In our Sunday-school retellings of the Tower of Babel, we are often fixated on themes of human pride and failure, shrugging off the aspirations of the builders as frivolous or far-fetched. In a recent series at The Green Room, Greg Forster frames things a bit differently, highlighting the story’s hidden lessons about human destiny and redemptive purpose in a fallen world.
Far from being a story about the limitations of human power, Forster argues, Babel is a story about humanity’s limitless co-creative potential and how it ought to be guided and constrained. As such, it holds a significant place in the broader Biblical story about human work and cultural engagement.
“God doesn’t laugh at the human aspiration to build without limit. And not only because it isn’t a laughing matter,” Forster observes. “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.”
Our work holds tremendous transformative power, but in our present world, it also brings significant pain and struggle, surrounded by temptations and distractions. God originally intended us to work freely in open and trusting relationship with others. Prior to the fall, Adam and Eve were naked and unashamed, intimate partners who created with God and each other in daily labor and service.
“We were made not only to work but to work together,” Forster explains. “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.”
But when sin enters the picture, how does God respond? “By limiting cooperation,” Forster explains. “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.”
This is often where the Sunday school lessons conclude: with an overt and aggressive frustration of human designs. But it’s actually where the story of redemption kicks into gear. In the very next chapter (Genesis 12), we see God making covenant with Abram and thus beginning a new nation. Through that nation, we see a fresh picture of our role as laborers in a fallen world, and with it, new tensions and new ways of relating to and creating with God and neighbor.
From Babel to Babylon and beyond, we see a model for working in covenant with God even as we are surrounded by sin and all of its oppression and chaos. We see it not through individualism and isolation, but through a public community. “Between Genesis 11 and Acts 2, this apparently requires a covenant nation,” Forster writes, “a national community dedicated to working God’s way.”
In many ways, Pentecost inverted Babel, as Peter Leithart has written at length, giving renewed power in the Spirit and uniting the disparate and diverse through the perfect law of love and liberty. But this was not an entirely new beginning. It was the next chapter of that same story, and the bigger picture deserves our attention. As Forster explains:
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.
Taken together, we still operate in a fallen world, but we return to that mix of powerful co-creative capacity and close cooperation with neighbors. Close in covenant—freed by the finished work of Jesus and empowered by the Holy Spirit—we build yet again.
“Israel, and then the church, stands both for and against Babel/Babylon,” Forster concludes. “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.