Bruce Van Blair
Sunday, April 24, 2016

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Prior Sermons in Series on Stories of the Bible

Joseph in Prison
Genesis 39:01-41:45

Tower of Babel
Genesis 11:1-9; I Timothy 1:3-7


(Children's Story)

     Sometimes a simple story is trying to tell us more than we can easily hear. In fact, we should just assume it: When somebody tells us a story, there is more to it than we know. We talk about “growing up,” but all throughout our lives we are also trying to wake up and learn to see more and more of life, and some of it is beneath the surface of things. Behind creation there is a Creator. Behind what our parents do or refuse to do, there is often love for us. We will never understand the lake if we only pay attention to its surface.

     Early in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, there is a very short and simple-sounding story. Most people call it the story of the “Tower of Babel.”

     First of all, we have to go back in time a long way – to the third millennium b.c. A millennium is a thousand years. So we count back two millennium – two thousand years – to the time of Jesus. Then we count back another two millennium before Jesus, to Abraham. Then we go back into the millennium before Abraham, before there was any Bible – before there were even any Jewish people. It was very long ago.

     The story starts out with people wanting to be rich and famous and safe and secure. (It was a very long time ago, but that part doesn’t sound very different from today, does it?) They said to each other: “What we need to do is build a great city so that everybody can see that we are so strong and so advanced that they will not even think of doing anything bad to us or giving us any trouble. And we need to build a great temple so that everybody will know that we serve and are under the protection of the greatest god. Then we will be rich and famous and safe and secure.”

     So they started building their great city and their great temple. Now, if you read the story for yourself, you will discover that I am saying “temple” where the story says “tower.” That’s the trouble with ancient stories; this one happened thousands of years before anybody had even heard of England or the English language. The old Akkadian language used the word ziggurat, from the verb zaqaru, which simply means “to build high.” A ziggurat is a temple tower. Only, when you hear the word “tower,” you think of something tall and thin, like the Seattle Space Needle. There was no such thing in the ancient world, at least not made by humans. They did not have the technology. If they wanted to build up, they had to have a big foundation below or it would fall over. A tower to them was like an Egyptian pyramid. And the Mesopotamian or Babylonian version of a pyramid was a ziggurat. Here is a drawing of one:


That is what they called a “tower” in our story. You can see the large sanctuary on the ground level where all the people could gather for worship. Up on the top level there would be a matching sanctuary where the god was thought to appear, and probably only the priests and maybe the rulers of highest rank could go up there.

     Anyway, the people were building this great city with its great temple tower or ziggurat. They were building with brick and mortar. That doesn’t sound very impressive to us, but this story wants us to know that they were using the most advanced “modern technology” of their age. That long ago, most people used mud and thatch, or they scraped rooms into cliffs. If they were really ambitious, they would stack stones on top of each other to make walls and doorways. But to be able to bake bricks of any shape and size you wanted and then bond them together with mortar – that was incredible. To them, that was like right out of science fiction. So with their new techniques and modern technology, they were going to build a city to wow the whole world.

     But God (or the gods) did not want the people to get this powerful, so God confused the language, and the people could no longer understand each other. With communication broken, the building project never came to its full completion, and people were separated from each other. They spread over the world, each group trying to build its own city and temple, and each city competing with all the other cities over who had the best god. And none of the gods were anything as great and powerful as the people at first thought.

     You understand? Worshipping different gods gives us different values, different goals, a different language. Instead of a great and unified people, there are endless factions quarreling, each trying to outdo the other. Instead of one great civilization of prosperity and peace and security, there is much confusion, babel, strife, and frustration.

     Isn’t that a terrible story? Yes, it is awful! And is it true? Yes, it is still the truth.

     Do you ever dream of doing something really important, but you cannot get enough people to see the possibility, agree about how to accomplish it, cooperate together, or coordinate their efforts in order to do that truly important thing?

     Do you ever try to talk and nobody seems to listen or understand? Do you sometimes realize that others have tried to tell you something very important to them, and you did not really pay very much attention?

     This old story is saying a lot more than it seems at first glance. The world is still a place of babel, and we are all caught in it. Life is full of confusion and noise, so there is not very much peace. Whether we like it or not, that is the way it is. We are reminded by the story of the Tower of Babel that we cannot find peace or come to know God by getting strong and powerful, or even by building great cities and temples to honor God.

     The story of the Tower of Babel does not tell us how we can find peace, or how we can come to know God. It only reminds us of how things are, and that our way does not work.


Question: Why would God want to confuse the language? What has God got against civilization? Isn’t it hard enough already, here on earth, without God causing extra and unnecessary trouble?

Usual Answer: It is human pride that is the problem. It is “humanism” – human beings trying to take control and be in charge of everything – that is the problem. Civilization is always in conflict with faith because human intelligence is never sufficient for understanding the complexities of life. The Tower of Babel story reminds us that first we must humble ourselves before God, or all our endeavors will forever end in confusion and in the disintegration of our efforts.

     That is a very nice, very neat, and very satisfying answer to people like me who never seem to tire of themes of pride versus humility, faith versus works, prayer versus political power.

     Without implying any willingness on my part to give up my favorite themes, I would like you to know that this story is not a good source for dealing with them. Furthermore, despite Jacques Ellul, the Book of Revelation, and the many times in which Christians, Jews, and others have found themselves pitted against corrupt human institutions, I do not believe that God is against civilization. I suspect, rather, that God is forever trying to awaken and inspire us to further advances in civilization – politically, scientifically, artistically, and even economically. Despite the opinions of many Christian colleagues to the contrary, it seems unlikely to me that the Creator of the human mind is anti-intellectual; that the author of so many communal and community themes is anti-political; that the Creator who Jesus insists loves us is only interested in our going backward. It also seems unlikely to me that it is the approved will of God to have the converted sit around criticizing the unconverted while the unconverted destroy this place, just so that the faithful can then be whisked off to a static Heaven to play harps and sing “neener, neener, neener” through all eternity.

     If God is angry at us today in general (and I don’t mean angry as in “I’m going to get you,” which God never is, but angry as in “Come on, folks, move it”), it is probably because we are still messing around with war and poverty and ecology, instead of doing exactly what the Tower of Babel story suggests: getting together in harmony and cooperation and heading for the stars. Even from what we already know, it is obvious that we need to get there but do not have very much time to figure out how – at least not enough to go on fooling around.

Question: Why does the story of the Tower of Babel tell us that it was God who confused the language?

Answer: The Hebrews are telling this story, and the purpose of the story is to put the Babylonians in their place – not to comment on systematic theology. (Besides, we are always blaming God for our mistakes.) I suspect that the Israelites are really saying: “No matter how great and powerful you look, you will never make it in the end because you have many gods instead of the one true God.”

     Nevertheless, the Hebrews are not accusing the Babylonians of being godless. And there is no hint that the Babylonians think they are equal to or superior to any god. (Why do we keep putting that flavor on the story? It must be what psychologists call “projection.”) This Genesis story makes it clear that the temple tower will be the most important edifice in the whole great city. God is not being forgotten or brought down in any way. The story in no way implies that the people are invading Heaven, as I was taught in Sunday School. They are building a temple mount – a place where their god can come to meet them. That is the function and purpose of the ziggurat or of any temple, including the one you are sitting in right now. Our problem is not that we build such places; our problem is that we forget why we built them, and we forget to use them for their primary purpose. “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer.’”

     Just so: In Akkadian, the name Babylon (bav-il or bav-ilim) means “gateway of God” or “gateway of the gods.” Babylon houses the great ziggurat, at the top of which its patron god Marduk will come to appear to the people. But the Hebrews call it Babel instead: “This is where your god comes to speak to you, but all you hear is noise.”

     Why this animosity and disrespect for Babylon and its religion? Here is the enormous Babylonian Empire, so huge and rich and powerful that it could swallow up all of Israel at will or on a whim if it chose to. It would never bother to do so on purpose, of course, because Israel is not worth it. But if, on the way to Egypt, it happened that the Babylonian armies ran over Israel in the process, then the Israelites would end up slaves in Babylon. So, what is Yahweh (God of a tiny, no-account, hill-country tribe) in comparison to Marduk (god of mighty Babylon)?

     The Babylonian creation epic – the Enuma Elish – celebrates with deep pride the building of cities as the art of civilization. And each city thinks of itself as bringing honor to its god, since if the city prospers, it means its god is great. But the Hebrews do not agree with this assessment of things. They do not agree with each other or even with God very often, so why would they agree with the Babylonians? And in the story of the Tower of Babel, you can feel the animosity and scorn from the weak, the oppressed, and the abused for the strong and mighty offender: “You are not Babylon, ‘gateway of the gods.’ You are Babel, the chatter of apes.”

     So the Israelite story pours scorn on Babylon and its gods – some of it close to home, since each city celebrates a different god. Strife between the great cities and the factions within them, warring with each other over which god is greatest, is the force that brings down the Babylonian Empire. Indeed, in this way it is the gods who confuse the language, destroy the peace, and keep Mesopotamian civilization from being the undisputed and uninterrupted ruler of the world. There may even be a not-so-subtle hint that Yahweh got the other gods quarrelling so that their cities and peoples would quarrel, because in the long run it is Yahweh who will rule over all.

     Be careful. I am not saying that it is this way. I am saying it is not surprising that the Hebrews wanted to see it this way and told the story this way.

     In any case, Marduk, Ashur, Shamash, Enlil, Anu, Ishtar – all have ziggurats in their own cities, and each city vies against the others, at different times, for power and prestige. It is balal, which means “confusion.” It is babel – the bragging of the Babylonians is “the chatter of apes.” The story has a great time playing on soundalike words: balal, baby, babel.

     Let me suggest that the story of the Tower of Babel is commentary without implied solution. It reaches us because we identify. And if we feel superior or somehow apply the story only to others, we have not heard it yet.

     We still live in a world that fights over its gods, don’t we? It is Muhammad against Jesus; Buddha against Vishnu. There are endless variations and combinations on the theme, and endless confusion, strife, and misunderstanding is the result. Only, that result also includes cruelty, deprivation, hatred, warfare, death. If the world could ever agree on which god to worship and serve or in what ways it is appropriate to worship and serve, most of our strife would be over. Yet the Tower of Babel is still our reality.

     Seeing this travail, some people refuse to believe in or serve any god, as if somehow this will help instead of adding even more to the balal (confusion).

     Meanwhile the babel does indeed seem to increase. Beneath the strife of warring gods and the values for which they each stand, there is indeed a wilderness of words. The words keep coming faster and faster on an endlessly increasing array of subjects: spoken; written; whirling off the presses; coming into mailboxes; coming over telephone, television, fax machine, and computer. The modern world is filling up with words piled higher than our heads, threatening to drown us, and there seems no place where we can escape. It is no wonder that we find ourselves longing for some way to go backward – back to a simpler world. Without even realizing it, we want a religion that will promise us a world of fewer people, fewer problems, fewer words, fewer ideas, fewer gods. And having no chance for that, we want a religion that will permit us – even require us – to simplify: Take one view, and write off all the rest. Associate with those who accept this view, and write off all the rest. Invite everybody to come agree, so we don’t have to feel guilty about everybody we are writing off; it’s on their own heads.

     So we long to find one way, one truth, one kind of people – and to get rid of all this impossible babel in which we are drowning. If we do not do this, how can we survive the growing babel and balal – the confusion, the wilderness of words, the endless appeals, the strife within and without?

     Only, that is not the way. Can I tell you that? Going back and trying to get simple in that manner will not work. It cannot help in the end. Now, I can only speak for my own god, but the problem with Jesus is not that He is little and loves only a few, but that we have seen Him little and made Him small. And now the Eternal Spirit – the incarnate logos of God – is reduced to the pathetic mascot of a favored few who imagine that they have captured the Divine Love, know the creeds that can define and contain it, and have a right to dispense or withhold it.

     I don’t know if the other gods “open up” and go universal in the way that ours does, because it takes a whole lifetime of study and devotion to begin to understand and comprehend even a little of any true religion. But I know that Jesus is more than a Nazarene, more than a Jew, more than an American, even more than a Christian. And every day that you love Him and try to follow Him, either your soul will grow wider, or it will lose Him.

     If Jesus is your Lord and the Lord of this church – which indeed I believe He is – surely we must know and try never to forget that these are among the very least of His titles.


Copyright 2016 by Bruce Van Blair.   All rights reserved.