Tower of Babel

the blessing of babeling

The first nine verses of Genesis 11 tell the story of the Tower of Babel.  We hear that “the whole earth had one language and the same words” (v. 1).  With that kind of unity, it looked like anything was possible!  The people moved to a plain, and at the town hall meeting, someone 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” (v. 4).

PrinceThe place erupted with cheering and for the entire night, they partied like it was 1999.  (Yes, an unexpected Prince reference.)

After the groundbreaking, things went pretty much according to plan.  There were a few setbacks, but the important driving force was the mission to make a name for themselves.  All other considerations were secondary.  In his article, “Mankind’s War against Humanity,” Yonason Goldson draws inspiration from Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch.  According to the rabbinical critique of the tower builders, “if a brick were accidentally dropped from the top of the tower, the people would weep over the futility of the labor invested to carry it up.  But if a worker lost his footing and fell to his death, no one gave him a second thought.”

Labor unions weren’t exactly a high priority.

Still, there was one observer who had a beef with what was going on, and it went beyond worker safety.  The Lord wasn’t happy with the overall vision of this construction project.  “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” (v. 6).  The Lord made the decision to “confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech” (v. 7).

Babel We might want to ask, “What the heck?  What’s wrong with everyone pulling together as a team?”  However, it wasn’t the unity which enriches that was guiding them.  As Goldson says, “The unity that should have uplifted humankind became twisted into a vehicle for corruption of the human spirit.  The solution was not to confound or confuse their language, as the popular translation suggests.  Rather, it was to mix together a multiplicity of words and thoughts so that understanding would become more elusive and, consequently, require more effort to achieve.”

A unity insisting on groupthink is a distortion.  Control of language and definitions is an effective means of controlling people.  When individual languages disappear, we lose the unique concepts and insights the speakers of those tongues were able to achieve.


Daring to question the party line, the approved ideology, can be hazardous to one’s health.  At the very least, it presents a golden opportunity to be shamed and excluded.  It seems that we today are not unlike that.  Thus we have, not a petulant deity, but a loving and liberating God who provides the blessing of “babeling.”  It is a blessing, not a curse, to be scattered and abandon “building the city” based solely on ourselves—not based on the justice and peace ultimately inspired by God.

confusing cooperation

Recently, I returned from a conflict mediation training event hosted by the Synod of the Northeast of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  I won’t pretend to give you a synopsis of the entire week—partly because my brain is still trying to decode the stuff that was fed into it.

But I do want to introduce a little of the stuff we did in today’s sermon.  I want to use the story of the tower of Babel in Genesis 11, with its confusion of languages, and the story of Pentecost in Acts 2, with its speaking in tongues, as an arena of conflict (and perhaps conflict resolution).

One thing we did I would like to mention was looking at how we manage differences.  That is, a little more strongly, how do we deal with disagreements?

Of course, there are plenty of ways to look at it.  One was a self-assessment that deals with several scenarios of different, and often competing, viewpoints.  It looks at the way we typically deal with those situations.

Very quickly, the inventory has four categories.  One is Accommodating / Harmonizing.  This approach values peace and harmony above all else.  Being sociable is very important.  Concern for the feelings of other people is high on the list.  A motto for this one might be, “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

Another one is Achieving / Directing.  These are the go-getters, the ones who take the initiative and dive in.  These are the risk takers.  This one’s motto could be “nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

Then we have Affiliating / Perfecting.  This one puts a great emphasis on relationship.  Being team oriented is very important.  A pursuit of excellence is highly valued.  This might be a fitting motto: “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well!”

Finally, there is Analyzing / Preserving.  This approach values gathering information.  Very important is a chance to think things through and not be pressured to make a snap decision.  “Look before you leap!” might be appropriate here.

This is the category I scored the highest in.  I think it speaks to the comment I made earlier about my brain trying to decode what was put into it.  (Give me a break.  I haven’t had enough time!)  One problem with this approach is “analysis paralysis.”  (Hey, I first got to get this stuff worked out!)

In reality, we use all of these approaches when dealing with differences, when dealing with conflict.  It’s just that we’re built—we are hardwired—to favor one or two over the others.  We have to stretch ourselves to operate in ways we would rather not.  Some people are better at stretching themselves than others.  I really have to work at it.  I can stubbornly insist on my own way, even if God is calling me to be more.

As today’s prayer of confession says (it being Pentecost), “We confess that we hold back the force of your Spirit among us.”  That easily becomes my prayer!

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There’s a certain group of people who are holding back the force of God’s spirit among themselves.  These guys are the builders of the tower of Babel.

Some see this mythical story as explaining how the human race developed many different languages.  That’s part of the mix at the surface level, but there’s so much more to it.  As today’s declaration of forgiveness says, “God confused the language of all the earth to keep the people from idolatry.”

Genesis 11 begins, “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.”  One language and the same words.  That goes beyond the sounds that come out of our mouths.  More importantly, that also can apply to various viewpoints, to different ways of looking at the world.  If everyone speaks the same words, the difficulties of disagreement are ignored, even repressed.  The danger of groupthink sets in.  People are “encouraged” to think the same way, to have their values dictated to them.  That becomes an idol.

What actually happens in the story?

The people migrate to the land of Shinar, which is in modern-day Iraq.  A decision is made to build bricks and use them to construct a city.  They begin work on a tower.  It’s probably what was known as a ziggurat, which looked like a pyramid.  Last week, in my sermon on Revelation, I mentioned “a palace that was a city”—the joyful grandeur of what a city can and should be, looking to the New Jerusalem that descends to earth.

Maybe that’s what these people are about: getting into the palace building business.

So things are going along; deadlines are being met.  The chamber of commerce is rolling out the red carpet for tourism and hosting conventions.  But hold on a minute!  With verse 5, things take a sudden turn.

“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” (vv. 5-8).

What is the deal?  Why is God being such a party pooper?  Why is the Lord throwing a monkey wrench into the works?  “This is just the start.  Nothing can stop them now!”  It sounds like God is scared!

A few moments ago, I mentioned the idea that having one language and the same words has turned into an idol.  But does that necessarily have to be the case?  What’s wrong with everyone understanding each other?  Doesn’t that help foster unity?

It looks like motivation makes a big difference.  What is driving them?  Look at 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.”  Let us make a name for ourselves, otherwise…  That’s not the prelude to a confident affirmation of faith!  It’s not God who is scared; it’s the people.

They are motivated by fear and distrust.  They fear and distrust God, and even if they don’t want to admit it, they fear and distrust each other.  Fear and distrust is what shapes their society and culture.  Of course, fear and distrust begin within ourselves.  We are in conflict within ourselves.  Without reconciliation, we project that outward into the world around us.

Having said that, can we see the Lord’s act of confusing the people’s language and scattering them throughout the earth as something other than punishment?  Can we see this as an act of love and grace?

Old Testament professor Nancy deClaissé-Walford says, “God scatters humankind so that they might fill the earth, but fill the earth with different voices, different cultures, different life experiences.”[1]  God is no enemy of diversity, no enemy of difference!

On that point, let me tell you a little story.  Once upon a time, a student approached the rabbi and said, “Teacher, I have a question.”  “Go ahead,” said the rabbi.  The student said, “You have taught us that we all are created in the image of God.”  The rabbi replied, “That is correct.”  “Then why,” responded the student, “do we come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and colors and languages?”  The rabbi said, “Because we all are created in the image of God.”

Remember the story of creation.  God creates the universe by making a difference!  Light and darkness, day and night, earth and sea, and so on.

Our friend Nancy continues, “Look around us; consider our world.  We’ve done a pretty good job of fulfilling the creation command.  But we have also, over the millennia, done a very good job of creating our own towers—towers of isolation.  It is easier to be around ‘our own kind,’ those who speak our language, share our history, act and react as we do.  But our towers are no different from the tower of our ancestors in the faith.”

Like those builders in Genesis 11, we also often act as though our differences and disagreements are somehow a flaw in God’s design.  We act as though conflict is not normal.

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One of the first things we did at the mediation training was to look at this idea of conflict.  The presenter asked us what images come to mind when we hear the word “conflict.”  I think all of the answers pictured conflict as something undesirable, even sinful.  My response was “red faces.”

Conflict is normal.  Without conflict, life itself is impossible.  Without conflict, there wouldn’t be a food chain.  Without conflict, human innovation would be close to nonexistent.  So it’s not a question of conflict being good or bad, it’s what we do with it, how we deal with it.  That partly goes back to those categories I mentioned earlier—the ones with the different mottos.

Here’s a good one on conflict: what is God saying to us in the midst of it?  Admittedly, that’s a tough one to keep in mind when anxiety kicks in.  Let’s not forget: Jesus engaged in plenty of conflict!

Looking back at God’s scattering the people and confusing their language, this is being done to save them from themselves.  This “tower with its top in the heavens” is the perfect example of human technology gone adrift.  Here, it’s a rejection of the joyous, divinely created diversity that is there, if we have the eyes to see it.

Looking ahead to the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, we see another case of confusion of language.  But there’s something different here.  Instead of people making a name for themselves, we have people inspired by the Holy Spirit, praising the name above all names.

We have folks from all over the Roman Empire, and places to the east, who have no earthly idea what the others are saying.  It looks nuts.  Some of those watching all of this decide, “There’s no other way to explain it.  All of these people are drunk as a skunk.”  That’s the cue for St. Peter, apostle of Jesus Christ, to explain that this was the vision of Joel the prophet.

Some confusing cooperation is going on.

Just as with the tower of Babel, at the surface level, the Pentecost event is focused on the confusion of languages.  But the meaning is deeper.  Even if we don’t understand each other at the surface level, there can be unity of spirit.  And in this case, that’s Spirit, as in Holy Spirit.

What does this mean for our disagreements today?  What does this mean for our own arenas of conflict?  Can we not find that what we have in common with enemies, however we define that, is far greater than our differences?

Peter talks about the Spirit being poured out on all manner of people, all sorts of shapes and sizes and colors and languages.  Creation itself is in turmoil.  But those who call on the name of the Lord find salvation.  They find liberation and reconciliation during conflict.

The faithful people of God, sisters and brothers of Jesus Christ, are called to listen beyond the confusion of tongues.  We need not build towers to make a name for ourselves.

On the day of Pentecost, the Spirit doesn’t diminish the diversity among the nationalities, the ethnic groups.  Those groups include both friends and foes.  Instead, the Spirit works through and with them.  Remember the student and the rabbi!  God is the author of difference, diversity, and dare we say, of conflict.

One more note from deClaissé-Walford.  “Diversity, differences between me and you, between us and the members of our families, between us and others in our faith communities is something to be welcomed, honored and celebrated…  If we do not, cannot, will not acknowledge our differences and live and work together in our diversity, then we commit the same sin of fear as the original ‘tower builders.’”[2]

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The Spirit who tumbled the tower builders’ plans is the same Spirit who on Pentecost orchestrated the clamor of confusion into a concert of cooperation.  That same Spirit is here to bring composure within the conflict in our own lives.

[1] Nancy deClaissé-Walford, “God Came Down…and God Scattered: Acts of Punishment or Acts of Grace?” Review and Expositor 103 (Spring 2006): 413.

[2] deClaissé-Walford, 414.

masters of our domain: a Pentecost reflection

Throughout human history, there have been numerous times when our intelligence outran our wisdom. This can be seen in many different fields. For example, a few days ago I saw a commercial for Pizza Hut’s “Crazy Cheesy Crust” pizza. It features a ring of cul-de-sacs in which they pour even more greasy cheese. But hey, it’s what the people want!

Unfortunately, and more seriously, our intelligence outrunning our wisdom is often seen in weapons of warfare. Or maybe I should say, if there’s been a way to militarize an invention, we’ve been very quick to do so.

But there is one event in human history that I want to especially highlight. It’s still within the living memory of a very tiny number of people. In the late nineteenth century, great strides were being made. Among many other things, radioactivity and x-rays were discovered. The field of psychology was blooming, with the birth of psychoanalysis. On a multitude of fronts, science and technology were making unheard-of advances. At the dawn of the twentieth century, a whole new world was being born.

Here’s that bit about intelligence and wisdom! A feeling began to grow that there was nothing that the human race couldn’t accomplish. It might take a little while, but nothing was beyond our reach. The problem with that type of mentality is that, as a whole new world is emerging, it’s easy to forget just how fragile it is.

We can be seduced by our tools. We can easily become arrogant, and this brings me to the event I mentioned a moment ago: the First World War, the most vicious and bloody conflict the human race had ever seen.

I have a history book which reads, “Throughout Europe jubilation greeted the outbreak of war. No general war had been fought since Napoleon, and the horrors of modern warfare were not yet understood.”* The very discoveries and advances which inspired a new way of thinking were tragically turned upon us: in this case, airplanes, submarines, tanks, mustard gas. It had been almost a century since any major war was fought in Europe. So, we are masters of our domain. We will fight this war, the war to end war.

In Genesis 11 we find the human tendency to trust our technology. It’s understandable if that seems far-fetched. At first glance, our story looks like it’s about something totally different. It begins, “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words” (v. 1). Well, apparently there’s no need for translators! Everyone can understand each other. Except, that’s not really the case.

In chapter 10, we’ve just been told about the various “languages,” “lands,” and “nations” that have arisen (v. 31). Just as today, the words that come from people’s mouths are only understood by some, not by everyone. The “one language and the same words” of chapter 11 shouldn’t be taken in some wooden, literal way.

What’s in view is not linguistics, or even history in the way we think of it today; it’s about theology—it’s about God and how we relate to God. We have a picture of a group migrating from the east to a plain in Shinar, an ancient name for a place in Mesopotamia. It’s there that they consider a building project. They have the necessary material for bricks and mortar.

Here’s what they decide: “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” (v. 4). We know that the Mesopotamians built pyramid-like structures called ziggurats. Some people say that the tower is one of those. Still, the concern here is not an analysis of architecture.

As one writer has said, “The issue here is not the building of the tower itself, but the reasons for building it.” So why do the people build a city and a tower with a top that reaches up to “the heavens”?

Actually, just as the case was with them, there are those today who have the same ideas. Let us make a name for ourselves. We are masters of our domain. But there’s more to it than that. They are insecure. There’s a fear that if they don’t get this done, they will be scattered. They will not achieve the unity they desire. And who is it that frustrates the unity that they’re striving for? What keeps the builders of Babel from their ribbon-cutting ceremony?

“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.’”

What is God’s deal? Is the Lord afraid of competition? Surely not, so what’s the plan? “‘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” (vv. 7-8).

We might symbolize it today as breaching their firewalls and crashing their computers. Anyway, what’s going on here? Why is God punishing them? That would be one way of looking at it, especially for those who believe that God does indeed ladle out punishment.

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Another way of reading the story is to see God’s grace at work. When the Lord says that “this is only the beginning of what they will do,” there’s that sense of intelligence outrunning wisdom. When people put their trust in the wrong direction, there can be a feeling that “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” God acts to save us from ourselves. Nazarene minister Dennis Bratcher says, “This expresses the idea that when human beings go against the purposes of God the result is confusion.”

In Hebrew, the word for “Babel” sounds like the word for “confusion.” It’s a joke built into the scriptures. (Actually throughout the Bible, we see the comedic art form of the pun, the play on words!) Bratcher goes on, “The arrogance and self-centeredness that compels us to define the world in our own terms results in a world in which we can no longer even talk to each other.” That makes sense.

We can use the same words and still not connect, especially if our main interest is making sure that our opinion gets heard. “Even when we try to be united,” he says, “if the basis of that unity is only ourselves and our own ambitions and goals, we will find that we cannot even communicate adequately. There is left nothing but babble, confusion, and disorder.” We can see “the ‘one language’ [in the story]…as a metaphorical way to talk about that false unity,” the way we foolishly assert that we are the center of the universe, that we are masters of our domain, that we need nothing outside of ourselves to guide us.

Pentecost is a reversal of Babel. With Pentecost, there are different languages, but a single heart. With Pentecost, there is a diversity of speech which is embraced and affirmed, but there’s also a unity of spirit, a unity of Holy Spirit. This prompts a question: are there any towers of Babel that we are building? If so, what are they?

Remember, the question doesn’t concern the structure (be it a literal structure or a figurative one), the effort put into it, or whatever else we set our hands to. Rather, the question concerns our motivation, our reason for doing what we do. The focus shifts from “what are we doing” to “why are we doing it.”

Bratcher finishes his thought this way: “We do need the same [Pentecostal] infilling of our hearts that will so fill us with the love for God and each other that there will be no more room for pettiness, for selfishness, for arrogant ambition, for sin.” You know, all of the skills that we spend too much time honing!

But instead, “When we wait for that enabling power from God, and employ it for [God’s] purposes in the world rather than ours, it may just be that ‘this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.’”

A divine infusion of wisdom is ours for the asking, so that our intelligence doesn’t run away with us. What a wonderful and awesome thing that would be; and indeed, it is!

* The Western Heritage, Donald Kagan, Steven Ozment, and Frank M. Turner, eds.