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Sometimes you get told something so often you believe that it’s true.
There are stories so ubiquitous that we take them as inerrant fact and as truth (see what I did there?).
Bubble gum does not take seven years to digest. The repetition of this story does not make it true. It is true, however, that the gum doesn’t digest, it just travels on through, our bodies saying, nope, that’s not food, just as my body did when I swallowed steel balls from a “crossfire” game when I was 5.
I speak from experience when I say, it’s gone in about a week.
The tower of Babel has gotten a bad rap.
It turns out a whole lot of people think of this story as that time when God got angry at people who thought they could build a tower to heaven and so, God messed up their plans and struck them all with different languages to confuse them.
Teach those little suckers to try and mess with me. heh, heh, heh.
But it turns out, that’s not even in the Bible. Go figure.
The story is from Genesis 11. It sits there, squashed in by genealogies that move from the mythic flood to the ancestor of the big-three monotheisms, Abram (he doesn’t get the name change to Abraham til later). Here’s what it says:
11: 1 Now the whole earth [a]used the same language and [b]the same words. 2 It came about as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar and [c]settled there. 3 They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly.” And they used brick for stone, and they used tar for mortar. 4 They said, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” 5 The Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. 6 The Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they all have [d]the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be [e]impossible for them. 7 Come, let Us go down and there confuse their [f]language, so that they will not understand one another’s [g]speech.” 8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. 9 Therefore its name was called [h]Babel, because there the Lord confused the [i]language of the whole earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth.
Now, what is clear in the story is that they have one language (all those footnotes are telling us that this word literally means “one lip”). They are building a tower, and it is a big one. This makes an impression on God. God says, (paraphrase) Check it out, these people are amazing! Here the text says “now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them.” Here the footnote tells us that an alternate rendering of the Hebrew is that “nothing which they purpose to do will be withheld from them.”
Even without that juicy alternate translation, there’s no clear language here that this is any kind of retributive judgement from God.
I have this distinct memory of being rather small and swimming in a large pool. I remember jumping in and swimming to my dad. Before jumping I demanded, “you stay there, don’t back up!” My dad, of course said, “Okay, I’ll stay right here.”
My dad, of course, backed up. When I came up for air and grabbed hold of his arms, 1/3 of the way across the pool, he said, “Look how far you swam!”
I wailed in protest, “You backed up!”
If we assume that God is angry at idolatrous people, or that God is fearful about losing power to these ambitious little creatures with their talking and tower building, then yeah, Babel looks like God sure showed them.
But if we read the text believing that the God who just went on and on, waxing poetic about making a covenant with every last living thing on the planet right after the flood, we might begin to believe that this God is more like a proud and cunning mama who wants to see her child ride the bike down the street without training wheels, and who, to the child’s great consternation, lets go of the back of the bike, just to see how far the kid can go on their own.
In this version of the story, we read it that God says, wow, these people are doing awesome here, at this rate, they can’t be stopped, I wonder how much more they could do if they were challenged. Now, how can I make that happen?
Here, God is a bit more of a trickster, conniving a way to get them to go outward and explore, blessing them with different languages so that they’ll go and become a whole bunch of wonderful people in really different ways all over the world.
Somehow, this seems to fit with Abram’s narrative that comes right after–you know the one about how God wants to bless every nation.
This gets reiterated by the author of Luke-Acts in the narrative about Pentecost, echoing the Babel story, when it says the people heard the disciples speaking and each one heard the gospel in their own language. The miracle is not about bringing them back together to hear the same language. The blessing is that the good news comes to them in all their particularity.
Now I know my reading doesn’t have all the textual support in the world to make it the only way to read this passage. Thank God for that.
That’s also just damn good writing–way to go, ancient authors.
We’ve been handed a story that seems like it could be saying two totally contradictory things. As readers, we’re being asked to wrestle with the ambiguous narrative and wonder about the character of God–to question what kind of relationship we believe God has with humanity. Now that’s good storytelling.
As we move into looking at how we, as Christians, understand human difference, it’s important that we listen carefully to what others tell us about their lives. It’s also important that we listen carefully to what’s actually going on in the Biblical texts as well. To honor the ambiguities, and more importantly to respond to the inherent wondering that resides in every Biblical story–wondering about who God is in relationship with humanity.
I remember praying the same prayer every night of my life from the age of around 8 or 9 until I was around 20. “Dear Jesus, please forgive me for my sins, take this [attraction to other boys] away from me, and don’t send me to hell.” I heard these words and the ideas that shaped them so frequently, I took them inside me and believed they were inherent truth.
I was thoroughly convinced that my own sexuality–my experience of the world, and my particular expression of desire for affection, attachment, and relationship with other people–was a curse.
Sometime in my early twenties I began to be opened up to the ambiguity of what was really there. I began to question deeply and wonder who God is in relationship with humanity–in relationship with me; just as I am in my own body.
A few years ago, I finally recognized that when I read the text of my life and my experience in my body, the story is gorgeously ambiguous and because it is a damn good story, I have to make a choice about who I believe God to be.
I think God is a lot like my dad in that pool.
I think my being gay is part of God’s way of being delighted with who I am in the world and inviting me to live out the fullness of who I am in all my particularity. I believe this, because I believe it is in keeping with how God has been showing up in the world for a long, long time. I think God likes a good story, and thus, refuses to give us a clear cut picture of benevolence. I also think God honors our sorrow by not definitively righting every wrong. It’s a way of inviting us to participate, of calling us out of one unified narrative and challenging us to live fully in all the ambiguity of being diverse people in the world.
Sadly, that other reading of my life’s story doesn’t go away. Like oppressive historical readings of the biblical text, it lives within me and is still at play. Part of the work of wondering who God is in the world; participating in relationship with God, is to allow the narrative of God’s loving-kindness to hover over and within us, contradicting the voices of shame, violence, oppression, and curse.
Read part 6 here.