A Tale of Two Cities
Government saturates every corner of our lives. It taxes every dollar we earn and every dollar we spend. Politicians control what goes into our children’s textbooks at school, what kind of language people can use on television, when you’re allowed to get married, how much of your money will go to fund public art, how much you’ll have to pay a doctor if you get sick, etc. We even pay government officials to regulate pollution and argue about climate change, for politics is in the very air that we breathe. It is just as non-negotiable an aspect of living as is food, clothing, or shelter. From tribes to constitutional democracies, government has always been part and parcel of our nature.
So perhaps it should come as no surprise that God reveals himself to us not just rationally, morally, and emotionally, but also politically. According to the Bible, if we know God as Creator, Savior, and Friend, then we must also know him as King—as the King of Kings. This theme is just as prevalent and weighty in the theocracy of the Old Testament—the history of the nation of Israel—as it is in the church of the New Testament. As Jesus’ lead disciple, Peter, put it in a letter to the churches, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession.” (1 Peter 2:9) In fact, the reason a king tried to kill Jesus when he was a child was the same reason given by those who later had him crucified: he claimed to be a king. (Matthew 2:1-18; 27:37).
So if we are to understand the Bible, then we must understand not just as a tale of creation but also as a story about nations and about God’s kingship. The grand narrative unfolds as a battle between two political entities—the city of peace, built by God, and the city of babble, built by man.
The Beginning of the Story: The City of Babble and the City of Peace
When Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden, at some point they had a discussion with the devil about whether they could be equal with their Creator. God had commanded them not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, or they would die. “But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’” (Genesis 3:4-5)
They decided to believe him.
So when they disobeyed God’s commandment and ate of the fruit, he sent them out of the Garden of Eden, away from access to the Tree of Life, and told them that they would die. Now God had put them in charge of all the animals, telling them “to fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). He had even had Adam name all the animals. So when he punished them for their disobedience he also cursed the ground and made the earth more difficult to subdue.
Cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return. (Genesis 3:17-19)
Now for several generations people’s individual lifespans reached to 900 years and more. But God gradually reduced that and finally set a limit at 120 years. (Again, this is entirely plausible scientifically and the process of aging still reveals many mysteries.) Nevertheless people’s rebellion against God only increased. They wanted to be the judges of good and evil and to take life into their own hands. It finally got so bad that God decided to wipe them out and start over with one family again:
The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord. (Genesis 6:5-8)
God told Noah that he was going to bring a massive flood on the land and that wanted him to build an ark to protect his family as well as representatives of every animal. So Noah spent about 100 years building the boat and then God brought the animals to him. When the floods came they all spent over a year on the ark and then, when it was all over, went out and began again to be fruitful and multiply. Noah died when he was 950 years old.
Now many will insist that this story cannot be taken literally because geologists have not found any evidence of a global flood. Furthermore, no matter how many animals were on the ark (Did that include dinosaurs?), evolutionary biologists say that it would have taken at least a million years for them to multiply and diversify enough to fill the earth as we know it.
So does it take blind faith to believe this passage in Genesis? No, it does not. Let me give you two reasons which weave together. First, we must remember just how much we do not know and just how little we understand. Did God trick people by letting them believe that the sun revolved around the earth or in letting them believe that the earth was flat? Both of those seemed abundantly obvious for thousands of years, especially if you didn’t live near an ocean. Well, in similar fashion, natural history may not necessarily be what it appears—but not because God is tricking us. Granted, we can still conclude that the flood was a supernatural event—as supernatural as Jesus rising from the grave—but it is not one that is difficult to believe. For as we saw in the section titled “The Book of Nature”, God has already made it abundantly clear that he is the author of all life and of all of natural history—including some two trillion galaxies at last count. So if he wants to flood the entire planet and start over again with an ark full of animals and people, that is certainly his prerogative. There is truly zero reason for him to give us a detailed explanation.
By contrast, what does require blind faith is the claim many biologists make in saying that randomness and chance are the creative forces of nature. Geophysicist Stephen C. Meyer, director of the Center for Science and Culture at The Discovery Institute, says that although evolutionary theory can explain the survival of the fittest it cannot even begin to come anywhere close to explaining the arrival of the fittest because it cannot account for the information needed to create even a single protein.
With odds standing at 1 chance in 10164 of finding a functional protein among the possible 150-amino-acid compounds, the probability is 84 orders of magnitude (or powers of ten) smaller than the probability of finding [a particular] marked particle in the whole universe. Another way to say that is the probability of finding a functional protein by chance alone is a trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion times smaller than the odds of finding a single specified particle among all the particles in the universe.[i]
The point is that if we know God authored all of life, the speed at which he destroyed it and started over is irrelevant. For that matter, the speed at which he created it the first time is irrelevant. (The Bible says in 2 Peter 3:8 that “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.”) Now the fossil record does suggest that there were many bursts of creativity, such as the Cambrian Explosion. If, for humans, once an inventor creates something he can create much faster the second time, does that reflect God’s nature? It actually doesn’t make any difference.
And that brings us to the second reason that you don’t need blind faith to believe this account of Noah and the flood: you cannot really have faith in something unless you act on it. For example, you cannot have faith that money has value until you actually accept it as payment for something. You cannot have faith that a parachute will open until you actually jump out of the airplane. Well God is not asking us to do anything in response to this particular account of Noah and the flood. He’s not asking us to build an ark or to jump out of a plane. He’s not asking us for anything. Instead, he is telling us something. (When the time comes that he does ask us to act in faith on something, he promises to give us more than enough reason to trust him.) And if we don’t listen then we might find ourselves perilously close to making endless demands. For example, no matter how many spectacular miracles Jesus did, the religious leaders kept asking him to perform. And no matter how clearly spoke they still asked him to repeat himself. As his disciple John told it:
So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep.” (John 10:24-26)
No matter what he said or did, they were not going to believe him. They simply refused to listen.
So if we listen to this account of Noah and the flood, what is God? What is he telling us? He is telling us that even after Adam and Eve sinned, even after mankind proved himself capable of great corruption, we are still entrusted with dominion over the earth. God cursed the ground and limited our lifespans to 120 years, but he will still hold us accountable to those years and to everything he has given us. He has made reconciliation possible, so he still expects us to be good stewards.
And that naturally brings us to government. One way or the other, the very presence of government forces people to wrestle with notions of absolute right and wrong, and who the author(s) of those absolutes might be.
THE CITY OF BABEL
After Noah died, the next thing we get in the Bible is an account of the nations—70 nations in all—that took form on the earth. And as people began to multiply, they kept struggling with the same lie that the devil had tempted Adam & Eve with—the lie that they could be like God, that they could somehow work their way up to his level. In fact, the scattering of people into 70 nations followed a blatant by people to build a city that reached up to heaven.
“Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:4) According to the Bible, such self-righteous ambition is not just rebellious, it is also nonsensical. For it implies not just that we can measure ourselves against God’s standards, but also that we can measure God against ours. God’s response to this incoherent babble was to strike the people with confusion and scatter them with many languages.
And the Lord said, ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ (Genesis 11:6-7)
Thus the people’s plan was thwarted, but that was only the beginning of the city of the City of Babel. For even though God scattered the people all across the globe and confused their language, they still pursued the same illogical plans. Instead of asking God to bless them they opposed God.
God would make it clear that he wanted them to inhabit a city in heaven, but that they could not get there by their own effort. He would have to do it.
THE CITY OF PEACE
Immediately after the confusion at Babel and the failure to reach heaven, God then chose a man named Abram and promised him the very same thing which the people building the Tower of Babel had wanted—a great name and also a great city or, even better, a great nation.
Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ (Genesis 12:1-3)
In short, through Abram (whose name God changed to Abraham) and his descendants God would show the world a stairway to the place God built and the place God dwells—that is, to heaven. As the New Testament explains it:
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. (Hebrews 11:8-10)
The results would be the same as planned for the Tower of Babel, but the cause would be different. The people who trust in the promise to Abraham will have a great name for themselves, and will inhabit a city in heaven. But it will be something that God accomplishes, and the city will be built by God, not by man. Indeed, soon after God makes this promise to Abram, we are introduced to the City of Shalom (Hebrew for “peace”):
And Melchizedek [literally, ‘king of righteousness’] king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High.) And he blessed him and said, ‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!’ And Abram gave him a tenth of everything. (Genesis 14:18-20)
This cryptic and mysterious account leaves us with many questions—questions which God doesn’t fully answer until the New Testament is written some 2000 years later. However, what is clear is that Melchizedek, the king of the City of Peace to whom Abraham gave tribute, is also priest of God Most High. The Hebrew word for peace (שָׁלֵם) would lead to the name Yerushalem or Yerushalayim (i.e. Jerusalem), which comes from Yhwh Yir’eh, “God will see to it” plus sha’lom “Salem”. So Jerusalem means “God-built City of Peace.” It will not just be in heaven. It will be heaven itself.
Now it would be several centuries before the nation of Israel made Jerusalem their political capital. First, the family of Israel—70 persons in all—moved into Egypt, where they became a nation of slaves. The number of them corresponded to the list of nations given after the flood. Later, when God delivered them from slavery and established a covenant with them, 70 elders joined Moses on Mount Sinai for a covenantal feast with God (Numbers 24:1-11). As Moses put it in a song about Israel’s history, “When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God.” (Deuteronomy 32:7-9)
Thus we have the City of Babel, at which the nations were scattered, and the City of Peace, representing a future hope for all nations. The stage is set for the epic battle between the two powers, a battle that will end with heaven and hell.
The End of the Story: The Destruction of Babylon and the Recreation of Jerusalem
The prophecy about the final epic battle between good and evil is an anti-climax of biblical proportions. You don’t even realize that its over until a few paragraphs after it reading it, when you say, “Wait, that’s it?!”
In preparation for the final cosmic battle of Armageddon, many nations have allied themselves with Satan and the False Prophet and the Beast (a satanic trinity). The peoples have come together in a renewed City of Babylon, “the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth.” (Revelation 17:18) All their armies gather to assault Jerusalem. Then Jesus shows up:
Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords. (Revelation 19:11-16; see also 17:14)
That’s the Messiah people were waiting and watching for all along! That’s the one everyone was hoping to see in the first century, when Israel was a vassal state of the Roman Empire. What if Jesus had shown up that way 2000 years ago? Regardless, now he finally arrives as the conquering king. Picture this massive buildup of war machines in anticipation of an epic battle that will determine the fate of the world. Millions of troops move forward in an awesome display of might and power. Their cries for victory thunder across the land. Then Satan is captured. “And the rest were slain by the sword that came from the mouth of him who was sitting on the horse, and all the birds were gorged with their flesh.” (Revelation 19:21; see also Revelation 20:7-10)
Such is the end of the City of Chaos. Trying to fight the Creator proves to be just as nonsensical as trying to create him or as trying to climb up to heaven.
But as the one city is destroyed forevermore, the other is remade. An angel shows John (who grew up as a fisherman and then became a disciple of Jesus, and as an old man was given a vision to be recorded as the book of Revelation) the new City of Peace: “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.” (Revelation 21:2) It is full of people “from every tribe and language and people and nation” are worshiping together. (Revelation 5:9) Heaven on earth has begun.
For if the biggest anti-climax the world ever sees takes place at the end of the age, it’s only outdone by the glory and meekness of the true climax that took place a couple of millennia earlier, followed immediately afterward by the most interesting, unanticipated plot twist the nations have ever seen.
Between the Beginning and the End: The Reversal of Babble and the Proclamation of Peace
After God brought Israel out of Egypt and into the Promised Land, it did not take them long at all to begin complaining and then worshiping man-made gods. Over the course of about four centuries they spiraled down into moral decadence and political disaster—intertribal warfare, mass executions, and mass abduction and rape. (You can read about it in the book of Judges.)
So then God brought temporary reprisal by establishing a royal dynasty to rule the nation. But after their first three kings, Israel split into two kingdoms in 931 BCE. The northern kingdom, comprised of ten of the twelves tribes, kept the name Israel. The southern kingdom, comprised of Judah (where the capital, Jerusalem, was) and Benjamin, went by the name Judah. These two kingdoms regularly fought with each other and with surrounding nations, at times forming alliances with each other to fight neighbors, at times forming alliances with neighbors to fight against each other.
And both continued to rebel against God by (1) worshiping idols and (2) oppressing the poor. These two evils always went hand in hand, because they both exalt the self. They are also synonymous with the ambitions at the Tower of Babel, and God kept warning them to repent:
Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts. (Malachi 3:5)
Most of the Jews ignored these warnings, so God finally gave them over to the Babylonian Empire. In 586 BCE Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, conquered them and took most of the leaders into exile. He destroyed Jerusalem, crushed the Temple, and demanded tribute from the poor who remained in the land.
In fact, for a time the leaders of Jerusalem and the leaders of Babylon all but changed places. Just as God had made it clear to the Jews that they were not better than anyone else, he also made it clear to the Babylonians that they—the Babylonians—were not worse. For this same King Nebuchadnezzar who had destroyed the Temple of Solomon later told the whole world that he wanted to honor the God of Israel. “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, for all his works are right and his ways are just; and those who walk in pride his is able to humble.”
for his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
and his kingdom endures from generation to generation;
all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,
and he does according to his will among the host of heaven.
and among the inhabitants of the earth,
and none can stay his hand
or say to him, “What have you done?” (Daniel 4:34-35)
Nebuchadnezzar (posters of whom Saddam Hussein used to put all over Bagdad) had been a brutal warrior. Before he gouged out the eyes of the King of Judah and put him in a dungeon, the last thing he allowed him to see was his own sons being slaughtered. And yet when God rebuked Nebuchadnezzar for his pride, he humbled himself, repented, and gave glory to the God of Israel as the King of heaven.
Meanwhile, through his prophets God made it clear to the exiled Jews that they had behaved worse than all the other nations. He called Israel and Judah two whoring sisters who, instead of accepting gifts from their lovers, paid them to commit adultery. He describes Judah as an adulterous wife:
How sick is your heart, declares the Lord God, because you did all these things, the deeds of a brazen prostitute, building your vaulted chamber at the head of every street, and making your lofty place in every square. Yet you were not like a prostitute, because you scorned payment. Adulterous wife, who receives strangers instead of her husband! Men give gifts to all prostitutes, but you gave your gifts to all your lovers, bribing them to come to you from every side with your whorings. (Ezekiel 16:30-33)
For seventy years the Jews wallowed in exile, but eventually they were allowed to return to their land. They rebuilt their Temple in 516 B.C.E., and the wall of Jerusalem in about 445 B.C.E. But as a nation they never achieved the glory that they had in the beginning, under the first few kings. They demonstrated a shallow, token faith, and a greater concern for their own welfare than for God’s honor. They again intermarried with idolaters of other gods, which in the past had always led to idolatry in the Temple. And they continued to both neglect, abandon, and oppress the poor.
The message was loud and clear: although God could conquer their enemies, heal their diseases, protect them from disaster, and prosper them greatly, what could be done to save them from their own corruption? Is God able to create peace on earth, or will there always be rebellion? Those are the awkward and haunting questions that confront us by the end of the Old Testament.
And so after they had returned to the land and rebuilt Jerusalem, they waited. A faithful remnant hoped against hope in God’s promise of renewal, but no one heard from him again for nearly over 400 years. They went through some very dark days as the nation was passed from the Babylonians to the Persians to the Greeks. Then they had a century (164-63 B.C.E.) of independence, but they wallowed in such corruption that the Jewish leaders actually asked the Roman general Pompey to come in and help. He restored order by making them a vassal state of Rome.
Of course most of the Jews didn’t like it at all. So they continued to wait.
THE ARRIVAL OF A SAVIOR
Then one day a humble miracle-worker quietly appeared on the scene, showing himself to be the long-awaited King. He spoke very clearly and fulfilled all the prophecies, yet the religious leaders were astonished at his meekness and lowliness. They had wanted a savior who would lead them in military conquest and restore Israel’s former glory; instead, they got an itinerant preacher who traveled with a band of rednecks, rejects, and sinners.
They could not stand him. But here is the key for understanding it: again, this was something God had planned from the beginning. Jesus came for the purpose of laying down his life:
For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my father. (John 10:17-18)
The Creator of the universe did not cherish power and authority, but instead he truly cherished and loved his people. Though he is holy and highly exalted, he came down and met us where we are and relates to us completely. Then he immediately inaugurated his new Kingdom, which would be composed of people from every tribe and tongue and nation.
But his new kingdom would not expand by force or power. “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts.” (Zechariah 4:6) Jesus derived his authority as King of Kings, as the Prince of Peace, as the one who justifies the many, from the fact that 2000 years ago he humbled himself to the point of death on a cross. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
THE REVERSAL OF BABBLE
Three days after they crucified him, he rose from the dead. Forty days after that he ascended into heaven. But before he left he told his followers to wait until the Holy Spirit came upon them. They waited ten days in Jerusalem:
And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.
Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at the sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus, and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:2-12)
Thus two millennia after the Tower of Babel God was reversing the confusion. Instead of scattering people, God united them with the good news of a stairway to heaven. Starting in Jerusalem, Jesus followers proclaimed this gospel, and then began the mission to make disciples of all the nations. (See Matthew 28:18-20.) Some fifteen centuries earlier the nation of Israel had begun not just with Hebrews but also with a “mixed multitude” (Exodus 12:38), and they had continued to welcome foreigners to become citizens. Nevertheless, it had remained largely Jewish. But with the establishment of the church, the kingdom of God would now be the very definition of multiculturalism, which was God’s plan from the beginning. In fact, the Apostle Paul said that when God promised Abraham that he would make him a blessing to the nations, he was preaching the gospel: “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” (Galatians 3:8, quoting Genesis 12:3) And Christianity, unlike any other religion, is metacultural, for has no distinctive language, worship, food, or dress. The only things all churches have in common are the Bible (which translates astonishingly well into any language), a cross (an instrument of torture), baptism (a dramatization of the crucifixion), and communion (when Christians together share bread and wine as representative of Jesus’ flesh and blood).
Starting with his twelve disciples and also with 70 other followers, Jesus commissioned his new kingdom. The Bible says it will continue to grow until it finds culminates in the New Jerusalem, where they will worship the King of Kings, “for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” (Revelation 5:9-10)
[i] Stephen C. Meyer, Signature in the Cell (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 212.
Map image from http://www.seektheoldpaths.com/