Confused Talk - A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost Sunday (Genesis 11)



11 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 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. 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.” The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 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. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 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.

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                It is truly annoying when people just babble on. That phrase or concept of speech that is confused and irrelevant takes its origins from this biblical story. Whether one knows the context or not, the story of the Tower of Babel is a biblical story people seem able to envision. It is an image that has been part of our cultural landscape for centuries. Now, it appears in the lectionary in connection with Pentecost Sunday. Pentecost is concerned with the birthing of the Christian movement as the Spirit empowers this fledgling community to spread the good news across the world (I’m tempted to say globe but that might be somewhat anachronistic). If Babel has to do with the confusion languages, Pentecost might have something to do with its reversal. Or does it? The story of Babel suggests that the confusion of languages is rooted in human hubris. In some way, Pentecost is seen as a means of undoing the damage done at Babel, but perhaps not be creating a monoculture, but providing an opportunity for understanding. What is scattered is now brought back together, without the diversity being removed.

                The reading from Genesis 11 is designated as a reading from the Hebrew Bible for Pentecost Sunday. To flesh out a bit more the Pentecost setting, we must turn to Acts 2, where we find the followers of Jesus gathered in a room in Jerusalem. They’ve heard their commission to take the good news to the ends of the earth. They’ve also heard the call to wait until the Spirit comes upon them. It’s during the festival of Pentecost, when Jews gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the harvest, that the Spirit decides to descend. The gathered disciples, some 150 strong, break out in praise, each speaking a different language, a language they had not learned prior to this experience. There was a crowd of people standing outside who heard the message—each in his or her own language—and it got their attention. This led to Peter’s sermon and an altar call that led to some 3000 baptisms (or so Luke reports).

                This passage from Genesis 11 is, in the Genesis context, a self-contained story situated between genealogical listings. For our purposes, in the context of Pentecost, it provides a background to the Spirit’s provision of the gift of languages in Acts 2. What was confused becomes understandable to the glory of God. Genesis 1-11 is understood to be primeval history. It is a saga that reveals important elements of the faith but shouldn’t be understood to provide historical information. This Kairos (sacred) time, not Chronos time. If we can agree on this matter, then we’ll be able to hear the message present in the passage. We begin with the revelation that once everyone spoke the same language. The preceding chapter (chapter 10) gives us a genealogical listing of the descendants of the three sons of Noah. Thus, we would assume that the world that is migrating to the land of Shinar, as noted in this reading, are descendants of Noah and his sons Ham, Shem, and Japheth. Interestingly, the story of Babel is situated between the genealogical listings in chapter 10 and the restatement of Shem’s descendants in verse 10 of chapter11, taking us up to Abram, son of Terah. 

So where is the land of Shinar? The name of the city—Babel—gives us a clue that this would be a city located in the Tigris-Euphrates valley. Now, the idea that the entire world would make this journey is assuming that the human population is rather small. In fact, the founder of Babel is named in chapter 10 as Nimrod, son of Cush, son of Ham. To the original readers of this passage, this story would speak of the origins of Israel’s enemy Babylon. Of course, Babylon’s origins would be rooted in human hubris. What else would you expect? 

According to our story, when the migrants from the east made their way to the land of Shinar they decided to make bricks and build a city. Not only did they build a city, but they built a tower in the middle of the city so they could reach the heavens, for, of course, that’s where God (the gods) live. We know something of these towers that were prominent in the cities of Mesopotamia, including Babylon. They were known as ziggurats, towers with stairs on all sides. At the top of the tower was an altar. This was understood to be a “Stairway to Heaven” (to borrow from Led Zeppelin).  The tower had the purpose of being a place of worship. That’s understood. What’s interesting here is that they chose to build the tower to the heavens, according to this account, not for worship but so they could make a name for themselves. This was considered an evil act, one that the LORD (Yahweh) did not appreciate. Even as the denizens of Babel built their way to the heavens, the LORD came down to check things out. When it came to the contrast between the temples of Mesopotamia and those built in Israel, Peter Enns and Jared Byas note: “By contrast, Israel’s worship structures (the tabernacle and later the temple) don’t have steps going up to heaven. Instead, Israel waits for God to come down.” [Peter Enns & Jared Byas,  Genesis for Normal People, Patheos Press. Kindle loc 984].

With the tower built so that the people of Babel could make a name for themselves, lest they find themselves scattered across the land, the LORD decided to confound their plans by confusing their languages. There is a bit of fear on the part of Yahweh and the divine council. Yahweh admits that since they are one people with one language, then if something isn’t done, nothing will be impossible for them. Action is required. Now the question here is whether Yahweh is afraid of them or for them. Remember in Genesis 3, God exiles Adam and Eve so they will no longer have access to the tree of life, effectively making them immortal. Putting a barrier up kept them from engaging in actions that might ultimately be detrimental to them (or so it seems). Could the same be true here?

The view of the people of Babel seems to be that if they don’t take care of themselves, no one will. In other words, they’re not considering how God fits into the situation. Nevertheless, despite the fear that they will be scattered, the LORD, in the end, confuses their languages and scatters them across the land. And thus the nations are born (in primeval fashion). Soon Abram will appear from one of these scattered tribes, and the process of scattering will slowly be unwound (perhaps).

So, how do we hear this story at Pentecost? I noted above that Pentecost is often understood to be an unwinding of Babel, but perhaps not.  Perhaps the response of Pentecost is not a return to a mono-lingual reality, but a binding together of peoples in their diversity. Thus, Cameron B. R. Howard writes: “In the Babel account, fear is the binding agent that drives the building projects: fear of dispersal, of loss, of living with otherness. Both the Babel and the Pentecost accounts emphasize the power of human unity, without expecting human sameness, sending people out into the world to forge connections with those who are different from themselves.” [Joel B. Green, et al, Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship: 2 (Kindle Locations 9932-9934).].

So maybe difference isn’t punishment, it’s simply reality. If this is true, and I think it is, then unity is not found in uniformity but in the way in which the Spirit, who is the binding agent, removes the fear that drove the people of Babel to build the tower and drives us to build barriers to keep each other at bay. Is this not a good message for our times when fear and hubris conspire to undermine true unity in the Spirit?  


Picture Attribution: Bruegel, Pieter, approximately 1525-1569. Tower of Babel, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56948 [retrieved June 3, 2019]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(Vienna)_-_Google_Art_Project_-_edited.jpg.

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