Christ Church Gardiner
July 21, 2019
Pentecost 6: The Tower of Babel
Good morning. I realize that it is a little warm in here. So rest assured that I will not stand up here this morning and deliver a lengthy address on the diverse scholarly interpretations of our Genesis story for today, The Tower of Babel. I will keep my remarks brief, but I want to use this story to raise some questions for us about the purpose of these origin stories as they are often called and what they might say about the Bible as a whole.
We often talk about the Tower of Babel as an origin story used to explain why people on the earth scattered and ended up speaking different languages. But if we are paying close attention to the text, we will realize that the Genesis author just explained that in a different way in the previous chapter. When you have a little extra time on your hands, go back and read the chapter before the Tower of Babel. That’s a genealogy chapter and lists all the descendants of Noah that came down from his sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. After each son’s list of descendants, the author wrote, “These are the descendants of—one of Noah’s sons—by their families, their languages, their lands, and their nations. And the last verse of the chapter reads, “These are the families of Noah’s sons, according to their genealogies, in their nations; and from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood.
So if the Genesis author just explained how people got spread all over the earth and came to speak different languages, why do we need the story of the Tower of Babel? The primary purpose, it seems was to ridicule and dismiss another nation in competition with Israel. Remember the great nation of Babylon that defeated Israel, scattered its people and kept some of them in captivity during the 6thcentury BC? The Genesis authors wanted their readers to know how silly those Babylonians were. They thought they could build towers that would get them closer to God. They believed with these towers into the heavens, they could even become like the gods that lived up there in that other realm.
But the people of Israel knew they didn’t need towers to get closer to God. The God of Israel would come down to them when they deserved God’s attention. In fact, when we get to Moses and the Ten Commandments, the Israelites will build an ark to carry their covenant with God and they will come to believe that God resides with them in that ark—not in some far off place in the heavens.
The story of the Tower of Babel is just one more way for the Israelites to share their vision of themselves as superior to the nations and civilizations that surrounded them. Last week, I spoke of the God of the Noah story as one that cared deeply for his creation unlike the capriciousness of the Gods of the other ancient Near East civilizations who would send floods to destroy the earth because humans were too loud. Israel needed their God to be different.
And while it is important for Israel to tell their stories of how they came to be the people they are—in relationship with the great God, Yahweh, sometimes their sense of superiority evolved into xenophobia—a dislike of foreigners—and a feeling of supremacy over the other.
And, as we know, that is not only a sin of our ancestors, but a weakness that our own nation and people sometimes exhibit. And we must call it out in our biblical texts, just as we must call it out in our current national conversation about who belongs and who does not, who is American and who is not.
The Bible, particularly the Hebrew Scriptures, gives us lots of different images and behaviors of God, and we have to sift through those in our own search for who God truly is.
Sometimes those biblical images can even be alarming. Take the Psalm that we read together this morning. It began with, “We have heard with our ears, O God, our forefathers have told us, the deeds you did in their days, in the days of old. How with your hand you drove peoples out and planted our forefathers in the land; how you destroyed nations and made your people flourish.”
This may read to some as just the ancient praise of a people to their God. But those words and that feeling of the chosenness of one people over another has also led to the justification for ethnic cleansing. Or colonialism and the taking of other people’s lands. How would the Native Americans hear those words about God driving people out and planting our forefathers in the land? As people of this sacred book, we must confront all of its parts, even the ones that challenge us.
Because the Bible can be a reassuring text about the love of God, and it can be a dangerous text used to justify unspeakable atrocities.
As Rachel Held Evans explains in her book about learning to love the Bible again, the book we have been discussing in our Wednesday Book Group, “We have a Bible that depicts God as aloof and in control in one moment, and vulnerable and humanlike in the next, a Bible that has frustrated even the best systematic theologians for centuries because it’s a Bible that so rarely behaves. In short, we have on our hands a Bible as complicated and dynamic as our relationship with God….Those of us who spend as much time doubting as we do believing can take enormous comfort in that. The Bible is for us too.” (page 14)
The Bible with its diversity of stories helps us to understand who we are, where we come from, and what the world is like. But it’s not a history book and it’s not an instruction manual. As we have seen in the origin stories of Genesis so far, they don’t just tell us about God, they teach us about who we were and perhaps who we could be. But we must read some of them as cautionary tales, with the question in mind, “Is that who God really calls us to be?”
And then follow it up with the questions: Who are we called to be today? Who are we called to be in relationship with our family, our friends, and even with the strangers in our midst? May these sacred stories of our Bible guide us toward greater love for all. Amen.