Rev. Seth Patterson
June 26, 2022
Scripture: Genesis 11:1–9
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and fire them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone and bitumen for mortar. 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.” The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 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. Come, let us go down and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 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.
Before we begin with this first “Command to Preach” sermon of the summer, I feel called to recognize all that will not be said this morning. There are so many consequential events and decisions for us to sort through, to understand, and to carry. All of this deserves dedicated and intentional conversation. Yet, the hope of our time together is that, even if we are not speaking directly on the social topics placed in front of us, we can still make some meaning together. The gift of scripture is that sometimes, when interrogated, it can bring on new realizations. It can potentially connect dots we didn’t know could be connected. That is my hope for us all today.
So, with that, I am grateful for Howard in bringing this complex story to our attention. Howard also, as you can see from the piece printed in the bulletin, asked an excellent question about how stories like this remain held in our sacred writings. I will speak to this briefly before we get into the substance of his submission.
The description that has resonated the most for me about the Bible is that it is a collection of collections. The book that we now call the Bible has been assembled over thousands of years from previously assembled collections. What we now call the Hebrew Bible or the First Testament is made up of the Torah, the histories, the prophets and the Psalm/Wisdom writings. And each of those was assembled from its own constituent pieces over generations in various places before they were codified into the form that we have received it. Even the Torah is made up of multiple threads of earlier writings from different perspectives and communities. Sometimes this was done seamlessly, and other times two different communities’ stories got placed next to each other without integration, which is how we came to have two different creation stories back-to-back at the beginning of Genesis. I don’t expect you to remember all of this. What I do hope you take away from this explanation to Howard’s question is a sense of awe and wonder at the unbelievable number of hands and voices that have been integrated into making the book we now call the Bible. Its creation is never simply explained, its roots are broad and far reaching, and its significance is deep and ancient. It is not a single thing; it is a collection of collections.
And in this collection of collections, we find this particular story that follows after the narrative of Noah and the flood and right before the stories of Abraham. Even more specifically, it is squished between two sets of detailed genealogies. It tells of an imagined time in which “the whole earth” seemed to live in one place together. The people all spoke one language and were seemingly unified in their efforts. They learned how to make bricks of uniform size and shape which made constructing large things easier than by using rocks found in the earth. They decided to build a city and a tower together in order to “make a name for ourselves” and stay together in safety so that they would not be “scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” God sees this unified action of the humans and seems concerned that if they can do this all by themselves then “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” God then scatters all the people around the world and created different languages. This city was then called Babel because it sounds like the Hebrew word for “confuse.” End of story and then we hear another lineage of ancestors.
This story both feels metaphorical and also like a premodern attempt to explain why there are a bunch of humans with different languages. The tower and name Babel seem reminiscent of the famous and massive pyramid-like ziggurats of Babylon. It is, as Howard questions, unclear as to exactly what the intention is for a listener to take from this.
There is also something seemingly counter to our current discussions of what God wants from us. We here often talk of God being active in the ways that we love each other, the justice we create in our world, and the ways that we work together as stewards of this Earth home of ours. We often talk about God in ways that are unifying and coalescing, working against us-and-them thinking and tribalism. Yet here we have a story of God in which unification is feared and God’s desire is made manifest by the scattering of people and the creation of distinct languages that make connecting and working together more difficult.
What are we supposed to do with this? How are we supposed to make meaning out of this? Do we dismiss it because we no longer know the intention or because its non sequitur placement in Genesis is now shrouded in the mystery of the past? Is this, as one person said to me, an example of when God was wrong?
One scholar used the language of “blessing” and “breakdown” to describe this story. The blessing described here is in the gifts of being human together. We see here a story of unity and collaboration, ingenuity and ambition, community and excellence. The people of this story had developed language so that they could communicate efficiently. They developed technologies that allowed them to create structures of safety and some comfort from the vicissitudes of nature. They built a city that fit their needs. They dreamed big and built a tower that defied their understandings of gravity and ability. The people wanted to make a name for themselves so that they wouldn’t be scattered. If they made a name for themselves they might find safety. And this seems to have been done in a fairly democratic manner; it doesn’t mention an imperial dictate or decree. This is the stuff that we people aspire to and celebrate! This is the blessing of being made in the image of God: We are capable of such great things.
And yet God confounded this human plan and created breakdown. This is hard to understand. Why would God not want us to be unified and safe and ambitious? Why would God not want us to “make a name for ourselves” in this world of which we have been given stewardship? In this story God says, “This is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” Why does God break down our unity and some sense of self-determination?
That reason is not explained here, and this is where we get to do some work for ourselves. I wonder if breakdown is not the end of the story. Like many Biblical accounts we get the impetus and the consequence told to us, but what comes after that is still ours to work through. We get the beginning and middle of the story, and we are still participating in the third act. So, I begin to wonder now, as a wise friend has taught me to ask, what is the opportunity in this problem? We have witnessed a blessing and we have carried the breakdown. What is the opportunity now?
It makes me wonder if diversity, if plurality, if difference might be God’s goal? Maybe the breakdown is a gift to continue working on? If we humans become too central to our own work, then we too easily forget about God. If we humans become too uniform, then eventually there will be those who will not be seen as part of the uniform group and they will be marginalized and cast aside. If we humans only see our own single story, then we too easily will hold to it at the expense of the rest of creation. The scholar again says, “God thereby promotes diversity at the expense of any form of unity that seeks to preserve itself in isolation from the rest of creation.” If we make a name for ourselves then what other names will we forget?
God says, “This is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” I wonder if God is worried that humans will replace God with ourselves? What happens once we become our own highest authority? Once nothing becomes impossible for us, then what need have we for the rest of the earth and the God that resides in this creation with us? How easy will it be to solely work for our own safety, our own comfort, our own ambitions, our own excellence above all else? What happens when we do that? Who is left out? What breakdown occurs when we center ourselves at the top of a tower at the exclusion of all else?
So, God breaks it down for us, and in that breakdown we are able to find blessings again. We have been forced to do the difficult work of building bridges across linguistic and cultural canyons. We have had our existence reframed into the complexities of difference instead of the simplicities of sameness. I wonder how we can recognize God’s blessings in this breakdown.
This is important for me to remember today, and I am curious what you will make of this. As we celebrate the diversity illustrated to us by our LGBTQ+ siblings, what blessings can we continue to receive from this gift? As our communities continue to expand into plurality, how can we hold onto the gifts of difference and not force ourselves into sameness? As we receive the breakdown of the removal of a constitutional right, what blessings will we someday be able to make out of this? When the decisions of our highest court occupy a tower in which their own ideas try to take precedence over the diversity of our collective experiences, how do we again use our scattered diversity to remember the name of God?
From the blessings given to us by God, God confused it by creating a breakdown. And yet there were blessings in the breakdown. With God there are always blessings; we sometimes just have to look for them through eyes that are not centered on our own selves. We continue to hold responsibility to find the blessings again in the plurality, in the diversity, in the differences that exist around us. May it be so.
The New Interpreters Bible, Volume I, Leander E. Keck, ed. (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1994) p. 411.
The New Interpreters Bible, Volume I, Leander E. Keck, ed. (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1994) p. 413.