As People Moved Eastward
Genesis 11, Luke 10
The first time we read of man moving ‘eastward’ it was in Genesis 3 and in direct relation to the curse which was a direct result of the sin. The eastward march continued with Cain who ‘went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden’ (4:16). Here, a few chapters later, and a significant narrative distance removed from the flood, man’s march continued, ‘As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.’
God drove Adam and Eve east, and seems to have done so with Cain. Here in chapter 11 it appears that man’s eastward march seems to be under his own power. And not only is man ‘moving’ eastward, but now he is ‘settling’ in the east; a place geographically ‘out of the Lord’s presence.’ I don’t see anything here that suggests God is behind man’s eastward pilgrimage. I guess it is fair and safe to conclude that perhaps man is simply starting to feel far more comfortable in the east, away from God’s presence, away from Eden.
I’ve often wondered if Adam ever sat outside the Garden of Eden staring at the flashing sword as it flashed back and forth and sighed with regret. I wonder if he ever tried an end-around or tried to out-flank the flashing sword and sneak back inside the Garden.
It’s that word ‘settled’ that has me rather unsettled. I think that is the author’s way of saying that the people made a permanent residence away from God. Thus, they start building a tower. I have had this Sunday school image in my head forever that they were trying to build a sort of stairway to heaven or maybe a stairway from heaven. Maybe they wanted to climb up or maybe they wanted God climb down. Then I got to thinking, dangerous I know, what if that tower were more like a watchtower built to keep watch and make sure God wasn’t coming? What if the tower wasn’t so much an attempt at salvation as it was an attempt to keep guard against God moving in or against God destroying them with another flood?
I know they wanted to make a name for themselves and not be scattered over the whole earth, but what does that mean to us? Maybe they were simply marshaling their forces and efforts and power against the prospect of God moving in and outflanking them?
Frankly that seems to make a lot better sense to me. They were moving east, settling east, building a watchtower, trying to make a name for themselves, and prevent scattering—these aren’t people who were building a tower to climb to heaven or bring God down, these are people doing everything they can do to war against God. Bricks and mortar suggest permanence and defense. They were building defenses. Against whom? I suggest at this point their enemy had become God. They were no longer running: they were fighting. They were fortifying, building defenses.
These are a people who had come to see God as the enemy. That is a long way from Eden.
But what is perhaps the worst part of this, at least as far as the English translations are concerned, is this: ‘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.’ Do I hear God saying that he, at least in a sense, feared what man could do when united together in such an effort? Well, of course a God who has the power to confuse language and accomplish the very thing man feared (‘scattering’, see vs 4 & 8 ) is not a God who fears man. Rather, it seems to me that what God is doing here is preventing this united, unified effort against himself. I suspect that this is actually a picture of grace at some level.
And no matter how far east they moved, no matter how impressive their fortifications against him, no matter how unified their efforts they cannot thwart God or hide from him. They cannot, as it were, win. Or, maybe we look at it this way: No matter how much they waged war against him, no matter how much they tried to defend themselves against him, he was still gracious enough to come down among them. He still cared about them. He still heard them. He still saw them. Instead of waging war against them, he demonstrated grace. He came down among them
Isn’t that like God?
It’s the same sort of picture we see of God in Luke 10 if we imagine ourselves to be the man in the ditch (as suggested by William Willimon). God climbs into the ditch and rescues us: “The one who had mercy on him” (Luke 10:37).
Or, Jesus in Luke 10 does this: He sends out seventy-two others to go out ahead of him and gather those who had been scattered. Tell them, he said, “The kingdom of God has come near you” (Luke 10:9). In Genesis 11, God came down. In Luke 10, the Kingdom was near. Isn’t it like God: The further we move away, the more he chases after us?
The further eastward we wander, the more defenses we build up against him, the more he chases after us. He pursues us. He comes down, destroys all that we build against him. He comes down, and breaks all united fronts. We can stand against him. Our best efforts against him are nothing. He laughs at our efforts against him because he is not the one sending us east any longer. Now he is gathering to himself. Now his kingdom has come near.
As people moved eastward, God went with them. They tried to run away, he was already there. That’s grace.