Babel and Human Potential

And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is what they begin to do: and now nothing will be withholden from them, which they purpose to do. Come, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech” (Genesis 11:6-7).

It is perhaps the earliest backhanded compliment ever given.

God is quite aware of human potential; He made man in His image (Genesis 1:26-27). When humans come together and work together, there is very little which they are not able to accomplish. So much of what has been accomplished over the past few hundred years testifies to this; we live in a very different world than people in the 1700s did. To a large degree we have tamed our environment, with large cities, highly developed infrastructure, and many technological innovations which have improved the quality of life immeasurably. We marvel at bridges, dams, skyscrapers, and other astounding feats of engineering. Humans, therefore, have a great amount of potential!

We think this potential is great; we do not see any problem at all with it. Yet, according to what we see in Genesis 11:6-8, God decides that this potential is problematic, and confuses the language of humans so that they will scatter and disperse.

This does not seem right. Why would God want humans to be separated and divided? Does God not want humanity to be unified? Is it not a good thing that there is no end to what humans can accomplish when they work together?

The circumstances during which God makes this declaration explain the difficulties. Humans, still unified in language, came together on the plain of Shinar in order to build a tower and a city to make a name for themselves and so that they would not be scattered across the face of the earth (Genesis 11:1-4). This was contrary to God’s intentions (cf. Genesis 9:1), and speaks volumes regarding humans, their intentions, and the ways they use their potential.

We do not think the exercise of human potential is a bad thing at all; in reality, it does not have to be. But humans have been corrupted by sin, and therefore we should not be surprised to see that human potential is often expended in misdirected ways. So it is with the Tower of Babel on the plain of Shinar: man uses his potential to seek to glorify himself and to make a monument to his endeavors and abilities. It is not about God and His glory; it does not seem as if those in Babel gave any consideration to God and what He intended.

One could make a good case that the earth cannot sustain humans living at their full potential. What do people end up doing when they come together and purpose to work together? They transform their environment. People continue to consume with abandon. Little thought is given about what resources will be left for future generations; people end up being too preoccupied with advancing their own purposes and causes in their own generation to think of that. The only checks on such activity come from illnesses and war.

And so God confuses human language, the one thing which seems to keep people together and working together, and from this point people separate from one another. Humans, apparently, must be saved from themselves. From this point on much human potential and energy would be directed against one another, finding new and innovative ways to destroy one another, to get advantages over others, and to find ways of reinforcing “us” and “our” superiority against “them”. Buildings, cities, monuments, civilizations, and the like are built and destroyed. We really have not “developed” much past our ancestors at Babel: we still yearn to be together and to make a name for ourselves. Humans, whenever they get together, plan and purpose for their own ends and glory. And their efforts, no matter how successful they might have seemed for a time, always end up frustrated. Every building, city, monument, and civilization decays and collapses. Everyone dies.

If the Bible ended here in Genesis 11, the story would be quite bleak indeed. Humans were made in God’s image but sinned and found themselves separated from God (Genesis 1:1-3:24). Humans drifted further and further from God’s intentions, suffering terribly, and now is not only separated from God but also is now separated from his fellow man (Genesis 11:1-9). Man finds himself without God, without redemption, without a covenant or identity from God, and therefore without hope. Such is life “under the sun,” and it is not a pretty picture at all. Little wonder people continue to embrace the futile goal of Babel and continue to believe the lie!

But the Bible does not end here. The genealogy immediately following the story of the Tower of Babel brings us to Abram (cf. Genesis 11:10-32), and God will call Abram to Himself and through him begin a series of promises and covenants leading to the means by which He would deliver mankind from his terrible plight.

This story reaches its climax in Abraham’s descendant Jesus of Nazareth and the Gospel proclaimed in His name as found in Acts 2:1-36. And of all the ways by which God would communicate the importance of this message, which does God choose, as exemplified in Acts 2:1-36? Of all the means by which God could communicate how He was bringing all people into the covenant through Jesus, which does God choose in Acts 10:44-48? Speaking in tongues: foreign languages!

The symbolism is potent: Jesus and His Kingdom are the anti-Babel. All that which was established on account of Babel is undone through Jesus and His Kingdom. On account of the Tower of Babel, man’s language was confused so that he could not come together by a common purpose and grew alienated from one another. Through Christ all people of every language, ethnicity, race, and any other mark of identity become one body (Ephesians 2:11-17, Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11).

There is another very important detail about the Apostles and Cornelius and his men as they spoke in tongues: Luke says that they spoke the “mighty works of God” (Acts 2:11) and “magnified God” (Acts 10:46). Our unity can only exist insofar as we are unified with God (cf. John 17:20-23, 1 John 1:5-7); yet we are only brought together so that we can join with one voice to praise the name of God and tell of His wonderful deeds. We are brought together into one Kingdom in Jesus not to advance our own purposes but the purposes of God who purchased us in Christ (1 Corinthians 6:19-20, Galatians 2:20). In Christ alone can we find true unity and true purpose so that it is no longer our will, but His, that will be done.

Human potential is not the problem; sin is. Human potential, misdirected because of sin, causes all sorts of problems, seeking only to magnify man’s name. The fact that God felt compelled to separate us from ourselves speaks volumes about our intentions and purposes in the flesh! Human potential, misdirected by sin, causes great damage and pain. It is only when human potential is harnessed and directed toward the glorification of God and the advancement of His purposes that it can be a beautiful sight in the eyes of God and lead to the general betterment of all things. Let us seek unity with God in Christ and thus with one another so that we can expend all of our energies and resources to God’s glory and praise!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Civilization

And Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden. And Cain knew his wife; and she conceived, and bare Enoch: and he builded a city, and called the name of the city, after the name of his son, Enoch (Genesis 4:16-17).

There are certain things that are almost universally accepted as good, right, beneficial, and the way things “should” be, and few such things have such power over us as the idea of civilization. Ever since the Greeks looked upon themselves as “civilized” and everyone else as “barbaric,” our history and our language assumes the overwhelming benefit of civilization over any substitute. We are all expected to conduct ourselves as if we had been civilized; barbaric behavior is frowned upon. Our history books tell a story of the development of civilization out of– and often in the face of as well– the forces of chaos, primitivism, and barbarism. Since civilization seems to be so wonderful, we might think, the Bible would commend such a message. Surprisingly, the Scriptures are a bit more ambivalent about civilization than we might imagine.

Civilization means cities: centralized locations wherein different people maintain different tasks to the benefit of all. The Scriptures do not reveal that Adam, Noah, or Abraham build cities. Instead, the first person to build a city is none other than the brother-murderer Cain!

The story is told in Genesis 4:1-17: Cain is Adam and Eve’s first child. He grows up to be a farmer; his brother Abel becomes a shepherd. They each bring the produce of their work as sacrifices before God, but God only accepts Abel’s sacrifice. Cain, angered and jealous, kills Abel. As a consequence for this crime, God condemns him to be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth which will not produce its fruit as a response to his toil. Cain expects that his fellow man will kill him if they find him; to this end, God provides some type of mark upon him so that this would not happen. Cain therefore departs from God’s presence, heads east of Eden to the land of Nod, marries, has a child Enoch, and builds a city named Enoch in honor of his son.

So many questions about this story center on what the Genesis author has not told us: who are all of these other people? Where did Cain’s wife come from? What was the mark placed upon him? While we understand that Adam and Eve had other children (Genesis 5:4), and Cain’s wife and these other people likely came from that union, most of these questions remain unanswered. We should not miss the story that the Genesis author is trying to tell us while wondering regarding all the matters he has left unrevealed.

In his punishment, Cain was separated from the presence of God, went east of Eden, and built a city. To build a city is to reject wandering as a fugitive on the earth; to build one while separated from God, separated from the Garden in which God placed man and from which man was expelled, is quite telling.

The Genesis author consistently demonstrates a level of ambivalence with cities and civilization. The next city of note mentioned features the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9): Babel, or Babylon, will develop into a civilization and empire that will become paradigmatic for the godless oppressive power against God and against God’s people. The next cities of note are Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 14, 18, and 19, which also become paradigmatic for sinfulness. Later, when Jacob buys some land and settles down a bit near Shechem, his daughter is there defiled, and his sons take vengeance upon the whole city (Genesis 33:18-34:31). Meanwhile, God calls Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to live in tents, maintaining a far more “primitive” lifestyle than provided by the big city. Abraham, after all, was called out of the big city of the day– Ur of the Chaldeans– to go to Canaan (Genesis 11:27-12:1).

It would be tempting to roundly condemn civilization on the basis of these and other texts, but such would be going too far. Egypt, its cities, and its civilization provide refuge from famine in Canaan. The Israelites will eventually live in a settled, civilized existence in the land which God promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The city of Jerusalem will become paradigmatic for the location of God’s presence among God’s people, ultimately becoming the image of the glorified church at the end of Revelation. Even though the Roman Empire would be chastised for its opposition to the Kingdom of God, such chastisement never extended to many of the benefits of civilization provided by the Romans.

One can serve God in the city; one can serve God in the fields. One can be “civilized” and serve God; one can be “primitive” and a “barbarian” and serve God as well. The Bible’s critique of civilization, however, remains a good reminder for all of us that whereas we might think of civilization in purely glowing and rosy terms, there are hazards involved as well. “Culture” in cities tends to magnify man over God; certain sins are easily found within cities. Cities and civilization may bring some people together but all too often pulls people apart, both from each other as well as from the earth that sustains them. God has often worked among the shepherds, summoning Abraham from the city to the hinterlands; God Himself became flesh and dwelt among us, growing up far from the big city in the rural hinterland of Israel.

Civilization has provided us with innumerable benefits; our current population and way of life is entirely impossible without it. But let us not be fooled into thinking that civilization is the be all and end all of everything; it comes with a price. Let us continue to live in our civilization, keeping its challenges in mind, and praise and honor God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

One in Christ

There can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither bond nor free, there can be no male and female; for ye all are one man in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).

Humans find endless ways of making distinctions between themselves and others. Different races, different ethnicities, different cultures, different religions, different languages, different geographical origins, all the way down to different political or sports preferences– all such differences can lead to real division. Humanity seems so fragmented.

Such fragmentation has served evil purposes for generations. When you can separate “them” from “us,” it is easier to discriminate against “them,” oppress “them,” or kill “them.” It is much harder to discriminate, oppress, or kill those whom you consider to be like yourself!

Strong forces always exist that serve to divide people from one another. Yet, in Jesus Christ, all such division is to be healed.

In Jesus Christ, Jew and Greek are one, no longer to be separated by generations of mutual hostility.

In Jesus Christ, barbarians, Scythians, and other such “uncouth” types are one with civilized, “cultured” types; such categories are not to matter any longer.

In Jesus Christ, master and slave are to gather around the same table and together share in the meal of the Lord (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:16-17).

The power of the Gospel and the greatness of the Kingdom can be seen whenever people of different races, cultures, socioeconomic statuses, likes, and dislikes come together to become one in prayer, one in song, and one in remembering the Lord (cf. Ephesians 5:19, 1 Corinthians 14:17, 1 Corinthians 11).

As Christians, we cannot allow differences to get in the way of our service to Jesus Christ. The Kingdom is strongest when people of different backgrounds and different stations in life work together for the Lord’s purposes (1 Corinthians 12:12-28)!

This also means that no matter who you are, you also can be a servant of Jesus Christ, and part of His Kingdom. It does not matter what race you are, your cultural background, what language you speak, whether poor or rich, “cultured” or “uncultured,” “blue collar” or “white collar,” or anything of the sort. Your contribution to the Lord and His body are as important as everyone else’s!

The world may provide every reason to focus on what is different and what leads to division, yet Jesus Christ seeks to unify us all in Him. Let us be one with Christ and one another!

Ethan R. Longhenry