Babel, nations and empire builders


Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(Vienna)_-_Google_Art_Project_-_editedAre nations a good thing or a bad thing? After the experience of two centuries of imperial expansion, aggressive wars and genocide, you could be forgiven for thinking that nations are altogether a bad thing. Indeed, in the 2016 Brexit referendum debate, it is the power of the EU to bring nations together that is being put forward as the strongest argument for the importance of internationalism and the dangers of individual nations existing separately. So the argument goes, left to themselves, nations will always fall into conflict driven by fierce nationalism, but coming together in a transnational union will prevent that and is the sign of a mature, forward-looking approach that is on the right side of history. That certainly fits with a secular worldview that believes in the inherent goodness of humanity, but I don’t believe it fits with a biblical understanding of the human condition. Another look at Gen. 10-11 will explain why.

Just as we must read Gen. 1-2 alongside the dramatic intervention of evil in Gen. 3 to get the full understanding of the human condition, so the optimistic picture of nations spreading across the earth in Genesis 10 must be read alongside the sinister events of the Babel narrative in Gen. 11. In fact, we need to notice that there is one chilling intermission in the Table of Nations in Gen. 10:8-11. There we meet the first tyrant, Nimrod. As a Cushite, he came from the upper Nile region of Egypt, yet he travelled across the Middle East to the plains of Shinar, and there built significant cities. He was not just a city builder, but the first empire builder as the cities he built were far from his ethnic roots, and he was noted as being ‘the first on earth to be a mighty man’ (v. 8), surely a reference to the raw power by which he reached his goals. Human history recorded across Scripture is a tale of empires that rise and fall, one defeating and taking over from another, exploiting those they rule by all kinds of oppression. Moses was recording the first tyrant of many, because his Israelite readers would have known from bitter experience what it meant to be a slave building a city. The fact that the list of cities in V10 begins with Babylon (translated Babel in the ESV) in the land of Shinar is significant. Nimrod is to be identified with the hubris and disaster of the Babel narrative, though he is not named in chapter 11.

The Babel narrative in Gen. 11 is a vivid and carefully structured Hebrew narrative, building to a turning point in V5 when the Lord comes down to intervene. It describes the rebellion of those who built the city. The human race was given a clear commission in 9:1 ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth’, echoing 1:28. They were to spread out and populate the earth, a process that inevitably means that clans develop into tribes, and tribes into nations, each with its own defined territory, shared history and culture, and so on. God’s plan was their dispersal, producing national diversity, but those who gathered on the plains of Shinar in 11:2-4 were eager to resist this calling. They were motivated by fear, a fear of being so spread out across the earth that each community would soon be forgotten by the others and contact would be lost. So they conspired together to build their city and tower to ‘make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.’ At its root this was a spiritual problem. They wanted to challenge the wisdom and plan of God with their own wisdom and schemes, to dethrone God and set up themselves in his place. It was the same rebellion as Genesis 3, the attraction of being told ‘You will be like God’ (3:5). The people of Babel take counsel together, saying ‘Come, let us make…Come, let us build…’ without any reference to God. It was one of the earliest grand projects of empire.

In human history it is most commonly the growth of empires that disturbs the quiet lives of nations, as the rest of biblical history attests. One nation becomes convinced of its own greatness and self-importance, which when coupled with a fear of the ‘other’ breeds an ambitious nationalism, which is a form of idolatry. When allowed to grow, the thirst to dominate the other is used to justify empire building, which can only be achieved by force and oppression over other nations.

With deep irony God comes down to see their tall tower, and then we have a rare divine deliberation among the three persons of the Trinity in V6.  ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.’ Calvin sees this as a divine mockery of human pride – that these are the things human beings think, and God is echoing their insolence. But I am not persuaded. I think it should be taken as a statement of fact. There is what Chris Wright calls ‘the horrendous and limitless potential for evil of a unified and fallen human race that stirs God to ‘divisive’ action.’ When God scattered the nations at Babel, was that a curse or a blessing? Yes, the confusion of languages at Babel was sent as a judgement to stop them building their city and making a name for themselves. But it also prevented another cataclysmic judgement, on the scale of the flood, had the human race been able to defiantly stand against God as one in their rebellion. So the scattering should be considered as an act of blessing, returning the nations to the divine plan to multiply and fill the earth. Since then, human evil has been restrained by language barriers, though human history has been characterised by empires, one after another, that seek to dominate in order to achieve a greater unity, a unity which is always bought at the price of some kind of oppression.

Hold Genesis 10 and 11 together in tension, and you will have a world of nations living side by side, still sinful, muddled and often idolatrous, but, where it works, living together in humility. This is particularly the case where the gospel shapes the culture of nations and they seek to live under God. However, where the worldview of secularism, or perhaps some other religion such as Islam, refuses to settle for a world that is a patchwork of nations, and insists on standardising and homogenising nations together in some kind of binding union from the centre, we are back walking in the footsteps of Nimrod and the builders of Babel. God gets replaced by human wisdom, the dream of a utopia becomes the driving force, and small and resistant nations are steamrollered into the grand project, or to use Rousseau’s language, ‘They will be forced to be free.’ (How Orwellian that sounds!)

So the Bible is opposed to empires because they are the outworking of human hubris. They crush and subvert nations and the oppression they produce leads only to more war and dysfunctional human history. In Scripture you see it played out in Daniel 2, with the image of gold silver, bronze, iron and clay. You see it as the backdrop to Acts, with the imperial power of Rome seeming to be impervious to all comers and building its cities on the backs of slaves, but Luke records the gospel spreading as far as Rome, (while, interestingly, giving us a detailed ethnography of the nations of the ancient world) and we read Luke knowing that the godless Roman empire would fall like the rest. Plenty of European empires have risen and fallen since then – the British, French, German and Portuguese for example. The twentieth century gave us the tyrannies of Fascism and Communism. The European Union began as the opposite of empire, as a mere community of nation-states. However, it has grown into a political union, driven by a deeply secular agenda, and it now subjugates the will of individual member nations to a worrying degree. As I will show in my next post, it is becoming an empire, with Babelish tendencies.

Scripture reveals God’s plan for a sinful world as being a patchwork of nations living alongside one another, each working within its own language and culture and trading with other nations around it. Empire is always a denial of this divine order, and given the choice, we should always work to avoid it.


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