MOSES' ARK AND BABEL'S TOWER
BY PETER J. LEITHART
SATURDAY, 26 JUNE 2010 05:53
Question from sharp-witted kid: How many animals did Moses take on the ark?
Answer from inattentive adult: Two of each kind.
Alternative answer from inattentive adult who wants to teach the kid something: Two of each unclean animal, and seven of each clean animal.
Punch-line from child: Moses didn’t take any animals on the ark! He didn’t have an ark.
Retort from adult with facility in Hebrew, who doesn’t want to be bested by a kid: Ahh, but he did have an ark, though it’s true he didn’t take any animals on it.
And don’t guess it was the “ark of the covenant,” because it wasn’t.
The Hebrew word for Noah’s “ark” is tevah, and the only other use outside the flood story is in Exodus 2:2-3, where the word is used to describe the “basket” in which Moses floats down the Nile. Moses is a new Noah, the one rescued from water who later rescues Israel through water in the Exodus and bring them rest (cf. Gen. 5:29). Water first appears in the first chapter of Exodus, where Pharaoh decrees that all male Israelite children will be drowned in the Nile (1:22). From the first, then, the waters of Egypt are the waters of death; the Nile is a river of blood long before Yahweh makes this visible in the first plague (7:14-19).
Yet, through the courage of his parents, Moses is delivered from the waters of death, in an ark-like basket, and raised up to have a new life in Pharaoh’s house. Were we unaware that the Nile was the grave of many Israelite boys, the rescue of Moses would be far less significant. As it is, his passage through the death waters is a resurrection, a baptism through death-waters to life. The waters of death turn back on Pharaoh, however. In a poetic application of the lex talionis, Yahweh drowns drowning Pharaoh in the Red Sea (14:28-31). Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, wound for wound, water for water.
When Moses is grown, he kills an Egyptian and flees to Midian, where he defends seven sisters from surly shepherds, and draws water for them (2:16-17). Moses, the one drawn from the water, is also a water-provider. Later, all Israel passes through the water of the Red Sea, and the same Moses who provided water for Jethro’s daughters will provide water for all Israel (17:5). Moses’ experience becomes the model for the experience of all Israel. Finally, the priests are required to wash from the water of the tabernacle laver before they enter the holy place. This is a “cleansing,” but it is, against the background of the water imagery of Exodus, a new exodus, a part of the priestly ascent through the waters to the architectural Sinai that is the tabernacle.
“Water” accumulates significance as the story goes. Initially associated with death, water is overcome by Moses and in the Exodus, and the water of death becomes water of life. By the time we read the end of Exodus, “water” is no longer merely referential, or a one-for-one symbol. It evokes a cluster of prior events, an entire story-line, the entire story of oppression and deliverance. It is no longer a single note, but strikes a chord.
But there’s more. When the men of Babel organize to build a tower reaching to heaven, they decide to use “tar for mortar” (Gen. 11:3; NASB). The Hebrew phrase repeats two different forms of the same root (chmr): The word for “tar” is chemar and the word for “mortar” is chomer, and the word is used elsewhere only in Genesis 14:10 (referring to “tar pits”) and Exodus 2:3 (referring to what was spread on the “ark” made for the baby Moses). Plus, earlier in Genesis, Yahweh instructed Noah to build an ark and to cover it inside and out with “pitch” (Gen. 6:14), using the Hebrew word kofer, related to the verb for “cover.” Like Genesis 11:3, Genesis 6:14 doubles the word: “you shall kafar it inside and out with kofer.”
Though the wording of the two passages is different, the contexts indicate that chemar and kofer are closely related terms. The ark is covered with pitch/asphalt, and the men of Babel use tar/asphalt as mortar in building their tower. The use of chemar in Exodus 2:3 supports this. As we’ve seen, Moses’ “ark” is clearly paralleled to Noah’s yet the word for the “pitch” that covers Moses’ ark is the word used for “tar” in Genesis 11:3. Moses’ ark is described with wording that draws on both the flood story and the Babel story, which not only links these two stories to the story of infant Moses, but confirms that the two other stories are linked as well.
Instead of a simple Moses-Noah parallel, then, we have a third term, the building of the tower of Babel.
These verbal links invite us to see other connections between these three passages, and indicates that the men of Babel see their tower as something of an ark of safety. They build the tower and city out of fear of scattering (11:4), as Noah builds his ark under the threat of the flood. The city and tower are intended to house all the peoples of the world, as Noah’s ark houses the one family that will survive the flood. More broadly, this connection seems reasonable and even obvious: Babel is the perennial symbol of the false church as the ark is historically a symbol of the true church or, as Luther had it in his great baptismal prayer, of Christendom. Genesis thus presents two contrasting building projects for the salvation of the nations and of creation.
All this is background for the ark of Moses. His ark is a reversal of the tower of Babel, for the Israel that Moses rescues through water is the seed of Abraham, the true humanity, which will bring blessing to the nations and will build the city of God and its tower. Through Moses, of the seed of Abraham, the curse of Babel is being reversed and the true gate of God – the tabernacle – will be built.