What Troubles Your Thoughts? Wendell Berry, Prometheus, & The Tower of Babel

1 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as they migrated from the east, they came upon 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; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” 5 The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 6 And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will 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 it 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.

Genesis 11

Note: This sermon is part of an ongoing series tracing “The Book of J” strand of Genesis. A link to previous entries in this series can be found at the bottom of each post. Also see the notes at the end for introductory information.

Edith Hamilton’s classic book Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes recounts some of the many version of the Prometheus myth (not to be confused with the new Ridley Scott film Prometheus):

By now all was ready for the appearance of [humankind]…. It was time for [humans] to be created…. Some say it was delegated by the gods to Prometheus, the Titan who had sided with Zeus in the war with the Titans, and to his brother, Epimetheus. Prometheus, whose name means forethought, was very wise, wiser even than the gods, but Epimetheus, which means afterthought, was a scatterbrained person who invariably followed his first impulse and then changed his mind. So he did in this case. Before making [humans] he gave all the best gifts to the animals, strength and swiftness and courage and shrewd cunning, fur and feathers and wings and shells and the like — until no good was left for [humans], not protective covering and no quality to make them a match for the beasts. Too late, as always, he was sorry and asked his brother’s help. Prometheus, then, took over the task of creation and thought out a way to make [humankind] superior. He fashioned them in a nobler shape than the animals, upright like the gods and then he went to heaven, to the sun, where he lit a torch and brought down fire, a protection to men far better than anything else, whether fur or feather or strength or swiftness: “And now, though feeble and short-lived, / Humankind has flaming fire and therefrom / Learns many crafts.” (68-69)

As the story continues, many of you will remember that Zeus concocts a particularly painful and recurring torture to punish Prometheus for his unauthorized gift to humanity of the technology of fire.

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The Hebrew “Tower of Babel” myth is similar in a sense to the Greek Prometheus myth. Both are at least in part cautionary tales about hubris and the unintended consequences of so-called “technological progress.” And if reading about the Tower of Babel in Genesis isn’t engaging enough for you, there is, in all seriousness, a video game scheduled to be released later this month for Xbox titled Babel Rising. The script for the promotional trailer says, “You are God. [Humanity’s] defiance has angered you. Master the elements and unleash your tyranny upon them. Divine Retribution hits stores in June 2012.” The description of the game is similar: “Play as God and prevent humans from building the tower of Babel while using divine powers by hurling bolts of lightning, summoning massive earthquakes or unleashing gigantic floods upon the Babylonians.”

Although it has been many years since I was a gamer, the framework of Babel Rising does invoke some of the troubling themes that we’ve seen throughout these opening chapters of Genesis. These stories were first told centuries before modern meteorology, when weather patterns seemed capricious and subject to divine whim. The violent way that God is depicted in these early stories make it all the more important to emphasize that although there are universal themes in these stories that continue to be relevant, these stories never happened historically. If taken literally — instead of metaphorically, symbolically, and archetypically — many of these myths contain a theology that is troubling at best and repellant at worst.

Next week we will turn the page to the series of stories known as the “Abraham Cycle.” There, starting in the twelfth chapter of Genesis, is where many scholars argue that we see a shift from the genre of “myth” to the genre of “legend.” In the working definitions I am following for these genres, both myths and legends have universal themes, but legends arguably have some historical kernel of truths that myths lack.

Myths are primordial stories, which originate from existential questions such as “Where did the first human beings come from?” (Adam and Eve), “Why is there evil in the world?” (Garden of Eden), and “Why are there so many languages?” (Tower of Babel). Perhaps you could argue that the story of Noah — and the parallel flood story in the ancient Sumerian myth The Epic of Gilgamesh — were originally told in response to an actual ancient flood that devastated the Ancient Near East, but for the most part the first eleven chapters of Genesis are meaningful myth, not actual history.

Legends, in contrast, do often have some historical kernel at their center, although, as with the popcorn you can buy at the movie theater, the final form of these legends often are a small historical kernel that has been “salted,” “buttered,” and expanded with the passage of time. So perhaps there was a historical Abraham, a historical Sarah, and a historical Hagar, but even confirming the existence of these archetypal ancestors is essentially impossible. And many prominent historians would say that the earliest biblical stories that we can even begin to examine with the tools of modern historiography are at least a millennia after the historical Abraham is alleged to have lived, starting with the reign of King David at which point there begins to be archeological evidence to corroborate and correct the Bible narrative. Up to and including this point, it is all but impossible to trace where the “facts” stop and the “embellishment” begins.

Related to this point and because we began with the Prometheus myth, I would like to share with you a brief excerpt of a fascinating book by Paul Veyne titled, Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths? Veyne, a French historian, writes:

The Greek’s accepted their myths as true in the sense that they were not doubted, but they were not accepted in the way that everyday reality is….  A Greek conventionally put the gods “in heaven,” but he would have been astounded to actually see them in the sky.  He would have been no less astounded if someone using time in its literal sense, told him that Hephaestus had just remarried or that Athena had aged a great deal lately.  Then he would have realized that in his own eyes mythic time had only a vague analogy with daily temporality; he would have thought that a kind of lethargy had always kept him from recognizing that difference.

In this sense, I would like to invite us to explore three ways in which the Tower of Babel myths contains universal themes.

The first and most obvious is the existential question of how the human race came to speak so many languages. On one hand, modern anthropologists would rightly reject the literal explanation that we have so many languages because “the Lord confused the language of all the earth” as a punishment for humanity conspiring to build a Tower so high as to penetrate the heavens understood as “up” there on the other side of the sky. On the other hand, perhaps there is some universal truth here in how difficult it is to learn another person’s language — not only literally (it is hard to learn German, Chinese, or Hebrew), but also metaphorically: it takes much time and commitment to really understand another human being even if she or he does speak the same language that you do. Thus, one challenge of this ancient myth is to take the time to learn other people’s languages if we hope to build a more peaceful, just, and interconnected world.

A second meaning of the Tower of Babel is that it can be read as anti-Babylon propaganda. The tower in the story sounds like a ziqqurat, multistoried sanctuary sometimes built in Mesopotamian cities. Furthermore, the Hebrew word Babel sounds like the word Babylon. So part of why this story may have been originally told and retold is a rejection of centralized cosmopolitanism.

Finally, in the same way that Cain and Abel was about wrestling with the transition from semi-nomadic herder to life in the city, the Tower of Babel is be about ancient people wrestling with whether the implications of building a city and gathering everyone in one place. Said differently, a theme of the Tower of Babel tale is wrestling with the unintended consequence of the transition from the agrarian lifestyle to city life. As we saw before with the story of Cain and Abel, there is an anti-urban bias in these early chapters of Genesis.

Along these lines, Wendell Berry has written an important book titled What Are People For? In an age in which every coffee shop you walk into seems to be populated almost exclusively by people using Apple products, Berry’s essay is perhaps both increasingly counterintuitive and increasingly more important for beginning to imagine one of the many paths we may have to journey as a species to overcome the consequences of climate change that has been brought on in large part by the Industrial Revolution and so-called “technological progress.” Berry writes that in the past,

it was generally agreed that a good life was preferable to one that was merely long, and that the goodness of a life could not be determined by its length….

[A] computer, I am told…will help you to write faster, easier and more…. My standards are not speed, ease, and quantity. I have already left behind too much evidence that, writing with a pencil, I have written too fast, too easily, and too much. I would like to a a better writer, and for those I need help from other humans, not a machine…..

My simple wish is to live my life as fully as I can. In both our work and our leisure, I think, we should be so employed. And in our time this means that we must save ourselves form the products that we are asked to buy in order, ultimately, to replace ourselves…. And I am not without hope. I knew a man who, in the age of chainsaws, went right on cutting his wood with a handsaw and an axe. He was a healthier and saner man than I am. I shall let his memory trouble my thoughts. (186-196)

Don’t get me wrong. As many of you know, far from being a Luddite, I’m a social media enthusiast, who sees much good that has arisen from the interconnected web that is the Internet. But Berry helps point to some of the unintended consequences of technology that are also pointed to by the Prometheus and Babel myths. Technology is not an end in itself, and Berry’s question, “What Are People For?” raises important points about slave labor, exploitation, and battles over mineral rights that lurk underneath the wonders of smartphones, tablet computers, and laptops.

Still, there is much to celebrate about human technology. Recapitulating the Prometheus myth, a verse from a classic humanist hymn from the 1960s proclaims:

[Humanity], acclaim your heritage, your noble history of fire.

You are the heavens come of age, the bearer of the sun’s desire,

A prophet come to life at last, a thinker from its molten streams,

A valiant poet of the vast, to dream the universe’s dreams.

So, yes, I confess that this sermon was typed on a Macbook in a coffee shop filled with other people typing on Macbooks. And, yes, this sermon benefited from the resources of being able “Google” information on the Internet. Humanity has a noble technological heritage to claim, but both Prometheus and Babel remind us that technology is a two-edged sword that often has unintended consequences. The atomic bomb and nuclear energy are perhaps the most powerful examples we have today of the ways that the same technology can be used to enhance or destroy life.

Wrestling with the unintended consequences of technology, Berry wrote, “I knew a man who, in the age of chainsaws, went right on cutting his wood with a handsaw and an axe. He was a healthier and saner man than I am. I shall let his memory trouble my thoughts.” As we enter into a time of meditative silence, I invite you to reflect on what parts of our culture so-called “technological progress” troubles your thoughts. Where do you see alternative paths to healthier, saner, and more sustainable ways of life?

 

Previous Sermons in this Series

“The Book of J”: Are There Hidden Books in the Bible? (Genesis 2). Description: Many scholars think that there are “hidden” books in the Bible: the books used as source material to compile the final version of the biblical books with which we are familiar. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2012/04/preaching-%E2%80%9Cthe-book-of-j%E2%80%9D-are-there-hidden-books-in-the-bible/.

“Paradise Lost or Outgrown? Genesis 3, Original Blessing, and Original Responsibility” (Genesis 3). Description: Genesis 3 is a deeply true universal story about the human condition, even though this precise series of events never happened historically. It’s a story about growing up, becoming aware of good and evil, and learning that our actions have consequences. It’s a tale about that instant when the veil of childhood innocence drops away for the first time and we realize our mortality; it’s about that moment in time when we realize that we too are someday going to die. This metaphorical, mythological, and archetypal way of reading the Bible’s earliest chapters is so much more exciting and compelling than more literal approaches. It also makes much more sense than asking question like, “Did Adam have a belly button? or “Where did Mrs. Cain come from?” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2012/04/paradise-lost-or-outgrown-genesis-3-original-blessing-and-original-responsibility

“Before and After: Cain, Abel, and Archetypes” (Genesis 4). Description: In our postmodern times, there is much to be regained in reclaiming some premodern reading strategies: allowing ourselves to say both “Yes, many of these story are more mythological than historical” and “Yes, many of these stories still have significant meaning on the level of myth and metaphor, allegory and archetype, symbol and sacrament. From this angle, the story of Cain and Abel becomes the universally true story of the farmer “killing” the lifestyle of the semi-nomadic herder and moving to the city. God’s rejection of the fruit of Cain’s farm and Cain being cast out from the plains east to Eden into the city reveals that the authors and promoters of this biblical myth had an anti-city bias and were far from convinced that the move toward urbanization was “progress.” They saw many dangers in city life, and we were see a similar anti-urban bias in future texts, especially regarding the Towel of Babel. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2012/05/before-and-after-cain-abel-and-archetypes/

“Noah’s Flood: Climate Change Then & Now” (Genesis 6-7). Description: Perhaps the most salient parallel for the early twenty-first century is that Climate Change seems to be causing a melting of Arctic sea ice, resulting in a rise of flood waters, potentially not unlike those ancient floods of Noah or Gilgamesh, which were “caused,” at least according to the mythological accounts, by human behavior. Talking about Climate Change is appropriate on Mother’s Day, which at its best honors and celebrates the blood, sweat, and tears put in to creating both new life and a better, more life-giving world for future generations. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2012/05/noah%E2%80%99s-flood-climate-change-then-now/

“Slavery, Same-Sex Marriage, and How to Read the Bible” (Genesis 9). Description: From slavery to same-sex marriage, it really matter what stories we tell, when we tell them, and how we interpret them. We must learn to interpret scripture freely, responsibly, creativity, and compassionately — not only for the benefit of ourselves and our tribe, but for the benefit all people and the whole of creation. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2012/05/slavery-same-sex-marriage-and-how-to-read-the-bible/

Notes

1 The four main original independent sources used to compile the early books of the Bible are called J, E, D, and P. Similar to the “Q Source” used to compose the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, J-E-D-P are each shorthand for the full title scholars have given to these sources. The Book of J, which stands for the “Jahwist.” Normally, we English-speakers would begin spelling YaHWeH with a “Y,” but the landmark scholars who developed this “Documentary Hypothesis” were Germans.

The J source almost exclusively refers to God as “Yahweh,” whereas the second source uses the basic Hebrew word for God, Elohim. And, hence, is known as a the “E Source.” Then we have the “P Source,” which was written by the Priestly class as a response to the version of history in J and E. The fourth and final source is the “D,” which is primarily in Deuteronomy. J, P, and D also continue into Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings.

Two pieces of evidence particularly contributed to this Documentary Hypothesis: doublets (two, slightly different versions of the same story) and the names of God. As scholars compared the doublets in Hebrew Bible, they also noticed that usually one of each pair used the name Elohim for God and the other used the name Yahweh for God. Moreover, the E stories showed a bias toward the northern kingdom of Israel, and the J stories showed a bias toward the southern kingdom of Judah.

In 722 B.C.E., after the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel, J and E were likely woven together. We cannot know for sure, but many scholars wagers an educated guess that weaving these two rival documents together was a symbolic way of “reuniting” the rival kingdoms in the wake of one kingdom being tragically conquered and destroyed.

For more on “The Book of J” and related resources, see the first sermon in this series, “Preaching “The Book of J”: Are There Hidden Books in the Bible?” Available at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2012/04/preaching-%E2%80%9Cthe-book-of-j%E2%80%9D-are-there-hidden-books-in-the-bible/. I particularly recommend the work of Richard Elliott Friedman as an accessible entry point into the source behind the Hebrew Bible.

2 For more about the Babel Rising video game, see http://123kinect.com/game/babel-rising/.

3 “archeological evidence to corroborate and correct the Bible narrative “ — Israel Finkelstein, The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts.

4 Paul Veyne, Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths?: An Essay on the Constitutive Imagination, 17-18.

5 “slave labor, exploitation, and battles over mineral rights that lurk underneath the wonders of smartphones, tablet computers, and laptops.“ — Charles Buhigg and David Barboza, “In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad” (January 25, 2012): https://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/26/business/ieconomy-apples-ipad-and-the-human-costs-for-workers-in-china.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all.

6 “classic humanist hymn from the 1960s” — Kenneth Patton, “O Man, Acclaim Your Heritage” Hymns for the Celebration of Life, 66, verse 3.

The Rev. Dr. Carl Gregg is a trained spiritual director, a D.Min. graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary, and the pastor of Broadview Church in Chesapeake Beach, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook (facebook.com/carlgregg) and Twitter (@carlgregg).

About Carl Gregg

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