The stories that begin the book of Genesis depict a human race trying to make sense of the world around them and the challenges they face. In each of these stories, the reason for calamity is the wrongdoing of one group or another. There is always a culpable party. However, if we consider the events of the stories as the natural hardships of scratching out life in biblical times, our understanding changes. Faith in Real Life discussed this in connecting this week’s passages from Genesis and Galatians.
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 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. 4 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.” 5 The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 6 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. 7 Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 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.
26 for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.
The first reaction in FIRL to the Tower of Babel narrative was to the presentation of God. As written, God appears to be competitive and punitive with humankind. “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.” So God responds by destroying human unity and makes it harder for humans to function in the world. Not the best look for a loving God.
So before we look at the story itself, I want to comment on the need to explain human hardship. Frequently, the implication is that human pain could be averted if only we were less sinful. That is certainly true but it falls well short of explaining the hardships we encounter. As it applies biblically, the suggestion, as in this passage, is that God deservedly punishes us for our sins. From my point of view, this is a very anthropomorphic way to view God. If anything ‘bad’ happens, it must be somebody’s fault. If God is all powerful and there is pain in the world, a ‘good’ God would not allow such a thing. Therefore, the pain must be deserved. It is a common dilemma and one I argue with as much as possible. I believe that it took Jesus to interfere with this view of God and sin.
The first 11 chapters of Genesis reveal a consistent attempt to explain pain, hardship and disaster as God’s response to a sinful people. Especially in the first 11 chapters, Genesis seeks to explain why the world is as it is. And it especially seeks to answer the question, ‘Why is life so hard? The biblical answer in Genesis is consistently: life hard is because we deserve it. Human beings fail and God delivers punishment. There are redemptive counter points but it is easy to see God as authoritarian and punitive. Look at the pattern.
After providing humankind with all we need to live and thrive, God casts out Adam and Eve to punish them for disobedience and their desire to be like God—knowing good and evil. The basic toils and pains of the world are a consequence of human disobedience. God protects them with clothing but they may not return to the idyllic garden where they could have lived with their needs met and without anxiety.
Next, real life familial strife and competition for primacy are explained in the Cain and Abel story. Cain’s offering is rejected by God; he becomes jealous and kills his brother. Cain’s sinfulness leads to his expulsion. He too, is both protected and excluded. He may not return to the family. He is a fugitive and wanderer but God marks him so he will not be killed.
Then the story of the flood is used to explain natural disasters. Can you imagine the vulnerability of a farmer three thousand years ago trying to understand a tsunami that destroys and kills nearly everyone it its path. The biblical explanation is that God is so frustrated and angry with the sinfulness of humankind that he regrets creating us. So he destroys all but Noah and his family and promises a ‘do over’.
In the case of the Tower of Babel, the pattern continues. The real life hardship is nomadic life itself. Such a life meant regular encounters with different and competitive peoples. Every day was uncertain. There was no home. The people were always on the move and often scattered. Why must life be so hard?
The biblical answer once again lies with human unwillingness to rely upon God by seeking safety through self sufficiency. The variety of languages in the world is God’s punishment for human hubris. As long as you can see the tower, you will never be lost or separated (“otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth”). You can always find your way back to the safety of the city.
Please note how hard it is to consider that often life’s hardship just is. We often have no explanation or control. Cancer strikes, hurricanes destroy, some people are cruel, some parents are incompetent. It is hard to face the vulnerability and helplessness in life. All too often, in real life, children (and adults) would rather be guilty than helpless. Psychologically, life is more manageable if we view ourselves at fault rather than considering the possibility that sometimes no matter what we do, terrible things happen in our lives. I believe this psychological reality often bleeds over into our theology. We tend to see an authoritarian, punitive God instead of a loving one because we cannot tolerate the vulnerability and unpredictability of real life. It is not until Jesus that we begin to learn that the suffering in this world is not a sign of divine punishment.
Over the years I have worked extensively with abuse survivors. A common theme as people struggled with their histories was: ‘Did I do something wrong?’; ‘Is there something wrong with me?’ Such guilt and personal second guessing leads to secrets, shame and adds immeasurably to the pain of the experience. It is bad enough to be violated by someone who is supposed to be trustworthy but it is much worse when you wonder if it is your fault or that you could have somehow done more to stop it.
Guilt implies that the world is controllable. Guilt implies that bad things are avoidable. Unfortunately, we may know the right but that doesn’t mean we can do the right. That is true for us as well as the people around us. It is hard to live in a broken world as a broken person. Sometimes our best efforts will fail. Sometimes, no matter what we do, we suffer. No amount of determination, good works or guilt can solve that dilemma.
This brings me back to the content of today’s scripture. It is simply impossible to have safety by relying on our own devices. This does not have to be understood as a curse but it must be understood as a fact. There is no monument that we can build which will last. There is no ‘name for ourself’ that will last. There is no category of secular superiority that can be sustained. Our value is God’s declaration that we are his children. Period.
Human beings organize around similarity and we divide and rank ourselves by creating categories. Our differences become statements of comparative worth rather than descriptions of our individual uniqueness. Our circle of belonging starts with self and self interest and rarely extends to the different much less the enemy. This ordinary and human way of thinking excludes and diminishes others. It inspires fear and discrimination. It fails to see the legitimacy of diversity and the many ways we encounter God’s children.
In real life we weaponize our differences. Whether it is racial, religious or gender differences, we label, diminish and insult when our position is threatened. Look at the epithets people use when insulting the opposite sex. Look at the slurs we use when describing other peoples. Look at the tactics of political partisanship. We may be more restrained or more politically correct but all of us have biases and fears when it comes to dealing with people outside of our circle of belonging.
Jesus offers an alternative. He says: “you are all children of God through faith….There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Human categories simply do not matter to God. Trusting God means we do not need to claim superiority. We are his. We do not have to prove we are better in order to belong. Jesus claimed God’s love for himself by trusting God in every circumstance—including crucifixion— and becoming a servant to all. Nothing could separate him—or us—from the love of God. This is the only safety that can last.
When we are safe with God, we are united by our humility. Let it be so.