The tower of Babel narrative from Genesis 11 is one of those stories kids often hear first in Sunday school. And like many of those children’s bible passages often we learn it a certain way, come to our own conclusions, and then put that story back on the shelf.
So let’s take this story from the shelf, dust it off, and perhaps consider a different angle.
First, a premise. In this story, at a surface level, God creates chaos out of order.
God creates chaos out of order.
It almost sounds kind of backwards.
Chaos of course is nothing new. It’s in our world now, despite our best efforts, and it has been from the very beginning.
Biblical scholars link chaos to the term abyss in Genesis 1:2; it refers to a state of non-being. Then the Spirit of God moved over the waters, separating light from the darkness, heavens from the earth, water from the land.
Creating order, and perfection, out of chaos.
Culminating in the Garden of Eden.
But that first couple couldn’t resist the chance to be more like God. They broke the one rule this garden contained. They then suddenly found themselves banished from it.
From there bad went to worse, and the very human ills of jealousy, greed, theft, deceit and murder quickly appeared.
God regretted making humans, was heartbroken by their actions, and found just one righteous in all the land, Noah. Things were so bad God decided to do a hard reset on most all of creation, saving just Noah, and his family, and those animals that marched into the ark two by two.
The hard reset of the flood had wiped the slate clean.
Creating order, and perfection, out of chaos, once again.
Arguably the flood was creation 2.0.
After the flood, humans once again started to multiply, started to get organized. The people of Babel seem at first to be engaged in innocent, even good endeavors. They settled in one place, made bricks and mortar, and decided to build a city.
Cool, we do that stuff all the time.
It sounds almost like a town hall meeting.
Gathering together, making a plan.
Then executing on that plan.
But their plan had another piece that was perhaps a little less innocent. They decided to build a tower to the heavens. And they wanted to make a name for themselves.
Making a name for themselves. With just one city, one tower and one language their goal was threefold:
– To perpetuate a single culture.
– To isolate from the rest of the world.
– To reach for the heavens. And to do it on their terms.
The motives for these tower builders were even more flawed. They did all of this, scripture says, lest they be scattered across the whole earth. Their motives, for all this building, all this isolation, all this advancement of one single culture has its roots in one thing: fear.
And they knew better.
Heading back to the creation story – God made us, and blessed us. And gave us some fairly clear directions.
Be fruitful, multiply.
Fill the earth.
Manage the creation I’ve made.
Be part of it.
Help care for it.
For it, all of it, God says, is good.
But the people of Babel? They wanted nothing to do with God’s plan.
They were too busy building the original skyscraper.
Too busy constructing that first stairway to heaven.
Too busy separating themselves from the rest of the world.
Seeing this, God chose to act.
Invoking, in this moment, another round of creation, creation 3.0.
He made one language into many.
He scattered people from one spot to across the world.
As a result the people ceased to build that city, that stairway, that tower.
God chose, this time, to create chaos out of order.
Many a preacher and theologian conclude that Babel is a punishment for bad behavior. Aka once again God’s people couldn’t get it right.
But I find myself looking at this story a little differently.
It is here, at the tower of Babel, where God creates not culture, but cultures.
It is here, where God expands one language to the now over 6,500 spoken today.
It is here God scattered us, across this world, as originally planned.
God created this complexity, this seeming chaos. And God blessed it.
So often we look at our world and think simplicity is the ideal.
If only they spoke like us,
If only they acted like us,
If only they followed our ways,
So much would be better.
Perhaps simplicity of this sort is a little over-rated in God’s eyes.
While binge watching The West Wing last week – that’s the tv show, not the current inhabitants of – my wife and I by chance stumbled upon a mathematical term in an episode: chaos theory.
Chaos theory – broadly speaking, and I’m no expert mathematician – has to do with there being order, and even great beauty, in what looks like total chaos. And if we look closely enough, at the randomness around us, patterns start to emerge.
Those patterns, as chaotic as they may initially seem, with all that scattering of location and language at Babel, lead us somewhere.
They lead us to conclude that cultural diversity is the consequence of God’s design for the world. Not the result of God’s punishment of it.
Those patterns help us to see that God relishes a world full of faithful people, of different colors, sizes, shapes, ideas and languages.
And these patterns help us reframe our own simplistic perceptions of culture into a faith-lens infinitely more complex, infinitely more divine.
Noticing those patterns, and then celebrating them, cause us to see the inherent beauty of all this complexity as something to embrace, something splendid to behold, and to honor, by design. Just as God intends. Amen.