This interaction led me to think about who determines which cultural norms are more valuable, especially when in a multi-ethnic/cultural setting? Should we take pride in our cultural norms and traditions? How do we view traditions and cultural expressions when they come into conflict with another person’s culture?
In order to answer these questions, it’s important to first identify where ethnicity and cultural distinctions come from.
In Genesis 11 we learn that the whole world had one language, meaning one vocabulary, literally “same words” or “lip”.
Linguists, sociologists and anthropologists affirm that language is the symbolic presentation of a culture  and that language and culture both are influential in the development of worldviews, meaning our understanding of the world takes shape through our use of language, determined by inherited cultural principles .
In other words, worldview goes hand in hand with culture and language, which makes the incident described in Genesis 11 that much more significant.
Genesis 10 Begins with Genesis 11
In spite of migration from one area to another, specifically from the east to the land of Shinar (vs. 2), which was the southern portion of Mesopotamia, only one language existed (vs. 1). One language meant one culture (v. 1), or worldview. This cultural unity caused the people to sin against God. This sin originated through a fear of disunity (vs. 4) among this one cultured people. Simply put, the people who settled in Shinar were unified in language, culture, worldview, technology (vs. 3) and together in community and unity (vs. 4), they took pride and boasted that they could do great things for themselves. Desiring to make a name for themselves (vs 4), they sinned. In their united collective worldview they sinned by failing to recognize the Creator as their sustainer. They were relying on their like-minded worldview, their independence from God, their dependence on each other, and human unity, evidenced in their community work project, the tower (migdal) or temple tower (ziggurat).
Their work towards their collective pet project, using one language, one culture, was sinful, according to God. Here we begin to see human motivation giving way to divine response. To halt their unity and independence, God confused their language so that they were not able to understand each other, subsequently dispersing them all over the face of the earth.
We see the sin of Adam and Eve repeated in the making of the tower. In a human attempt to “be like God”, the people of the Shinar region were “attempting to build the tree of life with brick and mortar” . This sin was clearly a calculating way to usurp the God of creation, who in Genesis 1:28, gave a directive to His creation to fill the earth. Some scholars state that the sin at Babel was fueled by human determination to “resist the divine command to spread out and fill the earth, a stance that God had to correct with judgment so that God’s intended blessing could proceed” .
Genesis 11 explains how the various languages, tribes, nations, and ethnicities that we read about in Genesis 10 were dispersed. They are one story and should be read together. When we take a posture of taking pride in our nationality, ethnicity or culture, we need to be aware that we are also actually taking pride in the sin that caused the various ethnicities and languages to emerge and be dispersed in the first place.
Dispersed ethnicities and many languages are the result of sin. How can one ethnicity or language have value over another when they are ALL a consequence of sin?
Table of Nations
The term “table of nations” is used to describe the list of nations and people groups that we read about in Genesis 10:1-32. It includes the origin of each people group, as well as their relationship to each other . Genesis 11:8 tells us that God scattered his creation over the whole earth, which was consequentially and providentially a divine blessing as result of human disobedience.
We see this same form of divine blessing from human disobedience with Noah and the flood. God preserved Noah and his sons, in spite of sinful humanity. Likewise, God dispersed sinful humanity in spite of their desire for human unity. Contemporary Bible readers often overlook this aspect of the Noah narrative and fail to give much thought to the curses and blessings that God pronounced on Noah’s offspring (Genesis 9:18-28).
I understand that contemporary Christians are leery of exegeting the Noah narrative Biblically because in the past Christians have used the failures of Noah’s offspring, particularly that of one son, Ham, who became the father of the Canaanites, to pronounce judgment on all Africans. This erroneous judgment was the motivation for a “justified” oppression that resulted in chattel slavery in the U.S. This interpretation is unequivocally in error and should be rejected fully and denounced by all believers.
However, we can’t ignore the Biblical reality that because of Noah’s offspring, the people on earth became a divided, dispersed people. Ham fathered Cush, who fathered Nimrod, whose name means “we shall rebel”. According to Jewish tradition he was the builder of the Tower of Babel and was the archetype of Mesopotamian leadership and culture. The table of nations that we see dispersed in Genesis 10 was under God’s judgment due to the tower account. One scholar writes “the table of nations point to the fact that the one people of Genesis 11:6 are actually the nations of the earth, (Genesis 10:5, 20, 31, 32). The one language that the city builders spoke, (Genesis 11:1) had been replaced by a bewildering variety of languages used by distinct groups located in their own lands and all pursuing their own exclusive interests”  (emphasis mine).
In a nutshell, the family of humanity that sought unity apart from God became a disjointed dis-unified family that competed with other members of the family for self seeking purposes and significance. In conjunction with an inherited sin nature (Romans 5:12), competition with other people groups, cultures, or ethnicities contribute to oppression of others who are different. These factors also contribute to the superiority/inferiority dynamics between the various cultures. The belief that our culture, ethnicity, demographic, social status, etc, can be used to give us purpose or significance is a lie that has been handed down to us from the curse of the garden and God’s divine judgment that caused the dispersion.
Without a Biblical context to understand how the various cultures, languages, and ethnicities derived, we often default to a posture that pits our culture or people group over another. If one believes their culture is overlooked or “marginalized”, it becomes easy to relish pride in one’s culture or ethnicity, taking on a Beatitude type posture that assumes Jesus loves and advocates for more than others, simply by virtue of being a member of one’s culture or ethnicity.
Interestingly, many Christians will jump to the story of Abraham in Genesis 12 to prove that God wanted to create one family out of the nations but plainly ignore why the various nations existed in the first place, which we see in Genesis 11 and was the result of sin.
Because of sin, God created disunity through dispersing his creation. This divine judgment provided God the context to demonstrate his soverign control and will in choosing one man and his offspring, among a table of nations, through which God would restore that unity with himself. The introduction of Abram in Genesis 12 is not coincidental to the human disobedience seen in Genesis 11, and is surely not happenstance to the dispersion of the table of nations that is seen as a consequence to that sin. It is Abram who receives God’s call to become a great nation, through whom all the nations, or rather, all the families of earth will be blessed (Genesis 12:1-3).
When we read Genesis 9, 10, 11 and 12 in context with each other, we see that in seeking unity apart from God, humans sinned. God imposed divine judgment. God then disperses creation, which created the various nations, languages and people groups we see today.
God then unifies the nations under one man, Abraham. His offspring ultimately paves the way for Christ to enter into humanity and unify, fully.
In our need to determine value for ourselves, we often default to that aspect of our person-hood that we think needs to be highlighted, our ethnicity, culture or people group. Sometimes this pride is passed on to us from our parents, who told us that pride in our culture should trump all other aspects of our identity, especially if the sin of another motivated them to not see us as valuable. For those of us that have believed the lie that we are not valued because of our ethnicity, skin color or culture, we need to repent because none of these characteristics gives us inherent value. The people of Shinar were made in God’s image, and still, that was not enough to keep them sinless or excused from experiencing divine judgment.
We need to be careful that we place the emphasis on God for our unity, which we see culminated in Christ Jesus. If we are going to have any reason to boast, let it be exclusively, because we are in Christ, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Cor 1:30)
References: Tengku Mahadi, Sepora. Language and Culture. International Journal of Humanities and Social Science. Vol 2. No 17, September 2012.