Nimrod was the biggest, baddest hunter in town. This is a man whose power and strength was renowned throughout the land, founder of an empire of city-states; cities called Erech and Calneh and Akkad.
Immediately a red flag goes up – this is the man who founded two of Israel’s greatest enemies. Imagine being in exile in Babylon and hearing this passage; Nimrod would be a symbol of oppression and violence. No wonder he’s traditionally portrayed as an enemy of God.
Biblically speaking we don’t know much more about him; he’s another of the shadowy, primal figures that haunt the pages of Genesis. But we can perhaps link him to another story of rebellion against God; Genesis 11 tells us what happened when Babylon was settled, and if Nimrod was its founder, what happens next reflects his rule, or at least his legacy. Nimrod is a big dog, an alpha dog, and he’s dangerous enough to eventually turn around and bite.
Look upon the Tower of Babel and despair.
The proto-Babylonians settle on the Plain of Shinar in Mesopotamia and build a city. But stone is scarce in the region, apparently, and so they have to improvise and invent bricks. This means they can build bigger, more stable buildings, perhaps leading to what happens next.
Now they have the resources and know-how and power to ascend to Heaven without the help of God. They develop a unity of purpose, and that purpose is to climb a tower and shake a fist at God himself.
We sometimes read this as if the people of Babel are a genuine threat to God, but of course this is ridiculous. Genesis has already made this clear; unlike the creation myths of Israel’s neighbours, God doesn’t have to fight sea monsters or wrestle a primordial universe into submission, he just does it and declares it good. Heck, it isn’t even that long since the Flood; Nimrod and his followers are absolutely no threat to God. Genesis smirks at this when it reports that God “comes down” to see the Tower; in other words, it’s too far away and tiny to see otherwise.
So if Nimrod’s not threatening God, why’s he such a danger?
Well, who was building the Tower of Babel? Willing, skilled workers? Was Nimrod himself lugging bricks around?
Nimrod’s descendants were empire builders that would one day drag Israel off into exile. Imagine the damage they could cause with unlimited power; imagine how their neighbours were feeling. And so, maybe the Tower is a symptom, not a cause. God looks at the alpha dog about to bite and calmly and simply hits him on the snout. Never try to bite God.
That advice isn’t always heard.
It’s an ongoing temptation, to impose your will on the landscape. The latest episode of 99% Invisible tells of Chrysler’s determination that his tower should dominate the skyline of Manhattan; a few years later, the Empire State Building ruled, casting a long shadow over poverty-stricken Hoovervilles. Marvel at them, these great big Look-At-Mes. Marvel at them and remember that Chrysler did his best not to pay the architect who created this monument to his greatness. Get powerful, screw over the little people. That’s how it so often goes.
Just don’t expect God to bless your Babel.
It’s easy to say that, but then I look at the news and realise the controversy behind this post. The UN has condemned the Catholic Church’s cover-up of child abuse. The Church of England invests in a payday lender that charges 5853% APR. Mega-churches are plagued by accusations of spiritual abuse. Is it more fulfilling to be a crusader rather than a saint?
We pray for unity, pray so hard that we’d be one, but have church structures become our own Babels? Are we building worldly kingdoms rather than heavenly ones? The church did alright out of Constantine after all; how much of our power comes from Nimrod rather than God? Does God put brakes on the excesses of the church?
Our unity could change the world, for good or ill; maybe we should pray for forgiveness and restoration. Maybe we should pray that God would replace Babel in our heart before we pray for unity.