The story of the tower of Babel, writes Harvey H. Guthrie (Theology As Thanksgiving) is “a sarcastic caricature of ancient Near Eastern culture and society and religion” (91).
The tower is “the structure through which the human community made contact with the heavenly community whose existence was the real basis of life and meaning in the cosmos. . . . Through its contact with the heavenly temple-palace, in the person of the king and in the actions of the cult and in the recital of the cosmic myth, the earthly temple-palace was the place where human society in the particular form . . . was given divine undergirding and justification and validation” (90).
This forms the background to the call of Abram. He is called away from the Babelic project, and Guthrie thinks that this point is sharpened by the genealogy that introduces the Abrahamic narrative: “The real reason for the genealogy is to demonstrate that those in whose lives the remote beginnings of Israel were located possessed by birth impeccable credentials from the point of view of ancient Near Eastern society, from the point of view of those who built Towers of Babel” (91).
Abram and Sarai enter the biblical story as “goys whose goyness was very distinguished indeed. By nature and by birth they were connected with one of the greatest centers of the culture which understood life in terms of cosmic mythology” (91).
Guthrie’s overall thesis has to do with thanksgiving (Heb. todah) as the canon, the standard by which Israel’s life and the church’s life should be measured. Early on, he contrasts todah Psalms with hymns of praise. The latter are associated with nature, with transcendence, with cosmic realities and the fortunes of the heavenly divine council. The God of the hymns is an impersonal and distant God.
The God of the todah is personal, close, attentive to his chosen people and chosen king. Todah is linked with covenant, with history (as opposed to nature), with humanism (as opposed to concern with heavenly beings).
It’s a clunky distinction, as Guthrie himself admits. But that doesn’t stop him from trying to tell the whole story of the Bible in terms of this contrast. Biblical history (reconstructed, not the canonical history) moves from todah-cult to hymnic cult, replacing todah with wisdom and ultimately with torah. From todah to torah. It makes a nifty story-line. But it’s unconvincing both in general and in many specifics.Still: Guthrie does illuminate some things, and among the most luminous illuminations is his discussion of Abram’s call. As noted, he says that Abram and Sarai start out as goyim, but they are called to be parents of something quite different, an ‘am. The former is linked with hymn, nature, transcendence; the latter is linked with history and thanks.
It’s still clunky, yet this part is on target: Goyim are defined by blood and origin, but that’s not what defines the family of Abraham. In being called from Ur and Babelic projects, Abram was being called from the goyim to become father of a people.
Guthrie writes, “It was when Abraham and Sarah moved away from the genealogical ties that bound them to that view of reality which was present in ancient Near Eastern mythology and cult and, in response to God’s call, began to view reality as an unfolding history that the drama of salvation began. That drama, for the Yahwist, is of such a character that it can be described only by narrating a people’s history. It must be witnessed to through todah” (92).
God’s call set Abram and Sarai on a pilgrimage, toward a destination, and thus eschatology was already implied at the beginning (92-3). Promised that he would be father of nations, Abram’s hopes are fulfilled not in nationalistic visions but in prophecies like that of Isaiah 2, where “all the earth’s goys have finally become a universal Israel” (93).
And this is right too: Baptism turns goyim to ‘am, the ethne into the ekklesia. Guthrie write, “What was happening, as the candidate successively went down into the water . . . was death to the candidate’s ethnic identity. That dying was accompanied by a recital of or assent to the recital of God’s involvement with the world [i.e., a todah] as the candidate was incorporated into that story, incorporated into the course of events in which God’s purpose of reconciliation and salvation was being worked out. The candidate’s identity in this or that ethne was being erased, and the candidate’s real identity was becoming part of the story which was the story of the Church” (185).