November 17, 2019
Genesis 11:1-9 – Tower of Babel
The Story of Humanity
Rev. Carla Wilks at Mount Seymour United Church
The story of the Tower of Babel is often told at Pentecost along with the story in Acts when the Holy Spirit comes and they are all speaking different languages, but they all understand each other. Pairing this story in Genesis with the story in Acts, packages up the message with a tidy ending. When we look at the Tower of Babel story on its own in Genesis, it is a little more difficult to find the blessing. On the surface to me anyway, it appeared that all the people were getting along just swimmingly, working together to build a city – and then for some reason God was unhappy and scattered them across the land. As with the other stories that we have been looking at in this series – the Story of Humanity, the brokenness was easier to see than was the blessing.
Why is God upset by them building a tower? What is the threat of this tower and how does the confusion of language settle anything?
To put the story into the context of ancient tradition, the tower that they were building is what is known as a ziggurat. These towers, or ziggurats, were described as having its walls or its top reaching to heaven. In Mesopotamia they were like human made mountains. In Babylon they were more tower-like with a temple at the top and a temple at the bottom. The purpose of these towers was to allow the divine to come down and interact with the people. The top temple was the place where there was a connection between the heavenly sphere and the human sphere.
While it appeared that the people were working together to build this tower, in this ancient understanding of the tower – they were trying to reach God – attempting to become like God themselves rather than building the tower in order to open themselves up to God coming into their lives and being present to them.
With each of our stories throughout this series, God has created humans in God’s image, loved these creatures and desires a relationship – and somehow humanity each time has messed up, continuing to resist the relationship. In this story they mess up by trying to be like God rather than the creatures that God has created.
What they feared in this story was to be scattered, and then in the end that’s what they got. We are our own worst enemy. Doing the very things that we shouldn’t do, or the worst things for us. The real offence in the story is not the tower, but a kind of desire for people to be united and powerful on their own terms and not in terms of a relationship with God. To be building something great in order to glorify themselves, rather than as a response to God’s call to be living and loving as they were created.
This kind of behaviour in a modern day equivalent might be the rise of extremism. We see like-minded hate groups rising up and believing that their particular form of bigotry and hatred is justified, and when their views are affirmed by people in power who they look up to, then their cause grows even stronger. In a kind of mob mentality, they get caught up in the belief system of the group and work to push it forward.
While my daughters were younger I worked as a medicolegal transcriptionist as my full-time job. I remember one report that I typed that was not too long after the riot in Downtown Vancouver in 2011 after the Vancouver/Boston Stanley Cup final game. You may remember that night, when 140 people were injured, 4 people were stabbed, 9 police officers were injured and 101 people arrested. There was 5 million dollars worth of property damage. There were 887 charges against 301 people. The report that I typed about that situation was about one of those 301 people who was charged because of the activities of that day. Activities that are so far beyond what they would ever believe in or find themselves to be participating in. The psychologist that I typed for talked about mob mentality and how in these kind of cases, sometimes a perfectly good-hearted, well-meaning person, gets almost transformed by the crowd and acts in ways they would never have imagined themselves acting.
Like those building the tower, they found security in being of one mind and depending only on themselves.
They did not remember the love that they were created in and the love that enfolds them, which is the same love they are to extend to the least of those around them.
Seeing the one language and one mind and self-promoting behaviour in the story resulted in them being scattered. The scattering of the people would cause them to be confronted with difference. When confronted with difference, it challenges their way of seeing and might open their eyes to new ways of being, showing compassion for the differences.
They have a choice – to choose their self-promoting, tower building ways, or choose to live in the blessing that they were created.
Jen-Beth sent me an e-mail the other day, about a tower. It was pretty striking, so I wanted to share it with you. The CN Tower in Toronto was the tallest free standing structure in the world for more than 34 years. But there’s a new tower in town. They are calling it the unignorable tower.
The United Way of Greater Toronto has created an app for your phone. When you have the app on, and you point the phone at the CN Tower, a new tower will appear on your screen beside the CN Tower. This tower is more than twice as high as the CN Tower. (PHOTO) https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/unignorable-tower-toronto-poverty/
The unignorable tower is an augmented reality image of how tall a tower would need to be in order to provide housing for all of the people who are living in poverty in the Greater Toronto Area. What an outstanding visual to see poverty displayed in such a way. Rather unignorable were it actually displayed that way for us to see.
There’s a story that reminds me of this choice that we make each day, each moment – when we choose the way of compassion and love, to live for what we were created, to be a blessing to those around us, or we choose not to.
There was once a king who had no children to be his heir, and he longed for an heir who would succeed him to the throne. So he posted a notice, inviting young people to apply to be considered for adoption into his family and to become his heir. The notice ended with a strange requirement. It read that the king expected only one thing, “that the applicants be heirs of Life before they strive to be heirs of the king”
A poor peasant boy saw the notice, and, like everyone else, didn’t quite understand it. But thought he would give it a shot anyway.
Figuring that he would have no chance of becoming adopted by the king because of the ragged clothes that he wore, he worked very hard, until he had just enough money to buy a new set of good clothes. Wearing his new clothes, he then set off ‑ up the long road to the hill on which the royal palace was built, to apply for the position of the king’s adopted son. As he set off, he prayed to God, “Come what may”.
Now, as he was journeying towards the palace, the boy met a poor beggar on the road. The old man was shivering with cold and the boy felt compassion for him. Looking down at his own warm beautiful clothes, he made the decision to exchange coats with him.
He had worked so hard, struggling to earn the clothes that he wore. He had fought against the circumstances of his life, and now, would lose it all as he came back down to earth in this act of compassion. “Oh, well”, said the boy.
As he was now back to wearing the beggar’s clothes, it seemed hardly worth going on, trudging up the long road on the hill towards the king’s palace. However, having come so far already, the boy decided to keep going, higher and higher, until at last he stood beneath the walls of the king’s palace.
When he arrived, he was greeted by scornful laughter and sneering remarks by the king’s servants. Nevertheless, he was finally admitted into the presence of the king.
There was something strangely familiar about the king. At first the boy couldn’t work out what it was, and why he felt so at home in his presence. Then he realized that draped over the king’s shoulders was the coat that he had given to the old beggar just a few hours ago along the road. The man by the road had been the king in disguise – and all the other applicants had passed him by.
Then the words of the king’s notice made sense to him: “that the applicants be heirs of Life before they strive to be heirs of the king”. This boy had never discarded his first birthright of compassion, and his acceptance of what life had in store for him.
The King came down from his throne and embraced the boy, holding him close in his arms, and saying, Welcome, my son.
Where do we find the blessing in the story of the Tower of Babel? Is it in the reminder that we are God’s beloved, made in God’s image and that God’s desire is to be in relationship. When we feel scattered, or are feeling lost, or forget that we are beloved, do we do like the people in this story and band together and build a tower for our own security? Sometimes yes, we do. I know I do. When I get caught up in myself this is exactly the time that what I actually need is to look beyond myself for some perspective and even some help. Regardless of the tower that we attempt to build on our own – remember that you are created in the image of God. You are beloved, you are blessed, and you are called to be a blessing.
Thanks be to God!
1 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 o