Genesis 11

  Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.

And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.

 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.

Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”

So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.

Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

 “Gate 4-A” by Naomi Shihab Nye


Years ago, our family flew to France to spend some time with Debbie’s mother, who was fulfilling a life-long dream by living a few years in Paris. While there we also traveled to visit with an exchange student who had stayed with us the previous summer. This young woman spoke English well, and we had enjoyed getting to know her. She was delighted to welcome us to her home but said her parents didn’t speak quite as well.

So, we boned up a bit on French before leaving. Also, it helped that our daughter Anna, who had been attending a French immersion school in Milwaukee, was with us. With her help and our halting phrases and pantomime, we got by reasonably well with them.

One evening, though, they invited us to a great treat – a dinner party with a number of their neighbors and friends. Not being familiar with European customs, we were a little daunted that the party didn’t start until around 9 p.m., but the food was delightful, and the neighbors were friendly.

Friendly, but not especially fluent in English. I remember smiling and stumbling along on my phrases – Anna had gone to bed, so we didn’t have her to rely on. But it wasn’t long after those initial, polite inquiries that friends turned to each other, and the pace of speaking sped up. I have this vivid recollection of suddenly feeling lost. We are verbal beings, and language is what we use to navigate the world in the presence of others.

To have that capacity suddenly pulled away is disorienting, even frightening. So, how interesting that the writers of the Bible should center this story we’re examining today,  one more story where early humans are slapped down for getting too big for their britches, on language. It can’t help but raise the question, what is this story really about anyway?

The story comes in the Bible after God makes his covenant with Noah, promising never again to make a flood to destroy every living creature, and urging his sons to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the Earth.”

Following comes one of those passages of genealogy, listing several generations of children born to Noah’s sons, who are said to be spreading out across the earth. But then comes the Babel story, and suddenly they are no longer spreading out: they have come together, gathered on a plain where they intend to build a great city topped by a massive tower “with its top in the heavens.”

The purpose of this city and its tower? To “make a name for ourselves.” Curious, especially given that in the entire Babel story none of the human actors is named. Who is building this tower? We’re not told. We only know that they fear that without it, “we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the Earth.” And where would they get that idea? Well, didn’t God just charge them all to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the Earth”?  And why would that be such a fearful thing? So many interesting questions.

I have to admit that I had never before been inclined to spend much time with this story. I think that like a lot of readers I saw it as one of those “just-so” stories about the origin of languages. But I was intrigued recently to read a different treatment of the story by a contemporary writer, Rabbi Shai Held. Held argued that the story holds within it, not an act of punishment by a jealous God, but a blessing.

To understand that perspective we need to go back to how the story begins. Remember the opening passage? “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.”  So, language is central from the start.

OK, and they’re all together, so everything’s good, kumbaya, right? Not exactly. What does this unity give them? Does everyone get to plant his own vine and fig tree? No. Their first decision is, “Come let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” Tough building materials for a big job: a huge city with a massive tower that soars into the heavens.

But why? To what end? We’re not told, but the text gives us a hint. The phrase “make a name for ourselves” has a strong scent of hubris to it.  These folks think they’re pretty darned important, and if they’re scattered across the Earth their power will be diluted and dissolved. You get the sense that the point of building the city is to concentrate that power, and the purpose of the tower, rather than contending with God, is to keep an eye on the populace. Instead of city of peace, it sounds more like something out of 1984.

When we get to God’s response in the story, we see a sense of exasperation: What kind of mess are they into now? If this is their attitude, there’s going to be no end to the misery they make. It’s not as if this building project is going to endanger him. I mean, really? He’s more concerned about the terrible trajectory that this holds for humankind, more specifically a turn toward totalitarian control.

And the uniformity of language is part of this picture. Just as in 1984, language can be an effective tool of oppression. It can shape people’s perceptions and be used to control or even erase individual expression.

Add to this the unprecedented anonymity of all the human actors. No other Biblical story fails to name a single actor. Even the quotes are anonymous. Clearly, there is a message here.

Anonymity, of course, feeds control. If individual identity is not recognized, the only identity that matters is of those in power and the name that they make for themselves. It’s a pattern as old as humankind and one we recognize from the rise of one totalitarian state after another in the last couple hundred years. We arguably even see it in some contemporaries who seem to care little about anything but building moments to themselves and seeing their name plastered across everything they own.

So, what is God to do about this? He’s pretty fed up, but he already promised no more divine catastrophes. But language – hmm, there’s an idea. The text doesn’t give much of a clue about what God may have done to the language, except to say that he “confused it.”

We could play with this a little and imagine all the incomprehensible sounds that might emerge from the mouths of these speakers. As with my experience in France, it surely would be disorienting.

And also, as God intended, it would have disrupted the building project. You can’t direct a massive building project without a common language. It’s likely that it would have prompted people as they scattered to the four corners of the Earth to tend to each other and create communities to survive.

And here is where Rabbi Held sees the story’s message. “Our story,” he writes, “is not about some primordial human unity being lost in the mists of time, but, on the contrary, about an active attempt to undo the divine plan for diversity that has already begun to come to fruition.” The Babel story, he says, “ends with God’s reversing an unhealthy, monolithic movement toward homogeneity with a reaffirmation of the blessings of cultural linguistic, and geographical diversity.”

As troublesome as we human beings can be, our diversity, our uniqueness, and individual genius is part of what makes each one of us blessings to the world. Indeed, Held argues, this is “a large part of what God treasures about each of us.”

We live today at a time when it is becoming harder and harder for that learning to surface. The totalitarian impulse is at work in this country and around the world, crushing countless numbers of people made anonymous in their suffering and their deaths.

Scenes like the one that Naomi Shihab Nye painted rarely receive a response as compassionate as hers was. People marginalized by language, race, ethnicity or gender identity find themselves dismissed, threatened and even assaulted.

And the result is pretty darn brutal, as we’ve discovered where people with black and brown bodies are subject to unending violence and oppression. A good example is the sweep of the immigrant community in western North Carolina, as officers with US immigration authorities, ICE, grabbed people on the street and detained them for deportation.

From any public policy perspective, these practices are pointless, ineffective and damaging to our country. But even worse they tear apart families, disrupt communities and visit on people terrible pain and grief. We can be agents of another way, a way of compassion, appreciation, and care But it’s not always easy and there can be a risk.

We begin by giving up the anonymity that our culture offers up as the default mode in interacting with others. You’ve been in airports, right? Part of the flood of humanity that pours through huge corridors on the way to our distant gates. We may we observe physical differences among our fellow passengers, but we keep our eyes focused forward, our ears buds playing the songs of our choice.

When I read Nye’s poem, I wonder how many of us quietly cringed at Nye’s decision to reply to the gate announcement? As she says, finding ourselves in such a situation “one pauses these days.” And for good reason. There are some crazy things going on, and, hey, I’m just trying to get from here to there.

But, she is in the gate already, and as the daughter of a Palestinian father and American mother she is sensitized to the troubles that people like this distraught woman can face. And, yes, she knows a few halting phrases of Arabic, so sure.

The connection is immediate and, as it turns out, the woman’s problems are really no big deal. But Nye, relieved and a bit charmed doesn’t stop there. She calls the woman’s son to reassure him that his mom is OK, and then, why not call her own dad, and let’s toss in a few Palestinian poet friends as well.

With each step as the circle widens something incredible happens at that airline gate. Others get drawn in, share stories, pass around cookies and juice. An aura begins to grow. People who were strangers a few minutes before are holding hands. Looking around, Nye observes, “this is the world that I want to live in. The shared world.”

Me, too. I want to find that place where the cone of anonymity and separation that we use to shelter ourselves from each other is discarded and an aura of compassion prevails, where we understand without question that we are all worthy beings deserving of care and concern, bound together in a common journey.

Because, let’s face it, each of us has had our moment at the airline gate when things fell apart and we’ve run out of resources, struggling to make our place, to find our way. As Meg Barnhouse puts it, nobody does not know about sorrow, about loneliness, about cruelty, and it’s brought us to our knees.

It’s at that moment that we put aside the walls or towers we’ve built for protection and look for mercy in the arms of those willing to offer their hands, where the differences that once divided us become the powdered sugar that we wear as a badge of compassion, of hope.

Such a thing, Naomi Shihab Nye tells us, “can still happen anywhere” and give us confidence, in the words of the 14th-century anchorite Julian of Norwich, that all will be well.