Babble On: The Impossible Power of Work

Second in a series.

God’s response to the rebellion of Babel is stunning. And it reveals much about our daily work – and the social nature we were made to work in.

Surveying the disastrous wrong turn of humanity at Babel, here is what God says (Genesis 11:6):

If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.

Nothing they plan to do will be impossible! Even allowing for hyperbole – God is not literally attributing omnipotence to us – it is a staggering statement.

I commented last time that the aspiration to build without limit at Babel strikes a note of absurdity. Well, perhaps that was an edifying way to read it. But I begin to think, even though this is not the first time I have written about the Babel episode and our work, that I have not been sufficiently sensitive to the text.

God doesn’t laugh at the human aspiration to build without limit. And not only because it isn’t a laughing matter. God doesn’t even think it’s an aspiration beyond our reach. On the contrary, he explicitly affirms human capacity to build without limit.

That is indeed the whole crux of the problem – we can build sinfully without limit.

And so God imposes a limit. Just as God responded to the initial sin of Adam and Eve by imposing the limit of physical death, cutting short our sinful lives to truncate our progress in evil, so here he places a limit on our work. When we rebelled with our lives, he limited our lives. When we rebelled with our work, he limited our work.

The aspiration to build without limit strikes us as absurd, now, knowing what we know about how things are this side of Babel, where our capacity to build things up with our work is limited in ways we experience painfully every day. Apparently, in the beginning it was not so.

We were made to image the omnipotent creator through our own creative work. We are, as I said, not omnipotent. But the power of human work to build the kind of things it was designed to build, progressing over time, is in principle limitless.

At least, in an unfallen world. The limits we experience in our work are there because God has put the lid on, as a protection against our sin.

Which implies that the day is coming when the lid comes off. And that is not just an eschatological anticipation, as we will see when the story of Babel takes a shocking twist in the New Testament. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

And how does God limit the power of our work? By limiting cooperation.

We were made not only to work but to work together. In this we image the triune God who, when doing his creative work, says not only “let it be” but also “let us make.” We were made to do unlimited work because we were made not only to work without limits in time, but without limits in cooperation. We were even naked in the garden because there were no limits to intimacy, nothing we had to keep behind a barrier separating us and our neighbors.

The limits we experience in our work are not just thorns and thistles – limits on our power to control nature – but limits on our cooperation. We see this at the deepest anthropological level in the discord between Adam and Eve immediately after they sinned, of which their clothing is a continuing symptom. At the level of society and civilization, we see it in Babel, as the first really ambitious human civilization is splintered by God to prevent its infinite progress in corruption.

And that is why the fallen world continually produces cultural division – not just language but all forms of barriers to cooperation. Nationalism, racism, xenophobia, partisan polarization, etc. are the continuing legacy of Babel at the social level, just as clothes are the continuing legacy of the sin at Eden. These evils hinder not just goodwill but good work. And their occasion is the hard fact of cultural difference, not bad in itself (God imposed it by direct action, and he is not the author of evil) but the occasion of much sin.

I almost wrote “endless sin.” But of course that’s eschatologically short-sighted. In the next post we’ll see the next step in God’s unfolding plan to deal with the problem.

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