By Rev. Chris Alexander
September 23, 2012
11Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4Then 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.” 5The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 6And 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. 7Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” 8So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9Therefore 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.
A Couple of weeks ago, Rev. D. Mark Davis spoke here at Countryside for the first of our lectures for the Center for Faith Studies. In his lecture he talked about the role of language and how the language of the Bible is a poetic language that speaks to the truth of things, without the words used being scientifically, or factually true. Dr. Davis described biblical language this way:
“I have one section in the book (Left Behind and Loving It),where I have three different readings of the death of Abraham Lincoln. And one is a very clinical reading that was written by one of the doctors who performed the autopsy, and I mean it’s kind of disgustingly clinical to where you don’t want to have to read that right after you have had lunch, and he talks about the autopsy. The second is written by one of the attending physicians of the autopsy, but, its from a letter he wrote to his mother. And in that letter he’s just marveling, that this figure, who meant so much to the nation, has been felled by this one little ball. And now, the nation’s great hope, lies cold on the table. So, he’s left aside the medical language and he’s speaking to the reverence of the moment.
And the third, that also talks about the death of Abraham Lincoln, is from a poem by Walt Whitman, which doesn’t talk about the ball going through the ecomos and entering the left lateral whatever… nothing like that. ‘The earth is shaking; The heavens are trembling; Life will never be the same again.’ You get a real sense when you read those episodes side by side, how the kind of clinical language that has been informed by the scientific revolution and the enlightenment and so forth, names some things, but how Walt Whitman’s utter lies – The earth didn’t shake when Abraham Lincoln was killed. The people right outside the vicinity of the building didn’t even know what happened, right? So, he’s lying! He’s lying! He’s using this language saying that the earth shook, and that humankind had this great convulsion, yadda, yadda, yadda. He’s Lying! He’s lying so that he can tell the truth.
And of all of these accounts, Walt Whitman’s is probably the truest – to capture the absolute devastation of what that assassination of Abraham Lincoln meant to a lot of people.
That’s how biblical language works – If you take poetic language literally it will scar the snot out of people! It’s great for raising money, but it’s poor at reading scriptures that weren’t written literally.” (excerpt from Center For Faith Studies Event 9/13/12 – Rev. Mark Davis, Ph.D.: “Left Behind and Loving it” September 10, 2012, www.darkwoodbrew.org)
For Dr. Davis, language is the reality in which we live, and it can be used in a number of different ways to help mold and shape those realities in several directions. Traditionally, or fundamentally, when we think of language and reality, we think of words that describe what is, “this is a door,” or “all of us are in the sanctuary.” But language, as it describes or shapes reality, not only describes what is, but it also points to what could be.
Language can be used to describe, persuade, to explain and teach, evoke feelings, to imagine and dream. But it can also be used to manipulate, control or demean us or someone else. Depending on who is speaking and what they wish to convey, words can be comforting and evocative or they can be hurtful and confusing. Especially during this time of high political rhetoric we all know that language can be the cause of much confusion, negativity, and chaos, rather than openly descriptive and helpful in explaining all things to all people. Do any of us really know the clear platforms of any of the candidates in this next election? Can we make informed decisions concerning our leadership without this knowledge?
So language, even when we are speaking the same language, is not such an easy thing to describe, not to mention how hard it is for it to be the reality within which we live. If language is our reality, and language can be so easily manipulated to point to several different realities at once, how can we possibly know for sure which reality we could, or should, be living in?
But for the people in our scripture story today, language is the very thing that appears to be holding them altogether. For the people of Babel, language is the common factor that allows them to not only live together, but to thrive. With a common language, they could learn and grow together, becoming such a vital urban center, that no outsider would dare to threaten them. And it is exactly this unified defense, for which they are striving. In a time when civilizations are overthrown, or communities are attacked and scattered on a regular basis, the people of Babel are seeking peace, growth, and stability. They believed that if they all worked together, through a common language, in a common mission, with a common goal, that they would be able to achieve this stability and become totally self-sufficient.
For them, a sign of this strength and stability, for all to see, would be a structure so high and so strong that it would reach to the heavens, and when standing on the top of this structure, one could see for miles and miles in all directions, meaning that the people of Babel would always know what was going on all around them, at all times, and they would never be caught unaware. They would be indestructible, they would possess all knowledge, all people would know who they are and fear them, and their civilization could exist eternally. In a word, they would be God. If successful in this tower building, these people of Babel would not have to speak to anyone else, nor would they even need to do any kind of self-discerning or listening for God, since they would have a direct communication of the purpose and meaning of creation.
It was a good plan as far as military or foreign policy plans go… become the strongest nation, and no one can hurt you, right?
But the people telling the story were not people from Babel, they are Hebrews, telling the story from within the reality of their lived experience of exile, after seeing the destruction of their own temple and the scattering of their people. They were a people struggling to hang on to their traditions, their history, and their God, in the midst of living within a foreign land. For these people, the one unifying factor, holding them together in the middle of chaos, was not language, or buildings, or seemingly indefensible stability and self-sufficiency, but rather it was the love of a God who did not abandon then in their exile, but rather used their scattering as a continual creative way to spread the love of God to all corners of the earth.
So when they tell the story about who their God is, and how their God is acting in their realities, they tell a story of a people who believed they could live on their own, without God, and how their God enters their story, breaking down their self-deceptions of self-sufficiency and once again calls them to participate with God, being called to “be fertile and multiply (Genesis 1:28).”
The God of the Hebrews is a God who calls us be unified in our relationships to one another and to all of creation, dependent on one another, and with God, to keep creation going. To achieve this unity, or relationship, is the difference between using language to define and set boundaries that can be controlled, rather than using language to open up new possibilities and listen to one another in a way that allows for reform and transformation, creating something new.
Throughout the Bible, in both the Old and the New Testament, stories are told of language being used in a poetic or parabolic way to evoke a new understanding or perspective on living. The Story of the call of Abraham and Sarah being called to a new land, the story of Joseph and his Brothers being reconciled in a foreign land, Moses talking to the burning bush, Elijah who hears his call, not in the earthquakes and the fire, but in the stillness, the parables of Jesus calling us to a new way of being, the story of Pentecost where each is given the ears to hear and understand multiple languages, and the call of Paul to be an apostle to the Gentiles. Language is not used to control or persuade, but rather is the gateway through which new realities are made possible.
One common language is not the key to understanding, but rather the willingness to enter a relationship with the other, intentionally listening to the other, is how true understanding and unity happens. And it is God who gives us the “ears to hear, and the eyes to see.”
Beyond transforming language and understanding, this story of the Tower of Babel also challenges our understanding of unity itself. At first glance, it makes sense that if we all spoke the same language, understanding things in the same way, and worked together toward the same goals, that we would all be unified in a way that would make us all stronger. But look at that whole concept again. When in history have their been civilizations who worked with this understanding of unity, who when they actually achieved such homogeny, that they did not start to breakdown and crumble? The Roman Empire, for example, as soon as they got all the people in their known world to speak their language and live under their rules and cultural practices, they began to fall apart. Hitler’s Third Reich is another example that comes to mind. Whenever civilizations have attempted to purify or draw communities together insisting on only one way of being in the world, they internally combust and fall apart. There is a huge difference between unity and homogeny.
On the other hand, now think to those civilizations that have allowed diversity in the midst of the “unity,” encouraging one another to be most truly who they are? How are these civilizations fairing? Look to any business model of successful businesses in our time, how many of them encourage the recruitment of the same types of people within their companies? The ones I have read about are going out of their way to intentionally hire folks who are different from them so they have many and various voices represented at their planning tables. Even in our religious traditions, we talk about the body of Christ being made up of many parts, each with their own gifts and talents, to lend to the whole.
So unity is not “uniformity;” all of us getting together and thinking and doing the same thing, like the people who gathered to build a tower in Babel as a sign of their strength and self-sufficiency. Instead this story challenges us to see unity in our dependency on one another, counting on their other for their diverse perspective or their unique ability in the community. For the Hebrews telling this story, to deny our dependency on one another and on God is to resist the will of creation and to reject the relationship God offers to us in creation.
This denial is the sin of humanity, the willful rejection of God in our lives. This sin or break from relationship with God has its own consequences. When we turn away from God and from one another, the only way to turn then is inside of our selves, relying totally on ourselves for perspective, growth and life, leading to self-destruction.
By destroying our structures, or towers, of delusions, God is restoring our relationships, reconciling us to one another, opening possibilities for life in abundance. The “scattering” in this story, caused by the diversity of language, is a renewed invitation from God to literally “Be fertile and multiply” in the creation story of chapter one, and the blessing of the scattering of Noah’s sons after the flood in chapter 10. Far from a punishment from God for humanity trying to be like God, this scattering blesses us with the possibility of a new way of being. It allows us to participate in creation, rather than resisting it at every turn.
The Tower of Babel is a reminder to us that humanity, when left on our own will, inevitably turn in on ourselves and move toward self-destruction, while at the same time this story challenges us to see that our dependency, on one another and God, is exactly the thing that unifies us into a strong and abundant community. Unity, then is redefined in this story as trusting in the Spirit of God, that, even as we multiply in diversity, God holds us together, and that by intentionally listening to God and to others, we are able to hear new and different perspectives that keep us from turning in on ourselves, regardless of the languages we speak or any other barriers that stand between us.
This story, along with the rest of the origin stories we have talked about in the first 11 chapters of Genesis follow a similar pattern of Humanity Failing, and Falling, then God responding to us, breaking in a new reality, transforming us yet again, so we are able to Fly. Salvation in these stories is not described as humanity responding to God’s punishment for our disobedience, but rather God participating with us, breaking down our resistance to our relationship, and opening up possibilities of new beginnings, constantly re-creating new ways to hold us together in the very relationships we resist. Salvation is not some promise to be filled at some distant place and time, but rather salvation is the ongoing promise that God will be with us, meeting us where we are, rather than humanity needed to build a pathway to God. With salvation, relationship with God, being inherent in these creation stories, the Hebrews are telling us that God is a steadfast presence with us as we are called to be about living abundantly in the world, in relationship with all that is. In this way of life, all of creation together, fulfills God’s mandate in creation to “be fertile and multiply,” constantly creating, not destroying. What will you create with God this week?