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B'resheet/Genesis 11:1 And all the earth was [of] one lip and [of] one words
The literal translation of this verse reads strangely in English; a more readable translation might say, "used the same language and the same words" (NASB). By so doing, however, the reader may conclude that the text here is talking solely about vocabulary, when perhaps more is being conveyed by the Hebrew text.
Rashi comments that the phrase - "one lip, one language" - means that everyone in those days spoke Hebrew. He alludes to the ancient commentators (Tanchuma 19, Targum Jonathan and the Jerusalem Talmud Megillah 1:9) who say that all other languages other than the Holy Tongue, by which G-d created the world, are hybrids, developing and borrowing from each other. Latin and Greek words, for example, occur in all the European languages as well as English. Latin itself is heavily based upon Greek which is, in turn, based upon an ancient predecessor. The rabbis claim that only Hebrew - biblical Hebrew - is pure of foreign traces and so can be called the Holy Tongue. Rashi is supported by the Baal HaTurim who uses gematria to make this phrase into a proof text; the gematria of the two words (794) is considered equivalent to that of - the Holy Tongue (795).
The second phrase - "and one words" - has what is to English speakers an odd clash; the word for 'one' has a masculine plural ending so that it agrees with the noun it is qualifying: words. Although the Hebrew is quite comfortable, the commentators leap in to offer an explanation of this apparent anomaly. Targum Onkelos translates the phrase "one way of speaking", while Ibn Ezra proposes that "they had only a restricted set of words", a very limited vocabulary. In almost the opposite direction, the Ba'al HaTurim points out a Masoretic note to the word that it only appears twice in the Hebrew scriptures, the other time being being in the phrase "and vanities and many words" (Ecclesiastes 5:6). From this, he deduces that the conversation of the people in those days was full of empty and vain words.
Rashi sees a deeper meaning, however. His comment reads: "They came with one plan of action and they said, 'G-d does not have the right to select for Himself the higher realms. We will go up to the firmament and wage war with Him'". The people were unified in rebelling against G-d; they were defiant and together planned to declare themselves equal to G-d. Without going quite so far, Hirsch agrees with Rashi's idea: "the sameness of the formation of words and sentences which is brought about by spiritual and mental agreement in the way that things and their relations are looked at." The people all used the same words because they were expressing the same thoughts; they looked at their situation and reached the same conclusions because they saw things the same way, in the same light. They were united together by a set of common values and expressions; therefore they could all work together towards the same goal.
The Hebrew scriptures speak again of unity in the words of the Sh'ma: "Hear, O Israel: the L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is One" (D'varim 6:4), words that are recited several times in each of the three daily prayer services and are to be said on rising and going to sleep each day. As Jews, we are saturated with this expression of G-d's oneness and unity. Yet the prophets speak of a day when "the L-rd will be One and His name One" (Zechariah 14:9); another verse that finds an echo in the daily prayers. How are we to understand this text - thatHaShem is somehow not one now? Only inasmuch that all men do not acknowledge Him as L-rd and all men do not call upon His name alone. In that day they will do both; then not only will He be one, as He always has been, but He will be universally proclaimed and acknowledged as the One True G-d. The whole of mankind will abandon all the other religions and their false gods to worship the King and serve Him alone.
Yeshua spoke of the unity that we were to have as disciples. At the conclusion of His last meal with the twelve He prayed for them "The glory which you have given to me, I have given to them; so that they may be one, just as we are one - I united with them and you with me, so that they may be completely one, and the world thus realize that you sent me, and that you have loved them just as you have loved me" (John 17:22-23, CJB). This is an amazing picture: all the believers in Yeshua being as closely one as the Father and the Son are One! Wow - can you imagine that? It seems an impossible goal, given all the differences in doctrine, interpretation and practice that are to be seen between just the dozen or so major denominations around the world, let alone all the thousands of smaller groupings. Yet Rav Sha'ul is insistent: "there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor freeman, neither male nor female; for in union with the Messiah Yeshua, you are all one" (Galatians 3:28, CJB). Without blurring the differences of biology, calling and function within the body of Messiah, it is clear that we are to be one.
How are we to bring this about? How is He to bring it about? The ecumenical movement is not the answer. Ecumenism has the reputation of reducing everything to the lowest common terms and not talking about the rest. People come together on the smallest slivers of common ground, the few fragments of the gospels that all parties can affirm without dispute or too many reservations, and agree not to talk about all the other particularities that each of the parties hold dear. Of course, this is a caricature of the truth - there are large areas of common agreement between believers - but differences about issues such as the exact meaning and practice of communion, the gifts of the Spirit, the place and ministry of women, and many others, threaten to derail meaningful engagement between the parts of the body. How can we address this? Not by pretending that we don't have differences, but by mature and serious engagement to acknowledge the differences, explore them together and work with them rather than despite them. Rav Sha'ul again: "I, therefore, the prisoner of the L-rd, entreat you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing forbearance to one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Ephesians 4:3, NASB). This isn't a matter of choice; we are commanded to work together so that we may be one.
As we see the world gathering forces, coming together to agree against Israel and against the body of Messiah - inspired and driven, of course, by the Accuser and enemy of our souls - we need to recognise the unity that is being forged among the nations, the activist groups and the false religions against G-d and His Messiah. In that respect, it will not necessarily be too long before all the world is once again of one speech and one manner of speaking. Just as in the days of the Tower of Babel, they will be asserting their right to deny G-d and make a name for themselves. We too, as the Kingdom of G-d on earth, need to be united and strong in His strength to preserve a witness for G-d in these last days. Fragmented, we can easily be isolated and picked off; as Yeshua said: "If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom can't survive; and if a household is divided against itself, that household can't survive" (Mark 3:24-25, CJB). We need to get real with G-d, get real with ourselves and - while preserving our differences in function and calling within the body of Messiah - start acting like a body.
Further Study: Ephesians 4:13; Colossians 3:14
Application: What can you do to help bring the body of Messiah together where you live? Do you pray with and for other believers from different traditions than your own? Why not ask the L-rd what He would like you to do to bring His body together!
© Jonathan Allen, 2009
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