The Dream of Babel
Recently I while in prayer I was thinking about some dreams that I held when I was younger that didn't pan out the way I had hoped. These were both personal and professional; for some of them, I worked hard and dedicated myself diligently to bring them to fruition. However, as I reflected on the family, friends, and life situation I actually have today, I thanked God that these dreams were dashed. The implications of their fulfillment would have been disastrous for me and those I love. By standing in the way of my dreams God actually saved me.
Normally, we don't like to think about God this way. Many times we pray for God to give us the things we ask for. We hope for the god who will give us what we want and we think it will be for the best, but this god as candyman theology may not work out so well in the end.
Provocatively, the Bible also shows us that this God who stands in the way, deals not only with our individual wants, but also the collective wishes of our culture. In Genesis 11, creation is just getting back on track after the flood and the people gather in Mesopotamia to say “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:4 NRSV)
With all due respect to my Sunday School teacher back in the day, the problem with the dream of Babel really wasn't that the tower would reach heaven. There are actually two problems revealed in the text. The first is the self promotion "make a name for ourselves" the second is the fear of being scattered upon the earth. I know that it might be hard for us to see these as problems at first, one may ask what is wrong with making a name for oneself? Or, shouldn't we try to keep everyone together?
Perhaps some of the excesses in our culture can help us see the problem with our dreams of Babel. In our current age, self-promotion is regarded as a crowning virtue, our political leaders,business executives, celebrities and sadly even some church leaders who we look up to embrace these values. However the extreme cost of self promotion lies at the heart of many of our ills. Our leaders in government, business and society can often put their privilege before their responsibilities of service to others. There are those who use their positions in government or business to create systems that are self-perpetuating and do nothing for society at large.
The left fears inequality and the right fears moral decline, but both are driven by the engine of self promotion. Consider the teenager trying to be cool and get more likes on whatever social media platform is hip these days. They may be willing to risk bodily injury, sexual humiliation, or emotional shame to be popular. Others will indeed look to perpetuate these evils on thier peers to show how worthy they are of clicks, likes, and attention, thus the vulnerable are exploited for the amusement of the cruel.
The second problem of Babel, the fear of being scattered upon the earth, actually contradicts God's command at creation and after the flood, where people are called to fill the earth. It manifests itself today in the suppression of genuine diversity. By this I do not mean the pop-liberalism of the Pepsi generation but the actual hard work of working toward the dignity of those who are genuinely different than us. The dream of Babel, of everyone speaking the same language, working on only one goal to say "hey we're great" is actually the nightmare of the monoculture. Biologists will tell you that the weakest ecosystems are those that are monocultural. They have little resilience and are prey to disease and even slight environmental changes.
No wonder God looked down at Babel and said “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. (Genesis 11:6 NRSV) So God confuses the languages thus multiplying them. This creates a diversity of humanity that is able then to multiply and fill the earth. God stops the dream of Babel dead in it's tracks for the good of all. Humanity is richer, more resilient, and a heck of a lot more interesting.
The Promise of Abraham
In the narrative of Genesis, the tower of Babel shows how human sin will continue its destructive path thorugh history unless God intervenes. It is the final universal origin story. It sets up God's salvation plan for all which begins in the very next chapter with God focusing on a particular family, the family of Abraham. We read in Genesis 12:3 "I will bless those who bless you... and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (NRSV)
The contrasts with the dream of Babel are informative. Abraham will be made great by God, he will not do it alone. His greatness will not be an end in itself but given in order that others may be blessed. God will work his plan through Abraham's and his descendant's failures perhaps even more than their successes. What God prevents will be as important as what God empowers. Abraham will mess up often but still walk with God. It communicates this simple truth; who we really are is not defined by ourselves alone, it is also defined by who we are in relationship with. It is God's work through Abraham that will create the blessing. Genesis demonstrates futility of self-promotion at Babel with the fruitfulness and blessing of God-promotion through the life of Abraham and his family.
It is a call for all of us to tend to our relationship with God and resist the temptation of trying to go it alone. The Apostle Paul would write in Romans 4:16 "For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham, for he is the father of all of us, (NRSV) The Bible teaches us that those who we walk with are more important than our dreams and fantasies and that if we walk with God and those God put in our life well, we too will be blessed.
Keep the Faith,