so problematic to God about the building of the Tower that He felt the need to intervene in such a direct way? Most secular scholars see this narrative as ancient mythology that puts forward an origin story on how the diverse languages of the world arose. The book of Genesis, where this story resides, is famous for its brevity in storytelling. As most Western readers lack a historical or Middle Eastern cultural context for these narratives, it can be particularly challenging for us to “fill in the details” on things in the Torah or Old Testament narratives that the writer assumed the listener or reader would already understand. While there will always be scholarly nuances to debate about this 3000+ year old story, there are a number of fascinating elements with real relevance for our own modern lives. The Confounding of Language First, while the story comes across as an origin story on the languages of the world when divorced from the rest of the larger book of Genesis, from a strictly textual perspective this cannot be the case. The story does indeed say that God confounded the language of those building the city/tower to disrupt their work, but in Genesis 10:5, even before the story of … Read More
Why We Wrestle with God – A Commentary on Genesis 32:22-32
Genesis 32 is quite simply one of the most perplexing stories in the entire Bible. This narrative, in which Jacob wrestles with a spiritual being (presumably God) throughout the night and is given the new name ‘Israel,’ is both hard to interpret and yet a monumentally important text in the Jewish and Christian faith. Jacob’s new name of Israel literally means ‘he struggles with God’. And according to the text, Jacob is said to have ‘struggled with God…and overcome.’ But what of course does that mean? Does Jacob defeat God, or at least wear him out, in some sense? Rabbi Joseph Teluskin, a Jewish scholar writes, ‘It is no small matter that Israel, the name for both the Jewish people and the modern Jewish state, implies neither submission to God nor pure faith, but means wrestling with God (and with men).’ (Jewish Literacy, pg 22) While the Bible presents numerous examples that God desires an honest dialogue with humans and is not put off by our anger or arguing (see the Psalms, the books of the prophets, and Jesus’ parables, for just a few examples), there are too many things about the story of Jacob wrestling with God that simply don’t make sense for this simple explanation to be valid. I recently came across one of the most insightful commentaries I’ve ever read on this passage. It points out what I think is the key to understanding this story.
And God said to Abraham, “…You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.” Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised. (Genesis 17:9,11,24) What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness.’ (Romans 4:1-3) There is no denying that circumcision is a bizarre ancient ritual. In fact, scholars from a wide range of disciplines continue to debate the purpose and origin of the practice. I’m the kind of person who gets tripped up on stories that aren’t clear to me and I’ve long wondered about this part of Genesis. Now, a couple decades later, I think I finally understand it (or at least, enough of it).
From the Beginning
“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” (Luke 23:46) “…through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22) I’ve found that the Genesis story of Adam and Eve is fascinating in many regards. But one particularly interesting dimension of the story is that it tells us about the first distancing that occurs in humankind’s relationship with God. This is not a trivial theological matter. This is the story of humankind’s first break from God. Doubt enters in. And humans no longer commune with God as they once did.