To Build Up and To Destroy: Day 12

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Most of the things I believe to be true about the spiritual life have parallels in natural life. For me, that makes nature scripture.

Taking just a brief detour from using the narratives of the canonical scripture to talk about some observations that I have had regarding a natural phenomenon.

That phenomenon is germs.

I feel like I have been sick most of month. Anyone who knows me well or has read my stuff for a long time knows that being sick is a huge emotional trigger for me. One of the darkest periods in my life happened in the midst of a long illness and sickness and depression tend to walk hand in hand for me.

It has gotten better, in recent years. One of the ways that it has gotten better has been to repeat a very simple, and somewhat simplistic mantra:

“This is my body doing what it is supposed to do”

I spent most of Friday and Saturday battling the highest fever I’ve had in awhile. In the midst of the achy-ness and chills, I tried to imagine my body as a battlefield. A fever is something of a “scorched earth” approach to warfare, burning everything in sight in hopes that you’ll happen to torch the invading infection at the same time.

The body does some unsavory things to fight infection. That’s why we so often err on the side of prevention. Still, our immune systems are miraculous. Coughing to loosen phlegm, trapping bacteria in snot and then sneezing to force it out, and of course  making itself inhospitable via fever. We would rather avoid these things because they feel unpleasant and generally trigger our disgust reflexes, but they are a part of the system. Maybe working with people who have immunodeficiencies has changed my perspective on things a bit, but I can be grateful during my illnesses now in a way I haven’t been able to in the past.

This is my body doing what it is supposed to do.

Emotions, I’m discovering, are like the immune system of the spirit. The experiencing of them often feels terrible, yet they are critical for our healing. Mourning is especially distasteful to us at times, and yet without it, grief grows unchecked. The scary thing about our emotional immune system is that it often allows things to lay dormant. Or perhaps a better way of putting it, we’re better at numbing the symptoms. Learning to pay as much attention to our emotional symptoms as clearly as well as we listen to our physical symptoms seems to be one of the great challenges of a lifetime.

It means risking some unpleasantness. It means dealing with our own grossness. A lot of what we dig up will disgust us. It may require professional intervention. And yet to truly be about the business of building up and destroying is to recognize that much of the work required is personal, private work on our own souls in order that we might be healthy enough to touch the world.

 

 

To Build Up and To Destroy: Day 11

Cyrus-the-Great

 

In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in order that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, the Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he sent a herald throughout all his kingdom, and also in a written edict declared:

 ‘Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of those among you who are of his people—may their God be with them!—are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem; and let all survivors, in whatever place they reside, be assisted by the people of their place with silver and gold, with goods and with animals, besides freewill-offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem.’

 The heads of the families of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and the Levites—everyone whose spirit God had stirred—got ready to go up and rebuild the house of the Lord in Jerusalem. All their neighbors aided them with silver vessels, with gold, with goods, with animals, and with valuable gifts, besides all that was freely offered. King Cyrus himself brought out the vessels of the house of the Lord that Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and placed in the house of his gods. King Cyrus of Persia had them released into the charge of Mithredath the treasurer, who counted them out to Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah. And this was the inventory: gold basins, thirty; silver basins, one thousand; knives, twenty-nine; gold bowls, thirty; other silver bowls, four hundred and ten; other vessels, one thousand; the total of the gold and silver vessels was five thousand four hundred. All these Sheshbazzar brought up, when the exiles were brought up from Babylonia to Jerusalem. – Ezra 1

King Cyrus is a hero.

At least, that’s how this story wants him to be presented and likely how many both in the post-exilic time and after saw him among the Jewish people. In fact there is strong reason to believe that many of the messianic texts that we now ascribe to Jesus around Christmas time were actually written about Cyrus.

Of course he’s a hero. He frees the people of Israel after their long captivity in Babylon. He sends them home with people and animals and valuables. He wants them to rebuild the temple. He’s honoring their God, for crying out loud.

Cyrus is a hero. And that’s exactly what he wanted people to think of him.

Cyrus figured out something that the Romans would also later adopt as their empire spread; it’s so much easier to rule people if you let them keep their own God. It’s the illusion of autonomy. It’s so hard to make a group you’ve conquered convert to your religion. It’s so much easier if you take them over but then benevolently allow them to worship as they please.

Empire 101.

Cyrus isn’t giving the people of Israel their freedom. He’s extending his empire and essentially using the occupied people as the military extension of his own power. It’s quite brilliant. throughout history, Cyrus becomes known as a statesman, a hero of religious tolerance, and a peacemaker.

Don’t get me wrong, by all accounts, Cyrus was a good ruler. I’m sure some of his actions were the result of some nobility in his character.

And yet, empire is empire. A benevolent dictator is still a dictator. I wonder what would have happened if the Jewish people had decided to declare their independence from Persia. Actually, I can easily imagine what would have happened.

How do we make sure that we’re not just making “nice” versions of oppressive systems? How do we ensure that people have real freedom and not simply the illusion of it? How do we keep from creating systems where the oppressed are force to praise their oppressors because they’ve lived through worse? I think these questions are the task of a truly liberative theology and therefore are a task that we should undertake.

 

 

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To Build Up and to Destroy: Day 10

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This is the account of the forced labor that King Solomon conscripted to build the house of the Lord and his own house, the Millo and the wall of Jerusalem, Hazor, Megiddo, Gezer (Pharaoh king of Egypt had gone up and captured Gezer and burned it down, had killed the Canaanites who lived in the city, and had given it as dowry to his daughter, Solomon’s wife; so Solomon rebuilt Gezer), Lower Beth-horon, Baalath, Tamar in the wilderness, within the land, as well as all of Solomon’s storage cities, the cities for his chariots, the cities for his cavalry, and whatever Solomon desired to build, in Jerusalem, in Lebanon, and in all the land of his dominion. All the people who were left of the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, who were not of the people of Israel— their descendants who were still left in the land, whom the Israelites were unable to destroy completely—these Solomon conscripted for slave labor, and so they are to this day. But of the Israelites Solomon made no slaves; they were the soldiers, they were his officials, his commanders, his captains, and the commanders of his chariotry and cavalry.

 These were the chief officers who were over Solomon’s work: five hundred and fifty, who had charge of the people who carried on the work.

 But Pharaoh’s daughter went up from the city of David to her own house that Solomon had built for her; then he built the Millo.

 Three times a year Solomon used to offer up burnt-offerings and sacrifices of well-being on the altar that he built for the Lord, offering incense before the Lord. So he completed the house. – I Kings 9:15-25

All of I Kings chapter 6 is about Solomon building a temple for God.

You know, the one that David wasn’t allowed to build. Solomon gets to build it because he was not, like his father, a man of war. So, David gets punished for fighting the battles that God told him to fight.

Cool.

Chapter 7 is all about Solomon building his own palace. His place took nearly twice as long to build as God’s place.

Cool.

Chapter 8 is about the rituals and blessings used to commemorate the building of the temple including Solomon’s invocation over the assembled people.

Great so far.

Throughout these chapters, a two word phrase is repeated often. “Solomon built”. Now, we’re not so naive as to think that Solomon actually got his own hands dirty, right? We assume that he had his people do this work for which he got credit. That’s just how corporate structure works.

Ah, but then we get to chapter nine, a subheading innocently titled “Solomon’s other deeds”.

And by “other deeds” we mean “slavery”.

Solomon took it upon himself to force anyone who was leftover from the all of the wars that his father fought into labor camps. Based solely on their ancestry, they were conscripted into service, building the temple as well as Solomon’s palace.

Imagine being forced to build a temple for a God that is not your own. Imagine being forced into building a temple for the son of the man who annihilated your people.

The Deuteronomist clearly thought that including the enslaved peoples who worked on the temple was important. The odds are, however, he believed that because he felt that showing how Solomon used those he had enslaved was a demonstration of power though maybe he too was disturbed by his people’s history of slavery.

How great an empire must be if the citizens of the empire don’t actually have to work to build the empire!

This is always the thinking of empire. Defeat a people, capture them, and as ultimate sign of their humiliation and your dominance, force them to add to your strength and wealth.

It happened in Israel.

It happened in Rome.

It happened in the United States.

We must recognize the people who have done the actual building, not just those who get the credit. Furthermore, we have to look at how things were built, who was exploited, and who stood to gain. Finally, if we’re willing to legitimize slavery here, while I hate this phrase, it is a slippery slope toward legitimizing all forms of slavery. The world we are building can never again allow for such humiliation of humans to exist.

 

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To Build Up and To Destroy: Day 9

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So Ahab sent to all the Israelites, and assembled the prophets at Mount Carmel. Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, ‘How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.’ The people did not answer him a word.Then Elijah said to the people, ‘I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord; but Baal’s prophets number four hundred and fifty. Let two bulls be given to us; let them choose one bull for themselves, cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it; I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the Lord; the god who answers by fire is indeed God.’ All the people answered, ‘Well spoken!’ Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, ‘Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many; then call on the name of your god, but put no fire to it.’So they took the bull that was given them, prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, crying, ‘O Baal, answer us!’ But there was no voice, and no answer. They limped about the altar that they had made. At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, ‘Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.’ Then they cried aloud and, as was their custom, they cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them. As midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice, no answer, and no response.

 Then Elijah said to all the people, ‘Come closer to me’; and all the people came closer to him. First he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down; Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, ‘Israel shall be your name’; with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord. Then he made a trench around the altar, large enough to contain two measures of seed. Next he put the wood in order, cut the bull in pieces, and laid it on the wood. He said, ‘Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt-offering and on the wood.’ Then he said, ‘Do it a second time’; and they did it a second time. Again he said, ‘Do it a third time’; and they did it a third time, so that the water ran all round the altar, and filled the trench also with water.

 At the time of the offering of the oblation, the prophet Elijah came near and said, ‘O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.’ Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt-offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench. When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, ‘The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.’Elijah said to them, ‘Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape.’ Then they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the Wadi Kishon, and killed them there. – I Kings 18:20-40

 

It’s really hard to read this story today. Yesterday, a man went into a Mosque in New Zealand and opened fire on the people there. He then did the same at another nearby Mosque. He did it in the name of white supremacy. He was opposed to foreigners and refugees.

I won’t be surprised if he invokes Christianity at some point.

At least 49 people are dead. 49! I can’t wrap my head around it.

We have to own how texts like these support the ideologies of those with extremists views. When I was taught this story as a child, Elijah was seen as the hero, the deaths of the prophets of Baal completely justified because they worshiped the wrong god.

We’ve used the “wrong god” argument to justify colonization and slavery. We’ve used it to justify genocide. We’ve used it to justify every manifestation of white supremacy and Islamophobia.

The “wrong god” argument must be rejected. The “wrong god” argument is evil.

I have a handful of Muslim friends, not as many as I would like, but I want them to know that I won’t support a faith that invalidates theirs. I won’t be part of a community that undermines their experience of the Divine. I won’t be silent when I see people make broad generalizations about their faith, just as I don’t want to be associated with the worst elements of mine.

This story about Elijah reminds me of those who are committed to the idea of Christian apologetics. It’s all about proving that our god is “right” and other faiths are “wrong”. I used to be one of those people and I repent of that. God, forgive me!

No one has the market cornered on understanding the Divine mystery. Certainty is the true enemy of faith.

I’m angry, sad, but not shocked. These things don’t shock me anymore and that in and of itself may be the saddest part of all of this.

Maybe it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: white supremacy is one of the things that must be destroyed if we are moving into a new world. We have to dismantle it in its most violent forms as well as its more subtle, insidious forms.

The world that we are building needs to have space for all faith expressions. No one owns the Divine.

 

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To Build Up and To Destroy: Day 8

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Photo by Lex Photography on Pexels.com

 

Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, ‘See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.’ Nathan said to the king, ‘Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.’

 But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’ Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever. In accordance with all these words and with all this vision, Nathan spoke to David. – II Samuel 7:1-17

 

Hats off to Yahweh with the excellent play on words!

David: I need to make God a house

God: I’m going to make you into a house… see what I did there?

David’s heart is in the right place. He’s gone from lowly shepherd to king of Israel and he credits God for getting him to where he is. He wants to show God some love.

And it’s not an unreasonable idea. I have a house. God should have a house. It kinda makes sense.

David made two mistakes, as I see it.

First, he assumes that God needs something from him. I’ve been there. The arrogance to think that if I don’t do something, it won’t get done and God’s purposes won’t be met. I’ve been that guy.

God doesn’t need anything from us. God’s not dependent on us or beholden to us. God moves in total freedom, independent on the whims of humanity.

Now, God does, I believe, want things from us. And those things that God wants are rarely things. God wants us to act in love and to pursue justice. God woos us and persuades us towards those ends. But God does not need us.

David’s second mistake was believing that God could be contained. Again, God moves in freedom. God does not need a box.

I’m reminded of the lyrics of one of my favorite Gungor songs:

“Cannot Keep You” by Michael Gungor
They tried to keep you in a tent
They could not keep you in a temple
Or any of their idols
To see and understand
We cannot keep you in a church
We cannot keep you in a Bible
It’s just another idol
To box you in
They could not keep you in their walls
We cannot keep you in ours either
For You are so much greater
Who is like the Lord?
The maker of the heavens
Who dwells with the poor
He lifts them from the ashes
And seats them among princes
Who is like the Lord?
We’ve tried to keep you in a tent
We’ve tried to keep you in a temples
We’ve worshiped all their idols
We want all that to end
So we will find you in the streets
And we will find you in the prisons
And even in our Bibles, and churches
Who is like the Lord?
The maker of the heavens
Who dwells with the poor
He lifts them from the ashes
And seats them among princes
Who is like the Lord?
We cannot contain
Cannot contain the glory of Your name
Who is like the Lord?
You took me from the ashes
And healed me of my blindness
Who is like the Lord?
Our intentions are often so good. Yet in our misguided desire to be needed by God, we make God so much less than what She is.
God doesn’t need us to build the new thing. God invites us to be a part of Her building, a building of which we get to be a part.
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To Build Up and To Destroy: Day 7

 

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Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Pexels.com

Now Jericho was shut up inside and out because of the Israelites; no one came out and no one went in. The Lord said to Joshua, ‘See, I have handed Jericho over to you, along with its king and soldiers. You shall march around the city, all the warriors circling the city once. Thus you shall do for six days, with seven priests bearing seven trumpets of rams’ horns before the ark. On the seventh day you shall march around the city seven times, the priests blowing the trumpets. When they make a long blast with the ram’s horn, as soon as you hear the sound of the trumpet, then all the people shall shout with a great shout; and the wall of the city will fall down flat, and all the people shall charge straight ahead.’ So Joshua son of Nun summoned the priests and said to them, ‘Take up the ark of the covenant, and have seven priests carry seven trumpets of rams’ horns in front of the ark of the Lord.’ To the people he said, ‘Go forward and march around the city; have the armed men pass on before the ark of the Lord.’

 As Joshua had commanded the people, the seven priests carrying the seven trumpets of rams’ horns before the Lord went forward, blowing the trumpets, with the ark of the covenant of the Lord following them. And the armed men went before the priests who blew the trumpets; the rearguard came after the ark, while the trumpets blew continually. To the people Joshua gave this command: ‘You shall not shout or let your voice be heard, nor shall you utter a word, until the day I tell you to shout. Then you shall shout.’ So the ark of the Lord went around the city, circling it once; and they came into the camp, and spent the night in the camp.

 Then Joshua rose early in the morning, and the priests took up the ark of the Lord. The seven priests carrying the seven trumpets of rams’ horns before the ark of the Lord passed on, blowing the trumpets continually. The armed men went before them, and the rearguard came after the ark of the Lord, while the trumpets blew continually. On the second day they marched around the city once and then returned to the camp. They did this for six days.

 On the seventh day they rose early, at dawn, and marched around the city in the same manner seven times. It was only on that day that they marched around the city seven times. And at the seventh time, when the priests had blown the trumpets, Joshua said to the people, ‘Shout! For the Lord has given you the city. The city and all that is in it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction. Only Rahab the prostitute and all who are with her in her house shall live, because she hid the messengers we sent. As for you, keep away from the things devoted to destruction, so as not to covet and take any of the devoted things and make the camp of Israel an object for destruction, bringing trouble upon it. But all silver and gold, and vessels of bronze and iron, are sacred to the Lord; they shall go into the treasury of the Lord.’ So the people shouted, and the trumpets were blown. As soon as the people heard the sound of the trumpets, they raised a great shout, and the wall fell down flat; so the people charged straight ahead into the city and captured it. Then they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys.

Joshua then pronounced this oath, saying,
‘Cursed before the Lord be anyone who tries
   to build this city—this Jericho!
At the cost of his firstborn he shall lay its foundation,
   and at the cost of his youngest he shall set up its gates!’

 So the Lord was with Joshua; and his fame was in all the land. – Joshua 6:1-22, 26-27

“Joshua fit the battle of Jericho! Jericho! Jericho! Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, and the walls came a tumblin’ down”

Hands down, that is my favorite song about genocide!

I think what irks me most about this story is God’s insistence on total destruction. It’s not enough that they kill all of the fighting men who might come against them, but they are commanded to kill women, children, and all the livestock. Rahab gets a pass because she helped out the Israelite spies.

That’s nice.

I’ll be honest, I don’t find this story redemptive at all. We’re supposed to admire Joshua and his army for their absolute dedication to God’s command. We’re supposed to see their faith in God to deliver the city to them as a virtue. We’re supposed to think the good guys won.

The good guys who spent a week psychologically torturing their opponents before slaughtering them. Yay.

As we build a faith that makes sense for our day and time, we have to recognize that some things just don’t age well. This story seems to not only justify war but a scorched earth philosophy to war. I think that’s heinous and it’s hard for me to get behind this as God’s will.

No wonder the disciples were confused that Jesus wasn’t sending them out to call down fire on the heads of the Samaritans. This was part of their history of what a Savior was supposed to look like.

It’s part of ours too.

This text can’t live beside “blessed are the peacemakers” in my heart. I don’t know that they can live side by side in any heart, unless you have a distorted view of what “peacemaking” looks like.

So, as I build a faith that informs the world I want to see, I leave this story to the wayside, knowing that at one time it served as tale extolling God’s faithfulness.  Some will accuse me of picking and choosing when it comes to scripture. They are absolutely right. We all do it. This story does not fit my image of who God is and I worry about a faith that accepts this as part what God would want.

Sorry, Joshua.

To Build Up and To Destroy: Day 6

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Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth. – Gen. 11: 1-9

Oh, insecure, OT God! You and all of your shenanigans!

In this story, Yahweh is suddenly feeling legitimately threatened by humanity. Maybe it’s because total annihilation is now off the table as a tool?

God seems worried that a humanity that all speaks the same language will suddenly rise up and… do what exactly?

This is weird, fear-based logic here. It’s not like a united collective of people would enslave those different to them, degrade their environment, and move toward the large-scale commodification of the natural world.

Oh wait…

What God seems to be afraid of here is what we call civilization. Humans united in such a way that they will see themselves as without boundaries. Humanity that will trample others, turn land into a product to be parceled out, and misuse the gifts they have been given.

“let us make a name for ourselves!”

If people gathered for community, for fellowship, for the joy of sharing life with one another, then that would be one thing. That’s what we are made for. But people gathered together for fame, wealth, and power? Well… that just seems what we always gravitate towards.

Genesis is the collection of myths about human beginnings. And in this part of the story, God is opposed to the idea of a community built around human fears and the need to set ourselves above others. It’s no surprise then that when God does finally come around to the idea of civilization, the rules around how to organize such a thing are many and detailed (see second half of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy).

The Babel story is a cautionary tale about building for pride, ego, and greed. We can build in ways that honor the land. We can build in ways that honor the people who have come before us or the people who will come after us. We can build to honor God. The history of civilization has been building for the sake of making a name for a nation, a ruler, or more recently, a corporation. We build for profit and control. We build to be seen.

What would it look like to build for something more?

 

 

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