Genesis 11:1-9 Tower of Babel

Julian Hamilton

Psychiatrists call them intrusive thoughts. They come out of no-where, and they throw you off balance.
You know the type … thoughts of harm, manipulation, death, either on yourself or a group of people you wish it for.
I had a silly example myself recently.

I was in Taize, France. I was with students I work with, having a week of praying, listening and reading. It was fantastic. One afternoon I took myself off for a walk along the dirty tracks of the Burgundy countryside – it took longer than anticipated to return to Taize, so I began to cut through fields. ‘Perfect’ you might be thinking. French countryside, clean air, fresh breeze, peace and quiet. And you’d be right – it was all those things. Until I found myself thinking,
‘What if I’m trespassing?’
‘What if I get into real trouble?’
Before long I found myself getting into the ultimate intrusive thought – ‘I could be killed by a madman here, and no-one would ever find me.’ The real low-point came, when a man in an old white Fiat got out of his car 600 meters away. Within seconds, I had myself convinced this was the farmer and he was about to shoot me for being in his field.

Silliness.

I took a breath and continued walking, telling myself not to be so dumb.

But unwelcome thoughts that speak to our insecurities as human beings are never far from the surface. It does not take very long for someone to say something, or something to happen, that will quickly throw us off balance and have us believe, even for a moment, that we are less than we are created to be. In those moments, the last thing we do is take a breath and ask, ‘Where is God in this?’
That particular, learned, reaction, actually takes practice.

So why not practice it – today?

After all, in the passage above, the people found themselves in a new place, with new possibilities … and what did they do?
They decided they could build a tower to God.

Silliness.

How much wiser if we all learned to take a breath, and remember God is not far off, not high above the clouds, not, as the text says ‘in the heavens.’
Where is God, in your today?


It is a familiar story for those of us raised in Sunday schools.
The early people of the earth try to build a tower to God. God thwarts their advance and they are scattered throughout the earth, speaking different languages.

How different it can be coming back to familiar ‘classics’ as an adult – and trying to read them as is if it were the first time.

There are important questions here – not least of all, why an omnipresent, omnipotent, all knowing, all powerful God would ‘come down to see the city and the tower.’
What?
The all-seeing eye coming down, to have a look?

Was God busy doing something else?
Was God momentarily caught off guard by these early initiators?

Probably not.

What is monumentally more likely is that the writer of this sacred text wants us to know something very important about God, right here near the start of it all.

God is involved.

God is not far off. Not distant.
Not in his heavens directing operations.

God in Genesis, the start of it all,
choosing to be involved.

As God was, God is and God will be.
Choosing to be involved.


Towers to heaven and unholy tantrums,
confused identities and common languages.
Cityscapes and human independence,
visionary entrepreneurship and unimagined possibility.
New technology and a brighter future,
economic building collapse and divine disruption.
Exploring new ground and setting up shop,
endless babbling and forced new ground they could not ever foresee.

It’s all in these nine verses – and much more besides.

Still the haunting question remains,
God came down to see.

‘Came down.’

God chose to be involved – signifying at the start of His story; the lengths to which he would go to not leave his creation alone.

But there is another reason also –
after all he was omnipresent, there was no need to ‘come down.’

Unless, God wanted to make it plain and clear,
‘As I have done – you do.’

And therein lies a challenge from the text that is much wider and harder than ‘don’t try to build towers to God’ … it’s more complex and more simple than that. If God will stoop into the life of the city to take a look and see what is going on, surely that is the example to us? If God will come dwell, look around, and engage the life happening around the city before making a judgement, then surely our call is to do the same? If God will take the time to look, dwell, sense the nuances, smell the market stalls, listen to the languages and hear the dreams, then surely his disciples are called to the same?

Where will you be dwelling today?


There is, in the midst of this narrative, a great disturbance.
It does not go well for the people.
Settling in the exciting new plains in the East, with their building programs and new technologies, all was positive. Expansion and higher enterprise was the order of the day.

And the Holy One decides it’s not holy.
And Holy disruption puts an end to the expansionist schemes of the new humanity.

In the text, it’s quite clearly a judgement call.
And most of us don’t read Scriptural judgement calls too easily.
We explain them away – we find a hermeneutic we like, which can soften a blow.
I’m a Methodist, and I genuinely appreciate the theology I am framed in. I am not a Calvinist, and I do not believe we are pawns in a heavenly game of chess. I believe we have the honour and privilege of being called by God to partner with what God us up to in God’s world.

And in this passage – God is up to disruption. Because he does not desire humanity to proceed along a certain path. The path that would lead them to say ‘nothing is impossible.’

My real problem, is that the western world of today proudly proclaims ‘Nothing is impossible – we are close to knowing all things.’ And if one knows all things, it’s a very short jump to ‘I can do all things.’

And so I’m left with my biggest problem of all from the passage – might God be judging parts of our world today? Is there Holy disruption upsetting status quos and creating discomfort in my world? My country? My city? My neighbourhood?

And if so – am I still called to partner with God? Even in God’s Holy disruption?


We have always known it as ‘the tower of Babel’ – but it’s never called that in the passage … the tower never has a name, and we don’t even know that it is situated in Babel until the end of the account when we read that the name is given to the city because that is where the scattering of humanity took place.

And the scattering?
Literally, the babbling.
The one common language was confused, and many languages arrived, bringing what sounded like ‘babbling.’ Hence the name, Babel.

One final observation …

God scattered, giving different languages. Difference that at first seemed to drive people apart, cause confusion, add to the perplexity of life and create boundaries between people where there had been none.

Different interpretations of course exist – by and large Talmud and other Jewish writings point to the advance of divergence and distinction as a positive gift to humanity. I hope this is correct in your experience – that breadth and multiplicity actually enlarge your life and add to your enjoyment of God’s Kingdom, rather than diminish it.

But with this chance to appreciate something of the width of God through variance, isn’t it also interesting that when we read of the coming of the Spirit of God in Acts, each divergence hears words from God “in our own language.”

As God’s people, seeking after the God who is always on mission, always at work, reforming and transforming creation, what an acknowledgment of who God is, that even in the midst of ‘judgement’ – the God who initially scattered the peoples of the earth – we have the reality that something of God remains in them, and works through them all.

Could Brueggemann be right, even more right than we can fully appreciate – truly, God is ‘wild, untamed, unfettered and free’? Everywhere, in all things, and with the Spirit of God enabling us, we get to glimpse and join in the magnificent enterprise that is God’s Kingdom work.


julianhamiltonJulian Hamilton is a Methodist minister; chaplain to Trinity College Dublin; lover of fine foods, fine wines, fine conversation, and the creator of it all …
@joolshamilton

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