“Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 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. 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.’ The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 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. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another's speech.’ So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 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.”
The writer in Genesis 11 knew about the temple towers found in all important Mesopotamian cities – with progressively smaller, step-like levels from a massive base rising up from three to as many as seven stories, likely constructed of crude sun-dried bricks and covered with kiln-fired bricks. Some scholar believe that the ancient ruins of Esagila , which had a Babylon temple destroyed in the mid-16th century B.C.E by the Hittites, inspired this story in Genesis.
The story of Babel, however, explains how humankind – which had started over with one common ancestor, Noah – became scattered and divided into separate nations speaking different languages. At this site the people decide to build a “city and a tower with its top in the sky.” No specific sin of the builders is mentioned. Some commentators see in the construction the presumption of thinking that a tower could be built with “its top in the sky,” thereby storming the heavens or at least making a name for the builders.
Gerhard Von Rad wrote in his profound treatise Genesis, “The story of the Tower of Babel concludes with God’s judgment on mankind…the question of future humanity now arises even more urgently: Is God’s relationship to the nations now finally broken; is God’s gracious forbearance now exhausted; has God rejected the nations forever?” (p. 153.) We know that the name Babel resembles the Hebrew verb bll, which means "to confuse" – and refers to how the Lord “confounded the speech of the whole earth.”
As Genesis unfolds, the Tower of Babel narrative becomes a turning point in human history and signals the end of universal monotheism. The Abraham story introduces a second chance and demonstrates that God has not given up.
What scatters us? What makes it so hard for us – in our diversity – to see that we are still connected inexorably in our common humanity and our shared ancestry? In “No religion is an island,” Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote,
A major factor in our religious predicament is due to self-righteousness and to the assumption that faith is found only in him who has arrived, while absent in him who is on the way. Religion is often inherently guilty of the sin of pride and presumption. To paraphrase the prophet's words, the exultant religion dwelt secure and said in her heart : “I am, and there is no one besides me.” Humility and contrition seem to be absent where most required – in theology. But humility is the beginning and end of religious thinking, the secret test of faith. There is no truth without humility, no certainty without contrition.
May we rediscover what unites us as we celebrate our differences while standing together on shared values to build towers of mutual respect that truly lift all of us up – in praise of the One who delights in that diversity and entrusts us with the power of the Spirit by which all creation is renewed and cherished.
The Very Reverend Dr. James A. Kowalski
Dean of the Cathedral
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