Tower of Babel
Posted on June 12, 2017

I think this blog should be called “Babbling.” (You may think many of my sermons deserve that title.) Do you remember the story of the Tower of Babel? It appears in Genesis 11:1-9. The story is an example of Hebrew midrash (think “parable”) and sought to explain why there are so many different people who speak so many different languages when presumably we all started out the same.

In this parable with a purpose, an ancient Jewish writer imagined a day when everyone was in the same place and spoke the same language. So, they decided to build a sky-scraper. In fact, it was the mother of all sky-scrapers. It was to be a tower leading all the way to Heaven (in their three-tiered view of the Universe, with Heaven being “up”). God observed their efforts and did not concur with them. So, God created the perfect resolution. God suddenly made them speak in different languages. No longer able to understand one another, they were therefore no longer able to give and carry out orders. So, the building of the tower ceased. Soon thereafter, the peoples dispersed to various regions where they lived together simply based on who could understand who when they tried to communicate.

As I read that story, three things jump off the page.

First, the story says that ALL PEOPLE ON EARTH ARE GOD’S. Originally, it said, they were “all gathered together in one place.” They lived in the same area. They spoke the same language. They were all related. We too often forget that, dividing ourselves into convenient but illogical camps of “them” and “us.” We all began the same. We all have similar needs and dreams. Beneath the skin, there are no differences. The purpose of the parable was not to teach that God ordains separatism or prejudice. In fact, it teaches the very opposite. It teaches that all of us are children of the same God.

Second, deductive reasoning would say (based on the first conclusion) that ALL PEOPLE ON EARTH ARE RELATED TO ONE ANOTHER. As children of the same God we are, therefore, all brothers and sisters to each another. We may live in different places and speak in different languages and worship in different houses of faith, but we didn’t start out like that. Ergo, “different” does not “better” or “worse.” It just means “an individual segment of the similar whole.”

Finally, this story says emphatically that GOD DID NOT DESIRE THAT GOD’S CHILDREN ESCAPE RESPONSIBILITY FOR THIS WORLD (they were precluded from building a stairway to Heaven and kept on earth where issues were real and needed to be attended). In Israel is a monastery carved into the side of a mountain. Years ago, monks would be lifted up to the entrance in large baskets. Once inside, they would remain there for the rest of their lives, spending their time in prayer and worship, never to venture out again. It was a beautiful spiritual commitment. But, it was inconsistent with the instructions of Christ (who urged Peter, James, and John not to stay on the mountain but to go back to the valley to heal a sick child... who told the women at the Empty Tomb to send the disciples to Galilee where they would find the Risen Lord at work in the world … and who said with his last words, “Go ye into all the world, preaching, teaching, and baptizing....”). I think two bumper stickers we often see capture the missionary spirit of Jesus and the bottom-line message of the Tower of Babel story more authentically than does asceticism that withdraws from the world. Those stickers say: “Think globally, act locally,” and “Bloom where you’re planted.” This story from Hebrew Scripture said the people wanted to build a tower reaching to Heaven, but God made sure their efforts were re-directed to earth.

It’s a fascinating story written by a creative author with deep spiritual insights that span the centuries. What we read from Genesis 11 is as fresh and urgent now as it was those centuries ago. (1) All people on earth belong to God, (2) therefore, all people on earth belong to one another as family, and (3) our job is not to escape to some oasis that retreats toward Heaven, but rather to wade into the hellishness of this earth and make it heavenly.

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