This 7-part series originally ran under the German title “Einige biblische Culturbilder” in Der Lutheraner from August 2 to October 25, 1904. The author is Georg Stoeckhardt, who served as a professor at Concordia Seminary – St. Louis for several decades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He is commonly regarded as the greatest exegete in the history of the Missouri Synod. I offer this translation in the hope it will be edifying and thought-provoking to the 21st century Lutheran reader also. – R.L.L.
Biblical Pictures of Culture, Part 3
The well-known story of the Tower of Babel is also a piece of old culture-history. The great structures, which are built by the hands of men, also belong to the subject matter which we are dealing with in this series. So also the Tower of Babel is a picture of man’s work in culture.
In the region of Mount Ararat, upon which Noah’s ark stranded, the family of Noah grew to be a great people. And the first noteworthy event in the history of these people is that which is recorded in Genesis 11:1-9. These people departed their homeland and moved to the southeast. They settled down in the fertile Plain of Shinar on the Euphrates River. When they had lived there for a time, they began to build a city and a great tower. They took fired bricks used pitch or bitumen as mortar. It would be a solid structure. Now, “to build a tower,” writes Luther, and “to build a city, is not a sin in itself.” Nor was it a sin to build a great, awesome tower. But four things about this undertaking of man made it into a sin. First we consider Luther’s judgment: “First, I hold that it was their greatest sin when they said, ‘Come, let us build a city and tower.’ For such words indicate proud hearts which rely on temporal fortune and power.” Secondly, it was a sinful goal which they pursued with this project. They said, “…in order that we do not become scattered over the entire earth.” The high tower was meant to serve as a magnet, a visible means of cohesion. It was meant to prevent the people from spreading out all over the earth. But we know that it was exactly God’s will that mankind spread out over the earth. It was God’s will for man even when he was created, that he be fruitful, multiply, and populate the entire earth. Paul bore witness to the Athenians, “God made it so, that from one blood all generations of men should live across the entire earth, and he determined this goal – how long and far they should live” (Acts 17:26). God has assigned to all generations of men their living places on earth. Men also defied this divine determination when they willed to remain together in one place, as if in a pile. This was a struggle for unity which pressed contrary to God’s decree. Thirdly, the builders of the tower manifested the opinion of their heart with the words “that we make a name for ourselves.” So the search for glory, ambition, pride – these were the forces which drove the great undertaking. They wanted their own name, not God’s name, to be praised on earth. Finally, the men testified with their venture their hostile disposition towards God. “If someone wanted to give this sin another name, one could call it downright blasphemy against God, an abuse of God’s name” (Luther). It was a blasphemous saying: “Let us build a tower, whose peak should reach to into heaven.” With the building of their tower, the men wanted storm heaven itself and topple God from his throne. They did not need God. They wanted no God above themselves, but they themselves wanted to rule the world and carry out their every intention. While their work was still in progress, before it had reached its end, God took counsel with himself in heaven and spoke: “Come, let us go down and confuse their language.” And God the Lord executed this counsel. He confused the language and spread the people into all lands. In so doing he compelled them to abandon their project.
Now, when the people had to abandon their tower-building project in Babel, they did not abandon building and creating altogether, but since then they built many other cities and towers. Every generation, every people has established monuments for itself. Many ruins and even great ruins and rubble bear witness today to sophisticated architecture, to the high culture of past centuries and millenia. Everywhere in the civilized world, especially in the great cities, we see impressive and proud structures rising. Still, men build not only with brick and mortar. The entire culture-work of our days, trade labor, machine work, industry, trade, also the intellectual work, art, and science – these are like a great, massive building. Everything must be huge, massive. This is not sin in itself. Man may probe what he is able to in earthly things, if only he remains within God’s determined boundaries. But he does not do that. The same marks and defects which were inherent in the Tower of Babel are visible in the material and intellectual tower-building of our days. The materialistic, earthly disposition of men reveals itself in the feverish hurry of work, in the mess of ever-new plans and ventures. The children of man speak: “Come, let us build a tower!” They say: “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit!” (James 4:13). And their entire thinking and striving is absorbed in these things. They build here so intently and are yet foreign guests. Where they should want to be forever, there they build very little. The frenzied, exorbitant forward-striving and upward-striving presses even farther against God’s order and determination. It pleases God to give every man his place, his home, and a peaceful existence on earth. The great and rich men of men of this world, on the other hand, the big industries, the big unions and corporations – these curtail the rights of individuals and press the smaller and weaker against the wall. Above all, the pride, arrogance, and lunacy of men repulses us, which is for the most part the end and outcome of their great undertakings. The proud heart of man wants to build ever higher and ever bigger. And when a new tower is erected, a new masterpiece has been created, when science has made a new discovery, so in word and print the success is trumpeted loudly into all the world. Such reports are full of vainglory and self-promotion. Yes, man makes an idol of himself. Self-idolization is an outrage against the living God and blasphemes him. While men seek to make a great name for themselves, they shame the name of God. They storm up with their great ideas and works against heaven and God in heaven. They despise God in the deepest part of their heart. The name of God is dead on their lips. The living God is locked out of his world, out of his own creation. Altogether a God in heaven does not exist for this worldly generation. They have established for themselves a kingdom of heaven on earth, and here themselves they are gods, lords, and rulers. When someone reminds them that they are not almighty, that God actually exists and that they must all give an account to him, then they begin to scoff and blaspheme. And God may indeed remain silent for a time. But in his time he speaks: Come, let us go down and wipe out the proud counsel of men. God the almighty has since the days of the Tower of Babel often taken grip with his judgments, with storm and weather, fire and water, war and uproar, and put to shame the pride of men. And one day, at the last judgment, when heaven and earth go down in fire, all proud works of the children of men will burn, just as Peter says. We ought never forget it, even when the glitz and shine of the world catches our eyes: the glory of the earth must become dust and ashes.
We think here of yet another story, which reminds us of the name of Babel and confirms what has been said above. Around two millenia after the Tower of Babel, the city of Babel was rebuilt as the residence of a great king, fortified with solid walls and high towers, even decorated with the most magnificent artwork. And once this king, Nebuchadnezzar by name, looked down from his royal hill upon his city. He lifted up and spoke: “This is the great Babylon, which I have built into a royal house through my great power, to the honor of my glory” (Daniel 4). But before the king had finished speaking his words, a voice fell from heaven: “To you King Nebuchadnezzar it is said: ‘Your kingdom will be taken from you, and you will be driven from the people and remain with the animals, which are on the field.’ And you shall be made to eat grass like an ox’” etc.” And from that hour on the word was fulfilled for Nebuchadnezzar, and he was driven from the people, and he ate grass as the oxen. His body lay under the dew of the sky and become moist, until his hair grew as big as eagle’s feathers, and his nails become like the claws of a bird. This is still the disposition and speech of the proud, God-forgetting world. With self-satisfaction it sees and points to the works of its hands, upon the products of its intellect. It thinks and speaks: “This is the great Babylon, which I have build through my great power, to the honor of my glory.” But the other side of the coin has its truth still today. The man who exalts himself, who makes himself like God, becomes an animal. He is sentenced to be a beast. Beastly crudeness, beastly nastiness, beastly conduct – these belong to the signature which is also indicative of the enlightened, highly cultivated generation of our days.
But we Christians ought to thank God, that we have escaped the muck of this world through his grace, that we belong to a godly generation in the fullest sense of the word, so far as men can be creatures who can participate in the divine nature. We ought to thank God, that we hope for a glory, against which all glory of the earth is pure rubbish. We ought to thank God, that we have a city which God has built, that we have an unmovable kingdom, which will remain when heaven and earth pass away.