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. And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, ‘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.’ The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
The Word of the Lord.
More than ever before, I fear we need a nuanced theology of diversity and unity. This week, thousands are marching in the streets of Baltimore to show the world that things are not the way they are supposed to be. We need a nuanced theology of diversity and unity, and I believe we have the earliest renderings of one here in the story of Babel. But just like so many texts before it, certain readings of this story have done more harm than good, and led many to believe that diversity is a curse rather than a blessing; or they reduce the story, to condemning merely pride, and not the deeper sin at work – isolationism, fear of the other, uniformity. As we read this text closely, I hope that we can all see that unity and diversity are meant to be held together in God’s beautiful creation, and that God does not punish but corrects the course that creation was intended for all along – a creation teeming with difference and complexity, but which comes together in service to one another and the Creator. A creation where particular races are not unequally punished; where churches don’t wall themselves up from a world they call unclean; where we stockpile fewer weapons and open more food-banks. I’m sorry to begin this class on such a dour note; but I believe that these real world issues are at stake when we approach scripture. And in our text this evening, at stake is our understanding of God’s desire for unity, diversity, and identity.
I love these early stories in Genesis, because they are so fundamentally concerned with those issues that cut right to the core of who we are. Genesis 1-11 is called Primeval history by biblical scholars because it contains these pre-historical, fantastic stories that have less to do with telling us specific things that happened back then, but rather these amazing tales about the same things we still ponder now. Where do we come from? Why are we here? Is there any justice in the world? What is evil? What is family? How do communities form? These basic philosophical and sociological questions are met in Genesis with theological responses, giving glimpses more than answers; opening our eyes wider rather than focusing our gaze. This story, maybe more than the others, invites us to see ourselves and our world through its lens. Although it names the city Babel, there are no other names in this story. Instead, the phrase “all the earth” is used five times, and I believe that “all the earth” is meant to include us. The way it describes humanity, and how God responds, will be just as true today as it was for those earliest communities. It is, in many ways, a parable more than an origin story. It is about issues we face today.
When we read the text closely, we see that Babel is more than a tower, but a City, and the City is far more concerning to God. Think about it: this story is usually called: “the Tower of Babel”. This symbolism becomes an analogy for human pride and arrogance, when we try to construct something that makes us seem like god, we compare it to this story. But let’s hear their building plans again, and see where their priorities really were: “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 on the face of the earth.” That otherwise is important, it’s the whole reason for their building. They’re afraid to be scattered. What does that have to do with the tower? Their main goal is not to reach up to heaven, like so many readings have said, but they are building because they want to all stay together, safe and secure. The tower seems like an afterthought – not only to them, but especially to God! Ironically, despite their best attempts to put the top of their tower “in the heavens”, God still has to “come down” to see it. It turns out that the tower was little threat to God’s superiority. But God is very concerned about their holing up in a City: “Look, they are all one people, and they all have one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do.”
And we have seen the dangers that come when we unify in fear. Nazism, racism, sexism are all built on this same foundation as the City of Babel – that to be safe we must fear the things and especially the people who are different and separate ourselves from them – either by eliminating them, persecuting them, subjugating them or building walls between us and them. When we shut ourselves off from the other, evil takes root. How can selfless love exist in a place where everyone looks like ourselves? In Genesis 11, God is not condemning the Tower. God laughs at the Tower. But God fears what will happen if they follow through with their isolated City, and we have certainly proven God right in that case.
Keeping this in mind, we see God deal with this City; not through an act of punishment or cursing, but a corrective in line with the original plans of creation. Way back in the garden, God commands the first humans to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. God gives this commandment again after the Flood, to the family of Noah. So twice now in Genesis the command has been given to fill the earth, but in this story we try to do the opposite. We want to wall ourselves up and stay safe, making sure we all speak the same way, look the same way, think the same way. This was never God’s plan, as we see in the beautiful diversity of the rest of creation. God creates ALL the birds of the air and creatures of the sea and beasts on the land – and as we have discovered this amazing planet throughout history we find more and more unique and amazing things. God does not want one people, one nation, one language – on the contrary, the Book of Revelation envisions: “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”
At Pentecost, there is this beautiful picture of the coming of the Holy Spirit, where instead of uniting everyone in language, using the logic of Babel, instead everyone hears the message in their own language. They don’t leave all speaking the same tongue, but encountering the Gospel in their own distinct articulation. Like a great musical number that can be played by different instruments, in different rhythms, and with multiple harmonies, so the creation of God deserves to be encountered and expressed in ever-new ways. When God scatters them with new languages, it empowers Creation to encounter God in new ways, and to experience God’s best gift to the world: unity, within our diversity! God does not curse the world with new languages and nations. God blesses the world with diversity, whether they like it or not!
We have been given glimpses of this idea, of diversity and unity held together as companions and not adversaries. Creation, Pentecost and Revelation, in these big moments of past, present and future; a multitude of unique creations sharing a creator and a purpose; many languages hearing one Gospel; and finally every nation and tongue singing one song. This imagery permeates scripture. Even Paul, in describing what it is like to be in the community of God, says it’s like one body with many different parts. No one part should wish that it is a different one, or worse, think that another part is less important than they are. But as one body, we exist as a collection of parts moving toward one purpose. The City of Babel would have a body made up of only heads, babbling in vain, or a body of legs walking around in circles. As funny of an image as this is, we know there is more at stake. When our theology of unity and diversity is not robust enough to celebrate both, the City of Babel becomes Nazi Germany, or the Jim Crow south, or Westboro Baptist. The Bible celebrates the complex interplay of diversity and unity because if we lose sight of it, we quickly lose ourselves; or, worse, we lose each other.
The only name in the story is Babel, and we are told that it is named after its confusion. They wanted to make a name for themselves, but they are named after their ironic failure to do so. What will we be named for? As we build our cities, whether our City is a small group or a Seminary or a committee or even a Church, what will our name be called? If we fill our cities with people who are just like us and shut the door behind them, perhaps we need God to enter in and scatter us about again. God may bless us by shaking up our “cities”, whether we like it or not. The truth about names is that, just like at birth, we do not get to name ourselves. The more we pursue a great name for ourselves the faster we will lose it. Like so much irony in this story and in the Gospel itself, a great name is a gift given to those who don’t even want it. What name will we be given?
As I close tonight, I want to leave us with this benediction: May we become settlers who love to be scattered, unifiers who love diversity, and builders of unfortified cities with open gates. May we be a Church that rebukes the world for building Cities of Babel and carrying out its laws. May God enter swiftly in as at Babel, as at Calvary, to save us from ourselves and the desperate situation we are in. And, more than ever, may we never use God’s name in vain for our selfish tendencies. And until the day when we will have learned these lessons in full, may we pray for God’s mercy for fewer casualties along the way. Amen.