Text: Genesis 11:1-9
Speaker: Joel Miller
We humans have a long history of migration and settlement. If you want to go way back, there’s evidence human species have been wandering across continents and over waters for at least two million years. More recently, a mere 70,000 years ago or thereabouts, migration out of Africa eventually led to a dispersal of modern humans just about everywhere we can survive. As groups migrated, settled, and migrated again, they formed unique cultures and languages, sometimes developing in isolation, sometimes intermingling with near and even far away peoples. Then, about 500 years ago, as anthropologist Adam Kuper writes, “the history of human population began to come together again into a single process, for the first time since the origin of modern humans.” (1) We have called this “globalization.”
That’s a rough outline of how we currently tell the story of how the world got to be the way it is today. It’s now an interconnected world where you can eat McDonalds in Egypt, where Japanese cars are made in central Ohio, where you can click a button and have an item made by Chinese workers delivered to your doorstep the next day. A world where humans have had such a massive influence that even the wind and the weather bear our footprint. This is the world in which the six of you – Carolina, Zac, Gabe, Lydia, Mario, Nina are coming of age.
There are other ways of telling this story, and Genesis chapter 11 is one of them. It’s the final chapter of the opening section in Genesis scholars sometimes call “primordial history.” The stories are best understood as myth and parable. And if you think myth makes something less real, consider for a bit how profound an impact even a short phrase still has on our moral imaginations, like humans being “created in the image of God” from Genesis 1. Those opening chapters of Genesis address the age old question of how the world got to be the way it is.
And even though Genesis 11, the Tower of Babel story, doesn’t line up real well with our current understanding of history, it has quite a bit to say about our current place in history, whether you are coming of age today or whether your coming of age feels like ancient history.
The story begins with a rather startling possibility. “Now everyone on earth had the same language and the same words.” And then, a migration wave. They migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar – that’s Babylon, modern day Iraq – and settled there. And at that place of settlement, they decide to build. They dig clay, fire it into bricks, and start to build.
So far, so good. Nothing too out of the ordinary here. Migration, settlement, and building. Even bees and beavers are into that.
Then the story starts to become uniquely human. They say to one another, “Come, Hey, let’s make this thing really big, like really big and powerful, like taller than the heavens. Not just a skyscraper. The top floor of this thing is going to be looking down at the sky. Let’s make a name for ourselves. It’s going to be awesome and this is what’s going to keep us together.”
And because they can all speak the same language and can understand each other, and because they are all collaborative team players, they get to work building a city and a tower.
That’s when we meet a new character in this story. Yahweh in Hebrew, “The Lord” in our English translations. Or, in our CMC version, Zac. This tower apparently hasn’t quite reached heaven yet, because the Lord has to “come down” to see it. The Lord takes a self-guided tour around the city with the tower in the middle of it.
Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Mmmm. Huh.
The Lord is apparently not alone because the Lord, after having done a survey of the city, a building inspection, and some anthropological research says, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and they’re just getting started. This could get out of control quick. It appears these human creatures can pretty much do whatever they set their minds to.”
Having learned a lesson from the last major encounter with the humans when the Lord just about wiped out the whole planet earth project with a flood, the Lord proposes a more nonviolent solution.
“Come, let us go down, and confuse their language, so they won’t be able to understand each other’s speech.” You can’t build a tower if the architects and the engineers and foremen, and the artisans and the laborers can’t understand each other.
Hearing no objections from the Divine counsel, this is exactly what Yahweh does. The Lord confuses their language, and they scatter over the face of the earth, each only understanding the language of their own small tribe. And they abandon building the city and the tower. And that’s why we have so many different languages and cultures.
The one verse epilogue clues us in on what inspired this story. For the first time, we hear the name of the city: Babel, Bablyon. It’s a play on the Hebrew word for confuse, Balal, as in “the Lord confused their language.” The great city of Babylon, to which the Jews were exiled after their own beloved city of Jerusalem was conquered by the Babylonians, becomes the model of all misguided human ambition. Rather than being in awe of the overwhelming power of this empire, and those huge ziggurat towers they would build with slave labor, the conquered Jews tell a cautionary tale. Rather than forsake their own language and culture and become Babylonians, like everyone else, they tell a story in which the Lord casts a definitive vote for cultural diversity. It seems the Lord would rather have a world in which there are 10,000 languages and cultures, than a world with one dominant language and culture that builds really big things. That’s not a creative contemporary interpretation of the story, that IS the story.
So here’s what we’ve got: We live in a world, you live in a world, which for the last 500 years has been coming together into a single process. And we have this biblical story which looks so skeptically at everyone together in a single process.
When we discussed this story together in your Sunday school class about a month ago, we did some wondering about what all this might mean. For starters, it was not difficult for you to imagine a world in which everyone speaks the same language because we seem to be heading in that direction. Our native language happens to be one that lots of other people are learning – even if we still refuse to use the metric system like almost everyone else. Not that the whole world is going to speak English – or Chinese – before you graduate high school. But you observed that translators can help people understand each other, including Google translate. So even if we don’t all speak the same language, we can understand each other and work together, which was the main benefit of the common language in the Babel story. In other words, we’re kind of living in the middle of this story right now.
One of the things that surprised me in our conversation was how optimistic you all are about the benefits of everyone being able to understand each other. We can get to know each other better. More minds working together can solve more problems. We can finally figure out how to adapt light saber technology for practical purposes – although I think that might have been a couple elder members of the jr high class who were especially excited about that one.
Even after I brought up the creation of nuclear weapons and massive species die off because of climate change, two bitter fruits of human cooperation, you were unfazed. No, you insisted. Understanding each other and working together is good. We can do this. For those of us who have already come of age and can perhaps see more gloom than glam in our present situation, it’s good to hear of your hopeful optimism.
One of the things we didn’t talk about in that class was another story in the Bible that has become linked to the Tower of Babel story through the liturgical calendar. On Pentecost Sunday, which celebrates the birth of the church, the Tower of Babel story has become paired together with the story of the upper room in Jerusalem, in Acts chapter 2. This story takes place about fifty days after Jesus’ crucifixion. Some of the disciples had encounters with a risen Jesus, and a smaller group had witnessed this resurrected Jesus ascend into heaven. They were without their leader and guide. And in that upper room, while they were gathered together, a sound like a rushing wind comes through and flames of fire appear over each one of them, and, as it says, they were filled with a Holy Spirit. And, and this part is important, they all started speaking in different languages. Sounds familiar.
This was a festival time and people from all around the known world had made pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate. These pilgrims overhear this commotion going on from this upper room. And here’s a remarkable part of the story. Rather than just a bunch of loud nonsense, each of those pilgrims hears someone in that room speaking in their own native language.
At Babel, the people all speak the same language, and so can make trouble, and are dispersed into different languages. At Pentecost, there is both understanding, and a preservation of each pilgrim’s unique culture and language. And so this story is like Babel, the Sequel. It’s kind of the best of the one language of the builders and the different languages of the scattered tribes. And that’s the birth story of the church. The Holy Spirit, the creative Spirit of the universe, loves collaboration – and loves the preservation of difference and otherness.
So this Spirit, this energy, this power that is both greater than ourselves and dwells within us, plays a really big role in our lives, young and old. Humanity has had some bitter fruit from its abilities to do big and powerful things. But the fruits of this Spirit, Paul writes in one his letters, the effects of its presence, are love, and joy, and peace, and gentleness, and self-control.
This is where all this starts to get personal for all of us, and for you.
You are coming of age in a world of amazing and wonderful creations, and a world which we have damaged through our creations. A world of smart phones and smart cars and solar panels and nuclear weapons and skyscrapers and space travel and Chipotle and virtual reality and pollution and YouTube and TikTok and refugees and fighter jets and advanced medicine and rising oceans.
Our prayer for you, and for ourselves, is that as we live and collaborate and build in this one world we all inhabit, that we can do so filled with the Holy Spirit. Filled with gentleness toward the vulnerable, filled with generosity, filled with love, filled with humility. Unfortunately, this doesn’t come automatically. It takes daily work to choose to allow this Spirit to shape our lives. Fortunately, it’s a Spirit of grace that takes hold of us despite ourselves and reminds us that we are each created in the image of God no matter our successes or failures.
We are honored to be a part of your lives, Nina and Mario and Gabe and Zac and Lydia and Carolina. May you be filled with this Spirit, and may you build something beautiful.
(1) Quoted in Sanctuary and Asylum: A Social and Political History, by Linda Rabben, p. 27.