The Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9 is one of those Bible stories that we tend to learn as children and rarely revisit. We remember the unsuccessful effort of the people to build a tower to heaven so they could get to God. Perhaps we were even given the chance to color this tower or build one with Popsicle sticks and glue. The lesson I remember learning from this as a child is that God punished the tower builders by making life more difficult for them. What is your memory from your first hearing of the Tower of Babel?
I am very grateful for the spiritual discipline of daily Bible reading which gives me the opportunity to return to stories like the Tower of Babel and bring my adult sense to bear on its meaning. The lesson I draw from it now is different from my Sunday school days.
What I find now in Genesis is an endearing depiction of both people and God as we figure out how life in community is going to work.
When the story starts, all people share one language with the same words. The people set about building a city and conceive the idea of building a tower by which they will “make a name for” themselves. Their fear is, if they don’t do this, then they “shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth” (Genesis 11:4). However, this tower building provokes exactly that response from God.
Seeing the city and the tower, God concludes, “This is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible to them.” God’s solution to limiting possibility is to “confuse their language so that they will not understand one another’s speech” and to scatter them abroad over the face of all the earth.
What are we to make of this encounter between God and us?
I find in the Tower of Babel an encouraging indication of how God holds together our unity and our diversity as God’s creation — God’s children. In order to keep us humble — that is, knowing that we are human beings and not God — God ends the period of one language. God then establishes within humanity the same diversity that was given to all creation in the opening chapters of Genesis, a wealth of variety that remains throughout Scripture.
In a nutshell – the key to humility is diversity. Wow!
Of course, God provides unity for human beings after restoring the covenant with us through Jesus’ death and resurrection. On the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit brings one understanding even as the people from different nations across the world continue to speak and hear their own language. Here is an amazing moment of both unity and diversity held together by God’s loving Spirit at work in us.
Of course, language is not the only thing that is different about people. We have come to understand that God has endowed human beings with diversity in race, gender identity, sexual orientation, culture and perspective. Future generations may discover other realms of diversity still not revealed to us. And the Holy Spirit gives us the means by which we find unity even as we delight, as God does, in such variety.
This is how the parable of the Tower of Babel informs my faith.