This has been Interfaith Week, and though disputation between faiths is ancient, respectful conversation between them is new. It was born in the shadow of the Holocaust as Jews and Christians reflected on the centuries-old history of antagonism between them.
Is there, though, a warrant for such conversation in the Bible itself? One in particular can be found by a close reading of an ancient text.
Read the Bible carefully and you will see that its entire focus shifts between the eleventh and twelfth chapter of Genesis. Until then its subject has been humanity as a whole. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel are human archetypes of conflict between husband and wife and between siblings. Their message is universal.
The story that precedes the Flood, of a world “full of violence”, is a precise anticipation of Hobbes’ “state of nature”, the war of all against all in which life is “nasty, brutish and short,” a perennial warning of what happens when civilization fails. After the Flood God makes a covenant with Noah and through him with all humankind, whose central message is the sanctity of life. Again the message is universal.
In Genesis 12 the focus changes. The Bible begins to tell the story of one man, Abraham, commanded to leave his home and travel to an unknown destination. God later makes a covenant with Abraham but it is not a universal one.
Neither Abraham nor his descendants are commanded to convert the world. To the contrary, they are charged with the task of being different, countercultural, a challenge to the status quo. Hence the unusual structure of Judaism. The God of Israel is the God of all humanity but the religion of Israel is not the religion of all humanity. Why the change?
The answer must lie in the two chapters between the end of the story of Noah and the beginning of the narrative of Abraham. The key episode here is the story of the Tower of Babel. We tend to read this as a simple tale of hubris and nemesis. The people of Babel set themselves to build a tower that reaches heaven. God “confuses their language” and the project fails.
Two features of the story, though, suggest that it is not that simple. The first is that it begins with a seemingly idyllic phrase: “the whole land had one language and a common speech.” There was unity on earth. Surely this was good not bad, yet the Bible seems critical of it.
The second oddity is that the previous chapter has already told us about how humanity had divided into seventy nations, “each with its own language”. Did the division of languages happen before or after Babel? If it was after, then the narrative is not in chronological sequence. If before, then Babel cannot have been the cause.
Thanks to archaeology we can now answer both questions. Mesopotamia, which included Babel/Babylon, was the home of the world’s first empires. The neo-Assyrians developed the practise of imposing their own language, Akkadian, on the peoples and nations they conquered. Ashurbanipal II boasted that he made all peoples “speak one speech”. Sargon II claimed that he had conquered many nations “with strange tongues and incompatible speech” and caused them all to “accept a single voice.”
The “one language and common speech” of Babel was not a primordial unity but the result of ruthless imperialism whose symbol was the three-hundred-foot high Etemenanki ziggurat beside the Marduk Temple whose name, Esagila, means “tower with its head in the heavens” almost exactly as the Bible describes it. The story of Babel is a critique of imperialism, the imposition of a single culture on a plural world. It is followed by the story of Abraham, the man commanded to be different to show that God loves difference.
We can now summarise the human story as told in the first eleven chapters of Genesis. There are two perennial dangers. The first is the lawlessness and violence we still see in failed and failing states that lack the rule of law. The second is imperialism, the attempt to impose a single culture on a plural world.
Read this way, the Bible teaches that God creates cultural diversity just as he created biodiversity. There is only one God but there may be more than one path to his presence. That is what makes respect between faiths both possible and necessary. It is a lesson we must never forget.
(First published in The Times)