Long before the days of universities, PhDs, and the pursuit of God through rational, academic study, people told stories. Thousands of years ago, that is how people did theology. By telling stories that asked questions about who we are, where we come from and why the world is the way it is. Stories meant to communicate not verifiable facts or scientific data, but rather, deeper truths about the world, God, and humanity’s relationship to God.
This morning we consider yet another one of those stories-- the famous story of the Tower of Babel. The Tower of Babel is actually quite a significant story in the Bible. It marks the end of what is known as the biblical “pre-history”-- everything that comes before the call of Abraham and the official historical beginnings of the Israelite people. It also marks the end of a collection of stories in the Bible that attempt to explain why the world is the way it is--how it was created, how humanity came to be, the origins of things like sin and suffering, and now, the origins of language.
The Tower of Babel is, at its most basic level, an etiological story about the origins of language-- a story meant to explain the wide diversity of languages, cultures, tribes and customs that exist across the human community. Which may lead some people to classify it, and perhaps even dismiss it, as mere myth. But just like any other origin story in the Bible, what takes it beyond the level of mere myth is the fact that at the heart of this story lies a deeply theological truth about the nature of human pride, unity and diversity.
The conventional wisdom about this text is that God saw humanity unified in their purpose of technological advancement as they built what I think we can safely say was the first skyscraper ever. And God became angry at the pridefulness and arrogance that this endeavor betrayed. God saw that humans were capable of great things and so in order to take them down a notch, God sent the tower falling the ground, scattering the previously unified people and confusing their language so that they could no longer understand one another-- leaving this great project of human ingenuity and technology unfinished and abandoned. The conventional wisdom about this text is that God interrupted humanity’s unity and progress as a punishment for their arrogance and pride.
Difference and diversity as a punishment for human pride and ambition. Needless to say, this is a problematic interpretation for a lot of people. For some, the problem lies in the idea that human progress or technological accomplishment would be somehow displeasing to God. That seems anti-science and anti-progress. For others, we might wonder why God punish would people for being unified in a common project or vision. Given the conflict and division in our world today, we look back on God’s decision to interrupt Babel’s unity of purpose, and it seems petty or vengeful. Isn’t unity supposed to be a good thing? So there are problems with the conventional wisdom about this text.
The good news is, there is another way to look at this story. A way that sees God’s scattering of the people of Babel, and the diversity which that brought about, not as a punishment to humanity, but rather as a liberating gift.
Theologian Letty Russell makes just such an argument in her book “Just Hospitality”-- a book about the importance of diversity in the church. She points out, as many other theologians and biblical scholars have done, that in order for a prehistorical society like that of Babel to accomplish the feat of building such a great tower to the heavens, they almost certainly would have had to rely on slave labor-- most likely some other tribe, or multiple tribes, that they had conquered and enslaved in the name of progress. She also observes that to read this story as being about punishment betrays a certain attitude or bias that we may have-- one that sees cultural difference and diversity as a problem to be overcome rather than a gift to be celebrated. Because the thing is, nowhere in the text does it actually say that God was angry or that God’s action was a punishment. That’s just something we’ve read into it over the years because of our own bias, and simply got used to thinking was true.
It’s telling, I think, that the Pentecost story from the Acts of the Apostles, which is so frequently talked about as the anti-Babel story, or the reversal of Babel, is not a story about everyone speaking the same language and becoming the same. It’s a story about people of different countries and cultures coming together and being able to understand one another in spite of, and in the midst of their differences. In the Pentecost story we can see that God’s cause is not unity through sameness and domination, but rather unity through our God-given and wonderful diversity. And so perhaps God’s aim in scattering the prideful people of Babel was not in punishing their unity or ambition, but rather in liberating them from a false unity, and offering humanity a better, more life-giving path. As Letty Russell writes: “God does not expect unity that comes by means of uniformity and the limitation of diversity and difference. Rather, God expects a unity that is rooted in our recognition that the growing diversity of the church and the world is a gift from God.” The destruction of the tower and the scattering of the people as a gift from God. Now there's a different way of reading the story.
Theologians may no longer use story as their primary mode of communication. But that doesn’t mean that other fields haven’t taken on the art of storytelling in order to shed light on some of these greater truths about the nature of humanity and our world. Modern day science fiction, for example, happens to be a genre that has explored these kinds of questions to great effect-- depicting all sorts of modern day “Babels.” Offering pictures of so-called utopian societies, where on the surface what you see is unity, prosperity, progress, and technological achievement. The only problem is that when you start to look a little closer, the so-called unity and prosperity has usually been brought about by stamping out difference and eliminating diversity-- resulting in a false, dominating unity imposed by the strong against the weak. Think Brave New World. Think 1984. Those of you here who are science fiction fans probably remember a movie that came out about 15 years ago called Gattaca. The film depicted a futuristic world in which human technology had advanced to the point where parents could alter the genes of their children, creating a race of genetically perfect human beings. The world of Gattaca, when you first see it, is beautiful. It’s clean and peaceful. It’s filled with beautiful, smart, and healthy people. It’s perfect. But then you get a glimpse under the surface, and you see it’s a false perfection. It’s a shiny veneer over a broken world-- one that has given up the hope of unity in diversity in favor of the false unity of domination and sameness. That is the world of Babel. That is the kind of world that God interrupted in order to set humanity back on the road of God’s intention for the world- a world filled with beautiful diversity and glorious, riotous, difference.
God’s vision of unity is one in which all God’s children are invited to the table-- just as they are. Where God’s house is--as our Isaiah text this morning declared--a house of prayer for all people. God’s vision of unity is one that Jesus himself modeled as he sat around the table with folks of radically different backgrounds and perspectives. Where he broke bread with tax collectors and zealots, prostitutes and day laborers, the poor and the broken, the diseased and the afflicted. A table where the dignity of each person was recognized and celebrated in all their glorious and wonderful difference.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes of the great gift to be found in this kind of unity. He says that one of God’s greatest gifts to humanity-- the gift of Babel-- is that we can “recognize the image of God in someone who is not our image.” Someone who doesn't speak our language. That we can meet God in the face of a stranger- in the face of the “other.” He sums up the theological heart of the Babel story beautifully when he writes, “I am but a sentence in the story of my people and its faith, but there are other stories, each part of the story of stories, which is the narrative of man’s search for God and God’s call for mankind.” And as we start to weave together all of these stories we can begin to see it: unity in diversity. The dignity of difference. God’s gift to us, to the church and to our world.