Scripture: Genesis 11:1-9
Key verse: (4) “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens. And let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
Reflection: “What we’ve got here, is a failure to communicate.” That famous line from the 1967 classic, “Cool Hand Luke” aptly describes the story of the Tower of Babel. Babel represents the close of what scholars call Genesis’ primeval history. Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad suggests the first eleven chapters of Genesis can be understood as a succession of four falls paired with four acts of grace on the part of God. Eden is the first fall, leading to Adam and Eve’s expulsion. Grace is found in that God gives them skins to protect them, softening the sentence. In the second fall, Cain murders Abel, and is cast out to the land of Nod. In grace God marks Cain for his protection. He becomes the founder of cities and music and culture. In the third fall, the earth is corrupt with violence, so “God pulls the ultimate CONTROL-ALT-DELETE,” as my friend Jarret McLaughlin describes it, by flooding all the earth. Yet the ark embodies God’s grace as a remnant is preserved.
In von Rad’s assessment, Babel represents the fourth fall. So what is the sin? “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.” What could possibly be wrong with this? Wouldn’t it be great if the whole world could get together on something? Can you imagine if we all spoke the same language? That would make things so much easier. And what could possibly be wrong with everyone sticking together and settling in the land of Shinar? A hint is found in that the Hebrew word Shinar grows out of a root word meaning, “We shall rebel.”
There’s something about this togetherness that represents rebellion. What is this rebellion? In the first ten chapters of Genesis, time and time again God calls humanity to spread out. “Be fruitful and multiply … fill the earth,” says God to Adam and Eve. “Be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply in it,” God says to Noah and his family as they exit the ark. After the flood, the nations scatter over the earth; a good thing as far as God is concerned. Yet at Babel, the whole earth has one language and the same words, and they all come to Shinar and settle there. The rebellion of Babel is not unity, it is homogeneity.
They gather together around sameness and seek to make a name for themselves by building a tower. Christian ethicist H. Richard Niebuhr described this kind of sameness as a type of faith. He called it “henotheism, that social faith which makes a finite society …the object of trust [and] loyalty. …In henotheism, the community’s continuation, power and glory are the unifying end of all its actions.” It is essentially when a culture or a cause becomes a god. So it was in Babel. To make a name for themselves, the people seek to build a city with a tower reaching to the heavens, “lest they be scattered abroad upon the whole face of the earth,” which is actually what God told them to do. What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.
So God mixes things up by confusing their language. God will not stand for the homogeneity of language and culture that keeps people glommed together in the same place building a name for themselves. That’s God’s work. At Babel God shatters the self-fashioned idol of sameness, scattering the people over all the earth, giving birth to the multiplicity of language and culture that will never be flattened into homogeneity.
That’s the fourth fall of the Primeval narrative, as von Rad describes it. So where’s the grace? It begins with the next chapter, with the call of Abram and Sarai to leave what they know, to trust God’s vision for their tomorrows and go to a land God will show them that God might make of them a great nation, and bless them, and bless all the nations of the earth through them, and make their name great. So begins the unfolding story of God’s grace in response to the fall at Babel, the story that is the rest of the Bible. At Pentecost, this story continues to unfold. Some see Pentecost as a reversal of Babel, but that’s not what it is at all. By the end of the miracle at Pentecost, the people are not all back to speaking the same language. Rather each person hears in their own language the mighty acts of God. Their unity is in God, not in their own homogeneity.
This is a powerful word for the church. In a time when churches are organizing more and more around like-mindedness, I wonder if we’re not creating homogenous temples of henotheism. Our diversity of thought at MPPC is a gift. Our unity is not in any political ideology or socio-economic circumstance or shared life experience. Our unity is in Christ. Our diversity is what keeps us from fashioning idols forged from homogeneity. It’s a God-given gift. May we be faithful stewards of this gift.
Prayer: You are one, O God. We are many. Our unity is in You, Your love, Your claim upon our lives. Help us live as sisters and brothers in the family of faith united in you. Amen.
Author: Joe Clifford
[Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved].