Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Tower of Confusion (Genesis 11:1-9)

Sandwiched between two genealogical interludes, we find the shortest of episodes in Genesis: The Tower of Babel.

After the flood, all of mankind was together and they began to build a culture. They all (obviously) had the same language; they had the same culture. When they developed the ability to build bricks, they set out to build a great city (Babel) with a giant tower. They wanted to make a reputation for themselves. (A reputation amongst whom? They were all together.)

Genesis tells us that God visits the tower and puts a halt to the prideful project of mankind by confusing their language. After this we see mankind scattered as the previous genealogy indicated. We now see a planet populated by a variety of nations with a variety of cultures.

Even though this is the shortest of stories, it is an important moment in God’s plan. A popular story for children, we tend to look at this event in a folkloric sense. It is an origin story. Where did all the languages come from? God confused the people’s speech to prevent them from building a tower to heaven.

However, I think there is something much more profound in the story of Babel. God was certainly not threatened by a tower. We see much larger buildings being built today and we know that there is no danger of anyone reaching “heaven” in this way. Also, God is not threatened by mankind attempting to make a reputation. People have been doing that throughout history. Certainly God wants to glorify Himself and will give people a reputation to that end (see Abraham), but God hasn’t gone to great effort to prevent people achieving fame.

I think the thing God is working to prevent here is a universal culture amongst men. It is best for God’s plan of salvation that there be many competing cultures. As we know today, according to the work of Ernest Becker and the developers of “Terror Management Theory”, cultures exist to deny death. As long as all of mankind was allowed to develop a single culture—a single mythology denying death, there would be no serious reflection about death. We need for there to be many competing “lies” about life and death to compete for dominance so that the questions and explorations on the subject of death would continue. That way, when God reveals truth there are people looking for answers who will be reached.

As we saw back in chapter 3, death is a merciful gift from God. It prevents people from living eternally in sin without any hope of reconciliation with God. However, death is also an enemy. All of our efforts at culture, religion, science, and even the development of a reputation that will live on after our death is a way that we try to defeat death. And if our cultural answers never encounter competing views, we can conceivably live out our lives and face our deaths lulled into the comfort of denial.

Now, however, when we hold God’s revealed truth up to any other competing view, objective consideration shows us that it is the single consistent and logical answer to life and death. In Babel the way is paved for God’s truth to defeat the variety of inconsistent competing alternatives.

(The picture above is "The Tower of Babel" from Marten van Valckenborch the Elder, hanging in the Old Master's Art Gallery in Dresden, Germany)

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