Jun 17, 2006

Tower of Babel

Our Sunday school children are learning about the Tower of Babel while the adult Bible classes have just completed study of the fall of ancient Israel. Luz Maria and I were talking about the recurring themes in these Biblical narratives and modern-day parallels.

According to Genesis 11, the Tower of Babel was built on a plain in the land of Shinar, which was in Mesopotamia, most likely in the southern part. Likewise, the Assyrian Empire, which destroyed the kingdom of the northern tribes of Israel, was based in northern Mesopotamia while the Babylonians, who destroyed Jerusalem and the southern kingdom of Judah around 586 B.C., came from southern Mesopotamia.

Mesopotamia, of course, nowadays is known as Iraq. The ancient empires of Mesopotamia eventually fell to the Persian Empire. What was ancient Persia now is called Iran, a nation with which Iraq fought a long and bitter war in the 1980s.

I mentioned to Luz Maria that Saddam Hussein had considered Nebuchadnezzar, greatest of the kings of Babylon, a hero and at the height of his own power claimed to be the “new Nebuchadnezzar.”

Luz Maria noted that the news photos of an unshaven, unwashed Saddam Hussein pulled from the hole where he had been hiding paralleled the account of Daniel, chapter 4, in which God drove Nebuchadnezzar mad and the king wandered the countryside like animal with long, unkempt hair and fingernails that had grown to be like claws.

But it seemed to Luz Maria an even more important point how the ancient Israelites were always mixing it up with the great empires of their day, not just those in Mesopotamia but also ancient Egypt.

Yes, I said, it was a rebuke to these conquerors that this group of quarrelling tribes claimed to be God's chosen people when the Egyptians, the Babylonians, Assyrians and others all believed that they were most favored of the gods. The evidence was easy for them to see: their wealth and military might. So the Israelite's assertion that their God was the true God of all nations and that from Israel would come one who would be king over all the earth just seemed insane.

But all these empires crumbled to dust while the promises of God to Israel endured and found their fulfillment in Jesus Christ.

I was also reminded of my own studies in the Gospel of Matthew, using lessons provided by the Juan de Frias Theological Institute. It is difficult but rewarding to study the Bible in Spanish, but is especially interesting to see what is emphasized in materials developed for Latin America.

In the first unit of the Matthew series, there was much discussion of the “cananistas” or zealots. This was the party of Jews which advocated violent revolution against the Romans and the restoration of Israel as an independent kingdom as it was in the days of David and Solomon. The zealots were contrasted with the publicans, or tax-collectors, who were regarded essentially as Jewish collaborators in the Roman occupation. It was noted that Jesus' circle of disciples included at least one former tax-collector (Matthew) and at least one former zealot (Simon). In God's kingdom, even people who seem to be on opposites sides of the political spectrum may become brothers.

Likewise, in my current study (which I have completed except for the final examination by my instructor, Luz Maria) there was a detailed discussion of Christ's temptation. Three temptations, actually: in the desert, on the pinnacle of the Temple and on the high mountain.

The temptation to turn stones to bread in the desert was characterized as the temptation to materialism: focusing on physical needs and ignoring the spiritual. The lesson said that in the realm of politics, materialism feeds hatred and conflict between social classes. But seeking “justice” strictly in terms of material well-being does not bring lasting happiness, does not move the heart toward doing good and does not save the soul.

The second temptation, for Jesus to put on a show of God's power from the pinnacle of the Temple, represents the temptation to vainglory, or pride in one's own power, property or appearance. This temptation, the lesson said, is a trap especially for the well-off and the gifted rather than the poor.

Finally, the third temptation, to bow down to Satan in return for the kingdoms of the world, was identified as the temptation to establish the kingdom of Heaven through violence. It was the temptation for Jesus to choose the way of the sword rather than the way of the cross.

These themes are important in Latin America where the distribution of material wealth is extremely lopsided. Closing the wide gap between the rich and the poor is perhaps the central issue of politics in Venezuela and other Latin American countries. There is a school of thought called “liberation theology” that still is influential here. It originated among Roman Catholic clergy in Latin America during the 1970s. Under Pope John Paul II, the Roman Catholic Church officially repudiated liberation theology in most of its aspects, but doing so cost the Church some of its respect and popularity and the ideas of the liberation theologians are reflected in current political rhetoric.

There are two basic concepts in liberation theology. One is that the Bible teaches us to be compassionate and seek to alleviate the sufferings of the poor. There is a certain amount of truth to this. The other concept is that establishing economic independence and more equitable distribution of wealth in Latin America today is so urgent that Christian charity demands the
support of drastic measures to achieve these goals, even if that means violent revolution.

The second concept fails the Biblical test on three counts:

1.It elevates material well-being over the salvation of souls.
2.It ignores the role of sinful lifestyles in keeping people mired in poverty.
3.It seeks to establish heaven on earth by way of the sword.

As Lutherans, we believe that duly constituted governments of the earth have been ordained by God and are permitted the use of the sword to protect their citizens from foreign aggressors and to maintain peace within their borders. However, we do not believe earthly regimes should be confused with God's kingdom of grace. Our task as missionaries is to proclaim the Gospel, even as
we do what we can to minister to material needs, so that the Holy Spirit may lead people into the kingdom of grace.

And we try not to let our own political opinion interfere with this task. God may use even the most tyrannical governments for His purposes, as He used the Assyrians and Babylonians to call the Israelites back from idolatry.

Of course we pray always for peaceful resolution of problems and an end to hostility between nations.

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