There are certain stories in the Old Testament that have always fascinated me.
Like Job. My family says I’m obsessed with the book of Job, and I guess I am. The first chapter is one of the most incredible in all of Scripture, with Satan his own self showing up in Heaven to have a conversation with God.
But the part that really bothers me is the incredible amount of collateral damage done in Satan’s attempt to get Job to turn on God. Sometimes we’re so focused on the story of the wager, that we don’t stop and think about the carnage that occurs – the deaths of family, servants, livestock. We don’t know the names of the servants of Jobs’ first set of children, their spouses, their kids (if they had any). It’s like “these innocent people died but that’s beside the point” kind of thing. (Although I do believe there is a point, but I’m not going into that at this particular time).
Another is what we refer to as “the Fall,’’ the temptation of Eve and so forth. But what gets me are two verses. The first is the last verse of chapter 2, which says “Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.” Then, seven verses in chapter 3, we read “… and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.” Of all the things that happen in those eight verses (the last one of chapter 2, the first seven of chapter 3), we often miss the origination of clothes. I find that a fascinating leap, from “felt no shame’’ to “realized they were naked.” I think there is a lot about the human condition in those eight verses, which I may attempt to break down later.
But then there is another story in Genesis, Chapter 11, where the people of the earth come together to build “a tower that reaches to the heavens.”
When I was a kid in Sunday School, we were taught that these silly people thought they could build a tower that would reach the domicile of God the Almighty, which – we were told – was blasphemy. And in fact the Lord stops them, giving them languages and causing the people to band together in smaller groups of people they were able to communicate with (and isn’t that still the case today, that we’re always looking for a place where we can be understood?).
Back then I always wondered why God didn’t just let them build the tower. Now that we’ve put men in space, put a man on the moon, sent landing craft to Mars, we know these people had no chance of building a tower high enough to “reach the heavens” – besides which, even if they could have, as the first man in space, a Russian cosmonaut by the name of Yuri Gagarin, was reported to have said, “I looked and looked and looked but I didn’t see God.” (A quote that has been much disputed, particularly since Gagarin was a member of the Russian Orthodox Church; it’s said the quote came from then-Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev while making an anti-religion speech). We have been to outer space, and we know that’s not where we’ll find Heaven or God.
So why not just let the people stay busy, building their tower (after all, idle hands are the devils’ work shop, or something like that)? Let them build, knowing if the point was to reach “heaven” and become like God, man would fail. (Although trying to be like God is the original temptation, the serpent telling Eve “You will be like God;” or, as French existentialist Jean Paul Sartre said, “Man’s fundamental desire is to be God.”)
Even the Scripture says in the story that “the Lord came down to see the city.” All of Scripture is full of “God coming down…” to do whatever, culminating in Jesus coming down to be crucified and to return one day as King. No matter how high man builds, getting to God is not a matter of height. No matter how high he goes, in reality he’s no closer to God from the top of Everest or the Moon than he is standing on the plain of Shinar where they gathered to build Babel.
So clearly the issue can’t be that God was somehow concerned that the people would actually succeed in building a tower that reached heaven, enabling them to move into His celestial neighborhood and become “like Him.”
Just reading the story straightforward, I think there are two things going on.
One is practical. God has continually told mankind to “fill the earth.” The descendants of Adam and Eve start, but mankind goes from “At that time men began to call on the name of the Lord” (4:26) to “The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness had become” (6:5). The multiplication of man stops with the events of the flood and Noah, after which God says in chapter 9 for Noah to “be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.”
Only what people do is stick together. Rather than fill the earth, they all crowd into the plain of Shinar and appear ready to settle in. This isn’t what God commanded, so He gives the gift of tongues: one minute everyone understands each other and the next “it’s all Greek to me” (although no one had come up with the label “Greek” yet). People find the people they can understand, band together, and begin to wander off to – finally – fill the earth, as God intended.
In sticking together, apparently people once again decided they had each other and didn’t need God, which I get. It’s mans’ nature (as we see in the story of “the Fall”) to focus on himself in relation to others, rather than by God’s standard. I mean, really, God didn’t expect much back then other than man to focus on Him and not be so self-centered, which was fine until other people were introduced into the equation and the distractions began. Tall ones, short ones, big ones, small ones, strong ones, smart ones … man’s sense of self-worth came through how he compared himself to the others.
And so they banded together and said “let us” make bricks and “let us” build a city and “let us” make a name for ourselves and not be scattered all over the earth.
Why? What harm was there in the Lord allowing mankind to huddle together in one giant city and ‘make a name’?
It had already happened once before, back in chapter 6. The progeny of Adam and Eve had multiplied and it wasn’t long before they went from “calling on the name of the Lord” to “how great man’s wickedness had become,’’ leading to the destruction of the mankind in the flood.
So God’s “gift of tongues’’ accomplished two things: one, it caused man to split up and fill the earth after all; and, two, in doing so, man found himself re-focusing on God again. Instead of hanging around each other and telling each other how great they were, mankind hit the trail, spread out, and would find out just how great God is - again.
Until one day described in the book of Acts, the spirit of God came on a small band of men and they started speaking and all these people from all these different nations were given the “gift of ears” – each one heard in his own language! And what these men gathered to build was built on the Rock, on the solid foundation, and what they built Hell itself would not prevail against it.
Ironically – if that’s the right word – it was through this building that man did indeed gain access to heaven.
As is so often the case, the New Testament really sums up the story of “The Tower of Babel.’’ In Romans 9, Paul isn’t talking specifically about the events of Babel, but about the children of Israel “missing” what God was doing. And why? Eugene Peterson’s “the Message” says is so plainly: “…instead of trusting God, they took over. They were absorbed in what they themselves were doing. They were so absorbed in their “God projects” that they didn’t notice God right in front of them, like a huge rock in the middle of the road. And so they stumbled into him and went sprawling…”
The account in Genesis says, “But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building …” Curious language, as if God needed to come down to see what was going on. But then, early Genesis is full of God “coming down” to walk and talk and hang out with Adam and, eventually Eve. Maybe what God really wanted was the companionship of people of some level of free will, who would choose to associate with him freely, of their own will.
Perhaps the saddest part of the whole story of Babel? That God came down to see what the people were doing – maybe even walked among them – and no one noticed. They were so absorbed in “let us” that they didn’t notice when God “came down” to see them.
Pray that we never get so caught up in “us” and what we are doing that we fail to recognize God right in front of us!