Genesis: Folklore of Faith
The Tower of Babel. Adult Bible Class Home Moravian Church. Originally aired on December 18, 2005.
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class. It’s been a busy week at Home Church. On Friday night dozens of members of the church gathered to make the evergreen garlands that decorate the sanctuary at Christmas. This is one of my favorite things at Home Church. I love watching children bringing sprigs of cedar and laurel to the grown-ups who tie them onto the heavy ropes that are the foundation of the garlands. One year I saw four generations working together on one garland. And the organization that is in place to raise those heavy strands of cedar is a marvel.
Introduction to the Lesson: Last week we discussed one of those passages of Genesis that never made it into my Sunday School quarterly as a child. I don’t think we ever had felt board figures of Noah in the tent. This is a reminder that Genesis was not written for children, although there are many important stories for children. It is appropriate that we read it again as adults. This week we are turning our attention to the famous Tower of Babel. That was a story we had felt board pictures of, and we told the tale pretty much as the story of the Fawlty Tower. Like the British comedy, the Tower of Babel is a story of confusion, arrogance and ignorance, but there are deeper meanings than we realized as children.
Babylon: To understand the story, it helps to journey back to ancient Babylon. Remember, these stories in Genesis 1-11 were probably written a priest or scribe during the time when Jews were exiled in Babylon. Today we tend to associate the word Babylon with immorality and orgies rather than civilization and culture. That is mainly because Babylon was hated by the Jews. In 587 BC Babylon razed to the ground the walls of Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple of the Lord, killed the sons of the king, and took thousands into exile in Babylon. Genesis was most likely written during this period of exile and it reflects some of the anger of the defeated people.
Still, we must remember that Babylon was one of the first and greatest of the ancient civilizations of the Fertile Crescent. The name means “Gate of the Gods,” but Genesis gives it a different meaning, as we shall see. Last May several members of Home Church made a trip to Central Europe to visit Moravian sites. While we were there, we went to the Pergammon Museum in Berlin. Around the turn of the 20th century German archaeologists explored the site of the ancient city of Babylon, which had been almost deserted by the time of Jesus. In the museum we saw the famed Gates of Ishtar, the gates of the ancient city of Babylon in the time of Nebuchadnezzar. I was not prepared for how overwhelming those gates and walls of the city are. It is truly awesome. At the time that Genesis was written, Babylon represented the height of human civilization and culture. It seemed impregnable. Looking up at the Gates of Ishtar and the temple of Marduk in the center of the city, was there hope for lowly Israel?
The Tower: As with all great empires, Babylon’s kings wanted the world to believe that they had been especially blessed by the gods who granted them victory. They built a huge ziggurat or pyramid in the midst of the city. The Mayans, Aztecs, Egyptians, and others built such impressive and durable structures. Scholars speculate that the reason for building such pyramids was to create a mountain. This showed political muscle. Today we build skyscrapers to display our power over nature and our ability to make things happen.
The ziggurat of Babylon had a series of square stories that rose like steps. There was a long ramp stairway leading to the top. At the pinnacle there was a cubic altar to the chief Babylonian deity, Marduk. Once a year the king ascended the steps and participated in a re-enactment of one the primal myth of Marduk subduing the forces of chaos, overcoming the flood, and establishing his kingdom on earth. The ritual reaffirmed the divine status of the king as the son of Marduk. He was god on the mountain. The writer of Genesis had no doubt seen this ziggurat and may have even witnessed the annual religious festival performed there, but he gives a different message. Rather than believing the propaganda of the empire, he tells a story that knocks down the arrogant and gives hope to the humble.
Babel: This is really an elegant little story. In just a few words the author of Genesis describes the building of a great tower of bricks that was to be the political center of the realm. Read in context though, there are some problems with the story. It comes after the genealogies we mentioned last week. According to Genesis 10, the descendents of Noah scattered all over the world and built the great civilizations of old, but in Genesis 11 the whole human race migrates en masse to the plain of Shinar and the scattering comes later. The simplest explanation for this is that chapter 10 is a listing from the (P)riestly Source and the Tower of Babel and the genealogy that follows is from J. The author of Genesis put them together without destroying their integrity, but there is a seam here. What we have here are two ways of telling a similar story. After the flood, humans repopulated the earth.
Let’s turn our attention back to the tower. The tower reached up to heaven. Remember, people believed that heaven was a physical space just above the mountains. Ancient people would have dismissed our theory about the atmosphere made up of many invisible gases that refract light as junk science. No, they knew that you could build a stairway to heaven, in theory at least. Led Zeppelin introduced a whole generation of Americans to this idea that you could build or buy a stairway to heaven. Like the ziggurat in Babylon, the Tower of Babel in Genesis was the pinnacle of human achievement and pride, the summit of our aspirations.
Fear: But why did they build it? In the text, it says so they would not be scattered. It wasn’t an achievement made out of creativity and the joy of living; it was a response to the fear of obscurity, the fear of mortality, the fear of world. They wanted a monument to keep their memory alive. Seen from that perspective, the gates of Ishtar look different. Why are the walls so high? Fear. I saw the great temples of Egypt two years ago: Karnak, Phillae, Luxor and others. They are amazing and I could have spent days there in their shade, but the temples were actually modeled on Egyptian fortresses, and the pictures on the walls celebrate the subjugation of Egypt’s neighbors. Think how much of our architecture today is built on fear of the world, fear of our neighbors, fear of living and fear of dying. Arrogance and fear go hand in hand.
Problematic Story: This leads us to the most intriguing and disturbing part of the story. The LORD comes down to see what is going on. Remember that in the J source, the LORD Yahweh is depicted in human terms. He walked in the garden of Eden, talked with Cain, and shut the door of the ark. Here he is depicted like a building supervisor checking to see if the new temple is built according to code. According to the text, the LORD doesn’t like what he sees. He is afraid that humans will achieve too much if they work together, and so he confuses their languages. He intentionally sows confusion and discord so that the people will scatter.
Progress and Violence: This is a bit odd, isn’t it? Why would the LORD want to put a stop to human progress? Through the centuries, many Christians objected to this portrayal of God as so jealous of human achievements that he messed up human communication. Some rejected the Old Testament entirely because of stories like this one. Others offered symbolic interpretations of this story. It became a story about the sin of pride, and it is still preached that way. But today, let’s take the text seriously as it is written. It says that the LORD was afraid. Afraid of what?
Remember, we’ve just had the story of the flood, and we’ve seen that humans continue to be violent and rather stupid. Perhaps this story is about the strange fact that humans are incredibly ingenious at finding ways to do mischief. We don’t need to rehearse the history of the past 100 years to recognize that human arrogance often turns our great achievements into tragic displays of cruelty and abuse. Think of how ingenious we have become in economic and political oppression. Think of our modern towers of finance, our halls of power, and our academic towers of Babel that too often cast shadows rather than illumination. Empires still try to build towers to the heavens and bring God down as if God is a pawn in the politics of power. Empires long to have divine sanction for their destruction of other peoples, other cultures, other languages. The writer of Genesis knew what it was like to be among the vanquished, to have his language and culture stolen. He knew what it was like to sit in the shadows of power praying for justice.
Confusion of Languages: And so, he told this revelatory tale about the LORD coming down and confusing the languages of the people. The LORD scattered the people into dozens of clans, races, cultures, and languages. The biblical author gives a new etymology for the city of Babel. It is not the gate of God; it is confusion. It is not wrong that children call this the Tower of Babble, because that pun still works in English. It was the tower where people babbled without understanding one another. It is a nice little joke on mighty Babylon, the city of confusion.
Our initial response is that this confusion of languages is a curse. The confusion of tongues remains a problem for us. Rather than reducing violence, misunderstanding and lack of communication often increase violence and suspicion. We grow frightened when we hear people speaking Spanish in our neighborhood grocery store. It is easy to let that discomfort and fear grow into hatred. If you have ever traveled to a foreign country, you know how vulnerable it feels not to know the language. This vulnerability can lead to panic and rage. We want to know our surroundings and what others are saying to us. John Amos Comenius believed that most wars could be prevented if people learned to talk to each other. He even laid the groundwork for creating a universal language, much like Esperanto. It was a bold plan, but it failed. The diversity of human languages is too deeply ingrained into human culture. We are doomed to misunderstanding, to babble.
A Blessing: But as Walter Brueggemann points out, this story is not presented as a punishment by God. In fact, read in the context of Genesis 1-11, the confusion of languages was necessary for the fulfillment of the first commandment given to humans: be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. Out of fear, the people built a tower on the plains of Shinar. There they huddled together and attempted to reach heaven. But the LORD wanted them out in the world. They needed to scatter, to explore, to embrace their freedom rather than hide behind their thick walls.
In many ways, Genesis is an anti-imperial book. The biblical author recognized that empires always fail for the simple reason that people do not like to be ruled by foreigners. Empires fail because of human arrogance. Rulers think that they can impose their will on their subjects the way they can built towers as displays of power. But empires fail when the people refuse to obey the commands. The Tower of Babel is a parable for the fate of all empires, including economic and academic ones. “Pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.”
The confusion of languages that humans have always lived with is frustrating, but do we really want only one language, one government, one culture? Could it be that the story of the Tower of Babel is really an affirmation of diversity? According to the story, the LORD himself decided that it was good for humans to develop different languages, customs, and cultures. It seems like a punishment or even a curse, but perhaps we should celebrate this cultural diversity as part of God’s plan. Certainly, the Tower of Babel leads us into the story of Abraham the Hebrew. The rest of the Old Tesatment is about one rather obscure tribe struggling to be faithful to God’s covenant while struggling for survival in a world where super-powers built ziggurats and mighty temples.
Pentecost: I think it is interesting that the New Testament story of Pentecost, which begins the story of the Christian church, is in some ways a reversal of the confusion of Babel. Genesis 11 tells of the persistent misunderstanding and division of humankind, but at Pentecost, people could understand the apostles despite their different languages. What we often miss in the Pentecost story is that each person heard the gospel in his or her own language. It is a miracle of listening more than preaching.
Rather than erasing the diversity of languages and cultures, the gospel reaffirmed God’s plan for diversity. Rather than building faulty towers to bring God down to bless our empires that impose a single civilization on all people, the Holy Spirit at Pentecost spoke to each person in his or her own language. Unity was created by the Spirit in the midst of diversity. The apostles went out boldly into the world rather than hiding behind walls and towers. In reading the story of the Tower of Babel, perhaps we should celebrate the work of God in all of its remarkable manifestations.
Conclusion: We’ve come to the end of Genesis 1-11 and the end of calendar year. We’ll start with Abraham in the New Year, and we’ll see that the style of Genesis changes dramatically with Abraham. These eleven chapters use memorable stories to communicate important theological and cultural themes about the nature of the world, human society, and ethics. We could call these stories the folklore of faith. These stories set up the rest of Genesis, and indeed the rest of Scripture. We have seen the repeated themes of exile and restoration, judgment and redemption, failure and forgiveness. We’ve seen the importance of the concept that creation is good, that all humans are made in the image of God, and that God is concerned for our well-being. These same themes are important in the story of Christmas. Next week we will proclaim our belief that the creator became one of us in order to call us from our exile and redeem us from our failings. Christians will proclaim this mystery in hundreds of languages.