Babel Version 1.0
We know the story as the Tower of Babel.
On one level, this story acts as a pre-historic tale that explains why things are as they are today. Why are people different and speak different languages? Because…the story of the tower of Babel.
In Babel Version I the story involves a battle between God and Humanity.
If we look closely we notice it is God and the Heavenly Council (plural pronouns) VS
the WHOLE EARTH, which is in agreement on the plan. There’s not even a ‘hold-out’ like Noah, who played the loyal role in the last big story in Genesis. It’s a head-to-head fight and guess who is going to win?[i]
When we listen to THIS VERSION of the story, God’s actions are difficult to understand. Not that we can expect to always understand God, but still, in most Bible stories, God’s acts to
Clarify a situation and God acts to
Gather humanity.[ii] If we keep reading in Genesis we will see God do just that; gather a people who will be given the name of ISRAEL.
Yet here, God seems to be upset with human ingenuity.
Is God concerned about a tower? HARDLY This is very unlikely.
Is this a God who is worried about the scope of human ability or technological advancement? Certainly such feelings or motives are unworthy of God, the creator of heaven and earth.
Our God is not afraid, nor a tyrant God.[iii]
If this is a story about divine punishment then it has to be about a people trying to make a name for themselves apart from God. Humanity’s fear is stated to be a fear of being scattered and so their UNANIMOUS decision is to secure their own REPUTATION by building. The same way many Kings will do in history.
You know how that story goes, BUILD the biggest and best, the tallest and grandest and YOUR NAME will be remembered forever.
BUT, the granting of a name and an everlasting reputation is God’s prerogative.
A few more chapters into Genesis, God will grant Abram a name (ABRAHAM) and will promise him immortality in terms of descendents who will keep his name alive thru-out history. Naming a people is GOD’s choice and within God’s power. And we can expect God’s naming to result an eternal reputation.
On THIS LEVEL, the story reminds us at times ALL humanity takes action that runs directly counter to God’s intentions.[iv]
When people decide to make a name for themselves, God acts to Confuse and Scatter. – or so it seems.
One of the great theologians of history points out that rebellion is not actually the specific SIN of the Tower of Babel. (There seems to be no decree by God against which they plan.) But Humanity’s sin is ANXIETY and the fear of being scattered.[v] In answer to this BASIC FEAR, they (like we?) rely on their own resources and abilities rather than relying on God.
Humans seek security beyond the limits of human finiteness. We seek to stop being human and live forever and this gift is God’s alone to grant.
And if we view the whole of the Genesis story; the big picture, like good biblical scholars, we see that human anxiety which has them (and maybe us) desiring to stay in one familiar place to build and make a name for themselves – is exactly OPPOSITE to God’s command to these descendents of Noah, to fill the earth.
Genesis 9:7 “And you, be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply in it.”
FEAR would keep them holed up behind the walls of their lone city.
Such a singular focus places the future of the rest of creation in jeopardy.[vi] When humanity is self-centered, acting for self-preservation, they/WE stop listening for God’s will and then there’s bound to be trouble.
BUT, perhaps there is more to this story than anxiety and confrontation. We can see that God is not happy with a humanity that unites to build a name for itself, or one
that re-acts in fear to live behind homogen-eous walls for its own safety.
What THEN, does God desire?
This is the story of Babel 2.0
The beautiful Pentecost Story in Acts 2 celebrates the birthday of the church and sheds light on our previous “baffling” story.
Disciples gathered all in one place are ‘blown’ out of their seats by the wind of the Holy Spirit. Divided tongues appear among them and rest on them, gifting them with the ability to speak in many languages. AND they are heard by people from “EVERY NATION” under heaven, who live in the international city of Jerusalem.
I think we are safe to assume, this spirit-filled, multi-language speaking, Christ-inspired church is what God’s desires. Not just for the early days of Christianity in Jerusalem, but for us too. If so, then how do we re-interpret the baffling story of the Tower of Babel?
I agree with recent scholars that this story is not one of Divine Punishment but is about a Divine gift that explains the origin of cultural difference. Even before God acts to grant a name to Abram(ham), God “fashions a diverse humanity”.[vii]
We can accept as fact that God is not interested in a humanity united for self-interest but, as Jeff Paschal writes, “rather God relishes a faithful people of different color, size, shape, language and ideas.”[viii]
In Babel Version 2.0, God acts to scatter and fulfill God’s own command to Noah and his descendents to be fruitful, multiple and FILL the earth. Different languages are only the beginning of the cultures and customs that will come from this day on.
An incredible diversity of people like food on a buffet, will bring new tastes to earth, and
New color to God’s children.
New ways and new ideas will blossom from this central location where human life was birthed.
Humanity will mirror the diversity God gave to nature itself;
earth and sky, dry land and water;
fish and fowl, animals and insects of every kind.
And Now there will be humans of every kind.
Think of the cultures that will adapt to mountain life and to the colder climates to the north. Can you see the lovely woven cloth that will be a product of the need to protect human bodies from the cold?
Remember the gifts that come from jungle plants turned into instruments. The incredible sounds of music that will grow as a gift as new populations develop.
See in your mind the richness of a people surrounded by dark green trees and a variety of animal life and how much their lives will change from the wandering herdsmen and women from the land of UR.
The Bible records the travels of Abram as he is called or gathered from UR and sent to anther land to form a single people.
Yet Here, beginning at Babel, other people are sent by God, to form a variety of peoples and we must turn to other sacred books and stories to learn about them.
God’s words that are read as judgment in Babel Version I become lovely prophecy in Babel Version II, “now all they plan to do will be possible for them”.
When we follow the good biblical scholarship of reading each passage within the whole story around it, we see God acting to grant a name and working closely with one people, whose storyline the Bible follows but we also see God acting to form many people. Obviously the “human disunity and exile [of Bable version I] are not God’s final wish.”[ix]
Instead, God’s scattering has resulted in the greatness of a humanity which is not sheltered in one place but spread thru-out the world.
God’s design was for dispersal and diversity, and so we have been fruitful and multiplied. J
We are not homogeneous.
We are not isolated from the rest of creation,
and thank God for the variety of our gifts and differences!
The lesson of Babel is complemented by the story of Pentecost.
There is a wrong kind of unity (too much homogeneity) and there is a right kind of unity.
Terrance Fretheim makes this observation.
“The right kind of unity occurs only when the community encompasses the concerns of the entire world and encourages difference and diversity to that end.
Proper unity manifest itself in a ability to live together without conflict, oppression, and having common objectives IN TUNE with God’s purposes for the world”[x]
It turns out that what we have to learn from Babel version II comes from both the Genesis story of a failed tower and the Pentecost story in Acts.
God acts for diversity.
God scatters when we try to wall up in isolated singularly-focused groups. And God sends the joining ability to speak in all languages when God’s spirit flows and blows thru Christ’s community in order to insure the spread of the Good News to ALL the great variety of God’s people.
Pentecost doesn’t result in tongues only few can understand but in linguistic ability. Languages are not transcended, the gift of speaking them in given to the first members of Christ’s church so once again they might GO out and BE fruitful. HOW GOD MUST LOVE A VARIETY OF SOUNDS, LIKE WE MADE HERE TODAY!
Such joy in diversity is a gift we in this congregation have been given, unlike many other congregations. I wonder if there is more we can do?
Might Babel Version 3.0 be the next story of this congregation?
Imagine how our experiment with languages today could send us into new and unfamiliar places to invite people into this place of worship.
Where and what can we learn to do more that will engage and embrace other cultures?
Where is God sending us, FILLED with the Spirit’s gift of diversity so that ALL the world might know God’s love?
[i] R. Boyce Feasting on the Word; Theological Bartlett & Taylor, eds. (Louisville: WJK, 2010) p. 4
[ii] R. Boyce
[iii] J. Paschal ibid Homilectical
[iv] R. Boyce (see above)
[v] Reinhold Niebuhr Nature & Destiny of Man (NY:Scribner’s, 1964) p 1f:192 quoted in Feasting
[vi] T. Fretheim NIB Vol. I (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994) p. 412
[vii] Jeff Paschal Feasting Homilectical p. 7
[viii] Jeff Paschal Feasting Homilectical p. 7
[ix] JPS Study Bible
[x] T. Fretheim (see above)