Old Testament for Grown-ups: The Tower of Babel

If you grew up in a Christian family, and regularly attended church and Sunday school, you might still be experiencing some lasting effects from what I call ‘flannel-graph theology’.  From Wikipedia: Flannelgraph is a storytelling system that uses a board covered with flannel fabric, usually resting on an easel. It is very similar to Fuzzy Felt, although its primary use is as a storytelling medium, rather than as a toy.  On one hand, I can understand the need to present biblical information in a way and at a level that young minds can understand.  On the other hand, I believe that it has the potential in the long run to undermine the authority and veracity of the Bible in people’s minds.  Why?  Because this turns actual historical accounts into ‘stories’.  Instead of people framing the Old Testament as factual, biblical accounts, they think on it in a detached, abstract way; story book tales.

Let me give an example: Noah’s ark.  Again, if you are a veteran of church culture, you have probably been to a baby shower where the plates, napkins and gift bags featured pastel depictions of gentle, whimsical animals stuffed into a boat, with a smiling grandfatherly figure.  “Why do you have to be such a naysayer?” you may be asking.  Just hang with me a second and give this some critical thought.  I’m not condemning those who have used this as a baby shower theme.  What I am pointing out is that these type of depictions are not biblically accurate.  The world-wide flood was a tragedy of unmatched proportions.  God killed His entire creation, save for 8 human beings and a boat full of animals that were meant to repopulate the earth.  The flood is about God’s wrath, man’s rebellion, and the consequences of sin and rebellion towards God.  Not exactly the sort of thing one would typically decorate an infants room with, if given a little time to think on it.  And yet, if you grew up in church, that is likely the impression you have of the majority of the Old Testament.  Adam and Eve in a garden with a bad snake, Noah and his boat in the rain, Daniel and the friendly lions who didn’t bite him, etc.  

That brings me to the account I would like to examine today: the tower of Babel found in Genesis 11.  As a kid, I remember this account being told in a way that a bunch of people decided to build a tower so they could try to get to heaven and God didn’t like it.  It left me with the idea that the issue was that the people were trying to get into heaven by getting a tower that was high enough.  This is a completely wrong understanding of the text.  The issue at hand was that of rebellion and pride.  Those are the usual culprits when we sin, aren’t they?  After the flood, God had given the command for people to spread out and inhabit the whole earth, and they simply decided not to.  I could reinvent the wheel, but Dr. MacArthur has already stated it so well in his daily Bible reading plan commentary:

After the Flood, human civilization again began to spread across the earth. Those who traveled east under Nimrod (10:8–10) settled for a while in a place called Shinar. Later, they decided to establish a city as a tribute to themselves and as a way to keep from spreading across the earth (11:4). This was a double prideful rebellion against God. First, their city, with its proposed tower, was to be a monument to their self-reliance. Second, the permanence of their settlement represented an effort to disobey God’s direct command to inhabit the whole earth.

Because it was God’s purpose to fill the earth with custodians, He responded to the people’s prideful rebellion. They had chosen to settle; He forced them to scatter. Their cooperation and self-reliance had been based on their shared language. Instead of using all their resources to obey God, they misused them for disobedience. God chose to complicate communication by multiplying the languages. The location where this confusion took place became known as Babel (related to a Hebrew word meaning “to confuse”). Later it became Babylon, the constant enemy of God’s people, and throughout Scripture the capital of human rebellion against God (Rev. 16:19; 17:5).

You can see the difference.  This biblical account wasn’t about building a silly tower to climb to heaven.  It was about building a prideful moument to self, and rebellion to God’s authority.  If you can relate to the effects of ‘flannel-graph theology’ at all, then I challenge you to begin re-reading through the accounts in the Old Testament with the intention of reframing these historical accounts with maturity and solemnity.  

Soli Deo Gloria!



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