“Let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise, we will be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth. ” – Genesis 11: 4
That’s John Krietler, Jerry and Mary Gray’s brother-in-law. He and his wife, Margie, were two of my companions on the way as we toured Turkey back in April. John’s normally far more energetic than he appears in that photo. In fact, if you’re planning to board a small bus and travel 3500 kilometers in 10 days while seeing an average of 3-4 ruins/temples/villages/churches/seas/archeological mounds/fortresses/replicas of the Trojan Horse from the Iliad a day, you couldn’t ask for better travel companions than John, Margie, Mary, and Jerry. I took that picture of John during our second day in Istanbul. We’d just finished lunch and our guide was gathering us for an afternoon of sightseeing. This is how the conversation went:
Me: Come on, John. It’s time to go.
John: Where are we going?
Me: I have no idea. (which was true – by this point I would have followed Eric and Funda, our guide, over a cliff if they said there was a cool ruin at the bottom. They pointed; I walked.)
John (in the weariest tone you can imagine): Will there be stone?
Me: Yes, and some of it will have fallen over.
Okay, maybe you had to be there, but let me tell you, we were absolutely saturated at that point, fourteen days into The Great Turkey Junket of 2012. We’d seen Ephesus, Colossae, Troy, Cappadocia, and a dozen other sites, including the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, and the Spice Market in Istanbul. Prior to Istanbul, every single location was a ruin, a gorgeous, tumbled-down ruin to be sure, in some cases carefully excavated and explained, but still a ruin, because that’s the way of things. You can build an empire that spans continents and 623 years of human history, but eventually all your work ends up a punch line in a marginally witty exchange between two footsore American tourists.
It’s the folly, the utter folly, of trying to “make a name for ourselves.”
I take from the Tower of Babel story two universal truths. The first is the universality of the fear of being unknown. We all have it, and we all try to assuage it by living large or brightly or having an impact. We build towers of stone, and of material goods, the perfect house or car or education or climb up the corporate ladder or children. We invade countries and appear on reality TV shows, all because we’re afraid we will live and die and disappear from history.
Which, of course, we will. The joy of a set lifespan is that our misdeeds die with us, but so do our accomplishments. That’s the second truth embedded in this poetic myth: the futility of using material, temporal means to combat that universal fear. You can build it, and they can come, but eventually it (whatever it is), like Rome, will fall.
In the Babel story God scatters humans and confuses their language. On the surface this doesn’t seem like a blessing; God just seems petty and mean. So why bother? Why make any gesture at all? Because we still cross barriers with the universal language of a smile or a touch or a gift, as this man did in Brazil: