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. (Genesis 11:1-9)
This story from the book of Genesis recounts the tale of the world’s people building a giant tower, hoping to ascend to God, making themselves equal to God. The story ends with the people, who were one, being scattered into many people, living in many places, speaking many languages. Biblical scholars classify this as an etiological story. An etiological story is a story of origin. The story is not meant to convey historical events but is one crafted by a people trying to explain a phenomenon they readily recognized, i.e., that there are many people in many places who speak many languages. Why is this plurality a problem? Understanding the reason for this story’s advent as an answer to this problem of plurality is essential to establishing this story’s significance and purpose in the overarching salvation narrative.
First, it is interesting to note where the Tower story falls within the Genesis narrative. It is no accident that the Tower story falls immediately between the stories of the flood and the call of Abram and Sari. With the ending of the flood story, we have an accounting of prehistory that assumes a single collection of people, a small remnant descendent from Noah’s children. The tellers of the Noah story were well aware that their audience would recognize that there were many nations and languages all around them. This caused a significant problem: How could they have just heard a story about one family surviving a flood yet regularly observe a diversity of people and languages? The solution was the Tower story. The Tower story helps to explain both how it happened, i.e., the proliferation of nations and languages, and why it happened, i.e., simple hubris.
Second, it is important to see that the story rests not just after the flood narrative but, also, before the call of Abram and Sari. The story of Abram and Sari begins with their living in Ur and responding to a call from God that leads to their forming a great nation, one people in covenant with God. Yet, that people’s existence is not solely to be in communion with God. Rather, Israel exists for a larger purpose. We find that purpose in Genesis 12:1-3. That passage reads: “Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’
Interestingly, the text says, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” In other words, through the people called Israel, God is seeking not to bless just Israel but to bless everyone through an illustrative people who demonstrate that contact with God is not done out of hubris but out of humility, not out of assuming God’s place at the center but as God’s invited companions at this divine center. In this way, the Tower of Babel story acts as the fulcrum, balancing the flood story with the Abram and Sari story. Without the Tower story, we have both a logical hole in the narrative and a dissonance between what is told in the flood narrative with what is observed every day.
The entirety of the story of salvation is repeated in this observed rhythm of divine oneness, divine replacement, divine scattering, and divine return. Think of the Garden of Eden story. In that story, we are made in communion with God, we seek to replace God as the arbiters of good and evil, we are cast out of the garden, and, yet, God makes us clothes to care for us. The repetition of this rhythm in the flood-tower-call trilogy is important because it sets the stage for the whole salvation narrative being played-out across the remaining pages of the Old Testament and into the New.
If the pattern is oneness, followed by replacement, followed by scattering, and culminating in return, then the call of Abram and Sari begins a long-drawn-out account of our return from the many to the one: one with God and one with each other. If the creation story is bookended by God making, first, the heavens and the earth and, then, the clothes for Adam and Eve, then the story of salvation finds its bookends upon a tower and in an upper room.
If the Tower of Babel story begins with one, washed-over people that are blown to the ends of the earth, then the Pentecost story concludes the narrative with many people blown in from the ends of the earth, becoming one, spirit-washed people. Consider the inverted parallels of the stories:
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. . . .
Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what should we do?’ Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. . . . those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2, selected verses)
In the Tower story, it begins with the receding of water. In the Pentecost story, it begins with the arrival of fire. In the Tower story, the people are one. In the Pentecost story, the people are many. In the Tower story, the people speak one language. In the Pentecost story, the people speak many languages. In the Tower story, the people ascend the tower out of pride and hubris. In the Pentecost story, the people ascend to the upper room out of cowardice and uncertainty. In the Tower story, floodwater is replaced by judgmental fire, as God descends out of wrath. In the Pentecost story, fire is replaced by water, as God descends out of mercy and covers them with the waters of baptism.
This reversal of the division at Babel is central to the story of salvation because it dramatically reminds us that God’s desire is our unity both with God and with each other and that we are to act out of inspired service not arrogant self-service. It seems no accident that the Pentecost narrative ends as it does with the members of this new community holding all things in common, selling what they have, and distributing the proceeds to the poor. The outgrowth of communion with God, the story intimates, is communion with each other and with our neighbors, especially our neighbors in need.
This week’s chapel service is about seeing other nations anew. As this protracted story of salvation—begun at Babel and concluding at Pentecost—reminds us, we are all God’s children, woven together in a single garment of human destiny. Those in need are not just those poor souls over there but brothers and sisters of our family, requiring our care, our love, and our mercy. And, we love them not because we hope that they come to believe or think or act like we do. That would not be love. That would be deception and manipulation. Rather, we love them and long to care for them because they require our love and our care as we require theirs in return, if we are to be the one people we are created to be. This week, please remember to bring your boxes for Operation Christmas Child to the chapel service. May we, like those early disciples, wash away our divisions and take what we have to care for those in need. May we become not just hearers but doers of the word, not just the audience but actors in the drama of salvation.
See you in chapel.