Have you ever noticed, how often, in so many beloved stories, the narrative quickly takes a negative turn from what starts as joyful, blissful innocence to an epic, darker conflict that must be resolved? For instance…
What could be more perfect than King Arthur’s Round Table, and Camelot, until his wife, Guinevere, falls in love with Lancelot?
Or, the joy of a young Harry Potter, discovering he’s a wizard and invited to attend Hogwarts’ School for Wizards, only to soon encounter the evil Voldemort?
Or, Peter, Susan, and Edmund, stepping through a magical wardrobe into the fantasy world of Narnia, only to discover the evil White Witch?
Or, what could be more idyllic than Frodo’s simple, innocent life in the Shire, until he discovers an evil ring and growing evil, that must be destroyed?
Or Snow White, the fairest of all, hated by her jealous, evil step mother?
Or a young Luke Skywalker, ignorant of his fate until his adopted parents are killed by the Darth Vader’s stormtroopers?
Or, a young couple, Adam and Eve, deeply in love, living blissfully in the Garden of Eden, until an evil snake slithered in. And, as we saw last week, God’s perfect creation was quickly wrecked by the snake’s deception and human disobedience. The perfect relationship between God, humans, and nature, was violated, and the world has been going to hell ever since.
Adam and Eve were banned from paradise, forced to live in an inhospitable world.
Adam and Eve’s first son, Cain, killed his younger brother, Abel, in a jealous rage.
By Genesis 5, humans were so violent, God regretted creating them. God chose Noah to build an ark, to save his family and pairs of every animal, before God flooded the earth.
Time passed. The earth repopulated. Then, in Chapter 11, and the people of the earth have moved “east.” “East” is a biblical code word for, “away from God.” Adam and Eve left the “east” side of Eden. Exiled, Cain went “east.” And, so forth, and so on. People have been moving further and further “east” from God, ever since.
Genesis 11:1-4 says, “All peopleon the earth had one language and the same words. When they traveled east, they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, ‘Come, let’s make bricks and bake them hard.’ They used bricks for stones and asphalt for mortar. They said, ‘Come, let’s build for ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and let’s make a name for ourselves so that we won’t be dispersed over all the earth.’”
The people of the earth agreed to build one great city, where everyone could live together. A city is an interesting, intentional contrast to the garden God planted! At first, the decision seems practical – “Let’s build a city… so that we won’t be dispersed over all the earth.” What’s wrong with that? Isn’t that what many of us are missing during this pandemic? Connection? Togetherness? Isn’t distance from people the hardest part of this? How can a desire to stay close be a bad thing?
But, that wasn’t their only, or main, motive. Hear it again, “Let’s build for ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and let’s make a name for ourselves so that we won’t be dispersed over all the earth.’”
“Let’s make a name for ourselves.” This isn’t just a city. This city was built around a high tower, reaching to the heavens. Notice, up to this point, God hasn’t been mentioned. God hasn’t been consulted. This city, this tower, isn’t for God or God’s glory. This is a story about human pride, human pursuit, human achievement, and a desire to become like gods – just like when Adam and Eve at the forbidden fruit. Afterall, who needs God, when you can build a tower to heaven?
This, of course, wasn’t the only structure ever built for human glory. Pharaohs, Mayan and Aztec kings built pyramids in their own honor. Kings and queens of Europe built grand castles and palaces. Universities are named after business tycoons, like Vanderbilt and Duke. Mansions and skyscrapers are named for their owners and builders – Biltmore, Rockefeller, and who hasn’t heard of buildings named after somebody named Trump?
And, how often are monuments built for the benefit of the rich and powerful, at the expense of the poor?
Imagine, if you can, a world, where individuals, or families, or groups, or nations focus on accumulating wealth, and power, and influence, and fame, in pursuit of personal greatness, god-like status, all the while ignoring the one true God. It’s not too hard to imagine, is it?
Genesis 11:5-9 says, “Then the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the humans built. And the Lord said, “There is now one people and they all have one language. This is what they have begun to do, and now all that they plan to do will be possible for them. Come, let’s go down and mix up their language there so they won’t understand each other’s language.” Then the Lord dispersed them from there over all of the earth, and they stopped building the city. Therefore, it is named Babel, because there the Lord mixed upthe language of all the earth; and from there the Lord dispersed them over all the earth.”
I love verse 5, “Then the Lord CAME DOWN to see the tower the humans built.” In other words, way up in heaven, God couldn’t get a good look at the tower – it was too small! – so God “came way” down to see it.
Humans have, and continue, to achieve remarkable things – technology, science, medicine, and cultural advancements. Thank God for the scientists who are working on a cure for Covid-19. God-given human potential is remarkable! Of course, humans have proven they can also use that same talent and potential for destructive purposes.
But, humans are too quick to forget the source of our abilities. Humans are too quick to claim responsibility for their own achievements. Too often, human achievement is for the few at the expense of the many. Humans are too invested in making a name for themselves, rather than giving honor and praise to God above.
If God didn’t like what the humans were doing, or the tower they were building, it seems like God could have just unleashed an earthquake, or sent in a hurricane, to knock the thing down. But, that’s NOT what God did. Instead, here the story takes a strange, and unexpected twist.
“And the Lord said, ‘There is now one people and they all have one language. This is what they have begun to do, and now all that they plan to do will be possible for them. Come, let’s go down and mix up their language there so they won’t understand each other’s language.’ Then the Lord dispersed them from there over all of the earth, and they stopped building the city. Therefore, it is named Babel.” (Genesis 11:6-9)
On the surface, it might appear that God is insecure; as though God is threatened by human achievement. “Now all that they plan to do will be possible for them.” But, I think that’s misreading of the text.
God “came down” from heaven to look at their tiny tower. God was certainly not feeling insecure. The humans were nowhere close to becoming god-like. But, God knew their underlying motives; not to honor God, but to make a name for themselves. In other words, if they felt good about their little tower, just imagine what might come next! Imagine what might be unleashed on the earth in the name of “progress.”
God’s solution seems particularly surprising to me. Instead of wrecking the tower, knowing they’d just build another, God mixed up their language, so they couldn’t communicate. Ever tried ordering food in an ethnic restaurant, with a menu in a foreign language? Ever try asking directions in a foreign country, in a foreign language? It can be challenging!
Here’s where the story is easily misunderstood. If it seems like God is insecure in this story, then confusing human language might just seem vindictive – a dirty trick for a deity to play on lowly humans! But, again, that’s be missing the point. That’s not God’s character.
I think many Bible stories need to be understood in reverse. The issue isn’t why God didn’t like their tower, and confused their languages. The issue is, why are there so many different languages, and different cultures, and why is it so hard to understand each other, and get along? How did that happen?
Long before the Bible was written, it existed as stories, passed down orally from generation to generation. I imagine these stories were first told around evening campfires, as they processed the day’s events. Imagine being a Jewish merchant, four thousand years ago, negotiating a trade with a foreign merchant, who spoke a different language. You thought you were trading goats, and he thought he was trading camels. Maybe it ended in frustration, with both parties walking away.
I imagine that night’s conversation around the campfire going something like this: Maybe a young trader asks, “If God created everything and everyone, why are there so many different kinds of people, and so many different languages?” Then, the old wise trader tells the story: “That’s because of the tower of Babel. Humans tried to become gods, so God made them speak different languages.” This story, and others, are about the result of humans trying to be gods, straying further and further away from who God created them to be.
One further point. The differences God created at the Tower of Babel were not inherently bad. That humans speak different languages, are ethnically diverse, and live by different cultural norms is not a curse. This story is not a commentary on the evil God caused – God didn’t. This story is about the evil, godless intent of humans making a name for themselves. If anyone’s to blame in this story, it’s the humans, not God.
But, if we’re honest, our cultural, lingual, ethnic differences can be challenging, a source of conflict, and at worst, a cause for prejudice and negative stereotyping.
Just this week, there’s deadly, destructive protest and rioting in the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin, following the shooting of Jacob Blake, a young black male, shot in the back at least seven times by a white police officer. We’re reminded again of the deep racial divides in our country, as well as systemic injustices. By the way, those painful divides began when rich, powerful humans enslaved and dehumanized others for the sake of building personal empires.
Yes, God created different languages, to thwart sinful human pursuits. But, God did NOT create racism, or prejudice, or hate, or violence – humans did that. That we belong to different cultures is not wrong. How we normalize certain peoples, and treat others inhumanely, is.
Lisa Sharon Harper writes, “Ethnicity is biblical. Ethnicity is created by God as people groups move together through space and time. It is not about power…. Race is about power… a political construct created by humans to determine who can exercise power.”
The Tower of Babel, as well as recent events, serve as reminders of our deep brokenness, especially along racial lines, and of just how far we’ve traveled away from the Garden of Eden, and the resulting conflict between humans. This story is our story too.
Jemar Tisby writes, “As Christians, when we read the Bible, we recognize that events that happened thousands of years ago are still relevant today. We also see that Scripture never hides the ugly parts of history when it comes to the people of God… The truth about humanity’s heritage turns a mirror on our souls and pushes us to recognize who we truly are and who we are not.”
Who are we? Fallen sinners, who like to play god.
Who aren’t we? God. We’re not God. Only God is God.