Making Sense of the Here and Now

This article is the sequel to Aliens and Strangers

As I sit down to write this second instalment of our reflections on the question of where we as human beings really belong, our family is waiting to take possession of our new home in Wales. Almost a year ago we watched the contents of our last home being loaded into a shipping container as we prepared to leave the United States to return to Britain. Since then we have lived in four different temporary homes and have experienced something of what it means to be ‘of no fixed abode’. And that’s very much what we want to consider as we trace the development of what it means to be resident aliens through the unfolding message of redemption in the Bible.

Having looked at what God intended for the human race in Eden and how Adam squandered God’s good gift through his rebellion, we saw last time that a major consequence of his sin was to make men and women ‘restless wanderers on the face of the earth” (Ge 4.12). If we follow that motif as the drama of redemption unfolds, we discover that it has some interesting facets.

Almost immediately we see that Cain – the one God had condemned to a life of restless wandering because of his sin against Abel – clearly found it a struggle to accept that judgement. Just a few verses later we are told that ‘Cain was building a city’ (Ge 4.17). Despite his sin and despite the fact he knew that God’s sentence upon it was just, he longed for permanence: a place where he and his family could belong.

That same thought sits quietly under the surface of the ensuing chapters, which cover the vast sweep of the early history of the human race, through the chaos that led up to the great flood in the time of Noah. Through that deluge God in effect washes his world clean to give Noah and his family a fresh start. It was not ‘redemption’ in the form that humanity ultimately needed it, because Noah, though rescued, still rebelled in a shameful and tragic fashion (Ge 9.21). But it showed the innate sinfulness that Adam had bequeathed to his wife and descendants was still present.

The following chapters chart the nations that descended from Noah and his sons and the next big event-horizon we encounter as those nations multiply is the building of the Tower of Babel (Ge 11.1-9). Man’s motive behind this vast enterprise in structural engineering was ‘that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth’ (Ge.11.4). God’s words condemning Cain to a restless existence are echoed in these words of his distant descendants. And just as Cain sought to counter them by building a city, so those who followed him sought to establish a spiritual citadel for themselves.

Their plans were crushed and God’s response to this act of mass mutiny was to do the very thing the race as it then was had sought to avoid: ‘the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth and they stopped building the city’ (Ge 11.8).

The Babel instinct in the human psyche has lingered on through the entire history of our race. From man’s attempts to literally ‘build a name for himself’ by constructing great works of architectural genius, to his efforts to establish kingdoms and empires, human beings have tried to secure themselves in this world through all manner of tangible means. It can be seen not just in the realm of power politics and the corporate world, but also right down to family life and even our own individual existence. We try to build our own little worlds-without-God through our careers, achievements and acquisitions in the hope that they will provide the security and sense of identity we crave. But, now as then, our efforts to establish our own security are just as futile.

The Babel story provides a major punctuation mark in the Genesis record. It encapsulates the extent to which Paradise was indeed lost through Adam’s fall on a scale that would literally have global, indeed cosmic proportions. But then we meet Abraham and through him are allowed to see the scope and scale of the salvation God had planned for the world (Ge 12.1-3). And very quickly, as we get into the account of God’s dealings with Abram, we discover that the question of finding a permanent home is still very much to the fore; but with some twists and turns that we perhaps do not expect. More of that in the posts that are still to come!

Mark Johnston

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