The Tower of Babel

Introduction to the Text

The first eleven chapters of the Book of Genesis are different from the rest of the Bible. Sometimes they’re called the “pre-history,” mythological tales that are meant to help us understand why the world is the way it is. These are deeply theological– they describe how God intended the world to be, what went wrong, and how God responded to restore the goodness God intended. 

It begins with sheer poetry and beauty – “In the beginning, God spoke…” and creation began. Light and darkness, sea and dry land, and all living things, until God made human beings in the very image of God. And it was good, very good. And then God rested.

Then comes a second story of creation, an alternate telling: the story of the Garden of Eden. Adam, the earth-creature, is created, and then beautiful complexity of all living things. But no creature is a good companion to Adam, until God takes the very substance of Adam and makes the one human being into two, male and female. 

All is well – until Eve is tempted by the serpent to take one thing they are not allowed to have. Eve believes the false promises, and she and Adam eat the forbidden fruit, evil enters the world, and the terrible consequences begin to unfold. Knowing things will never be the same, God’s heart is crushed. Adam and Eve must leave the garden, and Eden, that pure place of delight, is closed up forever. 

The evil continues. Adam and Eve have two children, Abel and Cain. When things cannot seem to get any worse, they do. Cain becomes jealous of Abel because God seems to favor his gifts, and in a fit of rage Cain kills his brother. And so it is that violence begins, murder and hatred, plagues that are still with us today.  Cain is sent to wander the earth, cut off from his family and kin.

Generations come and generations go, and evil continues to thrive. There is only one thing left God can do: destroy it all and start over. But he doesn’t give up completely on his children or on his creation. He finds one righteous man, Noah, and orders him to build an ark. On that ark come pairs of every living creature that walks the earth so they will be saved. Then God sends the rain, and water covers the face of all the earth, to wipe out the evil that has plagued it. The flood comes and goes, and the earth has a chance to start over. Then God sets a rainbow in the clouds, a sign of a covenant promise. God will never destroy it again, but will keep his covenant forever. And however evil the world becomes, God will be faithful, and bring redemption to the world God still loves. 

So the covenant history is about to begin. But there is one more story yet to tell: the story of the tower of Babel. Listen for the word of God. 

Genesis 11:1-9

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 to a place and settled there.  And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and bake them hard.” So they used bricks for stone, and tar for mortar. 

Then they said, “Come, let’s 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.” 

Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth, and from there the Lord scattered them over the face of all the earth. 

* * * * *

Like all the other early stories in Genesis, this story serves a simple purpose. It serves as an etiology, an explanation of why the world is the way it is. This time the question is why there are so many different languages - why there’s Chinese and English and Arabic and every other language that is and ever was, with every variance and dialect over time and space. And how is it that people are scattered to the four corners, living in every habitable corner of the earth? How did we humans become so different from each other? 

“It didn’t used to be that way” is the story’s short answer. “God decided it was better this way.” 

In other words, it’s “God’s will.” 

But that still begs the question, why? 

To get inside this story I think it helps to imagine the alternative… as if Babel still existed…  just imagine… What if the world were a place where everyone lived together, and spoke the same language? What if our world were a place where there were no insiders and outsiders? What if there were never misunderstandings or confusion over what was said, and what was meant?

And what if in that place everyone had the same purpose, and the drive to accomplish it? There would be no end to what could be done! What if there was no conflict to get in the way; no divisions, no war, because there were no outsiders, no enemies? One people, one place, one language, one purpose. It sounds as close to a return to Eden as there possibly could be. One big happy family, right?

It almost sounds like John Lennon’s song Imagine:

Imagine there’s no countries

It isn’t hard to do

Nothing to kill or die for

And no religion, too

Imagine all the people living life in peace…

I hope some day you’ll join us

And the world will be as one

So what is so wrong with this, that God decides it’s such a threat? Is God cruel or malicious or capricious? Is God threatened by these people, that they seem so independent, and don’t need him? Why would God take these people who were united in language and culture and destroy that unity? 

Because God sees the possibility of something so much better. 

“Unity” isn’t enough. Not if it merely means “sameness.” 

“Togetherness” isn’t enough. Not if it’s all about our own ambition.

 “Single-minded” and productive isn’t enough. Not if it means shutting God out.

The absence of conflict isn’t enough. Not if there is nothing like “love.”

Do you see what this story is saying? This is still God’s world, not ours alone to do as we please. God still wants to create new things with us, but not be shut out because we think we know best. God still wants to love us. And if that requires us to take down our carefully constructed world where we live in a protective bubble of our own making, so be it. 

As I was working on this sermon this week, I found myself remembering the universal language someone once tried to create. Esperanto, it’s called. It was invented by a man named L. L. Zamenhof in the late 1800s, and the hope, of course, was that people everywhere could understand each other without the need of translators. And if we could only understand each other, imagine how much better the world would be. At least that was the theory. Never mind all the misunderstandings that happen even when we’re all speaking plain English. 

So I looked up Esperanto. I was surprised to learn it was still a “thing” - I thought it had about as much traction as the attempt to make the United States go metric. And while it’s not widespread, about 2 million people speak it worldwide. A few souls are even teaching it to their children as their primary language. 

But a funny thing is happening. The children are changing the language. As things change around them, they’re inventing new words. They make new phrases and even sentence structure. And it isn’t happening uniformly - Esperanto is changing in different ways in different parts of the world. Do you see what this means? Over time, there won’t be one language of Esperanto any more. “Pretty soon,” one scholar says, “you’re back to having hundreds of languages. [I]

It’s baked in to who we are. To which I say, thank God for that. Thank God. 

I remember when I learned my first language other than English. I took Russian in High School, oddly enough. It was such a rich language, so passionate. I could feel how closely wed the language was to the culture. Who knows what comes first – does the language shape the culture or vice versa? The linguists can debate that point endlessly, but for the first time I understood that our language is far more than words; it makes meaning, frames reality, colors our world-view, lets us tell stories. It does so much more than allow us to pass information. In other words, it’s not mechanistic, it’s alive. 

When I took Biblical Hebrew and Greek, it became even clearer. The theology looks and feels different because of the language. Hebrew is fluid and poetic; Greek is structured and logical. Each has their own gift, but they’re not the same thing. And isn’t that good? Isn’t it beautiful? There’s so much more richness, so much depth, so much more possibility of expression and feeling and thinking. How flat the world would be without French. How linear we would be without Chinese. How humbling it is to discover the thousands of languages spoken by people in hidden corners of the globe, when we keep thinking we’re the center of the universe.  

We know how differences separate us, and the threats those divisions pose. The world’s history is filled with religious wars, territorial wars, ethnic wars, economic wars. Even within the same country, people are divided by politics and worldview as much as by race or class or rural vs. urban. When you hear the story of Babel, it makes you wonder, was it worth it? Is all the conflict really worth the variety, the complexity, of the world’s cultures?

It seems the Biblical answer is clear: God’s vision of creation has always been one of abundance, and if that abundance makes the world messy, so be it. Better messy and complex than a flat utilitarian world, mechanical and controlled, however well engineered it might be. Better this than a world without passion, without love, without God. 

When I was in High School our class visited Russia. It was still the Soviet Union back then, and I was struck by the contrasts I saw. All the new buildings were ugly; cement block, drab, uniform. The advertising was all propaganda. Most of the food was bland and the same; sausage and bread every meal. Though we were warned not to, you could sell Western blue jeans on the Black market for a small fortune. 

The old Russian culture still lived, though most of it was housed in museums: the Hermitage, the summer palace of the tsars, the beautiful pastel buildings of St. Petersburg – only it was Leningrad then - the turrets of St. Basil’s cathedral. I was amazed by the iconography of the old churches. 

There was something that wouldn’t die: their passion still lived. In the arts, the ballet and opera; in the street parties and dances; on the beach in Odessa. And in an ancient monastery we visited, you could almost feel the mystical presence of generations of orthodox priests, and the quiet, deep spiritual humility of the old women who still worshiped there. That heart would not die; it was the language of faith. 

It was the language of love.

You know, we live thousands of years after the people who told those old stories that come from the beginning of Genesis. But they understood something about our world that we often miss, or forget. That God has intentions for us. That God wants things for this world. That God designs beauty, and complexity, and passion, not a flat, man-made world we control. God’s passionate love is built into our souls – as old as that first word he spoke, long ago, that birthed this world into creation. 

We are made with the language of love. 

Thanks be to God.

Rev. Karen Chakoian

 

[i]Jason Koebler, “Why a Universal Language Will Never Be a Thing,” Motherboard.vice.com, https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/ezpvx4/why-humans-dont-have-a-universal-language