The Fall, Toil, and the Tower of Babel

The world of high-performance sport is marked by dreams and hopes, and by hard work, putting your body through intense, painful, and relentless exercise. It can be one of the most fulfilling professions, a gift available only to a few. It’s also a world of heartbreak and disappointment.

I can run. From my early teenage years, moving into young adulthood, I dreamt of running for New Zealand at the Olympic Games. I was coached by Barry Magee, one of Arthur Lydiard’s distance runners and bronze medallist in the marathon at the 1960 Olympic Games. Barry saw potential in this young runner from Palmerston North and trained me up to win an assortment of national titles through high school. I had some natural talent, but, more importantly, I had a strong work ethic, always seeking to train smart and hard.

My dream to compete at the Olympics motivated my decision to study in the United States and compete in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). It was at university that this dream started to unravel. I was one of a few hundred fast American distance runners in my year level. I was good enough to qualify for the indoor mile at the NCAA Division 1 nationals (the top 16 in the country were invited), but I bombed the heat and didn’t progress to the finals. After university, I was able to win a couple of NZ national titles on the road (half-marathon, road 10km) and track (3000m, 5000m), but my times were never good enough to qualify for top-tier international competition. I loved the sport and the people in it, but, as time went on, injury and low motivation curtailed any progress in training and racing. It was clear that my dreams were never going to be realised.

Mine is one of the better stories in the sport. I’ve known of athletes achieving their goal of making the Olympics, only to fall in the race and out of the competition, facing the grief and despair of “what if…?” Some have all the talent in the world and all the signals of early success but succumb to debilitating injuries or overtraining. Others are sidelined by coaches, selectors, and officials, who don’t always have the athlete’s best interests in mind. For every story of an athlete working to achieve their sporting dreams, there are countless others who are “almost, but not quite.”

This story speaks to a specific experience of one athlete and her work in the world of sport. But these experiences of striving, futility, pointlessness, and frustration in work are, I suspect, common to many. Our bodies are scraped, bruised, and worn out by work. In our world of making and procuring, of climbing the social and corporate ladder, of achievement, success, and failure, work holds centre stage. It is a gathering point for some of our deepest pains and longings, and the makeshift altar of many of our false gods. Some of you might have an experience similar to mine, of striving towards a goal, only to fall short due to physical, emotional, social, or mental limitations. Others might have found that work has come to dominate your sense of who you are or might have experienced deep injustice in your work.

Scripture speaks directly to our experiences. In last month’s edition of Common Ground, Andrew Shamy walked us through Genesis 1 and 2, pointing out the significance and meaning of our work in the triune God’s creation of the universe and humanity. In seeking to understand the pain of work, we return to Genesis to consider: what’s gone wrong with our work? Why is work so often a matter of toil, or worse? One of the clearest examples of sin’s effect on our work is found in Genesis 11 with the story of Babel. It offers us a honed lens through which to consider how far the fall has distorted our work. In particular, we see the ways work gives rise to a false identity within us, the ways it can be idolatrous, and the ways work can be oppressive and unjust. If we’re to understand the good of our work rightly and align our lives with reality, we need to turn to Scripture to help us name what we’ve made of the good gift of work and where this leaves us now.

Our Context: The Gardeners Exiled

Made in God’s image, we have been created to be priestly rulers, mediating God’s goodness and blessing through our work, and to take up creation’s praise of our Maker, giving glory to him in all things, including our work. In doing so, Adam and Eve are commanded to mediate this blessing to the whole of creation: “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Gn 1:28). Work is part of God’s good creation, but he has also established our flourishing and work within good boundaries. The garden abounds with beautiful trees, laden with good fruit for the humans to cultivate and eat (Gn 2:9). God names two trees in the middle: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; he forbids the humans to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil or else they will die. Not given as food to Adam and Eve, to eat from this tree is to grasp at life for themselves without reference to God, who freely gives life to his creation.

Listening to the deceptions of the serpent, Eve then Adam are thrown into doubts about God’s character, and his goodness and love. In pride and fear, they inaugurate a deathly pattern that we readily recognise: they lay hold of the claim to be wise in their own eyes, seeking to sustain their lives without reference to God’s gift. The consequences of Adam and Eve’s rebellion are swift. Among the many impacts of the fall, particular details are important here: humanity’s mandate to cultivate creation as a mediation of God’s blessing is frustrated. Having rejected God’s gift of a life of good work, good sustenance, and delight, humanity finds the ground no longer simply sustains them but is cursed. The gift remains and, yet, is corrupted: now, “by the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground” (Gn 3:19). Work has become toil, an effort to sustain life that exacts its cost as we go. The ground no longer simply gives itself to be tended and brought to fullness but resists our efforts; indeed, what it freely produces is “thorns and thistles.” The gardeners find themselves toiling in exile.

A Name for Ourselves

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “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. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth. (Gn 11:1-9)

In Chapter 10 of Genesis, we’re given a genealogy: the descendants of Noah increase in number, spreading, stretching, and scattering across the known world. The cultural mandate God gave Adam and Eve, and renewed with Noah, persists in fractured ways. But, by the time we reach Chapter 11, this has come to a halt. God’s instruction was to fill the earth, but, instead, the people gather at the desert plain of Shinar. There, they decide to build a city “with a tower that reaches to the heavens.” In the garden, God’s desire was for humanity to work and cultivate the earth in order to communicate his love and goodness to all of creation and for creation to respond by giving God glory. A parody of God’s good purpose, Babel reveals at least three ways in which human work has been corrupted by our rebellion against God: we need to consider work as idolatry, and work as oppression and injustice, but we begin by considering work as a source of false identity—as making a name for ourselves.

As the people congregate and begin to work together, we hear familiar words on their lips: “Let us make…” In Genesis 1:26, God, the origin of all life and creative goodness, spoke humanity into being with the words: “Let us make mankind in our image…” Now, in Genesis 11, the people, living outside of the garden and under the consequences of the fall, mimic God’s life-giving words with their own approximations: “Let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly… Let us build ourselves a city…” The people follow God’s example of making and creating, but, instead of seeking to bless the world, they use their creativity and resources to create a name for themselves, building a city for protection and erecting a tower as a type of assault upon heaven.

In a replay of Adam and Eve’s deception, the people are drawn to trust in themselves and are moved by fear: “Come, let us build …, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” Wise in their own eyes and fearful of God’s world, they seek through their efforts to establish their name—their life and identity. And work, which was to be a central part of humanity’s given vocation to fill and bless the world, becomes a means of securing humanity’s life apart from God. They intend it to become the very thing that defines them rather than their identity as God’s people, as priestly rulers—rather than their desire to worship God and glorify him through their creating and making.

How might we recognise such identity-distorting work? Here, it’s often interesting to reflect on who you would or wouldn’t be if you didn’t work. After years of training and competition and being known as “the runner,” one of the hardest transitions has concerned my identity. If I’m no longer winning races or training for a lofty goal, is my life and work still worthwhile? Do I have anything to offer? It is easy to pledge allegiance to such work, wrapping our identity within it and using it to make a name for ourselves. In examining the role work has in our identity, it’s worth asking the question: if you could no longer do your job, how would you react? For many of us, the answer is revealing.

Work as Idolatry

The identity project of Babel points to a deeper distortion of God’s purposes for work. At Babel, the people harness new technology, creating bricks and mortar, and employ their own creativity to build. They collaborate together. These are all good things. But the will of God, and God himself, are absent from their efforts. Turning away from the Creator to aspects of creation, the people trust their own strength and bricks and mortar to protect themselves; they listen to their fears of dispersion and obscurity rather than working from a deep-seated trust in the Lord. Their own efforts and work ethic became their ultimate good, the thing worthy of time, attention, and devotion. By their work they seek to attain the heavens, the place of God.

As we can see in Genesis 1 and 2, all creation is made good because it is made by Goodness itself. But idolatry distorts the devotion due to God alone and the flourishing life this entails. As the apostle Paul writes in Romans 1, we reject the truth of who God is and devote ourselves instead to some part of creation, whether that be an object, a person, an idea, or a job: “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator” (Rom 1:25). In this way, in his helpful book on work, Every Good Endeavour, Timothy Keller sums up idolatry as a good thing turned into an ultimate thing (see Chapter Eight, “Work Reveals Our Idols”). And, as at Babel, work is a focal point for this challenge.

As image-bearers, we are called to image God, to represent his authority and love. But, as our work morphs into an idol, we begin to image our work. In Psalm 115, the Psalmist describes idols in terms of their ultimate lifelessness: they cannot speak, see, hear, smell, feel, or walk. Crucially, when we worship these idols, we become like them, declares the Psalmist: “Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.” When we make work the object of our devotion—whether motivated by fear, love, or something else—we face the same warning. Instead of imaging God, allowing our creator to shape us in relationship with him, we image, say, the career persona: the person who has it all together, who works hard, who achieves much, whose time commands top dollar.

Like the people of Babel, we can start to believe that work will somehow attain the heights of heaven—that our work can save us. We can affirm the good that work brings us and others—food, shelter, education, satisfaction—but we must acknowledge our tendency to overstate its power and goodness. Work is a good thing, but it is not the ultimate thing. Many of us will know of the anxiety, dissatisfaction, and frustration that comes when our work is prioritised above all else. When work is the ultimate thing, even achieving our goals and dreams can taste bitter and not satisfy. Work was never meant to sustain our hopes, dreams, and ultimate sense of being. Only God can.

Oppression and Injustice

What do we see in the work of Babel? In the people’s industriousness, creating bricks and baking them, we hear echoes of the future slavery of Egypt. In Exodus 1, we find a new king of Egypt come to power. He looks out at the populous Israelites and sees an inherent threat: “Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country” (vs 10). Just like Babel, Egypt is motivated by insecurity and fear. But now, the nation does not devote itself to work as much as using work to dominate, control, and exploit. They enslave the Israelites to their work: making bricks and mortar. And here the consequences of such work are plainer. Enslaved, the Israelites are alienated from their work, unable to gain satisfaction or perhaps sustenance from their toil, undermining the dignity of work that was offered in the garden.

Babel, then, anticipates Egypt and, as such, is the first example of the oppressive city. The city is a monoculture, a cultural hegemony, set against God’s will. One of God’s key instructions to Adam, to Noah, and to all humanity is to fill the earth. In the context of Noah’s ancestors, they are encouraged to scatter, to disperse, to exercise across the whole of creation the mandate to work for the flourishing of all creation to God’s glory. As Walter Bruegemann puts it:

The unity willed by God is that all of humankind shall be in covenant with him (Gn 9:8-11) and with him only, responding to his purposes, relying on his life-giving power. The scattering God wills is that life should be peopled everywhere by his regents who are attentive to all parts of creation, working in his image to enhance the whole creation, to bring ‘each in its kind’ to full fruition and productivity. (From Brueggemann’s Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching – Genesis, p 99)

God desires holy unity, with the people united under the covenant of God’s love and provision for the world. God also desires cultural diversity and our creative work in and throughout the world. Unwittingly or otherwise, we might be participating in an oppressive unity. As members of a greater whole, whether it’s our wider culture, our corporation, or our start-up, it’s worth asking: what is the goal of the collective effort I’m part of? What is its fruit? And, how might it need to be reformed?

In this we can be encouraged by the insights of Scripture, which is more than realistic about the state of our work—about corporate greed, about the desire to build a brand or business at the expense of people, about those who climb the corporate ladder at the expense of responsibility to clients and creation, about the local impacts of globalised supply chains and passing product development to workers in far-off countries, and about waste. Babel enables us to name the realities of work after the fall—what human beings can make of it and the evil ends to which it is frequently put.

God’s Gracious Response

It is immediately clear that the people’s unholy unity, their work to build a city and a tower to reach the heavens, is futile. In a moment of humour, the writer describes the Lord descending from his dwelling place to even see the tower. God is above all; he cannot be touched, attained, or reached by such building. God’s judgment of the people reveals the character of their sin. In gathering together to make a name for themselves, the city receives a name—for all the wrong reasons. Babel means confusion, and they are known henceforth for their fruitless rebellion against God. They gathered together in their desire for safety, security, and strength, and, instead, they are scattered. But, in God’s judgment, there is grace. When Adam and Eve are banished from the garden and the ground is cursed, there is still mandate for the ground to bear fruit for humanity to survive. When the people of Babel are scattered, they are graced with cultural diversity, a diversity redeemed at Pentecost with the gift of many tongues (see Acts 2). After Babel, not one language or culture will dominate the rest, even if they seek to reach the heavens (and superiority) through their labour. God’s creation project of helping humanity to continue filling the earth continues in spite of the peoples’ rebellion.

A Truer Hope for Our Work

Through this remarkable story, we are given an insight into the distorting reality of sin in our work. As we’ve examined the peoples’ idolatry, misplaced identity, and consequent oppression and injustice, you may have discovered resonances in your own lives. None of us has escaped the effects of the fall, and, by paying attention to its effects, we’re more able to align ourselves with reality and not be surprised or defeated by sin and brokenness within ourselves and within our workplaces. In doing so, we’re able to speak truthfully of what we and others will experience in the world rather than painting a picture of an idyllic, satisfying working world that’s far removed from our day-to-day experience. We can dispense with the narrative that we can achieve anything we set our hearts on. As my experience in the sport of running demonstrates, we don’t always achieve our working goals. There is plenty of good to be found along the way, but if the sum of all our experience of work is contingent on ultimate satisfaction of dreams, then we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment and worse. We can know that there will be waste and disappointment within ourselves and within our workplaces. In knowing what to expect, we are able to anticipate and potentially alleviate suffering. And, in recognising the truth of suffering and struggle in our work, we will gain a deeper and richer sense of God’s goodness and salvation throughout history and, above all, in the person of Jesus Christ.

We are all at risk of turning the good thing of work into the ultimate thing, and some of us might have this posture in the world. We all face the risk of identifying so closely with our work that our vocation as priestly rulers—loving God and mediating his blessing to the world—is compromised. And we will all encounter oppression and injustice, both within ourselves and within the work. In light of this, what hope does God offer us in our work? Hidden within the text of Genesis 3 is a simple line, describing the enmity that exists between the serpent and the seed of Eve:

And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel. (Gn 3:15)

Looking back from the New Testament and the revelation of the Son of God, the Church proclaims that the offspring alluded to here is Jesus Christ. The one who will crush the head of the serpent is the one who will defeat sin and death—and, with it, the curse’s ultimate effect on our work. Along with the grace of God’s provision of food in the midst of thorns and thistles and the provision of cultural diversity in the midst of Babel, we know that redemption is to come in the person of Jesus Christ.

It is with this confidence that in our next edition of Common Ground we will lift our gaze from the pain of the fall and look to Jesus, in whom our work finds its good beginning, its better continuance, and its true end.


This is part two of a three-part Theology of Work series. You can read part one, “God, Creation, and the Good of Work,” here.

(Image: “The Tower of Babel” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563. Public Domain)