The Tower of Babel story (Genesis 11:1-9) has been interpreted in a number of ways over the centuries. I became aware of a new (to me) interpretation in the Nov. 8 issue of the Christian Century.
Rabbi Shai Held compellingly dismissed some of the traditional looks at that tower. He focused instead on a well-constructed view that makes this story more understandable in the religious and political climates we live in today.
The tower is still a tower to nowhere, but for an upside-down reason. If there is any “punishment” involved for the city of Babel here, it may be as a reminder that the citizens of Babel tried to create a city of conformity – everyone thought and said the same things.
But God wanted a city, actually a world, where diversity of language, of thought, of vision was the common connector of people. Noah’s descendents chose to refuse and obstruct God’s original blessing we find in the Creation stories.
God’s vision was for humanity to spread out and fill the earth. But the builders of Babel wanted everyone to stay put. They feared being “scattered all over the world.” (Genesis 11:4)
Conformity breeds anonymity. No one in Babel counted as a person, an individual. No wonder God scattered the people. The witness of the Hebrew Bible, and of Jesus, is to celebrate the uniqueness of every person.
Every person is made in the image of God. How do we know anything about what God looks like? Look at each other!
Held said it this way: “To try and eradicate human uniqueness is to declare war on God’s image, and thus to declare war on God.” Strong language! But the way that differences and the concept of “diversity” are challenged today, it may not be too strong.
Over 25 years ago, I heard a small group of pastors tell me that “diversity” was a code-word for “the homosexual agenda.” I didn’t believe them then, and I certainly cannot believe that distortion today – for all kinds of reasons.
The fear of diversity, of differences, of “the other” who believes or looks differently than you, is a dangerous fear. It can create destructive division. Division is necessary is some instances – like biology? – but usually it mainly turns people into enemies.
Did I read about Jesus’ call to “love your enemies”? Oh yeah, in Matthew 5:43-48.
Years ago, I saw two, small cinderblock churches not 30 feet apart. One was called The Bible Church. The other was The Bible Bible Church.
Once a single congregation, for some reason they chose to use their cinderblocks to create a wall of division, rather than build a common floor of reconciliation. Two “towers” side by side?
Towers don’t have to be tall to be spiritually disastrous. Towers reflect our divisions, not our differences.
Our differences can make us fearful, or they can be mutually nourishing. It takes different skills to build anything, even a tower.
If you climb the tower, maybe all you do is look up at “heaven” above you, or down at someone beneath you.
But used for good, those different skills can build a common meeting place where we may learn to live side-by-side. We can look each other in the eyes. We can even look into each other’s hearts.
We are far more likely to find God in those eyes and hearts than we will find on a tower to nowhere.
How about using those tower-building bricks to build bridges of reconciliation, or streets we can all walk down – even if we are on different sides of the streets?
The Rev. Paul Graves, a Sandpoint resident and retired United Methodist minister, can be contacted at email@example.com.
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