Last Monday evening when I was in the kitchen with Deanne we were settling in to the Monday evening pleasantries, asking each other, “How was your day?” I told her that I was going to be preaching on the well known Tower of Babel story. Deanne said to me: “Did you know that the Dutch Reform Church in South Africa saw in this text a biblical justification for Apartheid – the separation of the African natives into townships from the minority white settlers?” It was God’s intention, so they believed, to separate the races and divide the peoples. We are not meant to be one. I guess that is a possible interpretation. Although they missed certain other passages like “In Christ Jesus there is no slave or free, Jew or Greek, Male or Female.”
I am not sure where the biblical justification for forcibly placing people in desolate townships and creating levels of racial classifications and not allowing native Africans into the political process come from, other then the other biblical story having to do with original SIN!
However, in a twisted fashion I think my Christian brothers and sisters who were influenced by such an abhorrent policy might have had a piece of this right. I do think God wants us scattered around. I think God enjoys the diversity of multiple voices – our unity does not come from either uniformity or unanimity.
What do you do with this story? Daughter Sarah said: “Isn’t this story about why there are so many different languages and different types of races in the world?” This kind of story is called an etiology: the study of causes or origins. Another example: “How did the leopard get its spots?” And so a story is told to explain it.
Maybe a critique of the Babylonian urban culture with their Ziggurat towers.
God comes across as a bit sensitive to human creativity – a vestige to pre-Hebraic stories of divine/human competition. God doesn’t want humans to succeed.
But this is no simple tale, no children’s story. It is deep and rich and very challenging indeed. A perfect little short story – wonderful structure, leaves more to the imagination then what is described. It sits in the midst of lists of descendents, after the flood and before the call of Abram in chapter 12.
Take out your bibles – follow along with me – there are so many important details. After the flood when God needs to start over – the people migrate east – and build a city – and they have the means to do it – bricks made of bitumen for mortar. Self-sufficient, one voice and language; unified — it is time to settle down on the plain east of Shinar:
“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 earth.”
The underlying issue here is the concern of being scattered. They are afraid that they are alone on the plain in a cold cruel world of floods and so much unknown. So what do people do when they are afraid? They circle the wagons, build protective walls and maybe even a tower to make themselves feel more powerful then they are.
Fear of being scattered — but wasn’t one of God’s primary commands to humanity; “Be fruitful and multiply – fill the earth and subdue it.” (Gen. 1) Subdue here does not mean abuse and waste, – but that is for another sermon. “Spread out, take what you need.” God’s invitation is for abundance. But these folks on the plains are more concerned about scarcity – even though they have bitumen and lots of bricks to build a city and a tower that reaches into the heavens.
This story is really about fear of scarcity, of isolation, no identity. There is no mention of God in the first half of the story. That is the problem, the dilemma here – a people with no God HAS no identity. They HAVE to make a name for themselves. They have forgotten who they are. They have become their own gods.
These people put on a self-determined mask of strength, covering up the more basic fear of what might be out there – beyond the plain of Shinar.
When in doubt – get narrow. When fear reigns make sure to watch out for differences. When you are building an empire – you want unity at all cost.
But the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation proclaims – one cannot find an identity a part from God – we find our true selves not behind walls of self- made isolation but we find ourselves in the risk of scattering, being sent forth into a diverse world – but knowing that we all share the stamp of divine production – made in the likeness and image of God.
There is this constant human tendency when stressed, isn’t there, to circle the wagons? To have fear motivate and isolation dominate (we are really alone in an inhospitable world, universe, community, God seems so distant) and so we build walls to protect ourselves from reality? We put on those strong masks to hide the fear?
And so the towers of self-sufficiency built into the heavens to make for ourselves a name is a constant human strain through out our history. For what is the Roman Empire? What is Nazi Germany? Unified language, unified people, protective walls and fear of what is outside them.
This story has rich irony, even humor. The humans say; “Let us build a tower with its top in the heavens.” And God says, “Let us go down and see.” Human presumption meets Divine exasperation. God peeks out over the edge of heaven and looks down to look at this puny construction project off in the distance; like an ant colony.
God has gifted us with imagination and great power and we are able to build just about anything – but in our frenzy to dominate and manipulate are we any closer to the Creator? That is what is at stake here. We build big cities, big armies, big economies, BOMBS that can annihilate all creation – all for our protection, all to make names for ourselves; but to what ultimate purpose?
So God scatters once again to shake us up – it is an act of grace not punishment, but it isn’t without pain. Sometimes it is ONLY when we are made vulnerable, and forced to identify our deepest fears and our deepest needs that we finally let go of delusion and let God deluge us with possibilities beyond the walls.
We strive for unity – thinking that this means we all have to agree. But God’s unity is not based on language, or culture, or boundaries, or politics, or whatever – the only unity that counts is as we see ourselves as one among many blessed and beloved children of the divine Creator.
I see this tension in my own life – this desire to pull back and build a name for myself, to surround myself in safety – because what is out there “east of Eden” and “east of the plain” is simply too scary. I don’t want to move off the dime and think new thoughts and try new things – I don’t like to be scattered – but the spirit of God is always saying “John – don’t be fearful, do not let scarcity rule, don’t worry about making a name for yourself, a reputation – or even holding on because I know your name and every hair on your head.”
I see this in our beloved nation – which has made quite a name for itself in history. There is a tendency to see ourselves as more special than others.
There is no justification for such heinous evil, but does this story of the Tower of Babel have any impact on our collective imagination as we still live scattered in the aftermath of 9/11 – when in fact our own towers reaching into the heavens were destroyed causing us to scatter into many sects and interest and competing claims – and we are struggling still to find a unity – and now the towers might be smaller but the walls of self-protection are made thicker, and the mistrust has grown all the more devious. The first word I think of now that describes what ails our nation is fear.
Where is our unity now? Where is the humanity now? Where is the humility now? I have to admit, it maybe just me, I am not asking you to agree with me, only to consider – but theologically and biblically, I squirm when the phrase “American exceptionalism” is used. While some are concerned that our children are not praying in schools more, I worry that this sense of self-importance concerns God more. “Let us make a name for ourselves” – the people of Babel cried out; we are exceptional. Babylon thought that too, and Rome thought that too, and Britain thought that too.
It is all about fear. It is fear that led to the 911 call in Pepper Pike that day in August when two of our beloved children bumped up against the wall of police protocol. And it was fear that led a good mayor and a good man to mishandle things and put up walls of defense and deflection.
It is fear that motives us to protect our own and it is fear that keeps us divided. We build our silos – and gated communities, and private schools. Even I am not immune to being fearful: “Am I giving my children the best at public school?” They have to support themselves, make names for themselves. Think of the ways in which we try to build ourselves up – keep things unified, orderly, together, putting on a good face; a mask – we probably spend most of our energy doing this. It is exhausting.
Your fear is your fear. I am just letting you know how this story agitates me. This ancient story is not about them and then it is about me and now, and you and us and what is happening – and how we too have dismissed God to the fringes and actually have started to believe that God really IS out there and remote – and we glorify self-sufficiency, and reputation, and homogeneity and think ourselves special. And we even mean good things when we say “color blind” – but God gives sight to the blind – are we not supposed to be color appreciative, celebrating the diversity?
So this little children’s story becomes too much for me. I have to remind myself that just a chapter later Abram and Sarai are called on a journey beyond the plain into the unknown, and so too was Mary. Jesus was scattered, driven into the wilderness. Christ is always meeting you at the edge of your identity and inviting you to “drop your nets and follow.” Christ meets you at the edge of the Jordan and says “Come and see.” The beloved community is not safe behind bricks and mortar. The church is built only upon the foundation of Christ and the spirit which is poured out on all flesh – and in the diversity of language and diversity of culture, we hear and see anew the fresh work of the scattering of the children of God.
And like the scattering of every seed – the seeds that fall on the fertile soil of trust (not fear) will bear much fruit.