Part one of a series.
The story of Babel reveals many of the patterns of work in the fallen world. It reveals them in the Babel account of Genesis 11, which is what you probably thought of when I first mentioned “the story of Babel.” But the story of Babel is much bigger than that, for “Babel” is also “Babylon,” and by that name it is much more familiar as one of the Bible’s overarching stories. And when we connect the two, we see them as one story running all the way through the Bible from Genesis through Jeremiah to Acts and Revelation. And that story can provoke much fruitful reflection on our daily work.
When I was a child, the Genesis 11 story was taught to me as the story of a tower. People wanted to build a tower high enough to get to heaven and challenge God, I was told. So God stopped them. And I have found that I was not idiosyncratic in having been taught the story this way.
What we find in Genesis 11 is not a tower but a city. And while human rebellion against God is obviously a central element, the aspiration at Babel was not to challenge God for mastery in his throne room. It was to withdraw from God, hiding behind walls for safety – seeking pride and security in the strength of their own work, running away from the calling of God to subdue and cultivate a dangerous world.
The emphasis in the Genesis 11 account is on work. The account begins innocently in v. 1-2, with people obeying God’s creation mandate. They travel and arrive in a new land (“fill the earth”) and build settlements there (“subdue it”). Well and good. But by v. 4 they are in hideous rebellion, talking about staying in one place and building it up beyond all limits, to make a name for themselves and to avoid the dangers of being dispersed.
What is the turning point between the obedience of v. 1-2 and the disobedience of v. 4? Here is v. 3:
And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.
Technological and economic progress, produced by and empowering our work, opens the door to the fatal turn. As we work, we discover the power of our work. The temptation to worship the work of our hands, always present wherever we work, is greatly increased.
The two fatal purposes of rebellion are pride and safety. Feeling the enormous power in their hands, they wanted to make a name for themselves, and they wanted to have safety rather than subject themselves to the hazards of an uncertain world. The calling of God for our work is to humility, and also to vulnerability (indeed, you could hardly have the one without the other). We’d rather build a wall.
The point of the tower is not to invade heaven, but to avoid invading the earth. If they’re going to have security and make a name for themselves, their city has to be growing. But if they refuse to disperse around the world, as God intends, they can’t grow horizontally. I suppose they could try growing downward, but that wouldn’t serve the purposes either of safety or of pride. That leaves growth upward. A quick look at the classic depictions of the tower makes this clear.
The potentially unlimited height of the tower is emphasized to invoke the futile hope that without God to get in our way, we can grow without limit. There is a note of absurdity in the cry of v. 4: “Let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens!” The darkened mind flees from God because it flees from limits, above all from limits to its own power.
Ironically, limitation of our power is exactly what the sin of Babel brought on. For, here as elsewhere, the punishment of sin is not some arbitrary addition, laid on top of the sin. Sin either is itself its own punishment (as Paul suggests in Romans 1) or at least contains the seeds of its own punishment within itself (as the wisdom literature’s emphasis on the foolishness of sin emphasizes). We will look more at how God dealt with Babel in the next post.
For now, the lesson is that work – even good work done in obedience to God, and perhaps especially good work done in obedience to God – brings strength and power, which bring temptation to pride and fear.