Seeking God on Our Own Terms – Thoughts from the Story of the Towel of Babel (Genesis 11)

ziggurat as in the tower of Babel

The Tower of Babel is a story that often presents a challenge to contemporary readers—a straightforward reading leaves a number of unanswered questions. Is this really how diversity of language arose on the Earth? Why exactly was the Tower built? And what was so problematic to God about the building of the Tower that He felt the need to intervene in such a direct way?

Most secular scholars see this narrative as ancient mythology that puts forward an origin story on how the diverse languages of the world arose. The book of Genesis, where this story resides, is famous for its brevity in storytelling. As most Western readers lack a historical or Middle Eastern cultural context for these narratives, it can be particularly challenging for us to “fill in the details” on things in the Torah or Old Testament narratives that the writer assumed the listener or reader would already understand.

While there will always be scholarly nuances to debate about this 3000+ year old story, there are a number of fascinating elements with real relevance for our own modern lives.

The Confounding of Language

First, while the story comes across as an origin story on the languages of the world when divorced from the rest of the larger book of Genesis, from a strictly textual perspective this cannot be the case. The story does indeed say that God confounded the language of those building the city/tower to disrupt their work, but in Genesis 10:5, even before the story of the Tower of Babel appears in Genesis 11, the text already says that there were multiple people groups and languages on the Earth. Thus, what happens in Genesis 11 seems specific to that site and that situation and is not meant to be the strict scientific origin of language diversity on the earth.

The Significance of the Story to the Biblical Arc

However, it is important to acknowledge that the language of the Tower of Babel story is broad and sweeping. For example, the narrative repeatedly uses the phrase “all the earth”. Even if this event were just to take place in one city, which is what the story very explicitly describes (after all, this is one single tower), why would it be so significant to the overall Biblical narrative? Why would the story suggest implication for the entire earth?

Immediately preceding the Tower of Babel story is the story of the flood and of Noah. As scholars have pointed out, up until this point in history, humanity is presumably monotheistic. Noah, after all, is just 10 generations from Adam. The biblical stories at this point describe God as a real presence in the lives of many of the characters, communicating directly with several of them, not an abstract theological concept as experienced by many people today. God appears to be the primary spiritual authority for humanity thus far, so where does the eventual polytheism of the world begin?

According to many scholars, the Tower of Babel story is where idolatry and worship of entities other than God is formally introduced into the arc of the Bible. In fact, immediately following the Tower of Babel story is the introduction of Abraham, regarded by Christians, Jews, and Muslims as the father of monotheism. Abraham is chosen by God to begin a restoration of humanity and a return to true and singular worship of God.

While we will likely never understand all of the nuances and context of an event as ancient as the Tower of Babel, there are interesting themes that emerge from the oldest rabbinical commentaries that seek to shed light on the brief story. The text of the story as translated in contemporary literal translations of the Bible such as the ESV translates the people’s intent of the tower building as follows in Genesis 11:4: “let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” However, some early rabbinical translations as well as other rabbinical commentary from antiquity add to the passage, specifying for example that the people intended to put an idolatrous statue at the top and a symbol of war such as a sword. While these are clearly Jewish midrashic interpretations and go beyond the literal Biblical text, they are approximately two millennia old and provide us some sense of how early Jews may have viewed the passage and the context of the story. Several other early sources which attempt to speculate on the motives of the builders of the temple allude to idolatry as well and a literal reading of the text indicates some sort of rebellion against God, however unspecific.

The Significance of the Story to Our Arc

Perhaps the most important component of this story to me has been reflecting on the nature of humanity’s rebellion. It is well known that the Babylonians, a people group who later conquered and exiled the Jews, constructed such towers to worship their deities and as many scholars argue, this story is in part a Jewish commentary on Babylonia.

Interestingly, both the Babylonians and the Jews encountered God in high places. Moses ascended the mountains of the Sinai Peninsula to encounter God. Elijah, Jesus, and countless other key figures of the Bible also ascend the mountains of Judea to retreat to God’s presence. But the pyramidal stepped towers or the ziggurats that the Babylonians built of brick, which are man-made high places or man-made mountains, reflect a different posture towards God. For the Babylonians, humans can construct access to God on their terms—they can, as the people in the Tower of Babel narrative say, build a tower straight into heaven. God is not someone who is to be sought and encountered in His high places, rather God will be accessed on our terms as we choose; we control the relationship.

Regardless of whatever idol, statue, or symbol—if any—the people desired to put at the top of their tower, the implication was clear—they would be the ones controlling God and not the other way around. Indeed, even in a sincere religious life, the desire to interact with God only on our terms is not far from each of us. This is why when a hardship happens in our life, we are tempted to turn from God because now, He is not obeying the contract we had prescribed for the relationship. Interestingly, some of the early rabbinic commentaries and even the famous historian Josephus tell of the desires of the people of Babel to protect themselves against a second flood by constructing the tall tower. Much of our lives and our interaction with God sadly also focuses on avoiding hardship moreso than pursuing the sort of trust that Abraham embodied.

As best we can tell, the Babylonians chose the name for their powerful capitol and empire from two words in their language—‘bab’ (gate) and ‘ili’ (God)—meaning quite literally “gate of God” when put together. However, ‘Babel’ the Hebrew word for Babylon and the name by which the tower in the story is called, is derived from the Hebrew word ‘balal’, which means to confuse. Clearly, the Jews did not feel the same about Babylon and what it stood for as the Babylonians did.

If we are wise to see it, there is much more going on in this story than a simple tale on the languages of the world. The ancient people who passed down these events, perhaps even Abraham and his descendants themselves, were communicating something much more substantive and relevant to the people of their time (and to ours)—a message that this way of operating, of interfacing with God only as we will have it, is pure ‘balal’, confusion, and error. It is not the gate of God, let us not be fooled like our ancestors.

A Trust that Saves: A Study of the Differences between David and Saul

tree in desert david and saul

One of the easiest traps to fall into when reading the Bible is to read it as a collection of hero stories and to try to extract “life lessons” from observing the characters within. (In actuality, the Bible is moreso an expansive, multi-millennia story about God’s actions on this Earth to bring the human race back into relationship with himself.) But, I do think there are lessons to be learned from study of characters in Scripture.

One of the clearest character juxtapositions in the Bible seems to be that of two of Israel’s kings, David and Saul, as detailed in the Books of 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel.

Here’s what I think it comes down to: David has this intriguing, almost excessive trust in God whereas Saul, although a “religious” man, at the end of the day, won’t put anything in God’s hands.

I never noticed this until recently when I read through much of 1 and 2 Samuel quickly while studying the Message translation. There are handfuls of brilliant and sometimes comical details in the narrative which illustrate this. Let me start with Saul.

Saul’s Need for Control

There are some strange events that happen in Saul’s life as king. But one way to summarize these events is through the lens of Saul’s fundamental lack of trust in God. The first example comes early in Saul’s reign. While Saul is in preparation for one of the largest battles of his early career, Samuel, the prophet of Israel who anointed Saul as king, tells Saul to wait until he returns prior to entering the battle. However, with each passing day Saul becomes increasingly nervous and fearful that his troops will abandon him. So, contrary to Samuel’s orders, Saul calls another priest to his side and sacrifices an animal to God to try to earn God’s blessing before entering battle. When Samuel returns just a day later, he chastises Saul in a way that seems harsher than Saul perhaps deserves. But the fundamental thing about this situation is that it revealed a deep problem in Saul’s heart. Saul essentially believed that by using his sacrifice on the altar he could conjure up God’s power and favor to be used as he saw fit. Here we get the first sense that Saul views relationship with God as ritual or superstition, not all that different from how the surrounding nations interacted with their gods.

The next example where we see how Saul relates to God is after the battle commences. The Israelites are struggling yet Saul’s son Jonathan sneaks off with his companion and with a great deal of trust in God miraculously begins a promising route of the enemy soldiers (1 Samuel 14:6), simply believing that God can win even with a small army. Saul and the rest of the forces then join in. Next Saul, as if trying to make up for his earlier religious error of sacrificing the animal too soon, then orders that none of his soldiers can eat until they win—a strange and superstitious rule that is just foolish, for his army is depleted of energy. God had never commanded fasting and, in reality, God was already delivering the victory through Jonathan’s simple trust. Yet Saul somehow feels he needs to issue his superstitious edict about fasting. Again we see that Saul’s way of relating to God is not based on trust. It’s based on what Saul does—executing the perfect rituals—to gain God’s favor and achieve victory.

As the battle continues on, at one point Saul seeks a message from God and God does not answer. Saul is in turmoil and fears that someone has caused God’s silence by breaking Saul’s superstitious ruling to fast until the battle is won. Saul orders that if anyone has broken the fast, he is to be killed. Ironically, Saul’s son Jonathan had eaten some honey earlier that day, having not heard Saul’s edict not to eat until complete victory was achieved. When Saul discovers that Jonathan has broken the fast, Saul turns to kill his own son. Fortunately, the rest of the soldiers effectively tell Saul that he’s gone crazy with his superstitions and they protect Jonathan saying “Jonathan’s…been working hand in hand with God all day” (1 Samuel 14:45). In other words, it isn’t a silly thing like eating honey that reflects whether someone is with God or not, Saul needed to look at the big picture. Jonathan’s simple trust in God started the whole victory. It was Saul who was interacting with God in a wrong way, failing to trust in God and only resting in his pseudoreligious superstitions.

Interestingly, Saul’s life ends by consulting a medium. He prays to God but doesn’t get an answer through dream, sign, or prophet. So although he had earlier banished mediums from the land, he now seeks out one, demonstrating that in times of crisis, he’ll once again take matters into the only hands he trusts–his own.

David’s Extreme Trust

So how does Saul’s relationship to God differ from David’s? When I read the stories of David’s life, many of his decisions strike me as peculiar. The stories seem other-worldly, not something an actual human being would do. That is because David’s trust in God’s sovereignty so far exceeds almost anything we see in all of Scripture. To be certain, David commits a number of sins during his reign and his trust is not infallible, but he is nonetheless an outlier with his total belief in God’s sovereignty.

Sovereignty simply means ‘total power and control’, and that is what David believes God has in every situation. Here are some brilliant examples:

First, David faces off against Goliath without any fear. Some superficially see this story as perhaps a carefully constructed patriotic anachronism from Jewish history, but the story is completely in line with David’s character in every other part of Scripture. David simply and absolutely believes he can defeat Goliath, a seasoned enemy soldier, even though David is a mere boy. David is not overly confidant about his own abilities, instead, he believes that the victory will come from God. Before David heads out to the battlefield, he shouts that “Everyone gathered here will learn that God doesn’t save by means of sword or spear” (1 Samuel 17:47).

As an aside, one of the most peculiar things to me about the whole scene is the fact that after David kills Goliath the entire enemy army flees. From everything we know from the text, the Philistines were a more powerful army than the Israelites, and even though they lost one of their greatest warriors, the could have still overpowered the Israelites. But instead they run. What had terrified them so much was not David’s strength, but David’s spiritual claims. Before entering battle, David had shouted that his God would win the victory and that weapons were useless. And when Goliath fell in an instant from a tiny stone, the Philistines were swept with a fear of the supernatural. What David had claimed had just come true.

This was just the first example of David’s radical trust in God.

David is ultimately forced to flee Saul, who wants to kill him. During David’s many years living on the run in the wilderness, his total trust in God comes out in what seems to us to be strange ways. For example, David has already been anointed by Samuel the prophet and told that God will make him king. But David will not do anything to artificially speed up the transfer of power.

One time, when Saul and his army are out hunting David, David has a chance to kill the unsuspecting Saul when Saul enters a cave all alone. But rather than kill Saul and advance to the throne immediately, David let’s Saul go free, saying that God alone has sovereignty over Saul’s life: “God may avenge me, but it is in his hands, not mine” (1 Samuel 24).

Then, similarly, one evening David and one of his soldiers sneak into Saul’s camp and into Saul’s tent (1 Samuel 26). Presented with the opportunity to kill Saul, David does not do it and will not allow his soldiers to. David again, is overwhelmed with the conviction that God is in control of Saul’s life and David cannot end it. As David says, “As God lives, either God will strike him, or his time will come and he’ll die in bed, or he’ll fall in battle, but God forbid that I should lay a finger on God’s anointed” (1 Samuel 26:10-11).

At multiple times someone comes to David having killed one of David’s enemies and expecting to get a reward (2 Samuel 4), yet each time David is appalled at their cold-blooded murder and their offense at trying to accelerate God’s timing and take matters into their own hands.

Even as David’s reign is overthrown in a coup by his son and David flees Jerusalem he exhibits this same perspective. For example, as they are fleeing, a man along the road pelts David with rocks and insults. When his companions offer to kill the man, David restrains them, acknowledging that perhaps God has orchestrated this moment for the humbling of David (2 Samuel 16:10). Even more astonishing, as David is fleeing, the temple priests start to bring the Ark of the Covenant, which held the ancient and spiritually powerful artifacts of Israel—such as the tablets containing the 10 commandments from the days of Moses. The leaders of Israel had long used the Ark as a way to summon God’s power and presence, such as bringing it into battle. But David, rather than trying to hold onto the Ark for his own benefit, tells the priests to return it to the city and the house of God, where it belongs. Radically, David tells the priests:

 “Take the ark of God back into the city. If I find favor in the Lord’s eyes, he will bring me back and let me see it and his dwelling place again. But if he says, ‘I am not pleased with you,’ then I am ready; let him do to me whatever seems good to him.” (2 Samuel 15:25-26)

As this passage shows, David even holds his position on the throne lightly; he is willing to turn it all over if God so desires.

The Lesson of David and Saul

The stories of Saul and David are multilayered. But at minimum, they raise profound questions for me to consider. Who is God to me? Will I relate to God like Saul—seeking God only when I need Him and relating to Him only through religion and superstition? And in the end, if He is slow to speak or silent, will I trust only in myself?

Or can I move forward to a place, like David, where I am placing extreme trust in His timing and control of my life?

Everything in Scripture points to a truer reality and foreshadows Jesus, so we know that these stories about Saul and David ultimately remind us of the two ways of relating to God. We either trust in ourselves, our hard work, and our religion for salvation or we can come to recognize that it is only God who saves. He has already sacrificed, He has already done it, we only need to learn to trust.

May I, like David, be known for an other-worldly reliance on God. It is really the only path to follow, both in this life and to the next.

What Does it Mean to be Counted Worthy to Suffer – The Execution of James, the Arrest of Peter, and Positions of Power in God’s Kingdom

counted worth to suffer

We tend to associate suffering with punishment or a curse but Acts chapter 5 presents a bold idea: that suffering is somehow a higher calling.

Acts chapter 5 details an early persecution where the disciples are thrown into prison. This appears to be the first recorded incident in the entire Bible of the jailing of the disciples—something that would later become a frequent experience. As the story goes, the disciples left the Sanhedrin “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer” (Acts 5:41).

Worthy to Suffer

This phase in Acts begs the question: so what does it mean to be “counted worthy to suffer”? Is the text literally suggesting that the more worthy you are, the more likely it is that God will have you suffer?

These are tough questions but fortunately there is a lot of material across multiple related New Testament narratives that can help us get closer to some understanding.

Suffering of the Disciples in Acts

The books of Acts details the suffering of the disciples at a number of time points. One of the most striking sections is Acts chapter 12, which details the execution of James and the arrest and deliverance of Peter.

With regards to suffering, Acts 12 raises some interesting questions, namely: why did James die while Peter was saved?

There’s a lot to explore here, but first, the passage:

1 About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. 2 He killed James the brother of John with the sword, 3 and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread. 4 And when he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people. (Acts 12:1-4)

There are some key details here to begin with.

First of all, it’s important to note that James’ death is a milestone as it’s the first fatality from persecution among one of the original disciples.

Second, the events here seem to be a rapid escalation from the early days of Acts; suffering now becomes very real for the disciples, there will not always be escapes and “success” stories.

And lastly, note from the text that Peter is arrested during “the days of Unleavened Bread” and the Passover. Let me explain what’s happening here: Peter is arrested just after James is killed, but his arrest happens during a Jewish festival period, so he cannot be put to death until after the holy days are past. Peter spends these days waiting in prison, no doubt thinking frequently about death as the festival winds down. Death as a possible reality was now very real to Peter for he had just seen James die and now knew that God was not intending to spare his disciples from such a fate. Peter, furthermore, is in prison over not just any holiday, but during Passover, the very time of year when Jesus himself was executed.

The Backstory – James and Jesus

Now before we continue on with trying to understand what happens in Acts 12 it’s important to note that there’s a relevant history for both James and Peter to consider.

Much earlier, prior to the crucifixion, James approached Jesus with a naïve and selfish question—asking for an elevated position of power in Jesus’ kingdom (Mark 10:35-38). Here is the exchange:

35 And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”

As commentators have noted, James asks for a preeminent position and for status in the kingdom of God and he indeed receives those things—he is the first to follow Jesus in martyrdom. James would come to see that a position of great glory is marked by suffering and death rather than fame, wealth, power, or whatever James initially assumed.

Peter and Jesus

James, of course, is not the only one to have a discussion with Jesus about position, power, and suffering. John 21:15-23 records the story of Peter conversing with Jesus and John about the future.

The story takes place after the resurrection, when Jesus spends time teaching and providing final instructions to his disciples. In John 21:18-19, Jesus alludes to Peter’s death:

18 Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” 19 (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Although there’s some confusing elements to this passage, the author makes it clear that when Jesus says “Follow me” to Peter, he’s asking Peter to follow him in death.

Peter apparently is caught off guard and instinctively recoils at this idea. Peter looks over to John and attempts to redirect attention by asking what will happen to John.

21 When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” 22 Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!”

Jesus’ response to Peter is simple: don’t worry about other people, you must follow me. It’s a still relevant reminder—we can’t let our comparisons of who is suffering and who is not get in the way of us following Jesus.

Peter in Prison

In Acts chapter 12, these early stories about James and Peter now take on immense relevance. James wanted the position of highest honor and he was given it—being the first to suffer and die by martyrdom among the disciples. And given what had just happened to James, along with Jesus’ very clear words to Peter to “Follow him” in death, Peter would have absolutely been expecting to be executed.

Peter’s death, however, was not to occur at this juncture. An angel would appear, freeing him from prison. Of note, I do find it interesting that when the angel comes, Peter is sound asleep and the angel has to strike him to wake him up. Is it possible that Peter was fully at peace in jail—in spite of knowing he would be executed soon like James—having finally accepted the way of suffering that Jesus taught?

The Meaning of Glory

So, now with a little more context from Acts and the Gospels, what can we say about this episode where the disciples rejoice for “being counted worthy to suffer”? What does it mean to be “worthy to suffer”?

It’s hard to know exactly, but I have found clarity in exploring the word “worthy” and the notion of worth. The Greek word “kataxioó,” which is behind the English translation of “counted as worthy,” connotes a sense of weight. After all, that which is tangible reality, that which has substance and mass, is more precious than the ephemeral.

And so, relatedly, this concept of worth and weight, bring to mind the most commonly used word for glory in the Bible—“kavod.” Kavod is a Hebrew word also meaning something which has weight.

I’ve always wondered what it means for “God to be glorified” (oft-used Christian parlance seems to be particularly difficult to define) but meditating on “kavod” makes it clearer. God is glorified when he develops “weight” in our lives and those of others, when He moves from being ephemeral and intangible to having substance, mass, and real presence. And how do we make God real? How does the world know that God is truly present? Many times it’s only through suffering and our response to that suffering. Suffering reveals God’s weight in our lives, his kavod.

It’s hard to wrap our minds around the idea of suffering as a positive thing. After all, there is so much that is evil and undesirable about suffering in this world. But this idea of weight, worth, and glory helps to make a little more sense of it. When we suffer we get to participate in making God real on the Earth. That is what the disciples ultimately rejoiced in, and that is what we have the opportunity to do also.

Avoiding the Surprise of Suffering – Paul, the Road to Jerusalem, and Warnings of Pain in Acts 21

The last chapters of Acts detail Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem and eventual transport to Rome, where he is believed to have been beheaded during the reign of Nero. Acts chapter 21 tells of Paul’s journey from Ephesus to Jerusalem, his final journey before his arrest.

One particularly interesting thing about Paul’s journey to Jerusalem is that the other believers he meets along the way weep for him and/or warn him of serious harm—first the Ephesians, then the Tyrians, then the Caesareans.

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Dogs, Crumbs, and the Faith of the Syrophoenician Woman – A Commentary on Mark 7:24-30 and Rejecting a Tribal Deity

dogs, crumbs, and the faith of a syrophoenician woman

Many agree that the story of the Syrophoenician woman is one of the toughest passages to interpret in the Bible. In the account, Jesus meets a Gentile woman in the region of Tyre who begs Jesus to heal her daughter from possession by a demon. Jesus responds by saying, “First let the children eat all they want…for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs” (Mark 7:27).

The woman wisely replies “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mark 7:28). Jesus commends the woman for her response and heals the woman’s daughter.

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