Why Not Begin with Babel?

Why Not Begin with Babel? August 6, 2014

What if evangelistic presentations began with Babel? Or, what if they at least were framed by the Babel story? This post explores these two questions.

BebelPreviously, I examined common problems that emerge when we start with the Adam story (Part 1, Part 2). I also suggested another way one could start with Adam and Eve without succumbing to individualism or running into a number of apologetic questions.

Today, I offer an example whereby we can start with the group rather than the individual, i.e. the nations rather than Adam as an individual.

WHAT’S WRONG WITH BABEL?

Consider Genesis 11:1–4,

“Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”

Verse 4 is key. What motivated them? I see at least two motives:

  1. “let us make a name for ourselves”
  2. “lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth”

These two ideas are interconnected. In the first place, the people of Babel wanted “face.” They wanted to be honored, recognized in some way by those around them. Here, we run into the second point.

Why do these people want “face”?

One reason is very basic –– safety. They wanted protection. People with respect, honor, or face feel a sense of security. Others will not threaten them. In fact, crowds frequently scurry for the favor of well-known people.

There are plenty of benefits to having face. Humans intuitively know this. If we do not have “face,” this indicates others do not accept us. We feel the danger that comes with isolation or feeling exclude from a certain friendship circle.

IDENTITY RIGHTEOUSNESS

In the West, Christians have long thought the great enemy of the gospel is “works righteousness” in the sense that people think they can earn salvation via doing good works. No doubt, this flawed perspective is quite common. However, this is just one particular problem that keeps people from salvation. There are other questions besides “What must I do?

As I’ve argued before, many people are more concerned about the questions like “Who do I know?” “Who am I?” and “Where do I belong?” Safety and “face” are found in groups, whether one’s family, friendship circle, company, or nation. One’s face and relationships form one’s sense of identity.

Instead of “works righteousness,” we must contend with “identity righteousness.”

FRAMED BY BABEL

Even if we did not explicitly cite or retell the Babel story, it can nevertheless frame our presentation, just as it does the grand biblical narrative, cf. Gen 12:1–3. I’ll say more on that in a later post.

The point here is simply that we can start with the basic facts evidenced in the Babel story. We all tend to place too much confidence in certain relationships or in our reputation. What results?

“Face” and relationship become functional saviors.

Framed this way, we not only see the nature of the world’s problem more clearly (since sin is inherently social). In addition, we can better grasp the solution.

Christ came to gather God’s people from all nations into one human family. In this sense, conversion is not individualistic. Conversion is an exchange of identity, a change of group membership. Thus, one is not simply saved from pain and punishment.

God’s people are saved in order that we collectively would form a new people (Eph 2:15). The gospel does not simply call people out of their birth families; it calls us into a larger, human family.

What I’m saying here is more than a mere shuffling of terms. These points are overt in Scripture. However, we traditionally read the Bible selectively. For example, people are very familiar with Eph 2:1–10. However, people usually stop reading at verse 10. If you continue looking at Eph 2:11–22 is so blatantly collective that it is laughable that we ever missed it (or at least make so little of it.)


** In an upcoming post, I will briefly illustrate how one might explain this in a Chinese context.

 

Photo Credit: CC 2.0/wikipedia

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  • J Wu, this is a very important post that everybody who is conscious of a global Christianity ought to read. Re-reading the text you pointed out Eph. 2, it is interesting to note that work righteousness appears only once in the first 10 verses, i.e. v. 9. On the other hand ‘identity righteousness’ is overt in verses 11-22. Elements of what you call “functional saviors” and its repercussions appear seven times (vv. 11-22) and elements of Christ’s salvation and its outcome that gives us new identity into a new group appears 10 times. How more do we need to see from Scripture that just as sin is collective so is salvation.

    Adding on to your two good reasons concerning “What’s wrong with Babel?”
    1. They wanted a new name – God had already given them a name and face “image) Gen. 1:26-27
    2. They did not want to be “dispersed over the face of the whole earth” – God had already blessed man to be “fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it …” Gen. 1:28

    There is more evidence to the fact that sin is collective in the Babel passage.

    Going down further to v. 6 God says “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, …And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” What is it that was going to be impossible for them? This is the birth of culture. Culture and language are sin barriers. Therefore by “nothing will be impossible for them” meant that “no sin will be out of reach,” hence God divided them so that sin has a cultural barrier. In Pentecost (Acts 2), God does not remove the cultural barrier; he overcomes it by the power of the Holy Spirit so that sin would be kept on check. Therefore for us today we can overcome the cultural barriers and preach the gospel.

    • Martin, you add some excellent observations here. I like that you dig into Ephesians as you did. Thanks.

      I would love to hear the response on those cross cultural workers who really emphasize Adam but hardly mention collective aspects like this. I hope they adjust some of their evangelistic approaches to at least be more balanced, even if they weren’t ready to “start” with Babel. If you know people like that, tell them to leave a comment. I’d like to hear their thoughts as well

  • J Wu, this is a very important post that everybody who is conscious of a global Christianity ought to read. Re-reading the text you pointed out Eph. 2, it is interesting to note that work righteousness appears only once in the first 10 verses, i.e. v. 9. On the other hand ‘identity righteousness’ is overt in verses 11-22. Elements of what you call “functional saviors” and its repercussions appear seven times (vv. 11-22) and elements of Christ’s salvation and its outcome that gives us new identity into a new group appears 10 times. How more do we need to see from Scripture that just as sin is collective so is salvation.

    Adding on to your two good reasons concerning “What’s wrong with Babel?”
    1. They wanted a new name – God had already given them a name and face “image) Gen. 1:26-27
    2. They did not want to be “dispersed over the face of the whole earth” – God had already blessed man to be “fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it …” Gen. 1:28

    There is more evidence to the fact that sin is collective in the Babel passage.

    Going down further to v. 6 God says “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, …And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” What is it that was going to be impossible for them? This is the birth of culture. Culture and language are sin barriers. Therefore by “nothing will be impossible for them” meant that “no sin will be out of reach,” hence God divided them so that sin has a cultural barrier. In Pentecost (Acts 2), God does not remove the cultural barrier; he overcomes it by the power of the Holy Spirit so that sin would be kept on check. Therefore for us today we can overcome the cultural barriers and preach the gospel.

    • Martin, you add some excellent observations here. I like that you dig into Ephesians as you did. Thanks.

      I would love to hear the response on those cross cultural workers who really emphasize Adam but hardly mention collective aspects like this. I hope they adjust some of their evangelistic approaches to at least be more balanced, even if they weren’t ready to “start” with Babel. If you know people like that, tell them to leave a comment. I’d like to hear their thoughts as well

  • Reblogged this on MMM — Munson Mission Musings.

  • Reblogged this on MMM — Munson Mission Musings.