Some mirrors are designed both to show what is behind you and to warn you against believing what you see. You are not, it seems, to trust their perspective on reality: “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.” Reliance on their projection, they say, could lead to disaster. Somehow, despite their dismaying autodeconstruction, we learn to admire the modesty of these mirrors. By contrast, some rear views inspire more confidence than deference, more hubris than meekness.
So it seems to have been for Nebuchadnezzar II, 600 years before Christ. Millennia before him, two generations from the global flood, the city of Babel had soared up from the Shinar plain. It rose in odd and perverse defiance of God’s gracious commitment to His children’s well-being—a promise never to drown the world again, but rather to sustain its axis and solar journeys, and provide food in season (Gen. 8:21, 22).
The Babel builders’ strangeness was their capacity to disbelieve the God whose word had so recently compelled and constrained all the elements, material and mysterious, statistical through supernatural, of their cosmos. It was their appalling ingratitude to the One through whose grace alone their ancestors had survived the unique cataclysm. It was their ingenious construction of some other basis for their own existence. The Flood was their memory.
Eight of the 13 biblical occurrences of the word that names it (mabbul) occur after the event. Seven of these forcefully demonstrate its impact on subsequent human history: Thrice God insists that He will not repeat it (Gen. 9:11 [twice], 15), and four times He dates history as “after the flood” (Gen. 9:28; 10:1, 32; 11:10). Manifestly, the Flood was their history.
Against its categorical authority Babylonians designed their own dogma. Repudiating the mabbul, they asserted that they, unlike their grandparents (Gen. 10:6, 8, 10), would neither believe in God’s exhaustive power nor trust God’s insistent promise. They would, instead, be autonomous, reaching where they willed (heaven) on their own (Gen. 11:2-4). Their arrogance survives, though God blights their project.
Amazingly, the name Babel, or Babylon, by which their story survives, comes down to Nebuchadnezzar not with God’s intended meaning, “confusion” (Gen. 11:5-9), but as “gate of the gods,” where heaven meets earth. This is what he sees when he looks into his national history. And it sets him up for trouble, although he does not know: Beware of Babels in your rearview mirror.
The king is in for trouble because his mirror teaches that modesty is un-Babylonian. Nimrod, his city’s first great father, had not been meek, and Nebuchadnezzar would have no need to be. He would build like Nimrod, or build even better. Every brick of his 25-meter-wide walls would shout his name up Marduk Street, up Enlil Street, up Sin Street. And he himself would crow upon those walls: “Is this not Babylon the great, which I myself have built . . . ?” (Dan. 4:30, NASB).* He would crow because he did not know “that the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind and bestows it on whomever He wishes” (verse 25, NASB).
“He that knows not,” they say, “and knows not that he knows not, is a fool: shun him.” And we will all be unknowing fools, despite broad accomplishments and deep knowledge, if we will drive with Babels in our rearview mirrors. For Babel is both immodesty and confusion. As model it teaches twisted history, inflated personality, and fatuous theology in its claim to be heaven’s gate. Beware of Babels in your rearview mirror.
Shall we then spurn Babel for Athens or Zurich? When human genius alone never knows how close we are to perishing, how far from falling into grievous sin? No. We do not need more options for ways to endanger the entire driving public. Instead, we need deliverance from all our alluringly perilous ways of seeing, retrojections that urge trust in princes, in daughters and sons of men and women in whom is no help. And that deliverance is most promptly found by humble return to everything that Nimrod once so confidently discarded. So here’s to heeding, once and for always, the simple warning: Beware of Babels in your rearview mirror.
* Scripture quotations marked NASB are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
Lael Caesar is an associate editor of the Adventist Review. This article was published June 23, 2011.