11 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. Genesis 11:1-9, New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The Tower of Babel story stands as a witness to the depravity of humanity. Reflecting on the story, one sees the connection to the past: To a people who do not seek community/understanding and who want power because of a fear of the largeness of life. A people who thrive in chaos and actively destroy peace. A people who want grayscale instead of color.
But, one also sees the connection to the future. What do you suppose ancient people thought as they heard the story? Did they look at the success stories of the day and compare/contrast? Did they consider their work through the lens of Babel? Were they fearful of the collapse of their traditions? What if someone married the wrong person and brought shame onto the house? What if someone crossed a boundary and made themselves unclean? Did they believe God had punished or would punish them?
The people of Babel wanted to codify their existence as other – set apart. They wanted to pit themselves – us vs. them.
Gods were considered set apart. Gods lived in high places – upon hills, mountaintops and the pinnacles of towers. The People of Babel thought they would receive the power of the gods (note the small ‘g’). The irony, though, was that the great “I AM” never had distance between humanity and the Holy One. The People of Babel were trying to be like the gods of the surrounding people. (Yes, people lived outside of the Biblical world. Scripture was a theological reflection between a people and their God.)
The People of Babel wanted to name themselves. Both then and now, naming someone implies power over them. The People of Babel said, “We have created ourselves – pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps.” With such a posture, infighting, confusion and disarray followed them. They could not finish what they started. They ignored the Holy One and despised themselves.
Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (AKA Netziv) suggested that a limiting perception of God and humanity was prominent in the People of Babel. Imagine the God of the universe being placed in a space and not allowed to do what the Holy One does. Namely, create!
God creates. God creates the similar and the dissimilar. God creates the textures, the colors, the sounds and smells that the People of Babel no longer appreciated. They were narcissistic.
The people of Babel no longer sought understanding. They were single-minded – simple-minded. They desired something built with hands instead of that freely given creation by the Holy One. It was humanity that God pronounced good. Humanity, though, said no. What is made with hands and human ingenuity preceded the Holy One – blocked God’s creative action, God’s design.
The First Testament shows us a God concerned with authentic relationships and justice. God does not punish in the story. God relies on the People of Babel’s God-given agency. Through their doing, they built a society bent on destruction. The tower was a symptom of a greater disease. People willingly destroyed one another, God’s creations, society and the Breath of God that gave order to the chaos that preceded life as it was known during the Babel time period.
One of the running themes contained in Scripture – backwards priorities – stood as a message for hearers of the Word. Later, the Gospels told of Jesus the Anointed reminding and revealing to people that their priorities were topsy-turvy.
Living in isolation, in separation, belonged to the People of Babel. They wanted a space created and named by humanity and living set apart from God. But God exists in community. God desires creation to live in community. Living in isolation is not part of God’s essence.
Quinton Jefferson, Adjunct Professor at Thomas More College and grant administrator at Cincinnati-Hamilton County Community Action Agency, is a member of Christ Church Cathedral.