Finding God At Babel

 

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When I was three years old, I decided to dress up as Snow White for Halloween. I was so excited about wearing the pretty dress and shoes, pretending to be a princess for the evening, and running through our neighborhood to trick-or-treat. As I prepared to take off on our adventure, though, my mom brought out a coat and insisted I wear it.

I panicked. Snow White didn’t wear a coat! She also didn’t live in central Illinois in October, but that was beside the point.

I watched my dreams of being the perfect Snow White crumble as my mom zipped me into fluffy, non-princess outerwear. And then I proceeded to have a blast trick-or-treating with my dad.

Sometimes we need boundaries. Running out into a blizzard in a pretty Snow White dress would have resulted in cold, sickness, grouchiness, and tears. My mom insisted I wear a coat, despite my protestations, which allowed my dad and I to have such a fun Halloween.

The story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 shows God setting some boundaries for humanity as well. Genesis 10 contains a number of long genealogies, communicating to us that Noah’s sons followed God’s command to be fruitful and fill the Earth. When we arrive in Genesis 11, we learn that all of the people live in one area and speak one language. They decide to build a city and a large tower to “make a name” for themselves. 

God “comes down” to the city and sees all that they had accomplished. He states that because they’re in one location and they speak one language, “all that they plan to do will be possible for them.” So He chooses to mix up or confuse (balal) their language and disperse them to a variety of different lands.

With a cursory reading of the text, it almost sounds like God is a bit intimidated by the work that humanity has accomplished; however, if we read Genesis 11 in context, we can see God instead blessing humanity deeply.

At the end of Genesis 8, God reflects on the impact of The Flood, and decides never to flood the earth again, because “the ideas of the human mind are evil/bad/mischievous (ra) from their youth.” So God acknowledges the negative potential of humanity in Genesis 8, then in Genesis 9 and 10 the population grows, and finally in Genesis 11 God sees humanity having boundless potential. God already promised to not destroy humanity again, so to diffuse the possibility of them turning away from Him as they did before The Flood, God intervenes and offers protection.

God’s diversifying the language and spreading people across the Earth, then, does not take place because He’s intimidated by all they’re accomplishing; rather, God wants to protect humanity from their negative potential. Like a mother making her three-year-old wear a coat before running out in the snow, God divided the population and created new languages to protect them from the dire consequences that would otherwise follow.

God knows the amazing potential we hold — He made us in His image for a reason. We have creativity and strength built into us, and while we use those gifts, God also protects and guides us. So today may the story of the Tower of Babel encourage our efforts to grow the kingdom, to build the Church, and to spread God’s love to all those around us. 

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Subtle Reminders

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About eight months ago I saw a spark of red flash across our kitchen window. I followed the color, and found a cardinal perched on our roof. Since then, the cardinals have multiplied, and we have begun seeing blue jays in our backyard as well. On an almost daily basis, I find myself spending a minute or two watching these beautiful, seemingly out of place birds hop and fly around our home. I take in those minutes as quiet reminders that God can create beauty that stands out, that is free, and that’s always there, regardless of whether we stop to appreciate it.

God uses creation to demonstrate His covenant with us in the biblical text as well. After He instructs Noah and Noah’s sons to be fruitful and multiply in Genesis 9, God says in verses 12-17, “‘This is the symbol of the covenant that I am drawing up between me and you and every living thing with you, on behalf of every future generation. I have placed my bow (qeshet) in the clouds; it will be the symbol of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow appears in the clouds, I will remember the covenant between me and you and every living being among all the creatures. Floodwaters will never again destroy all creatures. The bow will be in the clouds, and upon seeing it I will remember the enduring covenant between God and every living being of all the earth’s creatures.’ God said to Noah, ‘This is the symbol of the covenant that I have set up between me and all creatures on earth.'”

God uses an element of creation as a reminder to His people and all creatures of the covenant He created with Noah. This text shows the deep love and connection between God and us, God and all living creatures, and God and creation itself.

God has the power to intercede in so many ways to give us strength and hope. At times God speaks through someone to give us a word of encouragement, other times His Word gives us the guidance for decisions we ought to make, and still in other quiet moments, God gives us subtle reminders of His continued love and presence.

May we find those moments today. Whether through a rainbow, or a cardinal, or Scripture, or even a kind word, may we find ourselves remembering God’s enduring covenant with us and with creation. May we celebrate the promise that not only will God never again destroy creation, but also that God will never leave us nor forsake us. And may we pause to notice, even in those subtle moments, that we are surrounded by the presence and the love of God.

Stewardship, Politics, and Genesis 9

 

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This morning I chose to use a coffee mug that a church gifted me a few months back. The side of the mug displays the words of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” It’s a powerful verse, and because of that, it’s everywhere: on billboards, commercials, tracks, promotions, even my coffee mug. Christians have used that particular verse for a variety of means.

I similarly realized that the verses for today have gotten a weighty amount of traction among a variety of Christian communities. They’ve become highly politicized, and their messages have led to vastly dissimilar ends.

We read in Genesis 9:1-3, “God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, ‘Be fertile, multiply, and fill the earth. All of the animals on the earth will fear you and dread you—all the birds in the skies, everything crawling on the ground, and all of the sea’s fish. They are in your power. Everything that lives and moves will be your food. Just as I gave you the green grasses, I now give you everything.'”

Do you remember when we discussed the idea that Noah was supposed to function as a New Adam? We see this happening here as well. Just after God creates the man and the woman in His image in Genesis 1, this is what the text says:

“God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it. Take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, and everything crawling on the ground.’ Then God said, ‘I now give to you all the plants on the earth that yield seeds and all the trees whose fruit produces its seeds within it. These will be your food. To all wildlife, to all the birds in the sky, and to everything crawling on the ground—to everything that breathes—I give all the green grasses for food.’ And that’s what happened. God saw everything he had made: it was supremely good.” — Gen. 1:28-31

The text confirms for us that God reset the earth with Noah, and needed Noah to do the work that Adam had originally done by being fertile, multiplying, and filling the earth (peru urevu umelu). 

Rather than accepting Genesis 9:1-3 as a continued plot point in the story of God’s continued efforts toward reconciliation with humanity, a number of Christians use these verses instead as imperatives for us to follow. And when they take a descriptive story and make it a prescription for us to follow, some stark polarizations arise. Here are just a few:

In 2007, Ann Coulter published her take on the Genesis texts in her book If Democrats Had Any Brains, They’d Be Republicans, arguing, “God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, ‘Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It’s yours. — Hannity & Colmes, 6-20-01.‘” For Coulter, these verses demonstrate God encouraging us to violently debase and abuse the creation.

In contrast, Huffington Post published a blog by Rabbi Shoshanna Meira Friedman in 2014 entitled, “‘We Are All Noah Now’ (Noah, Genesis 6:9-11:32).” Friedman claims, “To live in Noah times means practicing radical hope amidst the burden of consequences. It means building the largest possible ark of disaster readiness. It means remembering that the rainbow, dove, and olive branch – these now-universal symbols of hope – come to us from the story of the near-destruction of all life on earth… To live in Noah times, then, means to be awake to the great calling of our own generation, to respond with radical hope and collective action to the crisis of climate change.

Coulter and Friedman use the same text to make vastly contrasting arguments: that we should rape and exploit the earth on the one hand, and that we must reverse the damage of climate change on the other. My point here is not to argue for one position or another: it’s to show how a prescriptive reading of the text can lead to such extreme and opposed consequences. 

We have to be careful with this sacred text. The moment we begin using it to make claims about current affairs and hot-button issues, we should step back and really examine whether the text bears out our claims. And if we decide that it does, we then need to look at the practical consequences of what we’re saying.

If we read the Bible for what it actually tells us, we see in these verses God giving Noah the freedom that God once gave the first man and woman. God tells Noah and his sons to make themselves at home. To have children, to eat, and to live in the creation that God has given them. For some, that interpretation falls flat: it’s not exciting or controversial.

I disagree, though: the Bible tells us in these verses that we have a God who, after enduring heartbreak by humanity, goes to great lengths to find a way to reconcile us to Himself. He changes the state of the entire world, with the hope that the one family who had showed him faithfulness before the flood would remain faithful to Him afterward as well. This is a God who trusts, who perseveres, who forgives, and who loves us beyond what we could ever imagine. And that means far more for us today and for always than any politicized stance ever will.

What Every Christian Should Know About Genesis 4-8

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This week we continued on our journey through Genesis. We covered a lot of material, so I want to give a brief synopsis for those of you who want to stay on track, but haven’t had the chance to read the most recent posts:

We first addressed the creation of Seth in Genesis 4:25 in a post called Grief, Loss, And The “Replacement” Of Abel. In the verse, Eve states that God gave her Seth as a replacement for Abel, prompting us to ask questions about grief and loss. We discussed how the text is descriptive of Eve’s grief, rather than prescriptive of how we should understand loss. And concluded with a plea to allow people to grieve and find meaning in the ways that are most helpful to them.

Next, we addressed the seemingly awkward text in Genesis 6 that talks about Sons of God, Daughters of Men, and Nephilim, in a post entitled, What Are Nephilim? We looked at the two texts involving Nephilim (Genesis 6 and Numbers 13), and learned that the Bible tells us they’re large and well known, and that’s about it. We debunked some of the interpretations that link the Nephilim to the devil, fallen angels, and other various creatures, and reiterated our need to focus on the information the Bible gives us.

In Sinners In The Hands Of A Heartbroken God we looked at the texts leading up to The Flood. We saw how God was heartbroken and mourned what had happened among humanity, and out of that sorrow how God chose to send The Flood. We debunked the false dichotomy of the angry God of the Old Testament vs. the peaceful Jesus of the New Testament, and discussed how God throughout the Bible craves our reconciliation with Him.

Finally, we moved through The Flood narrative and looked at the character of Noah once the waters subsided in The New Adams. We saw Noah (which means “rest”) resting with God, offering God a sacrifice, and God reflecting that God will never again wash away humanity. We discussed how the covenant that God created with Noah was a reiteration of the relationship he had desired with Adam, and we noted that God continues to use biblical characters to show us the deep and fully reconciled relationship He desires with us. We then celebrated the forgiveness and unfailing love that we get to live within because of Christ’s sacrifice for us.

This coming week we will start by discussing the link between life and blood in Genesis 9, and will move forward from there. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and questions!

Blessings,

Melissa


For those of you keeping up with our Hebrew grammar:

sheth — to place, also the name Seth

atsav — grieved, what God feels before The Flood

arar — to curse

ruwach nichowach reyach — sweet savor, the scent of burnt offerings

 

The New Adams

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Yesterday we discussed The Flood narrative in Genesis 6-8. Toward the end I named a pattern that we see over and over again throughout the Bible: God reconciling our relationship with Him, us breaking that reconciled relationship, and then God having to fix whatever we broke to reconcile us all over again. We will see this cycle a number of times throughout the biblical text.

It’s almost as if God has a perfect vision for what he wants a film to look like, but as He’s directing it the actors get wily, so He has to yell, “Take 2!” rearrange the set, and start the shot again. 

We see this happen in The Flood narrative. First, “The Lord regretted making human beings on the earth, and he was heartbroken” (Gen. 6:5), so he decides to “wipe off the land” (Gen. 6:7), but “as for Noah, the Lord approved of him” (Gen. 6:8). So Noah builds the ark, and his family and the animals get on it (Gen. 6:13-22), the rains flood the earth and then recedes (Gen. 7:1-8:14), and then Noah and his family exit the ark (Gen. 8:15-19). To summarize: life was good, then the world got wily, so God decided to say “Take 2!” and send the flood.

This story involving Noah parallels the story of Adam. Life was good, then Adam and Eve ate of the tree, so God said “Take 2!” and sent them out of the garden. Just as God places Adam and Eve outside the garden and continues His relationship with them in a new location, God gives Noah and his family a way to survive the flood, and continues His relationship with them in the newly re-started world. Even after the flood the parallels continue:

After Noah exits the ark, he builds an altar to the Lord and places burned animals on it. The Lord smells the “sweet savor” (ruwach nichowach reyach — we’ll see this again), and thinks in His heart, “I will not curse the fertile land anymore because of human beings since the ideas of the human mind are evil from their youth” (Gen. 8:21).

Do you remember our discussion of curses vs. punishments? We learned that in Genesis 3, God didn’t curse Adam and Eve, He merely punished them. God cursed (arar) the ground and the snake. But what we have here in Genesis 8 is God saying that he will never curse (arar) the ground again because of the sin of human beings. God reverses the curse that He imposed on the ground in Genesis 3. 

We claimed in The Calling of Genesis 3 that we are meant to strive to restore the perfection of how God originally created us and the world in Genesis 1 and 2. In Genesis 8, God makes that easier for us: He lifts the curse of the ground so that the fertile land will remain fertile, rather than filled with thistles and thorns. 

Noah doesn’t replace Adam; rather, Noah is a new iteration of Adam. God uses these individuals to try to establish a reconciled and perfect relationship with humanity. And it doesn’t stop with Noah — soon we will see Abraham, Moses, Ruth, and ultimately Jesus functioning as New Adams.

Romans 5:12-18 describes the biblical relationship between Adam and Jesus, describing Adam as “a type of the one who was coming” (Rom. 5:14). Ultimately, the various iterations of New Adams lead to Christ as the final New Adam. Jesus is the one who, once and for all, defeats the sin that entered into the world in Genesis 3. He breaks the cycle of God reconciling us, us betraying God, and God then needing to reset the system to reconcile us again. Grace through Christ is the final atoning mechanism that allows us to live in abundant and continually reconciled relationship with God.

With Christ there’s no longer a “Take 2.” God has set the stage perfectly so that we can continue accept His grace and love, and spread them throughout the world. May we praise God today for Adam, Noah, and all of the other figures who God used to reconcile humanity to Himself. And may we celebrate the grace, love, and peace God demonstrated to us finally through the sacrifice and life of Christ.

Sinners In The Hands Of A Heartbroken God

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Last year my church began reevaluating the images we used to decorate the children’s department. I remember specifically debating whether illustrations of Noah’s Ark should remain on the walls. It’s an easy Bible story to use as decoration — there’s a boat, water, and animals — all very fun images for children’s ministry.

Reading the actual text of The Flood narrative caused us all to pause. We even asked at what age we found it appropriate to teach children the story of Noah’s Ark.

There’s no denying that The Flood narrative is a violent story — just look at Genesis 7:21-23: “And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, livestock, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all mankind. Everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens. They were blotted out from the earth.”

So God sweeps the earth of all of its inhabitants, leaving only Noah, his family, and a few of each of the animals. The root question here is “Why?”

I have heard a number of pastors use this particular text to describe the anger of God. They claim that the world had fallen so far away from what God originally envisioned that God essentially entered into a rage and destroyed the world. Not only that, but some religious leaders even associate floods that happen today with God’s judgment and wrath.

Here are two of the biggest issues with reading The Flood narrative in that particular way:

  1. God never expresses anger during The Flood — He expresses heartbreak. Before the Flood ever takes place, we know that God “regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved (atsav) him to his heart” (v. 6). God isn’t angry; He feels betrayed and abandoned. And the flood follows out of those feelings of hurt and sadness.
  2. It’s easy to impose anger as an attribute of God in this text, because one of the most prominent heresies still in the Christian waters is that the God of the Old Testament is wrathful and violent, while the Jesus of the New Testament is peaceful and loving. In a subtle effort to maintain this binary, we read over the verses describing how God was in a state of grief before the flood ever happened (Gen. 6:6), and that afterward He promised to never flood the earth again (Gen. 8:20-22). Those statements don’t override the harsh realities detailed in chapter 7; rather, they give us a fuller picture of the complex God we worship.

Painting God as an angry monster who is out to get the world isn’t a helpful way of conceptualizing this text, nor is it biblically accurate. What we actually have is a God who created us in His image, breathed His spirit into our nostrils, created a perfect partner for us so we would never be alone, and then felt the hurt of us betraying the one command in the garden.

So God attempts to reconcile us again to Himself outside of Eden, and shortly thereafter Cain kills his brother Abel. God sends Cain out of his presence and blesses Eve with another son, Seth. And God continues this cycle of striving over and over again to live in close, intimate relationship with us, while we continue to counter His efforts. We arrive at chapter 6 in Genesis, and God feels such grief and exasperation that He decides to press “restart” on the world, except for the one family who had remained faithful. And afterward God realizes the damage He’s done, and promises never to do that again.

The biblical text continues on with this trend of God craving closer relationship, us betraying Him, and God then trying to work out a new system to reconcile us together again. And each time we leave, God expresses strong emotion, but rarely is it anger — He feels exasperated, even shocked, and ultimately heartbroken and grieved.

So may we reconsider today the ways we envision God. May we contemplate the ways we feel heartbroken, and perhaps the ways that God feels heartbroken as well. And may we draw closer to the One who loves us so deeply, and craves our devotion and love in return.

What Are Nephilim?


Do you remember those Staples commercials that came out a few years ago with the “Easy” button? Someone would be struggling with a task, then hit a big red “Easy” button, and miraculously the problem would be solved. Yesterday while I waited in line at a grocery store, the credit card machine malfunctioned for the lady in front of me, and as the cashier and customer worked to get the machine running again, I thought “This could use an ‘Easy’ button.”

There are definitely other times in life in which we need more than an “Easy” button — we require a “Pass” button. Last week a dead possum ended up in our yard. It was disgusting. My husband and I knew we should get a shovel and get it out of there, but instead we used a “Pass” button and called the city to come pick it up.

Being very honest, I wanted to press a “Pass” button for Genesis 6:1-4 today. On the surface, the story seems fairly disturbing, and we need to do some research to figure out what it really means. Here is what the text says:

“When humans began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of humanity were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in the human forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of humanity and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.”

I have never understood this passage. Frankly, it’s right before the story of Noah, so it’s almost easier to just move on to the flood story. Rather than brushing over it, though, I decided to do some research.

People have interpreted the “Nephilim” in a variety of ways, most of which involve sin and fallenness. Answers In Genesis created a list of the most prominent interpretations of the Nephilim. The first is that the Nephilim were the children of Satan/fallen angels, who bred with human women; second, that the Nephilim were children of men who Satan/fallen angels possessed, who bred with human women; third, that the Nephilim were children in the line of Adam, Seth, and Noah who strayed to worship other gods; and lastly, that the Nephilim were children of godly men who bred with ungodly women, causing their children to stray from God.

Here’s the issue with all of these interpretations: the passage never mentions sin, Satan, fallen angels, possession, or any negative attributes of the Nephilim. We can find the Sons of God who “come into the daughters of man” objectionable, certainly; but they’re not the Nephilim. Rather, the text lauds the Nephilim as “mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.” The biblical text doesn’t import anything negative about the Nephilim.

So we need to do a bit more digging, and the Bible is the best place to start. The only other place the word “Nephilim” shows up is in Numbers 13:33. At this point in the story, Moses sent spies to scope out the land of Canaan, and they have returned with a report. Here is what the text says:

So they brought to the people of Israel a bad report of the land that they had spied out, saying, ‘The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.'” 

What we know of the Nephilim, based on the two passages we have about them, is that they are “mighty men of renown” (Gen. 6:4) and that they are “of great height” (Num. 13:33).

Rather than importing a bunch of external theology about Satan, fallen angels, and possession, the most biblical way to understand Genesis 6:1-4 is that there were men in the land who were so large and powerful that we don’t have human words to describe them. That the best way to communicate their strength and renown is to say the men who produced them must have been of God.

Sometimes we make things hard on ourselves. From adding unnecessary tasks to our lists, to cleaning up other people’s messes, to stretching ourselves too thin. We work hard every day, and often some of that work isn’t necessary.

What we see in the text today is one of those examples. People have put hours, days, and weeks postulating what Genesis 6:1-4 could mean. They’ve created flow charts and written books imposing wild theology onto this one passage. Yet all we needed to do was look up Numbers 13 to get a clear sense of who these people were and how the biblical writer wanted us to understand them.

Let’s look around for our “Easy” buttons today. We don’t need to create more work for ourselves, fighting to get answers from unfruitful sources. Let’s turn to the most fruitful source, the one that often offers us the most fulfilling “Easy” button, and find there the truth that we are searching for.