What would happen if we read our Bibles beginning with Babel?
How would our understanding of the Fall change if we begin with that ill fated tower? What would that do to our understanding of unity and diversity, especially ethnic unity and diversity, if we looked a little more closely at this passage.
We usually think of the Fall as happening in Genesis 3, which is technically true. But we don’t see the full fruits of the Fall until later. Sure there are the three curses (Gen. 3: 14-19), but this is all very individual (the man, the woman, the snake), and when we focus on the meaning of the Fall in Genesis 3 we end up reinforcing Western Individualism and its focus on individual morality, individual purity, and individual actions.
We have to realize that often the Bible “shows” rather than just “says” what is happening. Instead of the authors saying “And all human relationships (ethnic, economic, and religious) became distorted”, the Bible shows this has happened. And Babel is the apex of showing the consequences of the Fall, and therefore a seminal place to think through how the Fall continues to distort our basic humanity (ethnically, economically, and spiritually).
But when we look at Babel we see the full-orbed social, political, and religious nature of the Fall. And we see that Fall creates false unity as false worship.
In fact, we could go so far to say that Babel reveals the Fall as tending toward a forced homogeneity.
I used to read Genesis 11 as some sort of spontaneous gathering of sinful people, joyfully drawn through mutual wickedness to build a tower to throw God down.
But if we know anything about other ancient building projects, it usually included forced labor of subjected people. In reality, it is the voices of the privileged who are saying, “Come let us build…”, but it is the sweat of the underpriviledged (or undercaste) that actually builds it.
The building of the Tower of Babel is not the result of the unconscious drift of sin toward prideful and corporate self-assertion. Rather it was the prideful, self-assertion of some expressed through the exploitation of others.
Is this not how false unity often arises?
And what is the basic motivation of this false unity? It comes not just out of sinful pride, but sinful fear. They wanted to “make a name for themselves” through building the tower, because otherwise they would be “scattered over the face of the whole earth” (Gen. 11:4). As is often the case, pride is the pretense covering over a deeper fear.
As in many situation (racial, ethnic, economic, relational), fears have created a false worship or self, all masked in a prideful superiority complex.
Now this fear of scattering is actually against the will of God. God created humanity to be “fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.” This multiplying and filling implies the necessity of “scattering”, becoming all the more diverse in the process, multiplying not just individual people, but grouped peoples, ethnicities, and cultures.
The God who created many different plants and animals, and stars and planets, did not just want one type of human being to relate to and be with. God wanted a glorious diversity.
True Unity – of Faith and Mission
So we must remember that this is not a polarity between unity and diversity. It is not the case that all unity is forced homogeneity and that all diversity is to be celebrated as created bliss.
The question is whether the unity that we have is based in the mission and worship of God (Rev. 7:9-17), or in a fearful worship of self.
So let us not only think through the Fall as the place of sinful pride, but let us remember that the full social, political, and spiritual affects of the Fall is to create false unity in a false worship of the self (individually and corporately).
And so as we hope and long for the unity as Christ taught us, let us be diligent to refuse the false unity expressed in all the “towers of Babel” in our lives, whether they are racial, economical, sexual, or spiritual (especially as it relates to church growth and church planting).
For more on hidden forces that keep us apart and perpetuate a false unity, see Christena Cleveland’s “Disunity in Christ”.