Given the various controversies all over the world in the past few weeks, I’ve decided to share a relevant chapter from my first book, “Talking Over Haystacks: 25 Thoughts on Leadership, Ministry, and the Future of Adventism” available on theHaystack.org. To purchase a copy, click here.
There’s an interesting reality about culture. Times may change, people may change, and cultural expressions may vary, but human nature fundamentally remains the same. The Bible gives some fascinating lessons that are applicable to us today. You may have heard this story many times before, or maybe not. It begins after the flood with a command that God gave to the survivors:
And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.” Genesis 9:1
The story that we want to pick up on is actually a few chapters later in Genesis 11:1-9. Here we read the following narrative:
Now the whole earth had one language and one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar, and they dwelt there. Then they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They had brick for stone, and they had asphalt for mortar. And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.”
But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. And the Lord said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city. Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
Looking at this story from a bird’s eye view, let’s get a few details about the situation before engaging further:
After the flood, Scripture says that God gave Noah and his family a command similar to that which he gave to Adam after the creation narrative. Noah and his family were to, like Adam before him, be fruitful, multiply, and repopulate the earth.
Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. Genesis 11:1
Seeing that they were all from the same family, chances are that they spoke the same language. Over the years, this language (whatever it was) became the primary form of communication between this increasingly large family.
As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. Genesis 11:2
This is when things start to go a little awry. Rather than follow God’s command to fill the earth, we find that Noah’s descendants actually start to do the opposite and huddle up amongst themselves. They don’t divide; they actually start to congregate and look for the biggest plot of land they can because of their own plans.
They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Genesis 11:3
Here we start to see something incredible happening. A technological shift happens when, instead of stone, they people decide to make bricks and use tar for mortar. This shift, not bad in itself, was intended to be part of a larger building project that the people had in mind. The motivation or purpose behind it is where we really see things going downhill.
Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” Genesis 11:4
Now the truth comes out. The real motivation behind the use of their technology, the real reason for ignoring God’s command was that they were actually going against it. What God had called “filling the whole earth,” they saw as being “scattered over the face of the whole earth.” Here we find competing narratives of the same event.
We could also say that the purpose behind this shift was also because of an intrinsic distrust of God and his purpose for their lives. If they were Noah’s descendants, they no doubt had heard about the flood and they must have thought that, by building a tall enough tower, they’d be able to escape disaster in case God ever lost his temper again and decided to hit the reset button on humanity.
So, God then decides to come down and see what the people are up and says something very enlightening:
But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.” Genesis 11:5-6
One people. One language. One plan. One purpose.
On one hand, God gives humanity an incredible compliment by saying that, when these factors come together, nothing will be impossible for mankind. If humanity was created in God’s image, it would make sense that we would be able to reach incredible heights because of this similarity or deplorable depths because of the effects of sin if given enough time. Before the Flood, God saw this happen the last time humanity had one language, one plan and one purpose:
The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. Genesis 6:5
Because God vowed that he would never destroy humanity again with a flood, he thought of a creative solution to the issue at hand. He said:
“Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” Genesis 11:7
In a matter of moments, people started speaking what were probably the root languages to the myriad of tongues we speak today all over the world today. Whenever you don’t speak the same language as someone else, it’s hard to keep a productive working relationship (in both the figurative and literal sense). Therefore, we find that the following was the end-result:
So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth. Genesis 11:8-9
This seemed rather sudden now, didn’t it? Is God against unity? What lessons can we learn from this story as it relates to culture? The general answer is this:
Unity is not a bad thing, but it all depends on what cause or for what purpose we all rally around.
Babel is an incredibly interesting place, especially for Adventists. We understand that the general area of the Shinar plane, where Babel was left abandoned, was eventually resettled and reconstructed to become the ancient superpower Babylon under the leadership of King Nebuchadnezzar. From a spiritual standpoint, we also know that Babylon is seen as God’s end-time nemesis in the books of Daniel and Revelation.
There are three lessons that I picked up from this story.
- Pride and self-ambition, not unity or success, is what God is against.
The reason that the inhabitants of Babel decided to follow their own narrative was because of competing interests between themselves and God. They really believed that God wasn’t looking out for them. Instead, they believed that God was probably only looking out for Himself. So, they believed that in order to really have a better future, they needed to trust the works of their own hands rather than trusting on God and His promises.
They said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves.” Genesis 11:4 (emphasis added)
Note, God never actually did away with the selfish ambition that characterized this people, all he did was make it so that they could not communicate with each other. Now, instead of one group with the desire to make a name for themselves, it splintered into various groups with competing interests. Also, unlike the story of Noah that precedes it or the story of Abram that follows, this story has no human protagonist. All of us who’ve descended from this group are prone to the same desires to build and defend our “nation” at whatever cost.
When we are unable to speak each other’s language, it’s almost impossible to understand each other and find common ground. This is true in matters of politics, culture, race, and even religion.
When we are so concerned about keeping one culture “pure” at the exclusion of all other forms of cultural expression, we are beginning to act like ancient Babel. It can happen in something as seemingly harmless as thinking that your language is going to be the one spoken in heaven, or as extreme as outright prejudice against another group of people because of their ethnicity.
Yet, “building a name for ourselves” can also be in reference to the accolades, possessions, talents, and institutions that we’ve slowly built for ourselves over the years.
For example, in June of 2015, there was much discussion in South Carolina in the wake of the shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shootings regarding the use of the Confederate flag. For some, the removal of the flag from the South Carolina Capitol building was a victory, while others saw it as an attack on their culture and the heritage that the flag represented. The flag was a sign of the “name” that the South had built for itself.
And Adventism is no exception.
In his book, If I Were the Devil, George Knight highlights this very idea. He said that “things were simple in the days of early Adventism. Members all spoke the same language, belonged to the same race, lived in the northeastern United States, and had grown up in a culture that provided them with a shared value system and a shared set of expectations.” However, today we find ourselves having an incredibly well-off church with many educational, ecclesiological, medical and publishing resources all over the world. We have over 18 million members worldwide, a budget of millions upon millions of dollars, and are made up of more cultures and languages than the ones that were present in Babel that day.
If we start to look at what we’ve built as a church institution over the past 150+ years and believe that in these things that we’ve built over the years we find our identity instead of our mission, we’re on dangerous ground. To quote Robert Folkenberg, Sr. (former president of the Carolina Conference), “There is nothing wrong with institutions and structures in themselves, but we need to examine such entities from time to time to make sure they are serving their intended purpose efficiently.”
Babel teaches us that we need to examine our motives and make sure that we are working in line with God’s agenda rather than from an agenda of pride and self-ambition.
So to rephrase a few thoughts from George Knight, when we start to think and make sweeping decision along tribal, cultural, national, or racial lines without regard to contextual mission and efficiency, we are acting like Babel.
When an established bureaucracy becomes more concerned with perpetuating its own interests than with maintaining the distinctive mission that helped bring the group into existence, we are acting like Babel.
When leadership, administration, boards, and committees become self-perpetuating, and institutions tend to become masters rather than servants, we are acting like Babel.
Rabbi Abraham Heschel gives us a warning and powerfully lays out the consequences of these effects on the witness of a faith community in his book God in Search of Man:
“It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion — its message becomes meaningless.”
Babel eventually became the Kingdom of Babylon and one day, King Nebuchadnezzar found himself looking at everything that he had done and said to himself:
“Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” Daniel 4:30
Even within the church, we must be acutely aware of the fact that being committed to Christ and his cause doesn’t mean that we don’t have the tendency to look at all we’ve accomplished and feel like nothing needs to change. The human heart will always delude us into thinking that we are self-sufficient.
- Technology can bring us together, but can also push us away from each other and God.
The technological shift that happened in Babel could have been used for good, but because the motivation was off, it’s intended purpose became skewed. We have to understand that culture is not intrinsically evil; it relies on the hands that are guiding it. New technology has tremendous power for good and evil.
I have always found it fascinating to think that the modern world is fueled by the ancient world. After all, gasoline is a limited resource as a fossil fuel — fossils that, from a creationist standpoint, could have been established from the incredible geologic events that occurred during and after the flood, and now help to fuel the most advanced technological era in the history of mankind since then.
Many countries have reached a level of technological advancement unseen for millennia but that doesn’t mean that the problem is with the technology itself. We are also living in a time where English is commonly seen as the language of international business, and everyone that wants to make something of themselves would benefit by learning it (similar to the “one language” that was present at Babel). Finally, the reality of the Internet allows people from all across the world to tap into the collective intelligence from ages past in as simple as a few clicks on a keyboard.
How far can humanity go in our present course?
Taking this reality into consideration, we only have to look at the advancements in the last fifteen year period since the inception of the Internet to see what is possible. Maybe God was on to something when he said that with one language, one voice, one plan, and one purpose, humanity can go very far, very fast.
The church must not lag behind the procession in using these advancements to our advantage. The way that “secular culture” will use the tools at its disposal may be different based on the values and priorities that it has, but God can also use modern innovations to his advantage. Consider this: the Voice of Prophecy was a controversial ministry in its inception. H.M.S. Richards, Sr. had to fight church leaders at every turn in the 1930s over the idea of using radio as a means to reach a larger audience because it was seen as “too radical, too innovative, too untried, a waste of the Lord’s money.” 
Today, if we only consider the Internet, with this tool we have the ability to tap into the knowledge of countless people from across time and space. What can this do for our missions today, both locally and abroad?
- We are always either building up the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of Babel in our world.
There is a striking parallel between the Kingdoms of Babel and Babylon and what happened in the book of Acts during the event of Pentecost. These are the grand competing kingdom narratives of Scripture. One is all about what’s in it for the individual, the other is all about what is good for God and His collective purposes. One trusts the earthly achievements and recognition that it has already attained, the other looks forward in faith and looks Heavenward for guidance.
If you want something to challenge you, do a study on this concept. I’ve included a small graph for comparison, and there is much more that could be expounded on, but I’ll just leave this here for reference.
|Kingdom of Babylon (New Babel)||Kingdom of Heaven|
|• Self is above all
• Cannot be questioned
• Stifles cultural variance
• Seeks man’s approval
• Decisions based on coercion
• Result: division among cultural lines
• Uniting symbol: The Tower (product of their own works)
|• Christ is above all
• Has no fear of dialogue
• Refocuses cultural expression
• Seeks God’s approval
• Decisions based on consensus
• Result: Unity in diversity (Acts 2:4)
• Uniting symbol: The Cross (product of God’s grace)
Above all, the question for us today is, “Which Kingdom do we find ourselves building today?
 Robert S. Folkenberg, “Church Structure- Servant or Master?” Ministry Magazine (June 1989), p 4-9.
 George Knight, If I Were The Devil (Hagerstown: Review and Herald, 2007), 28.
 Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (New York: Macmillan, 1955), 3.
 Ibid, 22.