Noah (Gen. 11): On Making a Name

“Let us make a name for ourselves” (Gen. 11:4)

Many interpreters have pointed out that this failed attempt of the tower builders to make a name for themselves in Chapter 11 is followed immediately by God’s promise to Abraham to make his name great in chapter 12. The easy homiletic ploy would be to talk about the failure of doing things without God and the success of doing things with God. But If you believe, as I do, that “it’s all God,” that God is the stuff of which all things are made, then one never really does anything without God.  I’ll try another tack.

Perhaps what is misguided about the attempt of the builders to make a name for themselves is the belief that they can create an identity simply out of one project, and not out of the total fabric of their lives. On this reading, the tower is a big tall skyscraping mask.

As it happens, the Babylonians did create a name for themselves. They achieved fame with something called the “hanging Gardens.”   Archaeologists have recovered many of their stories and their laws.   The even left us towers, complete, intact, known as ziggurats.  This civilization is still known.  But because of the Bible, what is most known about them is the way that they subjugated and humiliated other peoples, especially the Jews, exiling their population, burning their temple to the ground.  The name of that they made for themselves will always be associated with phrases like “the Babylonian exile ” “the Babylonian destruction,” and, in Christian Scriptures, “the whore of Babylon.”

The error is not trying to make a name for oneself with one’s deeds. The error lies in thinking that we can pick and choose which deeds we want to be remembered for and conveniently forget the others.   As Emerson writes, “the lesson that these observations convey is, Be, and not seem. . . . If you would not be known to do anything, never do it.”

And what about Abraham? What does it mean that God makes Abraham’s name great?  I remember my undergraduate philosophy professor, Louis White Beck, lecturing about Spinoza, and saying that the problem with Spinoza was that his philosophy was in a way too perfect, too self-contained. He said that Kant, by contrast, left much more in his work for others to finish, and that that was an important reason why Kant was better-known.

So it is with Abraham. God makes Abraham’s name great by deferring the fulfillment of the promise to countless generations. What we see of Abraham’s mortal life, the span of his days, is only a seed, a bare beginning.  The names of Abraham and the rest of the patriarchs are fleshed out and augmented by succeeding generations.  This is what Rabbi Abraham Heschel meant when he wrote that “Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are not principles to be comprehended, but lives to be continued.”


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