Babel revisited…

DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI / Getty Images

I am trying (again) a Bible-in-a-year programme and I am loving it.  Admittedly I am still reading big chunks of Genesis rather than big chunks of Leviticus – but I am trying NOT to reach for commentaries or other people’s analysis, rather I want to allow the bare text to hit me as if for the first time.  (Confession-time here: some of it WILL actually be a first time, shocking as that may sound coming from a Minister ordained for about 26years!)

Anyway – the picture gives it away – today included Babel.  I’m reading from the Message – so this is what I read…

Genesis 11 (MSG)
“God Turned Their Language into ‘Babble’”

At one time, the whole Earth spoke the same language. It so happened that as they moved out of the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled down.

They said to one another, “Come, let’s make bricks and fire them well.” They used brick for stone and tar for mortar.

Then they said, “Come, let’s build ourselves a city and a tower that reaches Heaven. Let’s make ourselves famous so we won’t be scattered here and there across the Earth.”

God came down to look over the city and the tower those people had built.

God took one look and said, “One people, one language; why, this is only a first step. No telling what they’ll come up with next—they’ll stop at nothing! Come, we’ll go down and garble their speech so they won’t understand each other.” Then God scattered them from there all over the world. And they had to quit building the city. That’s how it came to be called Babel, because there God turned their language into “babble.” From there God scattered them all over the world.

Now… I am not saying other interpretations are wrong – I have preached them all!  You are familiar with the territory

  • The people build a tower to try to reach heaven.  God doesn’t want the disturbance up there – so she finds an ingenious way to prevent them being good builders – she confuses their speech!
  • or… The people are getting too powerful – far too big for their boots – God can’t really stomach the potential competition so she knocks them down a peg or two by confusing their speech.
  • or… It’s purely an aetiological story (an origin story) to explain why there are so many languages.  (or to explain why there are so many of these ruined old towers littering the countryside!)

Reading it again in its context – it didn’t really sound predominantly like any of those things to me.  Before this story we have the fallout from the flood – and the family tree of Noah – and the story of them all dispersing – scattering – going out into the big wide world to be fruitful and multiply.  After this we have Abram being called to leave the familiar and venture into the unknown – to spread out and scatter.

And this idea of being scattered is quite dominant in the story.  This time I read it as a story of a people who wanted to settle down – put down roots – become established (and powerful) in their own defended and bordered space.  I read it as a story of a people who have had enough of spreading and scattering and going out into the big bad world as nomads and travelers, they wanted to be defined and settled and homogeneous.

And God is horrified.  “Strewth!” she says, “what will they come up with next as an excuse to stop journeying and traveling and moving on and becoming more diverse?”  And she stops them by confusing their speech – they are scattered – which is what she wanted them to do in the first place!

Many a Pentecost sermon has told the Pentecost story – all speaking different languages and yet understanding – as the opposite bookend to the Babel story (many of mine have!)  And that’s all well and good – except that usually the scattering is assumed to be a bad thing!

What if this Babel story expresses somethings that are still true today?

  •  That a mixed up world of differing languages (and associated cultures) is not a bad thing to be healed by Pentecost, but a GOOD thing – a thing that God always wanted.
  •  That even if we can only fathom it metaphorically in our very static, non-nomadic definitions of a “normal life” – it is a GOOD thing for us to think of ourselves as a “traveling, wandering race – the people of God” (that old hymn!) and that God is distressed when we find our lives getting too “settled”.

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2 thoughts on “Babel revisited…

  1. Platonick

    From a redactive hermeneutic it has always made me smile that the 'new' towers have bitumen or tar in them thus waterproofing. This is the cutting edge of 'modern' technology and is a responsive (at least redactively) to the flood that came and a mistrust in the word that they will not come again 'I put my bow in the sky as a sign'. The reach for the sky is therefore a reaching towards the promise – the travel is vertical (to be like god) but also a mistrust of the promise (to not trust god). Got to love the Hebrew Bible

  2. kchapel

    Thanks! I had not connected the waterproofing bitumen with a lack of faith in God not flooding the world again – that's interesting! (Though, waterproofing still seems to be a good idea as there have been several consequent floods!) 😉


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