Babel Revisited

There’s a strange story in Genesis 11 that goes like this: The peoples of the earth, wanting to gain fame and power, decide to build a tower that stretches up all the way into heavens. But God confuses their speech, so their venture fails and they scatter across the earth. The whole story of the Tower of Babel runs only nine short verses and it’s one of more overtly mythological parts of the Hebrew Bible, having no characters, no relationship to what comes before or after in the narrative, and functioning as an origin myth for the diversity of languages in the world.

Despite this, it’s a story and image that I’ve come back to often in the past few days, because it contains in it some profound truths that speak into our present moment.

While a simple reading of the story would suggest that God is fearful that humanity will rival him in power, a more charitable reading of God — filled with the content of who God is revealed to be in the rest of the Scriptures — suggests that God knows that nothing good will come from this human plan, based as it is on the sinful foundations of pride, and longing for power and fame. The humans want to set themselves up as gods in their own right, but they are decidedly not God. The tower cannot be completed because its foundations are not solid. We might even say that it is a grace that the tower is left unfinished, saving humanity from its delusions of grandeur.

Read through this lens, Babel becomes emblematic of so many human societies and big plans: the would-be global empires of Europe and Asia, the theocratic dreams of the caliphates and commonwealths, the idealistic dreams of revolutionaries around the world, or the personality cults of history’s greatest nightmares. All rose up attempting to reach the heavens and transcend human limitations; all failed because at their heart was an unstable foundation: lust for power, greed, naive idealism, and more often than not, some combination of all three.

This imagery has come to mind often in these recent apocalyptic days. We have borne witness to horrific crimes against humanity, and specifically, humanity in black bodies. This in the middle of a brutal year, itself coming on the heels of five years similarly filled with far too much bad news. (Again, much of it, including the pandemic, particularly impacting black women and men.) I am filled with deep sorrow, anger, and at times even despair at what is unfolding in the world.

But, just to be clear, when I say these are apocalyptic times, I’m not talking about the capital-E End of history. Rather, theologically speaking, “apocalyptic” refers to moments of truth when things long hidden are unveiled and brought to light. In the New Testament, events such Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, the rise of false teachers, and the persecution of Christians in Asia Minor are all described in apocalyptic terms. Apocalyptic is a genre of literature — filled with vivid and shocking imagery — used by an oppressed and marginalized people to speak truth and to frame their struggles as part of a bigger divine picture.

And so, I think it’s very appropriate to use the language of apocalyptic to describe the events of the past few years and days. The rise of reactionary movements across the West, the continued taking of black lives for simply doing the normal stuff of life (even sleeping in one’s own bed, as Breonna Taylor found out) while black, the opportunism of the wealthy lining their pocketbooks during the pandemic, Canadians’ valuing reconciliation with indigenous peoples only until it becomes inconvenient or (heaven forbid) costs us something — What are these events if not apocalyptic? They have revealed so much about the societies we have built, the values that actually drive our decisions, and the implicit and explicit biases that keep us from doing right by one another.

The structures of modernity — liberal constitutional democracy, capitalism, and so on — have proven to be remarkably durable, resilient, and adaptable. And I do hope and pray they will continue to be so. But these apocalyptic times are revealing the weaknesses in our foundations. It’s an open question how we choose to respond to these warnings. Will we fix the broken foundations? create an entirely new superstructure? Or will we let our foundational weaknesses perpetuate and watch our towers fall?

It is no coincidence that one of the major theological themes of the feast of Pentecost is the undoing of Babel. After confusing the languages of the peoples to confound their efforts at building their monument to greed and fame at Babel, now God unites the peoples of the world, through the gifts of mutual understanding and the sharing in the Holy Spirit and the freedom it brings.

Pentecost therefore stands as an opportunity to do things a new way, a way that calls us up into the best of our ideals as persons and as communities. It is a gift that, should we choose to accept it and live into it, transfigures us. The Spirit transforms self-protection into love, fear into joy, rage into peace (again, not the false peace of this world but the genuine peace of God), entitlement into patience, hatred into kindness, greed into generosity, suspicion into good faith, contempt into gentleness, and immediate reaction into self-control.

“Against such things there is no law,” as Paul said (Gal 5.23). And they provide a solid foundation upon which we can build better, more just communities, and a more sustainable world. This isn’t about some silly new utopian dream; it’s simply living out our faith in practical ways, transforming our hearts, our relationships, our families, our communities, and our world accordingly.

May we choose, like the wise man in Jesus’ parable, to build our homes, cities, and towers on this solid rock. Amen.

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