The Word in the Wings
From the study: creative worship for the living God
By: KAYA WEAVER
We’ve been discussing the “tower of Babel” on The Word in the Wings for several weeks, but Genesis 11 isn’t the only place in the Bible where language, diversity, creativity, and right ways of worship show up as coinciding themes. What does this thematic thread tell us about the character of God and how humanity is meant to respond?
In Genesis 11, humanity wants to deliver themselves from being scattered, and perhaps from their fears associated with spreading out and becoming divided. But God intervenes in their effort to unite by means of their own handiwork, and at the end of the narrative, the place is called “Babel,” because God “baffled” their language there (Genesis 11:9). It is God’s deeds, not humanity’s, that are proclaimed in the name of that place.
In Daniel 3, King Nebuchadnezzar replays humanity’s effort to bring together all peoples under his own handiwork.
Daniel 3:1 King Nebuchadnezzar made a golden statue whose height was sixty cubits and whose width was six cubits; he set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babel…
The location of Nebuchadnezzar’s statue, on a plain in Babel, is connected to the setting of the tower that humanity built on a plain in Shinar (Genesis 11:2), later called Babel (Genesis 11:9). The grandiose height of the statue even evokes the image of a tower reaching the heavens (see Genesis 11:4).
Daniel 3:3 So the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces assembled for the dedication of the statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up. When they were standing before the statue that Nebuchadnezzar had set up,
4 the herald proclaimed aloud, “You are commanded, O peoples, nations, and languages,
5 that when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, you are to fall down and worship the golden statue that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up.
6 Whoever does not fall down and worship shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire…”
This time, Nebuchadnezzar generates the fear that brings people together by means of a violent threat. Much as humanity in Genesis 11 unites to avoid the undesirable alternative of being scattered, all the people groups of Nebuchadnezzar’s empire unite under his command to avoid the undesirable alternative of losing their lives to his whim. King Nebuchadnezzar’s reprise of Genesis 11 intensifies the sense that humanity’s inclination to unify by means of our own creation leads to death, not to the life God desires for all creation.
Daniel 3:8 Accordingly, at this time certain Chaldeans came forward and denounced the Jews.
9 They said to King Nebuchadnezzar…
12 “There are certain Jews whom you have appointed over the affairs of the province of Babylon: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. These men pay no heed to you, O king. They do not serve your gods, and they do not worship the golden statue that you have set up.”
Despite the king’s threat, a few people who are faithful to God stand apart from the rest of Nebuchadnezzar’s empire, refusing to “fall down and worship” the work of Nebuchadnezzar’s hands. God’s people stand against the idolatrous worship of a human creation and against giving in to human violence. These Jews’ dissent brings out a conflict between members of two people groups, identified as “certain Chaldeans” and “certain Jews,” and it undermines Nebuchadnezzar’s vision of a unified humanity bowing before his handiwork and recognizing his power. The same God who has power to intervene in Genesis 11 and prevent humanity’s unified effort at self-preservation also has power to prevent Nebuchadnezzar’s coercive scheme.
In a development from Genesis 11, not all of humanity is caught up in the effort to ward off their collective fears by their own effort; there are a few who know and act out of faithfulness to God. As these people of God stand against Nebuchadnezzar’s violence and idol worship, what do they stand for?
Acts 2, like Daniel 3, shows events that seem to reprise elements of the “tower of Babel” narrative from Genesis 11.
Acts 2:1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.
2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.
3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.
4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Acts 2 begins with a gathering of humans in one place, much as Genesis 11:1-2 describes a unified group of people who all settle in one place. In Genesis 11, this unified group is motivated to work together by their aversion to being scattered (see Genesis 11:4). In Acts 2:1, however, this group of apostles was likely gathered for some reason connected with their faithfulness to Jesus. In the preceding chapter, they are working together to prayerfully appoint a twelfth apostle (Acts 1:15-26). Here, Luke describes the timing of their gathering with reference to Pentecost, or the Feast of Weeks, which God’s people are instructed to observe in Leviticus 23:15-22. The faithful, obedient-to-God character of this gathering stands in contrast with the self-interested character of the group in Shinar.
As in Genesis 11:5, God comes down among the gathered people and transforms human language.
Acts 2:5 Now there were devout Jews from every people under heaven living in Jerusalem.
6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.
7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?
8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?
In Genesis 11:7, God confuses the people’s language so they cannot understand each other. But here in Acts 2, God’s linguistic intervention facilitates rather than hinders communication. Rather than scattering from their broken linguistic unity, the people stand amazed that they can understand the apostles despite speaking different native languages.
Acts 2:9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,
10 Phyrgia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,
11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”
God intervenes again, and again “God’s deeds of power” are proclaimed. This time, however, instead of a place-name passively memorializing God’s activity, God’s faithful people actively proclaim what God has done because they’ve been empowered by God’s Spirit to communicate a common message through differences.
Finally, Revelation 7 uses language linked to these other narratives to show clearly the perfect alternative to bowing to the work of human hands.
Revelation 7:9 After this I [John] looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.
10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne and to the Lamb!”
11 And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God…
14b “…These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
15 For this reason they are before the throne of God and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
16 They will hunger no more and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat,
17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Instead of striving to deliver themselves or falling before the inert image of a violent king, “a great multitude…from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages,” stands before the throne and the Lamb to worship the living, active God. God’s activity among humans is characterized by the tender care of a shepherd who provides for the flock in their need and vulnerability. Unlike a threat, natural or contrived, that motivates worship out of fear, God’s ongoing work of rescuing love generates a genuine response of worship among all peoples. Nebuchadnezzar threatens and destroys, but God and the Lamb shelter, feed, guide, and comfort. God’s people stand for their shepherd-king, who is not self-aggrandizing but self-giving.
This scene from Revelation 7 depicts human worship as a response to salvation through the Lamb, who is Jesus. Looking back at Genesis 11 through this lens clarifies God’s intervention, confusing humanity’s language and stopping their construction of the city and tower, as a sheltering act, preventing humanity’s unwise intentions from taking shape and guiding humanity along a path that leads to more abundant life.
The movement through these four narratives about language, creativity, and worship suggests a few questions that could guide how people work together today. If God’s intention for human life is abundance, do our efforts honor the abundance and diversity God has already created? Are we motivated to create as a means of delivering ourselves from what we fear? Or do we create because God has already delivered us, making us free and empowering us to respond through unique gifts, with creativity and beauty?
You’re invited to celebrate GPA’s 5th birthday on May 20, 2023! RSVP here to see our new ballet Babel and join the conversation about how the art of dance can glorify God and form Christians in Christ-likeness.
Scripture quotations in this post are from the New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition.
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