The Final Frontier

An exploration of both godly and human empires.

“Space: The final frontier.” These words characterizing the voyage of the Starship Enterprise will sound familiar to Star Trek fans. The original series rode the scientific and cultural optimism of the late 1960’s. “To explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go [famous split infinitive] where no man [sic] has gone before,” in contrast to the Empire wars of the next generation of Star Wars.

For some, “frontier” is nostalgic, a longing for home. For others, it is tragic, the loss of home. “Frontier” in its original usage has both, as the prow of a ship heading to land or the front rank of an army heading to battle. This contrast characterizes the human voyage.

BABEL
Scripture gives strange expression to the human enterprise in Genesis 10 and 11. Nimrod sets the stage for Babel. Nimrod is characterized as a mighty warrior and hunter who built the early imperial cities. His name became a slogan of praise by generations, like we add “the Great” to the names of Alexander and Catherine. Yet God’s judgment is different.

God’s judgment comes at Babel. The attitude of the human enterprise is to use our technology to “build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves” (Gen. 11:4). This took place in Shinar, the land of Nimrod and the empires of Assyria and Babylonia, the great enemies of God’s people Israel. 

Babel, the same word as “Babylon,” in their Akkadian language meant “Gate of the Gods.” The Babylonians thought they were the connection between the divine and the human, and they were famous for their Ishtar Gate through which all captives had to journey. Ishtar was the Babylonian goddess of war and sex, the drive behind conquest. Babel is about human empire-building disguised as the work of the divine. 

EMPIRES
All empires have their divine propaganda. The Greeks were spreading Hellenism, their humanistic culture. The Romans were bringing the “Pax Romana” through war and oppression. The Spanish Conquistadors brought missionaries, as did the French, the British and the Americans. Multinational corporations bring prosperity through enslaving labor and environmental devastation. Empires talk a good game, but at heart strive to “make a name for ourselves.” 

The Lord comes down to see this little tower of human arrogance. The Lord sees it as humans imposing their will and way on others, controlling and restraining human diversity and development. The Lord restrains empires. The Lord changes the name from “God’s gate” to “Babel,” unintelligible gibberish, but this judgment is not the end of the voyage.

Babel sets the stage for Abraham, the Father of Nations, through whom “all peoples on earth will be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). This began a new enterprise, a long voyage with failures, conflicts and crises, but a new mission, a mission of the Kingdom of God. Israel, as did the Christian church, often confused its mission with that of empires. When this happened, the empires won. At the cross it seemed like the empire had won, but God came down and confused the stone placers again.

THE FINAL FRONTIER
The final frontier is to go and gather, to go and teach, in the power of the Holy Spirit. This is to explore and give, not to conquer and take. We can only do this in God’s Spirit, not the human spirit. As the Pentecost story shows, God’s Spirit communicates in diversity, “declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues” (Acts 2:11). The final frontier is to love cultural diversity, “members of every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9), to learn, to communicate the good news, to “live long and prosper,” not to force everyone to be like us.

“’Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty” (Zech. 4:6). 

  • Rev. Tom Wolthuis is a minister in the Christian Reformed Church and the Director of Geneva Campus Ministry at the University of Iowa.

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