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Genesis 11:1-9

The story of the ‘tower of Babel’ may seem an odd choice for the feast of Pentecost but it is chosen in Year C for its presumed contrast with the account of the giving of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2. In one story languages are confused, while in the other all hear the one story in spite of their linguistic differences. While Genesis 11:1-9 is set as an alternative first reading to the Acts passage, the latter can also be read as an alternative Epistle for the day. Whatever readings are chosen, it is hard to escape reading the Babel story without the Acts passage in mind.

The ‘tower of Babel’ story needs to be seen in its literary context and some background outlined. It comes near the end of the so-called ‘Primeval history’, Genesis 1-11, which tells the story of humanity from its start to the point where God calls a specific people, Abraham and his family. Through Genesis 2-11, a picture of humanity is painted which is not always good. There is disobedience, murder, the corruption that causes the flood, dishonour of parents etc. Clearly a disintegration of the harmony and order created by God out of disorder in the first place has occurred. Some would say that in each chapter of humanity’s beginnings the distance between Creator and creature widens. The story of Babel is seen in this light as the event that tests the patience of the Lord to the limit. Alternatively, we can see the chapters of Genesis 2-11 as a story of separation repeated over and over again in its many and varied forms. The flood which stands roughly in the middle is the epitome of this disaster. But even at that point we see the decision of the Creator to deal with humankind’s propensity toward disorder and chaos in ways other than by simply executing vengeance upon them. However we read Genesis 2-11, the call of Abraham and his family stands as God’s response to humanity’s degradation and distance from God.

In this context we can read the tower story from at least two perspectives. First, we can see the statement that all humanity speaks the same language and is located in the one place (v. 1) as a neutral statement. It seems a given from the stories before this one. As descendants of the faithful Noah they have some cohesion as the creatures of God. But as the generations pass, the people have forgotten their relation to the Creator. Their fear is that they will be scattered over the earth (v. 4). They begin to see their own power as sufficient to secure their future. So they build a monument to themselves – to their own pride or even ability. In this context, the fact that God has to come down from above to even see the tower (v. 5) ironically points out the finite and small nature of any human endeavour in the context of divine action. The city where this takes place is named later ‘Babel’ (v. 9), derived from the city name ‘Babylon’. In its Babylonian original form it was bab-ilu which meant ‘gate of god’. In Gen 11:1-9 the name is connected to the Hebrew word balal ‘to confuse’ in a kind of pun. The biblical account depicts the Lord engaged in a heavenly council, considering the misdeeds of humanity. Just as the Lord says in Gen. 1:26 ‘Let us make humankind in our image’, here the Lord says by way of contrast, ‘Let us go down and confuse their language’. Thus the confusion of language and spread of humanity over all the earth is seen as a punishment for yet another instance of rebellion and pride.

The above is one way to read the story. A second possibility exists. Again we must see the story in light of Genesis 2-11. That sequence of stories is not only full of accounts of human rebellion but it speaks also of what God does. We don’t often pay much attention to the genealogies in those chapters but they too have a tale to tell – of the constant expansion of humankind and of its diversity in the way of living, occupation and skills (see Gen 4:17-22) and also of their diversity through family descent with each one having its own land, language, family and nation (see Genesis 10). It is significant that the story of Babel comes straight after Genesis 10 with its mention of differing lands and languages. One could see that the diversity and spread of humankind was, according to the genealogies, something that God desired. The ‘sin’ of Babel was not so much the pride in building the tower but in resisting God’s intention for them and seeing the tower as a means to achieve that. God’s eventual scattering of the people and confusion of their language was a way of achieving the divine purpose even against human resistance.

But more needs to be noted. The tower of Babel by its very name recalls Babylon, a city of great influence and significance is Israel’s larger story. One possible origin for the story relates to the Babylonian towers called ziggurats, constructed on the sites of temples. They often had 7 terraces that represented 7 planetary deities as mediators between heaven and earth. Ascending the tower was regarded as a proper approach to the gods, and the summit was regarded as the entrance to heaven. In other words, the tower in our story was a means whereby humanity could enter the realm of the gods. Whichever way we read the story above, this has some importance for it. Either the story of the tower of Babel could be seen as a polemic against mighty Babylon and its religious and military pride, or since Babylon was the place of exile later in Israel’s history, it could be seen to speak of Israel’s ‘sin’ which led them to exile and the exile itself as divine purpose in God’s dispersal of this people.

In our modern view we see the differences of language throughout the world having developed over a very long period, as differing groups established themselves in different parts of the earth. Yet, while the story of Babel sees the dispersal of languages in an entirely different way, one which we would regard as mythic in its content, it remains profoundly ‘true’ in a different and insightful way. It speaks not just of the human propensity for unity through language but also through knowledge, economics, law, education, housing etc. We often resist the diversity that is part of who we are as creatures of the One who made us all. We seek through unifying systems and programmes to ‘raise our heads to the heavens’ and become like God controlling all around us. Yet the irony is that we are not like God in that regard, who creates a rich diversity of life and calls us to live in that context. But the story can also be a reminder that such things as the diversity of place or difference in language can accentuate division, strangeness, suspicion and hostility. One group can try to reach the dominant (or higher) place, where it will reign supreme over others.

It is not difficult to see how this story relates to the one of Pentecost, with the coming together in Jerusalem of many different people and languages. When all hear the good news of the gospel, they understand it in their own language. If one reads the Babel story in terms of the explanation of diversity of place and language as a punishment on humanity then we might understand Luke intending his readers to see how the original understanding between all people destroyed at Babel can be restored. The human propensity toward division, strangeness, suspicion and hostility can be overcome in the coming and work of the Spirit. The potential for harmony among humanity is renewed as God gives humanity the means through Jesus Christ, and the ongoing gift of the Spirit. On the other hand, if we read the Babel story as one where God achieved the purpose of diversity against the resistance of humankind, then we can see Luke intending to say that even in God’s immensely diverse world, with all its richness, the good news can speak to all and that God in the Spirit provides a way for that to happen.

Psalm 104

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