Monthly Archives: July 2009

We are all in the construction business

George Bernard Shaw once stated, “God created us in his image and we decided to return the favor.”  Genesis 11 illustrates Shaw’s statement in a most vivid manner.   The story of the tower of Babel comes at the end of the first major section of the Hebrew Bible.  Some introductory thoughts might be helpful here.  The Babel Episode is the pinnacle of the previous events recorded in Genesis 1-11.  The story of Babel stands between the previous events…events that continually reflect man’s failure but it also introduces the family of Abraham, God’s chosen one, through Shem’s (son of Noah) genealogy bringing hope to dark stories of repeated failure.
This Babel story gives us a snapshot of life through a story related to the genealogy of Ham.  In Ham’s genealogy, we find that Nimrod, descendant of Ham, developed cities.  Much like Genesis 2 reflects back into day six of Genesis one providing more detail, the tower of Babel reflects back into that genealogy to report of the result of building these cities.  It is a story that tells us the general condition of humankind.  Moses has placed the tower of Babel story as a bookend that mirrors Genesis 1:1-2:3.   The verbiage of both the creation story and the tower of Babel are similar as they both speak of mankind [adam], heavens [man’s relation to it], both passages have a divine plural (“Let us”), and we are introduced to the motif of blessing through filling the earth.  It is evident in the story of Babel that the divine mandate to fill full the earth and subdue it has not been taken up mankind.
Not only does it serve as a bookend to the storyline of Genesis 1-11, but also it picks up several pieces of imagery from the individual stories of Genesis 1-11.  For example, the Tower of Babel mirrors the attempt of humanity in the garden (2:4-3:24) to achieve power independently of God.  The divine plural appear in the garden story distressed about man’s condition if left in the present state just as in the Babel story.  Geographically the Garden story and the Tower story occur in the same region, near the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.  From this perspective, it would seem humanity has come full circle.  The Babel story picks up pieces of the Cain and Able story with Cain’s migration and building cities (4:17), Both Cain and Babel boast of advanced civilizations.  Themes from Noah’s flood are also present in the vocabulary such as “heavens” and “all the earth” dominates both stories.  The characteristic of pride or renown (6:4) is also introduced in both Noah’s flood and the Babel story.  Elements from all the previous stories have found their way into the Babel story revealing that man has not become resolute in his commitment to the Creator.  In fact the opposite has happened.  In spite of the Creator’s intervention at times throughout Genesis 1-11, man has continued his pursuits with little regard for God’s mandates.
The story of Babel also has literary qualities that reveal the condition of God’s creation.  The Babel episode illustrates both human endeavor (vs. 1-4) and divine deed (6-9).  The peak of the story, which is found in verse 5, separates these two activities, “the Lord came down.”  So the story begins with human construction that results in divine activity triggering the city’s deconstruction.  Sarcasm and Irony are also present in the story.  First, humankind’s unity enabled the project to be built, but it was the partnership that brought their demise.  Second, they sought a “name” (vs 4), they received a humiliating name, “Babble” (vs 9).  Third, they set out to build a tower to reach the heavens (vs. 4), but God has to come down to see their puny efforts (vs 5).  Moses is telling the freed Israelite slaves from Egypt, to whom the story is written: the divine mandate is not happening.  The image of the divine king is not being proclaimed throughout the earth. Humankind is rebelling against their creator again.  Therefore, God comes down to take corrective action.
So what is the crime that is committed by humankind that evokes divine judgment?  Some commentators have said pride as seen in making a name, but we see throughout scripture a prominent name in itself is not wrong.   Pride can be a motivator for making a name, but it does not have to be.  Some has also claimed that the scattering was an indication of divine judgment, but filling full the earth was a divine blessing in the creation story.  The filling the earth had more to do with reproducing not scattering.  The point of the divine blessing in creation was to create more little images of God through reproduction to rule and subdue the earth. Both pride and refusing to subdue the earth reveal a heart issue that demanded God’s intervention.
The heart issue reveals itself through understanding the significance of cities and the role of towers (ziggurats) in the ancient Near East (back to Nimrod).  Mesopotamian religions claimed that their cities were of divine parentage (originated from the gods).  Inside these cities, Mesopotamians erected was the ziggurats as a prominent feature.  They developed a mythology that the towers formed a stairway between the gods and earth.  Therefore they believed, the gods, including the Creator God, could be manipulated through offerings and celebrations in the god’s honor.  Simply put humankind had clustered together for the purpose of God abuse.  They were attempting to communicate with God for their own gain.  They had turned the Creator God into someone they could manipulate for their own purposes.  They replaced belief in the Creator God with paganism.  They made him into a needy god (other examples: Prayer of Mursili, 1400 B.C.).  In the middle of our story, God almighty in need of nothing breaks into their pagan mythology.  He comes down as would have been requested through temple offerings, but he does not come in weakness or need, he comes in power and decisiveness.
It is here that we can inject the implications of pride and refusal to spread out thereby subduing God’s creation.  You see if you can manipulate God, then his divine mandates, his rules, can be disregarded.  Therefore, why travel away from the peace and security of the city?  Similarly, humankind exhibits their pride by their belief that they can manipulate the Creator God.  The image of God, tarnished by sin, is forced to disperse and fill full the earth.  God will now call one individual, Abraham, to father a nation to reflect his image and bless the nations that rejected his kingship through the stories of Genesis 1-11.
In the story of the tower of Babel, God gives us lessons for today.  The Bible serves us many reminders activities that fall short of God’s purpose for his image bearers.   We many times create our tower of Babel.  We attempt manipulate God as if he is in need of us.  As Shaw stated, we have created God in our image.  We demand God carry out our desires instead of submitting to his mandates. In doing this, we dilute our understanding of his person and our mission in his creation.  John Walton suggests three ways that we dilute God.  First, we dilute God through redistributing his power.  Instead of resting on God as the supreme originator and sustainer of the universe, we redistribute his power to human entities.  We rely on government, technology, education or relationships to solve our problems.  Second, we dilute God by restricting his autonomy.  We want to make God a debtor to us.  Anytime God is viewed under obligation, we restrict his autonomy.  We sometimes think God owes us something because we serve him or give material things to him.  Third, we dilute God by regulating his power.  We are delighted for God’s power to work wonders in our lives but reluctant to allow his power to cleanse and purify us.  Sometimes we pray, “improve my health but don’t make demands on my attitude.”  “Help me get a promotion, but don’t change my habits.” “Work changes for me, but don’t work changes in me.”  If we search our hearts and motives, we all dilute God. We build our towers of Babel that make demands on God and set terms for his work, marking off boundaries around the areas of our life that are “off limits” to his work.
However, as we find ourselves in this destructive pattern, there is also gospel in this story.  Genesis chapters 1-11 culminating in the Tower of Babel story illustrates the pursuit that God will undertake to have a relationship with his created ones.  For in our times of self-destructive behavior, God intervenes to save us from devouring ourselves.  That is the grace of the gospel.  God intervened in the garden with Adam and Eve, He intervened in the times of Noah; He intervened at the tower of Babel.  His rescue appears in the stories of Genesis 1-11 in ways that seem painful, yet necessary and for our own good.
Even in our pride of our elegant towers, let us run to cross…seek the hope and restoration found in the gospel.  For it is in the gospel we see the living Christ in all his majesty, power, glory, greatness and we find forgiveness.  Let us seek to make his name renown, not our own.  May Jesus’ prayer to God the Father in John 17, be our desire this day: I have revealed your Name to men and have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do.


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