Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward,[a] they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel —because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
It’s a story that’s often overlooked; when we do read it, the idea of a tower climbing up to heaven does sound a little odd. But at the heart of today’s passage, we see humanity trying to comprehend their relationship with God.
Only four chapters earlier, we can read the story of Captain Noah and his floating zoo – we read how humanity had turned away from God’s commands, so God felt He had to start humankind off anew, almost being a computer scientist and ‘turning it off and on again’. No doubt memories or stories of the flood continued to worry the people who came after. Although we’ve no idea of the timescales, it would be natural to worry about being scattered, particularly in an age and culture where living together in society was so valued.
Yet, if this was the case, the people in Shinar had missed the point. They wanted to remain all in one place – to stay in the newly discovered lands to which they had migrated. Yet God, we read in Genesis 1 and Genesis 9, specifically wanted humans to spread all over the earth. In building this tower, they were going against God’s will.
It feels to me as though the tower was built out of fear, and indeed, reading the passage in this way can leave one to wonder why the tower was such a sinful thing to build in the first place. But we must read this passage of Scripture in the context of the whole of Genesis. God’s punishment, after all, was not entirely negative. Although going against humanity’s desires, God’s actions enabled humans to spread through the world, and gave us the variety that we know and love today.
One of the delights of the URC is the wide variety contained within. In terms of theology, practice, opinion and architecture, we are a real amalgam. I think that the story of Babel serves to highlight how God doesn’t want us all to be identical, or mirror images one of another, but instead rejoices in our diversity.
Loving God We thank You for diversity, both in the Church and in our world. We thank You for the gifts and talents that different people can bring. May we not become inward looking, concerned only for those who talk or act or look like us; but instead delight in the diversity that You have created. Through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen
Michael Topple is a Synod Accredited Lay Preacher in the Eastern Synod, and a member of Chappel URC