Genesis Wisdom: Babel

Genesis 11:1-9
August 10, 2014

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.

            I used to have a girlfriend who did something I found intriguing. I remember coming over to her place one time while she was on the phone. She opened the door, welcomed me in, and continued her phone call. Oddly, she barely said anything on the phone other than, “Uh-huh. Oh! Yeah. That’s interesting.” This went on for about thirty minutes. At one point I had to ask her a question, so I waved and asked if I could interrupt. She put the phone down on her shoulder and started quietly talking with me. She not only answered my question, but then started talking to me about our plans for the next day. During our conversation she would periodically put the phone to her ear and say, “Uh-huh.” or ”Hmmmmm.”

            I asked her who she was talking to, and she whispered, “Oh, it’s just my mom. She’s telling me something about pools and her neighbors.” The phone call went on for another hour as her mother kept talking, and she just listened. When she was done, I asked her, “What was your mom talking about?” She said, “Oh, she calls me every other day and just tells me about everything that goes on. I just listen to her as she babbles on. I actually get a lot done while she talks. I don’t’ pay attention to half of it, but as long as I say something every once in a while to let her know I’m still on the phone, she’s fine.” She was remarkable because she could listen to babble for long periods of time.

            Two weeks ago my family got back from a two-week vacation in Europe. It was one that we had been planning for many years. We spent one week in France and one in England. While in France we rented a car that took diesel gasoline. The problem with diesel cars is that not every gas station sells diesel gasoline. I know this intimately because my car right now is a diesel car. They get great gas mileage—up to 47 miles a gallon on the highway—but I have to plan ahead to find gas stations when traveling outside of the local area.

            While traveling in the Loire Valley, Diane looked down at the gauge and said that  tank was getting low. We needed to find gas soon. Unfortunately, as hard as we looked for stations, we had a hard time finding a station that sold diesel (or “gazzole” in French). Eventually we found a station in the small town of Bleré in the Loire Valley. It was an automatic station outside a closed supermarket. I tried my special European credit card, the one with a chip that had been accepted everywhere, but it was rejected. I tried over and over, but nothing. I tried my normal credit card. It was rejected. What were we going to do? We weren’t sure we had enough gas to search for another station.

            Finally, a woman and her young son pulled up to get gas for themselves. I said to her in my poor French, “Parlez vous Anglais,” or “Do you speak English?” She said, “Non, not very good.” So in my broken French I asked her to help me. She tried, but no matter what she did the card wouldn’t work. She called over an older man she obviously knew, who was walking by. I asked him, “Parlez vous Anglais,” and he said, “Non!”

            The woman explained to him what was going on, and he grabbed the credit card out of my hand, and in rapid French said to me something that sounded like, “Vous benez pontez sani blue paté laxez von pastole, blah, blah, blah.” In other words, I had no idea what he was saying, but that didn’t stop him. He just kept talking to me in French. It was obvious he was chastising me for apparently not doing it right. He put the card in while he talked, and it was rejected. He did it again, and it was rejected again. I tried to grab the card while saying, “Il ne travail pas,” which I think meant “It doesn’t work,” but he just slapped my hand away and tried four more times. Finally, he then gave me back the card, threw up his hands, and in rapid French said something that I took to mean “Yeah, it doesn’t work,” but there were a lot of extra words. He then said something rapidly to the woman and walked away.

            Finally, I managed to ask her if she would put the gas on her card, and I would give her 60 euros to cover it. She graciously helped me. When I got in the car, Diane asked me, “What were you talking about so much. We all in here laughing because all we could hear from you was “Non, non, non!  Oui, oui, oui! Non, non! Oui, oui! Non, non, oui, oui, oui!”  I told her what had happened, and I said, “That guy was no help at all. He just kept babbling and babbling, and I couldn’t get him to stop.”

            That word, “babble,” comes from our passage this morning, which said, “Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth.” Actually, the name of the tower, “Babel,” was a shot at the Babylonians, whose land (what is now Iraq) was littered with old, broken towers called ziggurats. The Hebrews hated the Babylonians, so they made them the star of this story of God’s displeasure.

            The story itself is a really weird story because it almost seems like it has no point, other than maybe an anthropological/historical one explaining why everyone speaks a different language. It pops up in the Bible out of nowhere, sandwiched between the story of Noah and his descendants, and the story of Abraham. Some suggest that the reason it is there is to answer the question, “why do we all speak different languages?” I used believe that, but I did so because I had more of an anthropological/historical view of the Bible. In my 20s I believed that the Bible made up these stories to answer historical questions that the people didn’t have true answers for. So, for instance, I believed that the creation stories were trying to answer historical questions in the absence of historians and scientists.

            Now I know so much more about the Bible than I did then, and I’ve come to realize that the Bible wasn’t written to answer historical questions. It doesn’t not answer historical questions, but teaching history isn’t the point of the Bible. Learning history is a modern pursuit, not an ancient one. The books of the Bible always answer questions about God, humans, and life. That’s the focus.

            When reading the Bible, it’s always better to read it as God’s guidance telling us about life, rather than reading it as a book trying to tell us about history. The Tower of Babel is not necessarily a story about what actually happened in history. It’s a story about how we are called to live out our stories in the midst of a confusing life. The story, like the Bible, answers spiritual questions, such as “where is God? Does God care about me? Can I trust God? Why is the world so difficult? How do I find peace in my life.” The Tower of Babel especially gives answers those last two questions.

            This passage makes a very strong point, which is that while we may yearn for peace, but we aren’t necessarily supposed to be completely at peace, or at least not at peace on human terms. We may have a dream that one day all would be united, speak one language, and live in harmony, but what if that’s not entirely God’s vision for us?
            What if God’s vision is not that we live in a place where the lion and the lamb live together in perfect harmony, but that we have to work and struggle for unity, never quite reaching it, but always pursuing it?  What if God wants us to struggle for harmony and peace—to forge it on the soil of disappointment and turmoil? What if God wants us to forge peace on the ashes of failure, when we finally reach a point where we can forego truly human paths to peace, and finally accept God’s path to peace?

            Think about this story again. Why does God destroy the tower? God says, “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.” It would be easy to interpret this passage as God fearing that humans will now compete with God, but that’s a misinterpretation. The point isn’t that they will compete with God. The point is that they will substitute themselves for God. They will become so enraptured with their own accomplishments and feats that they will begin to worship themselves. They had already built a tower glorifying their own human power. And in the process they were becoming less than human because to be human means to be spiritual, too. They no longer needed the spiritual if they were gods.

            In so many ways the problems present in this story are reminiscent of the problems that plagued humanity prior to the Noah story, and of the problems that existed in Sodom and Gomorrah. In those cases people worshipped human lust, desire, and power. In this story people were worshipping human ambition, accomplishment, and power. And in both cases they were forgetting that they were created for God’s purposes, not their own. They were scattered, and the tower was broken, so that they now had to struggle with differences and diversity of ideas, language, and perspectives. Any peace and harmony they achieved would have to be struggled and yearned for, but it would also lead them to rise above merely human attributes. They would have to tap into God’s way to peace, which comes through love and compassion, not human accomplishment and achievement.

            Babel’s kind of peace is one built on sameness that creates blandness. God’s peace is built on creativity that creates uniqueness. So, within the story of the Tower of Babel there are lessons.

            One lesson is that the more people think as one, the more arrogant they tend to get, and try to force everyone else to think what they think. Babel is a tower of arrogance, striving to compete with God, and to make themselves gods. This arrogance is the problem of every dictatorship, every political movement, and every attempt to force unity upon people based on human terms. Hitler tried to create this kind of unity based on Aryan supremacy, and in the process created a war that killed over 50 million people in Europe (an extra 10 million died in the South Pacific theater). Stalin tried to force a communist unity on Russian, and killed over 25 million people through execution and gulag concentration camps in order to accomplish it. Mao tse Tung’s Chinese communists killed over 15 million people. Human terms for peace and unity often result in many deaths of oppression.

            Every movement that demands one perspective, or obedience to one way of thinking, eventually creates a false peace. But that doesn’t stop humans from demanding one point of view and ideology to follow. Whether we are talking about the Tea Party, Unions, many religious denominations, capitalists, communists, or atheists, all demand fidelity to one idea and one ideal. They pursue the power of one point of view.

            What I find to be the brilliance and genius of democracy is that for it to operate properly it requires people to engage in the struggle of compromise. Peace isn’t built on one idea that everyone must adhere to. It is based on the ideal of willingly putting aside a striving for unity solely on my terms, in order to achieve a unity based on compromise and community. This is much closer to what God calls us to as Christians. We are not called to one theological belief system. We are called to work together to achieve God’s peace by forging relationships of love despite our different beliefs, perspectives, genders, ethnicities, nationalities, and realities. God’s peace comes not through the achievement of a human Babel, but through unity gained by the struggle to embody God’s compassion and communion.

            I think the closest to this ideal I’ve seen embodied is the Seeds of Peace International Camp in Maine ( For over 21 years this camp, and other programs that have sprung out of it, have brought together teens from different sides of warring areas, helping them to forge friendships that spread seeds of peace in conflicted areas. They have brought together Protestants and Catholics from Northern Ireland, Palestinians and Israelis, Greeks and Turks, Pakistani and Indian and Afghani, and so many others. They bring them together for a summer, teaching them to work together through outdoor activities, and learn each others’ perspectives through discussions and classes. The camp has been remarkable because it has led teens to forge peace through struggle, a peace that is closer to what God wants than to what humans strive for. And if you watch a video of the camps, you find people of completely different warring factions becoming friends with each other.

            We are meant to struggle together to come together, not to come together by thinking as one. We are called to live as one with our differences. That’s God’s goal. It is what you see here at Calvin Church. We are not people who completely think alike. We are not a people who look alike. We are not people who live alike. But we are a people at peace because we have sought God’s way over a purely human way. This is what the apostle Paul calls being “one in the Spirit,” rather than merely of one mind.

            Human peace is built on being of one mind where we all think one set of thoughts. God’s peace is built on being of one Spirit where we are united in God’s love, despite our uniqueness.