The Birth of Scattering
A story of Babel
What a song will rise on that bright, eternal morning,
When the saints are gathered home!
Love divine will be ev’ry happy soul adorning,
When the saints are gathered home!”1
All the world’s continents today live with the impact of scattering: it may be the hundreds of thousands who are fleeing their lands in search of peace and stability wherever they can find it; or the millions displaced within their own country as a result of years of civil war; or the camps in which they are made to languish as governments strive to preserve their lands from being overrun by the influx of refugees. Or it may be some other characterization, like the apparent strengthening of nativist sentiment, shown in street protest and at the ballot box, by citizens who fear a threat to their nation, culture, and economic stability from foreigners invading. In turn, their electoral performance forces governments to compromise their nobler, good Samaritan sentiments. On one side or the other, people everywhere today are either engendering or reacting to societal instability, disruption, dislocation, scattering.
Scattering: A Snapshot
In 2018 pregnant women, of the waves of refugees that have now flooded across the southeastern border of the country of Bangladesh, will commit more than 48,000 newborn infants to mangers more repugnant than Mary’s, places described as “cramped and squalid refugee camps,” somewhere in the land they have now entered. Those squalid camps are the only option they can think of that will bring any benefit to themselves and their babies.2 Their flight is for the sake of safety, for relief, for survival, at least. So they go to Bangladesh for survival and giving birth in squalor.
For them, as for hundreds of thousands of their spouses, other relatives, friends, neighbors, and people they have never met, running away from home is distinctly better than standing their ground. Staying at home would most likely mean persecution, rape, murder, seeing their houses burn to the ground.
I make no pretense of comprehending the situation, or resolving the imponderable issues involved. The potent combination of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, Amnesty International, the United Nations secretary-general, and the pope together has shown us no movement toward ending this sorrowful human crisis of scattering. The fleeing people claim that Myanmar has been their home since the fifteenth century. The government identifies them as illegal immigrants, Bengalis from Bangladesh, who merit neither lodging nor citizenship in Myanmar.3 Consequences of these radically differing characterizations include massive population disruptions, and scattering; engagements between insurgents and government military, and scattering; violent attack and counterattack, and scattering. Suffering of varied and tragic sort, and scattering.
Scattering: A Random Selection
By account of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the 855,000 Southeast Asian fugitives crowded into the literary snapshot above currently constitute no more than a minuscule 1.3 percent of all the people forcibly displaced worldwide. Thousands of miles west of Rohingya misery,4 Syria’s 5.5 million refugees,after seven years of civil war, would be only 8.4 percent of the total.5 After a while the numbers stun more than horrify: 5.5 million is too many to be only 8.4 percent of the total number of humans subject to just one of earth’s countless causes of pain.
Moreover, the phenomenon of scattering and scattered people is no twenty-first-century ingenuity. A trade of scattering born at the heart of the fifteenth and strong till the second third of the nineteenth century (1451-1870), disrupted the lives of millions of African continentals, sweeping them off their feet into seagoing containers that dispersed survivors of the Middle Passage6 across the waiting cane and cotton fields of North, South, Central, and Caribbean America.
And long before Rohingyas fled their Myanmarese villages or Africans were rounded up for the Middle Passage, the children of Jacob mourned and wept on the banks of the Euphrates as they remembered Zion, the homeland from which Babylon’s tyrant king had torn them away, in order to ensconce their scattered remainder in exile in his city (Ps. 137:1).
Scattering: An Etiology
Where, indeed, did human scattering first arise? And why? The biblical account pinpoints a period of two centuries of human social reestablishment and economic development, demographic growth, and population concentration “after the flood” (Gen. 10:1).7 Those post-Flood days were probably cautious and respectful times at first. The Flood was still a living memory: Noah and wife, daughters-in-law and sons, told its improbable story to children and grandchildren. If his wits stayed with him for his 350 years of life after the Flood, Noah may well have been recounting all the way to Abram of Chaldean Ur. After the global disaster, God had promised that humanity would “never again be cut off by the water of the flood” (Gen. 9:11).
Noah’s stories on divine compassion that helped him and his family survive in a little zoo boat through an entire year of storm and claustrophobia consistently included comment on the kindness of his heavenly Father. His grandchildren and great- grandchildren knew they were safe from being cut off by a future flood. It was God’s own word that “never again shall the water become a flood” that could destroy everything (verse 15). Every time it rained Noah’s multiplying descendants saw again the memorial of God’s reliability, the rainbow. Though visible, it would be as untouchable as another divine memorial, seventh-day Sabbath holiness (Gen. 2:1-3; 9:12-17). So God puts His markers where they can neither be removed nor erased.
But they could still be defied. Or one might rather say, humanity could still be defiant. As days turned to years, changes came, though at times they were only half perceptible. Caution and trust turned to self-confidence and invention. Urbanity usurped sincerity, and forward-looking sophistication commanded more authority than godliness. Savvy new authorities explained to their timid cousins who still “feared” God, and closed their eyes in prayer even at fast-food restaurants, that what they deemed irreverence and apostasy was in fact a liberating, positive turn for humanity. An age heady with notions of creaturely omnipotence began to spread its light across the horizon.
A fresh ethos affirming the boundlessness of human capacity came to prevail. Everything was possible, it now seemed, including skyscraper construction: “a tower whose top will reach into heaven” (Gen. 11:4). Success in this grand vision would require intense time investments, strong labor cooperation, and effective communication. Vision-casting leaders urged the world toward it with a triple cohortative: “Come, let us” (verse 3); “Come, let us build for ourselves” (verse 4); “and let us make for ourselves” (verse 4).
God in heaven could see the requirements and possibilities at their disposal: He knew, for life’s good and perfect gifts derive only from Him (James 1:17). He saw and knew, and it distressed Him greatly. He saw the total disregard for those gifts’ original purpose. His imparted endowments were no longer being employed for service to the needy and glory to the Giver. Instead, they would now advance a project that would stand as proof of contempt for His word and promise.
Humans would defy God and presume upon the long-forbearing “Ancient” of grandfather’s stories. They would make explicit their cynicism about His alleged caring and solicitude: in response to His promise never to drown the world again (Gen. 9:11, 15-18), they would ensure their safety on their own; they would guarantee their own insurance that they would never ever drown again. They would do it with a building reaching “into heaven” (Gen. 11:4). They reasoned out loud that a structure immortalizing their defiance would establish both their fame and their unity: “Let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth” (verse 4). We are strong and we are one might have been their seven-word mantra.
It would be the wrong message. It would be a lie on behalf of tyranny rather than a testimony to the harmony of unity that is love. For however noble its rhetoric of unity, it was force, not love, that inspired its principal genius; and it was fame, not service, that inflated its dreams. We know this because the God whose gifts were there abused has not let humanity forget the operation’s CEO and COO, Babel’s founding head, a mighty, in-your-face dominator named Nimrod.
The same compassion heard in Noah’s salvation stories flows to us throughout God’s teaching of damnation stories. His grace-filled instructions to us on sin and salvation have traced the arc of human rebellion through history from Nimrod’s Babel, raised on Shinar’s plain, to Babylon’s disintegration at the end of the great controversy between Christ and Satan: He has shown us the fruit of the spirit of Nimrod: protological Babel is eschatological Babylon, He warns, so that we may be without excuse. Babylon will disintegrate in the end as its mother Babel did in the beginning (Rev. 17). God lets us see how Nimrod’s glorious fantasy—making for himself a name—became his everlasting infamy. Heaven preserves for us the divine response to Nimrod’s encouragements. The answer is God’s own cohortative, “Come, let Us go down . . .” (Gen. 11:7).
Questioned, doubted, repudiated, defied, the Lord God came down for action: “So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth” (verse 8). True, God expelled Adam from Eden before the Flood (Gen. 3:22-24). But Babel, beyond the Flood, is the second cradle of all earth’s subsequent social disruptions, communication obstructions, and diversity compulsions, the new birth of all our scattering and fights for reintegration. Human and cosmic scattering are born of creaturely conceit that dreams of greatness, or strives toward harmony, or wills toward integration by excluding or philosophically diminishing God.
Scattering is the unavoidable consequence of every individual or institutional endeavor that makes God the liar, represents Him as the problem, or simply makes Him dispensable to success. The notion of creaturely independence is a lie on earth as it is in heaven. Rebel-I never ascended to sit on the seat of the Most High as he once pathetically promised himself that he would (Isa. 14:12-14). Yet despite its failure in his case, creaturely independence is still the lie he wields over his deceived and deceiving cohort on earth: “God knows that in the day you . . . [properly question His position on things, free yourself from subservience, repudiate His authority,] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God” (Gen. 3:5). Cartels united in corruption, criminals bound together by oaths of confidentiality and protection of each other, neither prove the harmony of the deceived nor disconfirm the truth of God’s love.
Scattering: An Answer
“God is love” (1 John 4:8) is truth beyond improvement, the truth that guarantees the complete restoration of all the broken souls, the reconciliation of all the broken institutions, and the reparation of all the broken systems of life that are necessary to fulfilled and coherent creaturely living.
“God is love” is the truth that yields a perfect physical, social, and spiritual Eden where God’s children may flawlessly live (Gen. 1:1-2:24). It is the truth that produces pardon for our stupidity on the grounds of God’s nature rather than the impulse of my weak will (Luke 23:34). It is the truth expounded in a cadaver on a cross, arms spread wide to gather in all who believe in Him as their Savior, who died “that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
“God is love” is the truth that imparts to blighted humans the faith to believe and know that we are pardoned and restored to God’s perfect favor, and to know, too, that the scattering of Babel will soon be swallowed up in the gathering in Jerusalem, city of salvation, city of God, as He calls His faithful to Himself: “Gather My godly ones to Me,” those who have kept the covenant to honor His sacrifice with their own (Ps. 50:5).
Then the voice that drove earth’s first sinners from Eden will call all earth’s saved back again, saying, “Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt. 25:34).
- James Rowe, “When the Saints Are Gathered Home,” The New Praiseworthy for the Church and Sunday School, no. 136, https://hymnary.org/text/what_a_song_will_rise_on_that_bright.
- “Who Will Help Myanmar’s Rohingya?” Kevin Ponniah, BBC News, Jan. 10, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-38168917.
- Approximately 3,500 miles (5,600 kilometers).
- The UNHCR total is 65.6 million: http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/figures-at-a-glance.html.
- Total 9,566,000; the transatlantic shipping of slaves from Africa to the Americas and Caribbean is called the Middle Passage.
- Scripture quotations 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 Adventist Review.