Imagine a Place: The Story of Babel

Roughly two and a half thousand years ago the Babylonians invaded the lands at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. This is the land where the people of Israel lived.

The Babylonians captured the capital, Jerusalem, and destroyed. God’s temple, homes, market places… all of it was knocked over, smashed and burned.

The Babylonians bragged that their God Marduk had beaten the God of Israel. Keep in mind the first 10 Chapters in Genesis that lead up to the story we are about to hear reveal a God that created the world in love, covenanted care for all of creation, and now we can hear the Babylonian soldiers mocking these stories and beliefs. “Your God isn’t doing a very good job looking after you now?!”

They violently coerced the Israelite people to walk hundreds of miles into exile in Babylon.

Perhaps the person who composed our story this morning was one of those people?

Our anonymous storyteller would have certainly been an Israelite telling this story close to 1000 years after the placement of the story in the Biblical narrative. It would have been someone who encountered Babylon. Seen all the power and wealth, splendor and beauty, its proud and arrogant people. Our storyteller from Israel would not have been proud of Babylon at all. To this person, Babylon was a symbol of oppression and the brutality of war.

So this person or more likely a community of people tells their own story about it. In a lot of ways it is another creation story. Notice the themes in the first creation story, the flood, there is the pattern of human failure and God’s thoughts and actions in response to those failures. Most biblical scholar refer to this as “God’s judgment” and I think we interchange the word judgment with punishment too much and get a bit off the mark with where the story is going. Before I go any further, let’s encounter the text together.

Genesis 11:1-9 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 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. 4 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." 5 The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 6 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. 7 Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another's speech." 8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 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.

The text puts everyone together as a crowd of some sorts that are moving around and end up together in the land of Shinar that will later be named Babel, which ironically means “confusion.”

But they don’t start out that way. One of the confusing things about trying to read the Bible from start to finish is the details don’t always match up. If you flip back in your Bible’s just one chapter we find a huge list of names, of nations and descendents talking about a colorful, diverse multitude of families and relatives. “Spread abroad on the earth after the flood.” (Genesis 10:32) We go from that to the whole earth having one language, the same words. They are moving together in a nameless, homogeneous group.

The contrast for us is really important. Because having one language, the same words means no more and no less than everyone is going to be the same, no variety, no diversity, no difference, no misunderstandings… just everyone the same.

It’s amazing how this really is universal a story that is told over and over again throughout the centuries. Sometimes ignorantly, and other times with great intentionality, people have tried to come together and be the same.

One example that comes to mind is when we talk about immigration in America. There is always someone who blurts out “If people are going to come to this country, why can’t they just learn to speak English?”

In communities where most people have a lighter skin tone and someone whose skin color is darker there is the question “What are they doing around here?”

The reality that when we encounter a person who does not have a home or we have defined by the lack of income, or struggle with a serious mental illness, or are dying from AID’s we intentionally turn away, ignore them. Pretend they don’t exist.

There are the more overt examples like of oppression like genocide in Africa or the Holocaust in Europe that violently attempt to eradicate and oppress people of another faith, race, or religion.

Overtly, ignorantly or subtly, our attempts to find one expression for everyone, one meaning, one story, one truth, one mass-produced life in which everything the same is not God’s intention for creation.

Most of us have heard sermons or read this Biblical story with that word “judgment” in mind. As I mentioned earlier, that we confuse “judgment” with “punishment” and stray away from God’s involvement in what is happening.

God isn’t “punishing” the people for their desire to all be the same. I think that it part of our human nature to want to be around people like ourselves. But that doesn’t mean it is God’s intention for creation.

Just because we want it that way, doesn’t mean that God wants it that way.

Conforming and all being alike isn’t what God intends for creation. After the flood there is great intentionality on the part of the writers of Genesis to emphasize the families, the nations, and the diversity of God’s creation. And now the people come together and perpetuate their assumed uniformity for three purposes: to build a city, a tower and a name for themselves (v4). They do this than for no other reason to perpetuate the power they feel in being all the same.

Gone would be the dreamers, artists, visionaries, prophets, reformers and storytellers. Gone would be any voice or effort to imagine that something would be different that what is accepted as normative. In their place? A city, a tower, and power to rule over anyone who did not think and act like they did.

All three express the arrogance of an empire that strives for universal domination, as the Ghanaian theology professor Solomon Avotri writes in his essay on this passage (Return to Babel: Global Perspectives on the Bible. By Priscilla Pope-Levison and John R. Levison.) All three elements, he suggests, are signs of empires that want to rule over the whole earth.

Remember the people of Israel in Babylon?

The one’s who were captured and forced into exile? They are suffering from having one language, one way of living, one way of believing forced on them. They are told “You are in our country now. You will use our language and worship our gods. Because we are superior.”

In the midst of their oppression and suffering, the words of this story would have gone far beyond some way of coming to a logical conclusion as to why there are different languages in the world. God’s actions to scatter the people, confuse the language and undue the false unity and misuse of power the people have built up for themselves.

For the Israelite people, the community claiming this story it is a story of liberation. God has come to free the people so they return to their own nations, places and language.

A story of how God meant creation to be and this world to be.

A place where differences exist.

A place where diversity is encouraged and celebrated.

A place where communities of trust are built by listening to the stories of people who are different from ourselves. A place where those stories are honored and by hearing them we learn to walk in each other’s shoes.

A place Jesus talked about over and over again in his ministry as “the kingdom”.

A place that didn’t have a physical structure or was concerned with establishing a name for itself.

A place where we walk with each other, argue with and learn from each other.

A place where the poor, meek, merciful and peacemakers are blessed.

A place where we are humble like children.

A place where we care for each other, then we can discover more gifts and talents than we’d ever think we could.

This is the good news of the kingdom today. And yeah, it is going to sound like a confused language in the midst of our human tendencies toward conformity and wanting to physically, geographically, linguistically, culturally establish one “right” way at the exclusion of all else.

May God’s intention for creation move us to a place of grace and diversity in the midst of our confusion so that that the kingdom can be lived here and now.


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