“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.”
“All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but shows favour to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.”
1 Peter 5:5-7
“For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.” Hebrews 11:10
Found in Genesis Chapter 11:1-9
I’ve heard it said that small is beautiful. But I don’t think this is a statement has often had much uptake with the human race: ‘bigger is better’ ‘might makes right’ ‘live large’‘mine’s bigger than yours’, big business, big vision, mega church, safety in numbers… we humans seem to measure our success by size, the size of our income, the size of our house, the size of our car, the size of our facebook friends list, the size of our Instagram following. Bigger is better. Small… well it just doesn’t get a look in.
But what if this measure we use to evaluate ourselves and each other by is all wrong? What if success were not measured by size or amount. What if it were measured by love?
“Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.” Genesis 11:1-2
East. It sounds like a location on a map but sometimes it is more. Adam and Eve were banished from the garden of Eden and blocked from entering it on the east side. Cain wandered eastward ‘east of Eden’ when he left the presence of God. East can be a pattern, a pattern of wandering away. Wandering away, losing our way, losing sight of God’s face and intimate presence. And when we lose sight of God’s face, all we have left is ourselves.
‘They said to each other, ‘Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.’ They used brick instead of stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens,’ Genesis 11:3-4a
These people were resourceful, talented and creative. But as the story of Cain’s family line has already demonstrated, all the knowledge, talent, technology and progress in the world cannot restore humanity or give us a moral compass. Only YHWH’s love, God Himself at the core of the beating heart of humanity can do that; not God at a distance- at the top of a tall tower we build, but God up close, human beings walking in relationship and partnership with Him.
This tower they were building. It wasn’t just any tower. The ancient author of this story and their original audience hearing it would have made an assumption that we modern readers often miss. There was only one architectural tower commonly featured in ancient Mesopotamian1 cities: The Ziggurat. And the function of a Ziggurat was precisely what the people of Babel described “a tower that reaches to the heavens”. A Ziggurat was an ancient religious structure built to reach to the heavens2 , not so people could actually go up to heaven, but so that heaven, a deity, could come down to earth.
At first glance, this might appear to be a good thing, a devout thing to do, as though these people of Babel were getting their priorities right- putting God at the centre, building a tower to welcome God. But there is a big difference between building something in loving partnership with God, and building something for God without His presence with us.
And this is perhaps the greatest irony of this story of Babel. Though the people of Babel were building a tower for God to come to earth, they weren’t working with God and weren’t actually motivated by a desire to welcome Him among them. The very next line reveals their underlying motivation, disclosing the true state of their hearts,
‘Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.’ Genesis 11:4
Not ‘so that we can dwell with God’ or ‘so that we can welcome God’ but ‘so that we may make a name for ourselves’. They weren’t truly reaching out for God. They were creating a tall tower to make it look like they were reaching out for God. But in truth they were reaching for their own significance ‘a name’ for themselves. They were creating their tower ‘reaching to the heavens’ to make themselves look good, feel strong and appear devout.
These people of Babel were so focused on their own identity that they had forgotten who they were. Verse four, which has these people of Babel talking collectively, has five personal pronouns in just one sentence.
‘Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.’ Genesis 11:4
This building project was all about them. God was not the centre of this project, the centre of their hearts. Their drive to be significant was. They had forgotten to remain in the family line which walked closely with God and ‘called on the name of the Lord’. They had removed Him from the centre of their hearts and replaced Him with an empty religion. A monument to themselves. Small wasn’t enough for these people of Babel. They were out to prove that they were a mighty people, strong, powerful, too big to fail. They had no time for small things. Small things like the still small voice of God in their hearts whispering that He loved them.
When God is not at the centre of a beating human heart all sorts of darkness rushes into the void; darkness like fear and insecurity, fuelling pride, selfishness and drivenness.
When all we have is ourselves, we don’t actually have our true selves at all. We only have who we feel we need to be, and who we fear we’re not. A frail half-formed human identity; an identity formed by the cracked-mirror words and actions of other fractured human beings, reflecting broken images back to us of ourselves.
Behind the people of Babel’s desire to make a name for themselves lurked a deep insecurity and a fear of their own insignificance. They feared they were not enough and that they needed to do something in order to be significant “so that we may make a name for ourselves”. They feared if they didn’t work for their own significance they’d have none, and be nothing “otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth”.
This human pride hiding human insecurity, these motivations expressed collectively by the people of Babel are actually strikingly similar to the enticements Eve succumbed to in the garden long before, the moment when humanity lost itself to the dark (Genesis 3:4-6). Eve and subsequently Adam reached for what they thought would make them like God, their version of ‘a tower reaching to heaven’. They reached for what they thought would give them wisdom and make them significant. They believed the lie that they were not already enough, not without this fruit. They didn’t reach for God, they reached to make themselves wise or great like God.
But the irony was that until that reaching moment they had been like God, made in His image and likeness, they were significant, created to partner with God in stewarding the earth, but the fear they were not enough drove them to reach for ‘more’. And in grasping for the more, they made themselves less. Less human, less whole, less satisfied than ever before.
This is the very same journey that the people of Babel are on. They feared they were not enough, so they reached for more. They thought being a cog in the machine of a big vision, a powerful project, could satiate their need for significance. They had forgotten who they were. They wanted to make a name for themselves because they’d forgotten their true name; Imago Dei Human. Children of God.
The significance they craved was their true beating heart, the image of God within them, but the way they were reaching for it was tearing them apart.
Lurking beneath all our treadmill drivenness towards success and significance is so often the fear of our own insignificance. Subconsciously perhaps we hope that if we can prove it to everyone else, maybe we’ll start to believe it ourselves. Monument building though never actually assuages these fears. It only ever propagates them. The monuments only ever get bigger, looming over us, shadowing our joy, and life does not thrive in these shadows. We live on our treadmills, getting nowhere but always feeling urgently the need to deliver, to run, to please, to achieve; becoming cogs in the machine of our own insecurity.
All human towers will one day fall. There is no human monument, project, empire, movement, organisation, multi-national company, political system, or ideology that will not one day crumble into dust. We fear when big things fall, like banks ‘too big to fail’, because we have bought into the lie that bigger is better, that there is somehow safety and strength in numbers, in size. Our fears programme us to buy the lie of ‘empire’ building. The lie that size is success, that power and might is what we should strive for.
Pride builds its monuments but the rooms within are hollow, empty of God, empty of love. Big business, big cities, big visions, when they are empty of God, God-less, they empty out our humanity also.
It is interesting that the last mention of city building in scripture prior to Babel was constructed by another heart that had emptied itself of God: Cain’s.
“Cain was then building a city, and he named it after his son Enoch.” Genesis 4:17b
Cities themselves are not evil. God is not opposed to human technology or building projects. He is opposed to being shut out of human lives altogether, because without Him at the centre of human life, human life breaks down. When we forget God, we forget ourselves. We cut ourselves off from the one relationship that makes us fully human.
Everything we reach for that is not Him never satiates never fills the void, and so we are forever reaching, searching for the significance and value that only God can give.
Nothing but the love of God can fully fill and truly fulfil our hearts with real significance and value.
Our human desire for significance is not wrong, it is part of our true beating heart, the Image of God within us. Human beings are significant, not because we are big and strong and mighty and large. We are significant because we have the God of the Universe’s breath in our lungs, the Being who made the spinning stars’ Spirit in our hearts.
We are big. Small on the outside but endless on the inside. God’s own imprint was pressed into us, His likeness lines the sinews of our hearts. We are bigger than time and space. God has placed eternity into our hearts and we have never understood this ( Ecclesiastes 3:11). The people of Babel didn’t understand this either, so God came down to make it clear.
“But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building.’
The Lord said, ‘If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them’” Genesis 11:5-6
God came down because this is who God is. We may have wandered east of Eden, and far from Him, but He is never really far from us, and He is always a Father in search of His children. Even when they have forgotten Him and forgotten themselves. When they have forgotten the Imago Dei within their hearts and that love is the true measure of greatness.
In the beginning, the genesis of all our beginnings God said “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). Us. Not I. God exists as a triune God, a family of three and it is this family that intervenes to help humankind remember who they are. Jesus has been walking with His father, searching out his wandering children from before time was written down.
“‘Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.’” Genesis 11:7
Love intervenes so they cannot understand each other, because they have never truly understood each other. They had never understood their own worth, their own breath, their own significance as children of God. So in love God comes down and divides them, not to break them, but to make them whole.
And on the surface level it looks like God is just being mean, a bully stamping on a child’s sand castle, like the capricious and moody later Greek and Roman gods. But God does not measure success the way that humans do- ‘Big is better’, ‘might makes right’, big business, big vision, big empire.
God’s measure is not the size of a persons success but the size of the love in their heart and the shape of their heart as truly human. Imago Dei.
We humans, we measure the world so differently to God. So often we see the world through the lens of our own short term gain, but God has a longer view in mind, an eternal perspective. Babel’s monumental tower was, in Gods eyes, a monumental mistake. A dangerous mistake teetering their civilisation towards self destructive selfishness. Love was nowhere in the rhetoric of the people of Babel, not love for people nor love for God. Pride cannot love. Fear cannot love. Machines cannot love.
When we stop loving God with our whole hearts, we stop remembering that God loves us with His whole heart and we become less whole ourselves.
“So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel– because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth” Genesis 11:8-9
Love came down and divided all their languages to help them be small again, smaller communities with smaller plans. Because love, connection and intimacy grows best in the smallest places, small spaces like families, small groups of friends, small moments where eternity enters time and we breathe in our human breath once more, long and deep and slow. Small moments like a baby’s chortling laugh, the hug of a good friend, the disclosure of a difficult truth, the knowing that we are truly deeply known.
Bigger has never really been better for humankind. We might relish the buzz of the big cities but we rarely thrive in them. The loneliest place in the world can be the centre of a crowded room. God said ‘It is not good for humankind to be alone’, but we cannot find each other in a crowd, nor in all our pretensions towards grandeur. Humility is authenticity. Small truly is beautiful. They’re the only place we can reach out and truly find each other.
When you are only a customer, a consumer, a mega church member, a factory worker, a cog in the machine of big business, a statistic in a graph, you become no longer human to me. Up close there is love, empathy and care, from a distance there are only statistics. Up close it’s not business, it’s personal. You are a person. Small. Frail. Beautiful.
God is larger than a this spinning Universe of light, and yet He too is part of the smallness of intimacy and love, He is not a crowd, but a family. And with Him it is never business, always personal.
When the human race had so forgotten God, had wandered ‘eastward’ so far that they had no sense of His presence, no sense of who He was, God chose to reveal who he was to human beings all over again. Not through a mighty flood, not through a rainbow, not through changing languages, but through a family. God was about it make it personal. One man. One friendship. One family, one people partnering with God to bring the blessing of His presence to the whole human race.
It is not a coincidence that this story of Babel is situated in scripture just after story of Noah and just before the story of Abraham. Both these men walked obediently, intimately and faithfully with God. They didn’t experience God at a distance, at the top of a tall tower they built, they experienced God up close, walking in relationship and partnership with Him. They didn’t reach to make themselves significant or great, they reached for God, and in doing so discovered true significance and greatness in Him. I don’t think the juxtaposition, the comparison between their storylines and Babel’s is a coincidence.
Abram, like Noah lived in the family line that walked faithfully with God, calling on His name. He was not searching for significance or building a tower to make his own name great…“he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.” (Hebrews 11:10)
A city, a people, whom God intended not just to build, but to join. Himself. God came down for Babel to save them from themselves and centuries upon centuries later, after Abram’s family had become a nation, God Himself came down once more, making Himself small, small as a seed planted silently in the ground, small as a shoot from a sawn-off stump, small as a baby laid to rest in a manger. Small as a human being. Like us.
Paul of Tarsus later described this upside-down-right-way-up way of God; the small way, the humble way. The way we humans struggle to comprehend.
“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.” Philippians 2:5-11
God didn’t come to earth to prove Himself, to show us how large, mighty and powerful His is (though He is all those things). He came small. To show us how to love. Like Him. In humility He made himself nothing, in order to give us everything. God, in love came down to usurp the dehumanising power of empire building to establish His reign on earth. He came to re-humanise a humanity dismantled by everything we reach for that is not Him. He came down, not to create a religion but to ignite a revolution, not to build an empire, but to establish a Kingdom. A Kingdom revolution that starts as small as a tiny seed planted unseen in the earth.
The Kingdom of God, the way of being human God intended for us, is totally unlike the way of Babel, the way of Empire. It is small, it is family, it is a network of small communities, it is the humanising fabric of relationships that are woven around the central threads of who God is: faithfulness, justice, righteousness and love.
The lie of Empire is that bigger is better and success is measured by size, quantity, wealth, power and status.
The truth of God’s Kingdom is that from small seeds eternal things grow, true success is measured by love, love for God and partnership with Him in bringing His Kingdom to earth.
The God of all the vastness of the Universe, the Being who breathed out galaxies of spinning stars, made Himself small. Made Himself minute. Made Himself nothing. And made Himself the victim of all our pride, sin and selfish conceit, to help us begin to learn, begin to see, begin to understand that it’s not the monuments we build that make us great, but the Great Love that reaches out to us to heal us, restore us and make us great in Him. His great love that has been on this journey to find each one of us since before all time began.
God’s great mission is to re-humanise humankind, to breathe life back into our empty souls and awaken again in us the irrepressible joy of being. Human. Imago Dei. To remind us of the song He placed in our hearts right from the very beginning.
You are valuable beyond measure, not because you are a cog in the machine of a mighty vision that builds a mighty monument, but because you are a child of God, with His likeness and image pulsing through your veins beating in your beautiful, broken, but not-yet-beaten heart.
When we one-day find ourselves standing on the final shore of our lives looking out across the ocean of eternity (as every one of us one-day will) we will find that all the monuments we built to ourselves, all our tall towers of success, our big businesses and big visions are nothing but sandcastles washed away by time. Nothing we grasp on earth will come with us into heaven, nothing but the small moments where eternity entered time, nothing but the people we have loved along the way and nothing but the space in our heart we left open to God’s love.
Love is actually the true measure of success.
Size never has been.
Where have you attempted to satiate your need for significance in the works of your hands or in something you have produced?
Stop and Listen. What does God’s still small voice long to share with you?
References, Notes, and Credits
1 ‘Shinar’ was situated in the heart of ancient Mesopotamia. Notes on Genesis 11, NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, Zondervan 2016
2 This description occurs multiple times in ancient literature and consistently refers to a temple structure with a ziggurat. Commentary on Genesis 11, NIV Application Commentary, John Walton
The photo of the bee and flowers was taken by Simeon Evenhuis
This is so apt right now!
I’ve been thinking about Putin‘s ungodly regime, where “might is right” and everything depends on fear & oppression….
I think we can be encouraged by God’s truths and the knowledge that despite current circumstances he is Lord of all.
I believe that we should be praying that Putin’s seemingly invincible regime will crumble, just as the walls of Jericho came down and the once powerful city of Babylon disappeared. Is anyone with me?