Babel Towers: A 3am Interpretation of Genesis 11

Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night and felt restless – spiritually restless? It’s not insomnia. It’s not anxiety or worry. It’s when you wake up at 3am and you don’t feel right – you don’t feel at peace. So you get up and go your special spot in the house in order to pray – and I mean really pray – Garden of Gethsemane style. It’s in those quiet (or not so quiet) 3am moments that we recognize the spiritual weight that has become heavy upon us. It’s in these moments that we see the towers of Babel pressing in on us.

Genesis 11 tells a story of how all the peoples of the earth were congregated in one city. The people came together in order to  build a tower that reaches into the heavens. They do this so that they won’t find themselves scattered across the world in dissension.

This is how the people of Genesis 11 had a right idea for the wrong reasons. They thought, “Let’s make a tower and a city so big and so grand, that we will reach into the heavens. Let’s not only claim this land as ours so there is no one left to fight us, but let’s build a tower that reaches Babel itself. And once we build it high enough – there we will rule both the heavens and the earth – and there will be no dissension.”

There is this word in Akkadian (the langua franca of the ancient world) called Babilim which means “gate of the gods”. And when you loose the plural “im” at the end, we are left with Babel: “Gate of God”. Yes – it’s an Akkadian translation – not a Hebrew one. But given the era in history this story comes out of, I am inclined to think it’s the best we got.

So the people of earth people built a tower to the very “gate of God”. And do you know what happens next in the story? God has to “come down” from heaven to even see this puny tower that the people have built. They haven’t even come near the “gate of God” – but they were so sure that they had. The people had settled into a large city only to became united in a false idea – a lie: that they could settle and become gods – as long as they built high enough.

This is the world of Abraham’s family: a world of Babel towers.

But all that the people accomplished was being unified against a relationship with God. Somewhere between the blueprints and the bricks, the people started thinking that the tower they were building was the mission, the security, the answer. And so they built a tower in order to become gods. But what god were they trying to be?

So God confused their language and divided the people – for it was better for a people to be divided and in search of the “gate of God” than live within a false reality devoid of God.

What Genesis 11 demonstrates is that settling down and building can give one a false sense of reality: a false sense of the gods in our lives.

Abraham’s family settled. They built idols, and houses, and their own Babel towers. And it is here, among the Babel towers, that God calls Abraham to leave his father’s settlement and to go to a place that God will show him (Genesis 12).

Now Abraham has traded in a life of brick and mortar for a life of tents and desert winds. He has traded idol-making for God-following. He is called to discover a gate to God that does not reside in the distant heavens – but in a intimate relationship with God that is found in – dare I say it . . . non-settling.

Throughout Genesis, a lover-of-Hebrew will notice there are two words for “to settle” or “to dwell”. And they don’t differ in meaning. In both instances a group of people establish a house, or land, or property. But what is interesting to a lover-of-Hebrew is to take note of who is settling or dwelling. When one is settling to set down permanent roots, one verb is used. But when they are doing it to reside for a season that God has lead them into, another verb is used. It’s so slight, so easy to overlook. But then again, so is settling. For once we settle -permanently settle – brick by brick, our Babel towers start to appear.

I think we need to be careful about the type of settling we are doing. Are we setting down roots for the season God has lead us to? Or are we setting down roots in Babel?

This is the question I ask myself when I wake up at 3am feeling spiritually restless. Becasue it’s in these 3am moments I need to fall on face and pray. For I find that I am never more human than when I am prostrate on the floor in front of God. It is in these moments that I am finally honest with both myself and God – it is here where I can say – this is who I am, Lord, have mercy on me.

If I don’t get on my face in prayer at 3am – I find myself distracted by my own Babel towers – the TV I could watch until I fall asleep. The book I could read until my eyes get heavy. The collection I could sort through until the sun rises and my day can begin. These are the habits I have created to feel grounded in something. These are the Babel towers that come from settling.

However, those 3am restless moments are one of invitation. It’s a time where the gate to God is being opened in a special way – but not in the Babel towers we have created, but through vulnerable relationship with the God who calls us out of Babel, just like Abraham.

For there is a correlation between rich young ruler and the other disciples who follow after God. The more things that tie us to the world, the more we feel we own, the bigger our Babel towers become.

I am reminded of Jesus’ teaching – how he tells his followers to take nothing but a robe and sandals and to rely on God to provide.  The more stuff we disciples own, the more we settle our roots, the more we collect, the more start to build our own towers of Babel. And before we know it, we think we own the land and as well as the heavens. And, as I know from God’s reaction in Genesis 11, our own heaven is puny – it’s so small and insubstantial that God has to come down to see it – and all he can do is smile and shake his head at our inflated ego.

The One True God continually asks me to put down my bricks and mortar and to follow Him out into the desert heat with nothing but a promise. Should I follow?

It depends on how easy it is to abandon my Babel towers.


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