There are four primary stories in Genesis 1-11: The Story of Adam and Eve, the Story of Cain and Abel, the Story of the Flood, and the Story of the Tower of Babel. In each of these stories we see the same pattern. There is first the sin of humans; then there are the consequences of that sin; and finally, there is God’s grace.
In the Adam and Eve story, sin is represented by eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In other words, Adam and Eve choose not to trust God but to violate the boundaries that have been set for their own protection. The consequences of that sin are that they become ashamed and alienated from God, each other, themselves, and the earth, and they are banished from the Garden of Eden. But God’s grace is seen in that they do not die the day they eat of the forbidden fruit and God clothes them to help them deal with their shame and guilt.
In the Cain and Abel story Cain sins by killing his brother. The consequence of this murder is that Cain now becomes a fugitive. He will never find peace in this world and must live from now on east of Eden. But God’s grace comes in the mark placed on Cain to protect him from any who would seek vengeance against him. The murderer is protected by God even though Cain has alienated himself from the Lord.
In the Flood story sin has infected the whole human race. Humans become wicked even in the imaginations of their hearts. In other words, sin now controls the most secret place where the human will determines how to live. The consequence of that permeating and universal evil is that the human race along all other living things will be destroyed as creation reverses back to chaos. God’s grace is seen in two ways. First of all, part of the human race and part of all other living things are saved from destruction. Noah and his family along with males and females of each living creature are preserved so that the world can begin again with a fresh start. Secondly, God states that God now understands that humans can be evil—even from youth. So, God decides to work with humankind as we are—to work for our redemption, healing, and wholeness in spite of ourselves. God makes a covenant with all living creatures never to destroy the earth again and sets the rainbow in the sky to remind both God and all living creatures of this promise.
In the Tower of Babel story, we have the sin of collective pride as humans huddle together to build the first empire with all its greed, violence and arrogance. (The mention of bricks used to construct this Tower to the heavens would have reminded the people of Israel of another empire [Egypt] which used bricks made by Hebrew slaves to build its impressive buildings.) The consequence is that God scatters human beings all over the earth by confusing their languages. But the pattern of sin, consequence, and grace seems to be incomplete in the Babel story. This tradition concludes by saying that the Lord scattered the people all over the face of the earth. The story ends in chapter 11:9 with a confused, scattered, and alienated humanity. And then in verse 10 we have a long and involved list of the descendants of Shem, one of Noah’s sons. This genealogy goes from verse 10 to verse 32 with no mention of God’s grace concluding the story of the Tower of Babel as it has concluded the other major stories in Genesis 1-11. If we were reading this for the first time without preconceived notions (which is always a good way to read the Scriptures), we would be in suspense. Is this where the long story of Genesis 1-11 will end? With a scattered, confused, and alienated humanity? Is this a sign that God has given up on the human race? And if God has not given up on us, how will God now deal with a broken and divided world?
The authors of Genesis through artful composition prepare us for God’s surprising answer to the Tower of Babel. They delay any mention of God’s plan and grace for many generations. And toward the end of the chapter we have the casual mention in the genealogy of a man names Abram. At first, we do not know anything about Abram except that he was the son of Terah and was married to Sarai who was barren. We are told that Terah first lived in Ur of the Chaldeans. Now where is Ur of the Chaldeans? It’s in Mesopotamia in the region of Babylonia. And where was the Tower of Babel? In the plain of Shinar which was in Mesopotamia in the region of Babylonia. The authors hope we see a connection. Terah decides to move his clan to Haran in northern Mesopotamia, and after dwelling there some years he dies. Chapter 11 of Genesis ends with this descendant of Shem known as Abram living in Haran along with his barren wife.
And then we hear the voice of God speaking to Abram. “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Those final words could also be translated “shall bless themselves.”).
This is God’s answer to the Tower of Babel. I’ve already mentioned the Mesopotamian connection the authors expect us to see between the Tower of Babel and Abram. Also notice that part of why humans built the Tower of Babel was to “make a name for ourselves.” And what does God say to Abram? “I will make your name great.” God’s answer to Babel—in other words, God’s grace–is that God will use Abram and his descendants to bless all the scattered, confused, and alienated families of the earth. God will bless Abram so that he might become a blessing to all the world.
We are so familiar with this story—the call of Abraham—that we often overlook its intended impact. God’s answer to a messed up, scattered, confused, alienated, and divided world is the call of a seventy-five-year old man along with his barren wife. Seventy-five is the time you think about slowing down, taking it easy, and preparing for a peaceful death. It’s not the time to go traipsing around God knows where and to begin a grand, risky adventure. And how can God use Abraham and his descendants when his wife is old and barren? You would expect a better, more impressive and ambitious plan from the Almighty. At least start with a young, vibrant couple with plenty of child-bearing years ahead of them. But no, our text says that God will use an aged couple to start the divine plan to save the world from itself.
The call of Abraham and Sarah has been called the beginning of salvation history with this very unusual choice by this strange God. And this pattern continues throughout the rest of the Bible. Consider these faithful characters within the story of the Bible:
- Joseph, a spoiled brat sold by his brothers as a slave
- Moses, a smelly shepherd in the outback of Sinai who had a speech impediment
- Hebrew slaves who became the People of God
- Gideon who was the least impressive member of the weakest clan in Israel
- David, the youngest of eight sons and whose own father did not consider him worthy to attend a gathering for worship
- Amos, a shepherd who had no prophetic training
- Jeremiah, a teenager
- Mary the mother of Jesus who was a poor peasant girl
- Jesus the carpenter of whom it was said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
- The disciples who included fishermen and a tax collector
- Paul who persecuted the church
This surprising pattern is repeated over and over in Scripture. God chooses the least likely candidates to be God’s chosen vessels on this earth—least likely from the perspective of the world. Which means that not a one of us, no matter what our age, education, monetary status, pedigree, reputation, or achievements may be, has any excuse. We are the very kind of people God has been using for thousands of years.
At any rate, the call of Abraham is God’s answer to the Tower of Babel story—to the scatteredness, confusion, and alienation of the world. But notice how different Abraham is from those in the Tower of Babel story. They sought to make a name for themselves. God promises to make Abraham’s name great many, many years after the patriarch’s death, provided Abraham answers God’s call. The people of Babel were looking out for themselves. They sought their security, their fame, their prestige. Abraham was blessed for only one reason—so that he might become a blessing. The people of Babel in their search for security wanted to settle down in one place and be free of risk. Abraham is called to leave everything he has depended upon for his whole life and to go to a land he knows nothing about and to start over with his aged, barren wife. The people of Babel want to live in fortified cities with towers touching the heavens. Abraham is called to travel by stages and live in tents, trusting this strange God and believing impossible promises. Anyone with any sense would say that the people of Babel were the wise and prudent examples of what humans should seek to be. But “common sense” is too often just a rationalization on our parts to seek our own greedy and selfish ways. And the people of Babylon, just like all the empires of the world, were a curse upon the world. Abraham, and through him, his descendants were called by God to be a blessing.
But of course, Abraham’s descendants failed. In fact, if you read Genesis carefully, you find that Abraham was not always faithful himself. Israel forgot it was to be a blessing and slowly became like every other nation following the paths of greed, pride, and violence. And so, Israel’s history ends with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. From that point on, the Jews will never be an autonomous nation in the ancient world. They will forever be a pawn if not a slave to one empire after another. And so, the Old Testament ends in a similar fashion as that of the Tower of Babel story–scattered, confused, alienated, sinful, broken humanity with no seeming answer to the human dilemma. Israel rather than being a blessing has become one more example of Babel’s legacy.
Until we get to Acts 2—Pentecost—the birth of the church—the beginning of the end of one way of living and relating to this world and the beginning of a new way—the way of Jesus where greatness is defined by service; where strength is found in sacrificial love; where brokenness and arrogance give way to trust and listening; where confusion and division pass away and community and belonging are born. Pentecost is presented by Luke as the beginning of the reversal of Babel. And the church is called to be God’s instrument in the continuation and expansion of this grace. Whenever we lose sight of that purpose and reason to be, we have ceased to listen to the Spirit and become a part of the world’s problems instead of a part of God’s solution.
Earlier I said that Israel had forgotten its mission. It had forgotten that it has been blessed by God to become a blessing. Rather than being God’s vessel and God’s alternative to the ways of the world, it became just one more example of greed, violence, pride, and self-preservation. But remember what Jesus said: “Judge not, lest you be judged. For the judgment you use against others will be the judgment used against you.” Tragically what we just said about Israel could also be said of the church. We were called to be a blessing–to go into all of the world and be Jesus’ disciples. In other words, we are called to live as Jesus lived as we follow his example. But somewhere along the way, much of the church has lost its bearings. Rather than being God’s answer to Babel, the church has too often cast its lot with Babel.
When I was a seminary student most of my fellow students struggled with all the new things they learned in Bible and theology classes. They were exposed to wider views which challenged the kindergarten creeds many of them possessed when they arrived at seminary. For the most part, I had already gone through that difficult stage in college. I was eager to learn all I could because I had already discovered in college that God, the world, the Bible, and theology were all far more than I had been told as well as being far more then my puny little mind could ever imagine. The seminary courses which shook my faith were not classes in the Bible or theology. What plagued my mind and conscience were the classes I took in church history. For the last 1600 years, the church has too often been a colossal and pathetic failure. I realized as I studied church history that much of the church in those 1600 years had perhaps done as much damage as it has good. For some of those years, the church was as evil as any godless empire on earth. Sure, there were exceptions. There were St. Francis, St. Clare, John Woolman, John Wesley, Mother Theresa, Clarence Jordan, Martin Luther King, Jr. and hundreds of thousands whose names have been forgotten but who truly lived Christ-like lives as they followed their Lord regardless of the cost. Yes, there have been exceptions. But that’s what they have been—exceptions, which means that for the most part, too much of the church and too many Christians have refused to follow their Lord
I’ll be honest. I have little hope for the church as we know it today. But I have great hope for the church of tomorrow—a church which will look, be, and act very differently from anything we would recognize as the traditional church. As the old form of the church slowly degenerates and collapses, God’s Spirit will create again the Body of Christ. Just as God called Abraham and just as God commissioned those early disciples at Pentecost, so God is now calling us to leave all behind that is cumbersome and distracting and move into a new land and a new age where God’s reconciling, healing, justice-building, and compassionate work can be done—where God’s Kingdom is sought first with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. In various pockets in this world that new work of God’s Spirit is already happening. In the church where Susan and I are now members, I can see evidence of that new movement of God’s Spirit. Our church’s mission statement expresses beautifully the calling of the church in our day and our time: Transformed by God’s radical love to build a welcoming church, a just community, and a sustainable world. And guess where this and so many other harbingers of God’s Kingdom are happening? Among people as common and ordinary as Abraham, Moses, a peasant girl name Mary, and fishermen like Peter, Andrew, James, and John.
If we are tempted to say that we are too little, let us remember Gideon. If we are tempted to say that we are too old, let us remember Abraham and Sarah. And if we are tempted to say that we are too insignificant, let us remember how Jesus took fishermen and peasants and turned the world upside down. In other words, we have no excuse, and God will not entertain any excuse. The stakes are too high for us, the world and the Kingdom of God to continue business as usual. There is a fresh wind blowing in the midst of all the chaos and crumbling Towers of Babel of our day. God is about to do a new thing. I think it would be an awesome and exciting journey if we allowed ourselves to be swept up in this radical, earth-shaking movement of God’s grace—God’s continuing answer to all the world’s Towers of Babel.