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  • Writer's pictureChang Yuon, Blog Editor

The Story of the Tower and the Tragedy of the Babelian Quest

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563

The Tower of Babel was the topic of our recent Monday Night Systematics class. Christopher Watkin writes in Chapter 8 of his book, “the tale of the tower is a story of judgement, and like the fall narrative in chapter 3, it is a story of autonomy” (Biblical Critical Theory: How the Bible’s Unfolding Story Makes Sense of Modern Life and Culture, p. 207).

Autonomy, or simply, self-law, “Adam and Eve choose to live by their own law…autonomy manifests itself as deciding for oneself what is to be counted as good and evil” (ibid., p. 133).

Putting these ideas together then, the tale of the tower is really a story of self-justification. Since we have rejected God as judge, we could only look to make things right by our own judgment in and through the created world. And our current situation? “We live in a world in which the ultimate justification provided by the judgment of God has been replaced by the final verdict handed down by the court of public opinion mediated through the 'book of life' that is social, broadcast, and print media” (ibid., p. 212).

This is what Watkin calls the tragedy and pathos of Babelian quest. It is a tragedy because sadly it doesn’t satisfy; and in the final analysis, the chasm between our righteousness and what God requires remain unchanged. After all, scripture reminds us that our righteousness is like filthy garments (Isaiah 64:6).

My son graduating from high school this month helped me appreciate anew this warning about the tower. On one hand, I want to tell him pursuing his earthly goals and aspirations are good. As Watkin reminds us, “God is not against technology” (ibid., p. 210). We could add here, God is not against education or a fulfilling career (or perhaps from this dad’s view, successful parenting!). The issue with the tower is not the building itself, but where we get our name. Watkin continues, “In a world that catechizes us into the dream that ‘you can be anything you want to be,’ citizens are faced with the twin responsibility of first choosing what to be and then becoming what they have chosen, on pain of namelessness” (ibid., p. 212). How about that for a graduation speech?

Going back to the fall narrative, I’m always struck by God’s question to Adam and Eve, “Who told you that you were naked?” The question is not merely about the realization that they’re naked. Commentator Victor Hamilton is helpful here: “Nakedness is not a condition of which one would be ignorant! Was it the serpent who told you? Was it the woman who told you? Was it your own eyes that told you? In other words, whence the man’s source of guilt and shame?” (The Book of Genesis 1-17, p. 193)

That is, “Who told you that you should be guilty, ashamed, and afraid?” The answer is implied. They feel it—and how profoundly so! God, I feel the crushing judgment from myself and from others!

The good news is that God came down to judge that old tower that cannot reach heaven. No earthly tower will do. Rather, God came down as the real tower to heaven (John 1:51). Yet, he was stripped naked on our behalf and holy wrath placed upon him, and my filthy garment exchanged for his radiant one.

So for today’s self-justifiers, the question to Adam and Eve can be asked in a different way. “Who told you that you are righteousness?”

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