Today's Bible reading: Genesis 11-12; Matthew 11.
Babel (Gen 11). In chapters 11 and 12 of Genesis we see the failure of humanity again, this time in the prideful attempt of a sort of one-world government. Lest they be scattered and fill the earth, as God commanded, they seek to "make a name for themselves" (11:4) by building a great city with a very tall tower, probably a ziggurat. This could be used for worship, star-gazing (e.g., astrology), to provide a visible rallying point for a united humanity, and to impress all who would see it with its grandeur. (I wonder, did the pyramid makers in the old and new worlds have similar aspirations?) At heart, this was a decision to depend upon their own resources for well-being and security. In response to their pride and self-sufficiency, God scatters them by multiplying their languages.
Abram (Gen 12). In counterpoint to this God calls one man, Abram (later renamed Abraham), who with his family leave their home near Babel to begin a family line that will result in blessing for all the families on earth. What men sought in chapter 11 in a united rebellion against God, God will himself provide for Abram: "a great name" and a "great nation". The result of this one man and his family lineage will be blessing (well-being and security) that will come to all the families on earth (12:1-3). Abram was obedient to God's call, and he himself built altars (12:8), rather than a tower, in order that he might call upon the Lord in worship.
Like Noah, however, Abram's faith is also mixed with unbelief. He arrives in the promised land, but quickly yields to fear over how his wife might be treated when he goes to Egypt (12:10-20). Yet, God in his mercy and grace protects Abram and his family.
Abraham becomes not only the head of a family line that will one day produce the Messiah (see the genealogy in Matthew 1), but also becomes an example of faith for us who follow Christ:
"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." (Hebrews 11:8 ESV)
Matthew 11. And what a Savior he is, the One descended from Abraham! Again, in contrast to human pride and the aspiration of the builders of Babel, hear these gracious words from Jesus...
"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." (Matt 11:28-30 ESV)
A yoke represents submission to another for the sake of service. The devil may tell us that serving the Lord Jesus is hard and difficult and unpleasant, but in actuality serving the Lord is freeing. The gentle and humble character of Jesus, to whom we are yoked, makes all the difference! In the process we will lose many other heavy burdens, will learn much from the Lord, and will find rest for our souls.
A postscript: why did John the Baptist doubt Jesus? (Matt 11:3) We can be thankful, first, that the biblical account is always honest about human failures and stumbling, even of its heroes. John was imprisoned in a dungeon at King Herod's southern palace, Machaerus, near the Dead Sea. Likely his cell was without light of any kind, and very hot and dry. He was a tough man, used to rough living, but certainly this wore him down. And like many of his day he may have thought that Jesus, whom he correctly identified as the Messiah, would bring political liberation as well as spiritual renewal. He knew that Isaiah had said of the Christ, "...he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound." (Isa 61:1) John longed for an end to his unbearable suffering. Perhaps, he thought there would be another to come after Jesus. We do not know his exact thoughts, but what is beautiful is that the Lord does not chide or run John down in his moments of questioning. Jesus honors John, and praises him as the greatest of all the OT prophets (11:7-11). John ran his race faithfully, though it was a very difficult trial. He received a better release, however, into the presence of God.
Image above: Tower of Babel, by Hendrick van Cleve (1525-1589). Below: a yoke for use with oxen.