The Tower of Babel
Genesis 4:8-17; 6:5-8; 7:1-5; 8:1; 9:8-11; 11:1-9
8 Then Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out in the fields.”[c] When they were out in the fields, Cain turned on his brother and killed him.
9 The Lord asked Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”
He answered, “I don’t know. Am I supposed to take care of my brother?”
10 Then the Lord said, “Why have you done this terrible thing? Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground, like a voice calling for revenge. 11 You are placed under a curse and can no longer farm the soil. It has soaked up your brother’s blood as if it had opened its mouth to receive it when you killed him. 12 If you try to grow crops, the soil will not produce anything; you will be a homeless wanderer on the earth.”
13 And Cain said to the Lord, “This punishment is too hard for me to bear. 14 You are driving me off the land and away from your presence. I will be a homeless wanderer on the earth, and anyone who finds me will kill me.”
15 But the Lord answered, “No. If anyone kills you, seven lives will be taken in revenge.” So the Lord put a mark on Cain to warn anyone who met him not to kill him. 16 And Cain went away from the Lord’s presence and lived in a land called “Wandering,” which is east of Eden.
17 Cain and his wife had a son and named him Enoch. Then Cain built a city and named it after his son.
5 When the Lord saw how wicked everyone on earth was and how evil their thoughts were all the time, 6 he was sorry that he had ever made them and put them on the earth. He was so filled with regret 7 that he said, “I will wipe out these people I have created, and also the animals and the birds, because I am sorry that I made any of them.” 8 But the Lord was pleased with Noah.
The Lord said to Noah, “Go into the boat with your whole family; I have found that you are the only one in all the world who does what is right. 2 Take with you seven pairs of each kind of ritually clean animal, but only one pair of each kind of unclean animal. 3 Take also seven pairs of each kind of bird. Do this so that every kind of animal and bird will be kept alive to reproduce again on the earth. 4 Seven days from now I am going to send rain that will fall for forty days and nights, in order to destroy all the living beings that I have made.” 5 And Noah did everything that the Lord commanded.
God had not forgotten Noah and all the animals with him in the boat; he caused a wind to blow, and the water started going down.
8 God said to Noah and his sons, 9 “I am now making my covenant with you and with your descendants, 10 and with all living beings—all birds and all animals—everything that came out of the boat with you. 11 With these words I make my covenant with you: I promise that never again will all living beings be destroyed by a flood; never again will a flood destroy the earth.
At first, the people of the whole world had only one language and used the same words. 2 As they wandered about in the East, they came to a plain in Babylonia and settled there. 3 They said to one another, “Come on! Let’s make bricks and bake them hard.” So they had bricks to build with and tar to hold them together. 4 They said, “Now let’s build a city with a tower that reaches the sky, so that we can make a name for ourselves and not be scattered all over the earth.”
5 Then the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which they had built, 6 and he said, “Now then, these are all one people and they speak one language; this is just the beginning of what they are going to do. Soon they will be able to do anything they want! 7 Let us go down and mix up their language so that they will not understand each other.” 8 So the Lord scattered them all over the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 The city was called Babylon,[a] because there the Lord mixed up the language of all the people, and from there he scattered them all over the earth.
14 Then Jesus returned to Galilee, and the power of the Holy Spirit was with him. The news about him spread throughout all that territory. 15 He taught in the synagogues and was praised by everyone.
16 Then Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath he went as usual to the synagogue. He stood up to read the Scriptures 17 and was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it is written,
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has chosen me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set free the oppressed
19 and announce that the time has come
when the Lord will save his people.”
20 Jesus rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. All the people in the synagogue had their eyes fixed on him, 21 as he said to them, “This passage of scripture has come true today, as you heard it being read.”
When I went to Knox College to study theology, I must say it was not a piece of cake. I had done a Science degree in math and psychology and consequently I think I only wrote one essay in my undergraduate degree.
I had been attending a Pentecostal church for a number of years which took a much more literal understanding of scripture, so it was a challenge to deal with modern critical thinking about scripture.
The Professors at Knox College were not about telling students what the right doctrine a student or a minister had to believe, or what the right Presbyterian doctrine was.. instead they pushed the envelope and tried to make us think for ourselves, and develop our own arguments about what we believed and what scripture was about.
And while I was attending Knox College, I had a job teaching Sunday school and leading a youth group.
And of course I started dating a beautiful young woman.
Sometimes I was just so busy it felt like my head was spinning all the way round.
However, in that first year of Knox College I actually remember one little lesson about preaching.
It was a lesson in how not to preach.
One way to preach which this professor considered the wrong way is to find a text and then use the text as a pretext to say anything you want.
The professor said that one has to understand the text and its context to try and find out what the author was trying to say. Then one tries to relate that text to today’s similar situation.
Instead, some preachers take a text and just twist it to say whatever they want.
And this is the example he gave.
He picked the story of the Tower of Babel.
The wrong way to preach this text is simply to say that we humans create Towers of Babel in our lives and here are three examples of Towers of Babel that we build.
And you go on to pick any three topics you want to rail on about.
For instance today a preacher might say.
They are three towers of Babel.
The first is the legalization of Marijuana.
The second is the number of powerful men who have sexually harassed, abused or assaulted women.
And the third is pollution from the oil sands.
They all might be topics to talk about and preach about but
the story of the Tower of Babel is not about Marijuana or sexual harassment or pollution.
To preach that way is to take a text and just turn it into anything the preacher wants to say, instead of listening to what the text wants to say or more specifically, what the Holy Spirit might want to say through the scriptures.
In other words, one has to read the text and take it seriously and try to figure out what the original author, or authors were trying to say.
And one of the most important things is context.
What is the cultural context?
What is the historical context?
What is the literary context? What are the other scriptures around it about and do they help give a clue to the text?
And what is the interpretative context? How did people interpret scripture back then, compared to today?
There’s a whole lot more to interpretation than that, but context is huge.
And the story of the Tower of Babel is not just an isolated story, but a story set in a context of stories and really is the end of one section of scripture, which includes two stories about the creation; A story of what we often call the Fall, or the forbidden fruit. There is the story of Cain and Abel, where Cain kills Abel; and then there is a big story about Noah and the Ark with the animals and the flood.
We have a meteoric change in chapter 12 as the scripture embarks on a new phase with the call of Abram, whose name will change to Abraham; and the first 11 chapters are kind of summed up with a little phrase that seems almost like a throw-away phrase. Abram married Sarah and Sarah was barren.
That word “barren” kind of sums up a whole lot of the first 11 chapters of Genesis.
Now something new is going to happen with the call of a people.
But before this call we have a series of stories about what is wrong with the world.
I certainly have talked about this in the last few sermons. We were created in the image of God to love one another and love God and to live in harmony with creation, but soon humans wanted to be little gods themselves and judge good and evil, and as little gods were very concerned with others who might be our rivals.
This led to conflict and domination by humans over others and these early stories point out very clearly that something has gone wrong. We may call it sin. But that may to oversimplify it. Specifically we grasp and want and are in competition and we build ourselves up and put others down. We win and defeat. There are those who climb to the top on the backs of others.
And it is so bad that there is one of the most terrible stories in the scripture. The story of Noah.
Although we often make it a cutesy story about the animals it is not a cutesy story.
I remember one church that had some artists and they made big wooden cutouts of all kinds of animals. Elephants, horses, dogs, lions, hippopotamuses etc, two by two and put them all over the walls of their Christian Education wings.
They were just so cute.
But the story reads that God decided to kill everybody. I don’t know, but as a child and a teenager, I was taught sort of that well if that is what God wanted to do, then God was right, who are we to judge God.
I didn’t apply any critical thinking to the story. I grew up just taking it at face value.
It probably wasn’t until seminary that I started to think differently about scripture. It wasn’t so much questioning God, but questioning how scripture was put together and how it was used.
The big question is that Jesus says fairly explicitly that if you see Jesus, you see God.
And yet Jesus seems to be the opposite of the God that is revealed in the Noah story.
Jesus won’t fight against bad people. He lets himself get killed on the cross, to show that he loves everyone, even us humans when we are bad.
His grace is limitless, his love unconditional. He cries from the cross to murderers, to all humans “Father forgive them.”
So how to we go back to that Noah story.
We let us look at the interpretative context.
And I quote from our bible study book “We make the road by walking” by Brian McLaren, (page 20)
For ancient people in oral cultures, a story was like an hypothesis. A good and helpful story, like a tested hypothesis would be repeated and improved and enhanced from place to place and generation to generation. Less helpful stories would be forgotten like a failed theory, or adjusted and revised until they became helpful. Sometimes there were competing stories that would stand side by side like competing theories, awaiting a time when one would prevail, or both would fail, and an new story would arise with more explanatory power. In all these ways, storytelling was, like the scientific method, a way of seeking the truth, a way of grappling with profound questions, a way of passing on hard-won insights. As our ancestors deepened their understanding, their stories changed.
So you see these stories were not literal stories. They were changing and evolving stories about how people understood God and the world. And Generation after Generation people are telling stories that maybe improve on earlier stories and prepare the way for better stories that understand God better, until we get Jesus, and we see who God really is….
And Jesus says one time that the true picture was there all along in the scriptures. That you do find in the Old Testament, the grace, love, mercy of God, that is the underlining thread that runs throughout all of scripture. He explains it all to the two disciples on the Emmaus road. How the whole thing leads to his death on the cross and his resurrection to reveal the real nature and truth of God who is light and only light….This God who is Love.
So the picture of Jesus refutes the idea of a God who would literally destroy the whole world and kill everybody except a handful of people.
But if you take the story as a story and as a metaphor, you see that really that story is about a
god who prepares a way for people to be saved who are drowning in a world of greed and power and domination and violence.
God isn’t the one who creates the flood of sin. That is what these first few chapters of Genesis is trying to say. We humans are the ones who have created the flood of sin, and we are literally drowning ourselves and our world in acquiring, in dominating, in controlling, in beating, in subjugating, in violence, in killing…
And we do it physical, emotionally and spiritually…
But God says there is a way to escape the flood, to ride out the storm. God says there is an ark to safety, and we Christians have named him Jesus.
We copy Jesus, we imitate Jesus, we become like Jesus. We have faith in Jesus to do what he wants us to do..and that is to become servants of this world and humanity. That is to love one another. That is to forgive one another and even enemies. That is to turn our cheek to ways of violence and domination and not participate in them.
Throughout theses stories we can see the grace, mercy and love of God, even though these stories are sometimes hard to understand from a literal point of view.
And so we get to the end of the Noah story. And even thought there is a terrible flood and even though they are saved from the flood, and even though God makes a covenant to say that God is not about destroying or killing…
…it isn’t long before there is drunkenness and sexual impropriety and before long all the nations of the world are back to their same tricks of domination, rivalry and violence.
And we get to the story of the Tower of Babel.
The ancient world had a number of towers and pyramids and temples and the like. The common belief was that the bigger the better; and the higher the structure, the closer one was to god or the gods.
And while these towers were things of immense pride for the rich and powerful they were also symbols of domination, because these towers were built with slave labour.
The powerful believed that God supported the building of temples and towers as monuments to God or to human endeavour. The powerful believed that they were powerful because God had blessed them.
The powerful believed that God had ordained them to be rulers and to subjugate others…
This was still a prevalent belief thousands of years later at the time of Jesus.
This was still a prevalent belief 1600 years after Jesus when James VI of Scotland or James I of England in a speech declared that Kings are the supremest thing on earth and are God’s lieutenants, and in scripture Kings are called Gods.
That is the guy who commissioned the King James Version of the bible. He believed himself to be the next thing to God and that he was ordained by God to be king.
(Note that supremest is the word that James used but is not actually a word.)
And maybe it is still a common belief by many people on the top that God has put them there and they deserve it.
But the Tower of Babel story is a story to undermine the divine right of the rich and the powerful. It is a story to undermine the way society is often developed into a class system which is like a pyramid…
The base being the masses of poor, hungry people treated as slaves and workers to prop up the class structure where there are a few extremely wealthy and powerful on the top, who think God put them there to rule and dominate everyone else.
So God opposes this symbol of domination and pride and conquering, and what does God do, God diversifies the world with different languages.
As we work through the scriptures you will also find this as an underlying theme through the whole old testament, that God often opposes the oppressors and takes the side of the weak and vulnerable, this is the God who demands justice and equality, who demands that we care for the widows and the orphans and the sick and the powerless and the strangers and those outside the hallowed halls of power.
And it comes to full bloom in the teaching of Jesus.
I don’t know about you exactly, where you might see yourself on the tower or the pyramid.
It is very contextual.
Compared to the 6 billion people in the world most of us are in the top one percent when it comes to income or when it comes to accumulated wealth.
Compared to people in Canada we might be in the middle, or a bunch of us might be below average and some of us might be fairly low in socioeconomic status and a couple of us might be much higher than average.
When it comes to power, that too might be contextual. There are times in my life when I held some power. I coached for many years, (soccer and basketball most notably) and I held power. I chose who made or didn’t make the team. I chose who played and who didn’t play. I made decisions and it affected those whom I coached. And believe me it is not always easy.
One of the hard things about coaching is that dilemma about what will make the team win, and playing everybody equally.
Another hard thing is discipline and how to discipline. Reward and Punishment strategies.
There were some coaches much more successful than I, but I could not emulate their practices. I thought they were too hard, too mean, to demeaning, and I felt that the kids had to have fun.
And as I parent I exercised power. I cannot say that everything I did as a parent was good or helpful. I made mistakes and sometimes I am sure I overstepped the power that was mine as a parent. I pray that my love and my sacrifices and my commitment to my children outweighed the screw-ups and that I didn’t screw up my children to badly with the times I misused parental power.
And I also know that is like to be on the bottom end of a power dynamic. I was bullied as a child of ten or 11 for a period of at least a year. It was mostly psychological bullying, threats and intimidation.
It went on for far too long partly because I didn’t say anything. And you know one reason I didn’t say anything is because I was afraid that people wouldn’t believe me, or they would just call me a sissy for being intimidated,
And when I did say something the first reaction is that of disbelief.
Don’t be silly, it isn’t that bad. Just ignore him. It’s not a big deal.
This boy threatened to kill me.
Finally my mother took me seriously and went to talk to him and it stopped.
Believe it or not, I didn’t know how to stand up for my self. And the longer it went on the harder it was, because one just feels helpless.
I feel for all the women who are scared to say something, when they are threatened, harassed, bullied or intimidated, or even assaulted.
And while the me-too movement has exposed the flood of indiscriminate misuse of power by powerful men over women…
The abuse of power is not just against women, but against all those at the bottom. The poor, aboriginals, children, poor countries, the environment, women, minorities, those with special needs….etc
So while I said earlier that the Tower of Babel story is not about sexual harassment, it is indirectly, because the story in its context is about the abuse of power and about pride and domination of humans over others.
The Cain and Abel story, the flood story, the Tower of Babel story courageously grapple with the truths about us and civilization. They expose how civilizations are built on power and violence and domination.
They warn us that ultimately these ways will be like a flood destroying and hurting and damaging and scarring… the bodies and minds and spirits of human beings.
They warn us of not being too complacent with a status quo, especially when we are the benefactors.
And these stories all point forward to Jesus who teaches us that to be alive is to join God in caring about the oppressed and needy, the powerless, the victims and the vulnerable.
To be fully alive or to have abundant life is to live Jesus’ way
It is to preach good news to the poor
It is to proclaim liberty to those enslaved by people, things, social class, addiction or whatever
It is to give people a new way to see so, they are not blind to unconditional love and forgiveness,
It is to set free the oppressed
19 It is to announce that the time is now, when you can know Jesus and love Jesus, and let Jesus save you and transform you into the loving person God created you to be in the first place.