Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Dream of Undoing Babel

This Sunday is Pentecost, and I suspect that most churches will read the Romans lesson instead of the Genesis account, but I love the story of the Tower of Babel, and I can’t resist the urge to write about it. It’s confusing. It’s disturbing. It leaves me with huge questions about the nature of scripture, the nature of God, and the nature of humanity’s relationship with God. It’s perfect!

The story is pretty simple. A long, long, long time ago, all of humanity was united in language and purpose, and they set out to build a city with a tall tower in it. The Lord recognized that “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them,” so the Lord confused their speech and scattered them in an attempt to thwart their efforts. He succeeded. The end.

The story is simple, but its implications are haunting. Really? God reached down and messed everything up because he was threatened by humanity’s ability? What sort of playground bully is that? And that leads us to the central question behind this passage: why would God do such a thing? Why did God make everything so difficult? What was God thinking? What does that mean about our relationship with a kick-down-your-sandcastle God?

But that’s the wrong question. Well, at least it’s not the question I think we should ask. There’s a different and equally important question that has helped me grapple with this story and also fit it in with the theme of Pentecost. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

Instead of starting from heaven and looking at this story as a tale about God’s motives, begin from earth and look up at this story and wonder what it says about the humans who wrote it. By the time this tale was circulating among the ancestors of Abraham, the reality of multiple, rival cultures and languages was commonplace. Tribalism is as ancient as humanity. Essentially, there was never a time when we weren’t different from other people. This story is a reflection on that fact. The people looked around at the world, noticed that everyone was different, and they told this story as a mythological explanation of how it all happened. So what does this story say about those people? What does it say about their impression of who God was? What does it say about the brokenness of their relationship with God and their need for God’s forgiveness?

And that leads me to the other big question behind this story: what might the world be like if we were all united in language, culture, and purpose? The passage answers that for us: “nothing…[would then] be impossible for them.” That’s the point. This isn’t a story about confusion. This is a story about what if it weren’t confused? It’s a story that invites us to think about a time when all people might come together. It’s a dream of what humanity could accomplish if we were no longer separated by linguistic, cultural, religious, and social barriers. And that world is Pentecost.

Nothing is impossible. And with the Spirit’s guidance—as God’s deeds are proclaimed in every tongue—the opportunity for humanity to be united in the establishment of God’s kingdom is a reality. Acts is about that ancient dream becoming a reality. The Church is where that happens…or at least where it’s supposed to happen. We are the fulfillment of the hopes of those ancient people who saw a distant possibility that was limited only by our cultural differences. The Spirit’s work is to overcome those differences so that we might be united in mission—so that nothing will be impossible.


  1. Like you, we will read Genesis this Sunday. Thanks for this message. It gave me a different look at it. I hope to be out of town this weekend and won't get to hear Robert's sermon, but we will get to read it next week.

  2. Maybe Robert will preach in Spanish.