The Rosetta space probe: Tower of Babel redux?

This week, we humans took another step towards interplanetary travel: we caught a ride on a comet! (link)

At its furthest distance from the sun, this comet is 850 million kilometers away from the sun. We first noticed it in 1969 and named it Comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko after the two Soviet astronomers who discovered it. But it wasn’t until 2003 that scientists started talking seriously about trying to catch a ride on it. Pictures were taken. Slide rulers started squeaking. And in early 2004, the European Space Agency launched a rocket on a trajectory much like a marble in a gigantic cosmic pin-ball machine … looping around a number of comets and planets, each time using their gravitational fields to pick up more speed and sling-shot around like a monkey swinging through the trees … with the intent that the probe would travel six billion kilometers and pull up ever so smoothly eleven years later beside the comet traveling at 135,000 kilometres per hour. That rendezvous happened this past August, and Rosetta went into orbit around the comet in September. This week we were finally in position to gently drop a probe on it! And today we did it!

At the same time, there was a bit of a traffic jam at the International Space Station. They’d just docked up with one cargo capsule sent up by a private company (Space Exploration Technologies) as well as a freighter sent by Russia, and were supposed to have also received yet another rocket from NASA (unfortunately, it blew up seconds after lift-off), and then they sent a fourth rocket back to Earth with three astronauts inside (link).

Crazy times! Completely beyond anything our grandparents could have even dreamed! As my son put it so eloquently on Facebook: “isn’t this freakin’ awesome!

While reading these articles, I was struck by the international nature of the stories. The Rosetta probe sent out by the European Space Agency (20 member nations) … the International Space Station, a collaboration between NASA, Russia and Europe … even the returning space capsule with a Russian commander, a German flight engineer, and an American.

And then a quote from one of the astronauts got me thinking about a parallel in the Bible. From the German flight engineer: “They say this is the most complex machine that humanity has ever built … Even after half a year on board, it is impossible for me to fathom how complex it is to actually operate this machine.” [referring to the Space Station]

The combination of that bravado … the reaching for the stars … the pride in human accomplishment … the fact that the probe is named ‘Rosetta’ after the stone which gave us insight into the languages of the Ancient Middle East … the major successful and multinational achievement despite language barriers. It all together got me thinking about the Tower of Babel. Actually, the Tower of Babel story in reverse.

Genesis eleven begins with a group of people saying “… let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens …“. And the story ends with God disrupting their activity by confusing their language.

Was that really a solution to the ‘problem’? And what was the problem in the first place?

For thousands of years, one nation has sailed or traveled to another nation that they’d never encountered before, one with a completely different language, and were quickly able to trade, do commerce, make treaties. (Sure, they often also went to war, but that doesn’t change my point). Any one of us who has spent time in a foreign culture has been able to pick up enough of the local language within just a few months to be able to get by and even enjoy our time there. In fact, people who have lost the ability to speak or to hear can still function quite well in society: think about the story of Helen Keller, the woman who was born without the ability to speak, hear or see, and who still learned how to communicate! So verbal language has never really been an insurmountable barrier to us. The Rosetta probe and the International Space Station certainly attest to the much greater accomplishments we’ve managed … and literally, the much higher heights we’ve attained … despite our various languages.

And what was the problem being solved in the first place? I don’t think the humans posed any kind of threat to the gods (they refer to themselves in the plural), as if we might storm the gates of heaven. I mean, how high can you build a tower out of bricks and tar anyway?

But maybe they were a threat to themselves. Maybe success would fill them with such arrogance and self-sufficiency that they might delude themselves into thinking they were equal to the gods.

Which might be where we are today. In the same way that the ancient builders in Babel might see a tall tower as evidence that they were masters of their own destiny … gods … we stand on the edge of a comet half way between Earth and Jupiter and say “Now we are gods, and the universe is at our feet”. But as we look beyond our solar system, we might be a bit more wise to watch that first step: it’s a doozy. Let’s a keep a sober perspective on our place in the cosmos.

On the other hand, maybe I’m trying to dredge too much out of Genesis. Perhaps it’s more story than history. ‘The Lord’ in Genesis 11 doesn’t at all look like the God that Christians talk about. The text says he “came down” to see the city and the tower being built … not exactly all-knowing and existing everywhere. After learning that things were indeed as bad as had been rumored, this deity had to then return to heaven to report to certain other deities and suggest a plan of action: “… let us go down and confuse their language …” … note the plurality of characters and the traveling back-and-forth implied by those four little words “… let us go down …“. Again, not very omniscient or omnipresent.

Besides, Genesis chapter ten describes a world full of many languages and then Genesis 11 opens up with “Now the whole world had one language and a common speech“. Perhaps that anachronism is the first clue that we don’t need to take the stories literally. In fact, the first half of Genesis in general appears too much like a Hebrew adaptation of Babylonian myths. Just read about the Epic of Gilgamesh and some of their other texts, and you’ll have a whole new perspective on the Flood story, the genealogies of people living for hundreds of years, the Creation account, and the most bizarre of them all, the Nephilim story.

But even if parts of Genesis are Hebrew re-interpretations of human understanding at that time, does that lessen the Bible? Make it trivial or even useless? Absolutely not! To me, these are just the first of many stories that we humans have collected as we’ve tried to understand who God is. The Bible isn’t only God’s message to us, but also our diary or notebook as we try to learn about him. He is indeed inspiring our searching and learning, but it’s still us doing the writing, copying, translating and interpreting (unless you want to believe that God dictated the text or delivered the manuscripts to us). Pick up a diary/notebook in which a child begins writing several decades worth of their experiences or observations, and you’ll find the first many pages full of overly simplistic, inaccurate, misinterpreted, immature and even selfish entries. And as you continue flipping through the pages, you see how that person grows in their maturity, knowledge and understanding.

That’s what I see in the Bible. It begins with a very different view of God than the one I see later on in the book. And the pages I turn to for the most mature and insightful lessons are near the end … in the teachings of Jesus.

Just like the Rosetta Stone opened up the door to a view on our ancient Mesopotamian past, the Rosetta Probe may now be the threshold of a doorway to our future ‘out there’. As we stand on that comet just outside the orbit of Mars and get ready to take our next steps to find who’s out there, let’s not get too full of ourselves. Let’s remember our place in the universe.

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