The central premise of this series of articles that I’ve been writing the last several weeks is that Genesis 1-11 lays out the Big Problem—what I’ve been calling the Original Sins—that plagues humanity and all creation. It sets the table for the rest of the Bible as we see how humans struggle fruitlessly to find a solution, and how God ultimately provides it in Christ. We are now to the final episode in the prologue, the story that has come to be called The Tower of Babel.
Immediately preceding that, however, is another genealogy, that of the sons of Noah. This one is different than the preceding ones in that it’s less a family tree than a national/political one. The descendants of Shem, Ham, and Japheth are listed by the nations that were formed from them rather by the individual names. Among the nations mentioned are Egypt, Canaan, and Caphtorim “from which the Philistines come” (10:14), and Assyria. This sets the stage for the final episode.
That this episode has come to known for the tower that was built is unfortunate in that it draws attention away from the real issue, of which the tower is just a part. The people build more than a tower; they build an entire city. The tower reaching into the heavens is just the most prominent structure, like the St. Louis Arch, the Washington Monument, or the Seattle Space Needle. The reason they build a city, we are told, is because they want to make a name for themselves, “otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” (11:4) But this is exactly what God has been telling the humans to do from the beginning. "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth ,” he told them in Genesis 1:28. After the Flood he repeats the command to Noah in 9:7: “And you, be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply in it.”
But to say that their sin was disobeying God is too generic and doesn’t address the heart of the problem. It’s repeating the interpretive mistake we make with Genesis 3 when we say that Original Sin was the introduction of sin, any sin, into a perfect world, when in fact the sin has a very specific focus. It’s not just that they disobey God’s command to scatter and fill the earth; the problem is why they congregate, consolidate, and converge: Power.
Resources that are dissipated are weak, but concentrated they become powerful. Ten gallons of water flows gently through a 10” pipe, but pushed through a 1/64” diameter nozzle it’s powerful enough to cut rock. The humans build a city to “make a name for themselves.” How many of you have heard of the country of Djibouti? How about Niue? Svalbard? But how many people can you find anywhere who have never heard of the United States? We’re big, powerful, and influential, a nation of consequence. We’ve made a name for ourselves.
This is what the humans are doing. They are becoming powerful; they are building an empire. It’s not coincidental that the name of this city becomes Babel, precursor to Babylon, the empire that destroyed Jerusalem and with it Solomon’s Temple, then exiled a large portion of the population of Judah. And now we see the significance of the national/political genealogy that precedes the account; the writer of Genesis is pointing to the beginning of the rise of empires. This is not insignificant. In many ways the history of ancient Israel is the history of the empires that controlled or sought control of the Mediterranean area; Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece, and Rome. Even Solomon’s expansion can be seen as the effort to build an empire.
And the Bible is definitely anti-empire, for a number of reasons. Empires are like black holes for resources. The emperor and his supporting structure need a lot of resources in order to have all the trappings of the office, and these resources come from the poor. Well, maybe not initially, but when most people in the Ancient Near East generally just had enough to support their immediate family, living harvest to harvest, paycheck to paycheck, then taking just a little of that away is a hardship; taking more than a little imposes poverty on them. So the rich need a lot to maintain their extravagant lifestyle, and it comes from the poor. And God is consistently against that in Scripture.
But it’s never enough, so the Empire must expand, moving into other lands, conquering other nations in order to exact more tribute, and even if done peacefully, it’s an act of violence. But it’s rarely done peacefully, it’s always done at the tip of a sword. The Original Sin, humans killing humans, is not only multiplied in an Empire, it’s multiplied exponentially, and it’s intensified. Person-on-person violence is usually rather simple—Cain killed Abel. But it takes an empire to nail a person to a cross. Crucifixion wasn’t just about killing a person—there were better, more efficient ways of doing that. Crucifixion was about sending a message, a warning, a threat. The Assyrians would attack a city and impale the bodies of some of the victims on large, tall stakes, leaving them there for all to see until the birds picked the flesh clean. It was a message: don’t tread on me.
So empires enrich a few at the expense of the many, their hunger and need for new lands and new tribute is insatiable, and they are exponentially violent. Perhaps most significantly, they demand absolute allegiance. If you are a citizen of an empire, you enjoy certain rights, but you are expected to pay your taxes without complaint, you are expected to serve the empire without grumbling, you are expected to defend the empire without reservation, and you are even expected to give your life for the empire without question.
And no one can be trusted with this kind of allegiance except God. Only God can be trusted not to be greedy for more, more, more. Only God can be trusted to take care of the poor in such a way that maybe there aren’t any poor—no one has more than they need, and no one has less than they need (think manna). Only God can be trusted to truly be just and to mete out justice fairly. Only God can be trusted to know when a person needs to die, and how that person needs to die. And only God can be trusted to know when—and if—violence is necessary.
And maybe if God, and not anything else, is given our allegiance, we will be able to see other people and other nations not as allies, threats, or sources of income, but as children of God, created in his image and likeness.
Like it was in the Beginning.