The first eleven chapters of Genesis use narrative to wrestle with the biggest questions of human existence: Where did we come from? Why are we here? What is death? Who is our Creator? Why is there conflict and violence in the world? Why are relationships beautiful and difficult? The rest of the Bible engages those same topics in historical accounts that remind us of those larger-than-life truths, but these first few chapters of scripture tackle them head on. In our lectionary, we don't get to wrestle with these prehistoric passages very often--just nine times in the three-year Eucharistic lectionary--and this Sunday is a chance to do that which I find hard to pass up.
So what in the world happens at the Tower of Babel?
The LORD came down to see the city and 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."Really? God came down, saw that the people who had one language and one purpose would be able to do whatever they put their mind to, and confused everything just to keep us from being successful? That's the simple reading--the straightforward reading--which is usually the best. We could look for cracks in the biblical text that provide enough of an opening for an alternative interpretation. For example, the passage tells us that the humans sought to "make a name for ourselves." A preacher could take that one line and use it to declare their effort--and all human endeavors--as sinfully selfish and subject to God's judgment and wrath. Or the preacher could focus on the people's attempt to build a tower "with its top in the heavens" as a sign that humanity was competing with God, seeking their own glory instead of the glory of the divine, and declare that all such efforts are doomed to fail. But that feels like ducking the truth that the Bible gives us.
However you believe that scripture was developed, we have a beautifully strange and challenging text in Genesis 11. Did the Holy Spirit direct Moses to write down every word as a record of what actually happened? Did God's people adapt mythical accounts of creation, fall, and judgment that they encountered from other ancient tribes into a story that was told and retold and retold again throughout the generations until it became codified in written form in the text we more or less recognize today? Regardless, the text isn't an accident. No matter your understanding of the origin of scripture, it is God's word, sacred and perfect. God could have dictated the story in a clearer, easier way. The generations could have shaped the account to tell a more straightforward, more easily understood story. But the didn't. God didn't. We have what we have, and we are called to wrestle with it.
What does it mean that God's people would discern a God who would come down and scatter the people to thwart their progress? What does it mean that God's people would be able to do anything they set their mind to if they were only unified in purpose and language? What does it mean that our differences in language, culture, and ethnicity are the only things that stand in the way of our greatest accomplishments? Of course, one instinct behind the passage is to explain how humanity developed those differences. But that explanation incorporates themes of human accomplishment and divine judgment. We situate the origin of our differences in a story of imposed limitations. The story seems to beg the question, when will we come back together? The unfinished tower and city, abandoned after the confusion of language, is a legendary testament to a work that is not yet complete.
The story of Pentecost is not an undoing of Babel. The Spirit does not lead the crowd to all hear the same language. Instead, Pentecost overcomes Babel by enabling the one truth to be shared in multiple languages. The differences, therefore, are declared good. Just as the tradition's insistence that the origin of those differences be located in God's work, Pentecost reminds us that the differences are not an evil to be wiped away but a reality to be overcome. An honest struggle with Babel leads us to a clearer understanding of the Christian hope as not the homogenization of the peoples but a unifying of our differences.