Babble On: The Impossible Work of God’s People


Third in a series.

You can’t understand Genesis 12 without Genesis 11. Unfortunately, the biblical story of redemption has been cut off from the biblical story of Babel, and there is no clearer sign of this than the fact that we frequently read Genesis 12 (the foundational text for the story of redemption) without placing it within the indispensable context of Genesis 11 (the foundational text for the story of Babel).

And this has major consequences for our theology of work. As we have seen, the story of Babel is all about the enormous temptations and power of work.

One caveat: The connection between Genesis 11 and 12 is literary, not temporal. An indeterminate, but probably considerable, amount of time passes between the disaster at Babel and the founder of the great reclamation project walking out of Ur. In the literature of the ancient near east, authors indicated important connections between narratives by juxtaposing them in the text without much concern for their temporal proximity (or even order). That Genesis 12 immediately follows Genesis 11 in the text does not convey that Ur immediately followed Babel in time; it conveys that Ur importantly followed Babel in logical consequence.

In Genesis 12, God calls Abram to become the founder of a new nation. This nation will have a uniquely redemptive covenant relationship with God. But it will also be sent on a mission to bless all the nations of the world – God’s concern for his nation is not just a concern for his nation, but a concern for all nations, expressed through the election of one nation to bring God’s redemptive mission to all nations.

Without the context of Genesis 11, we miss the connection between the national community of Israel and the redemptive mission of Israel. God is working with nations because that is how social life is organized after Babel.

The national community is the key context for work. Work is cooperative and takes place primarily within a public community. The Babel story in Genesis 11 emphasizes this, as we have seen.

To be God’s people faithfully and fully, we must work God’s way. This calling can be carried out individually under any circumstances. The Roman slave toiling for pagan masters in isolation from the church is serving Christ, we are told. But it is not enough for God’s mission that his followers are faithful individually. God also builds a people for himself, working together to work God’s way insofar as circumstances permit. Between Genesis 11 and Acts 2, this apparently requires a covenant nation – a national community dedicated to working God’s way.

Our tendency is either to downplay the nationhood of Israel, or to disconnect it from the redemptive mission. Roman Catholic and magisterial Protestant traditions view Israel primarily as a precursor of the church, which tends to marginalize the status of Israel as a nation – that is, as a public community, and hence as the primary social space for people’s work. Dispensational theologies, by contrast, do emphasize the national status of Israel, but tend to isolate this aspect of Israel’s life from the larger redemptive history as we participate in it today.

Recently there has been corrective theological work on this, particularly in such books as Chris Wright’s Old Testament Ethics for the People of God. This corrective tendency has been noticed in the faith and work movement because it restores the economic arrangements of Israel to a place of central importance in understanding God’s redemptive plan. Not that we are going to impose the Old Testament economic laws today, of course; but we must understand that what God was doing redemptively in Israel produced a certain kind of social organization, and we want to strive to cultivate a (modern and recontextualized) version of that kind of social organization today.

But this corrective will be incomplete until we place the story of redemption back in the context of the story of Babel. God did not create a special nation for himself simply “because the world was fallen”; if that were all that mattered, he’d have done it in Genesis 4. More specifically, God created a covenant nation in order to carry out the redemptive mission after God himself had reordered the social fabric of humanity at Babel, to deal with the unfolding consequences of the fall. First, at Babel, God created “the nations,” then at Ur and beyond he created his nation to live among them.

Throughout the Bible, Babel/Babylon stands as the representative symbol of human social organization in the fallen world. This counterpoint to the people of God is indispensable for understanding who the people of God are and what they are doing. Israel, and then the church, stands both for and against Babel/Babylon. For, in that we love our fallen neighbors and have a mission to work for their flourishing; against, in that on some level we must reorganize socially – which in practice means reorganizing economically as much as it means anything – in faithfulness to that mission and in opposition to much of what the world around us does.

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