“Places and Prayers: The Tower of Babel”

March 22, 2015


Robin McGonigle

University Congregational Church

March 22, 2015


Places & Prayers: The Tower of Babel

Genesis 11:1-9


At the Overland Park, Kansas Jewish Community Center and Village Shalom, a Jewish retirement community, three people were shot to death by a self-described neo-Nazi and neo-Paganist.  He went on a murderous rampage here in Middle America.  In what seemed an ironic twist, the three victims were not Jewish, but Christian: a Roman Catholic and two Protestants.  Still, the perpetrator found a way to express his fervent beliefs and his intolerance of opposing points of view in a horrifically violent way.

Meanwhile, a successful family-owned business – citing their religious convictions – has been successful in opting out of contraceptive healthcare coverage for its female employees.  Is it about freedom of religion or the intolerance and prejudice of sexism hiding behind religion?

When I googled “recent examples of religious persecution”, I was sad to see hundreds of thousands of stories of violence done in the name of religion.  The voices of the dead and their families began a cacophony of sound in my head.  It was incessant and growing louder by the minute… passionate voices exposing a multiplicity of views.


Raimon Panikkar wrote “We live in a pluri-verse, not a uni-verse”.  Ours is a pluralistic age in which we may have different and opposing – even sometimes mutually incompatible – worldviews that threaten planetary human coexistence.  In the midst of such chaos and confusion, how can we tolerate each other’s differences?  Or, I’m tempted to ask, why should we even try?


Our place and prayer today reaches back to an old, old story: the Tower of Babel.  You remember… some humans in days gone by got too uppity and big for their own britches and tried to build a building that reached to the heavens… and the gods put us back in our proper place.  Read Genesis 11:1-9:


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 edifice intended in Genesis 11 is likely a Mesopotamian temple tower.  These towers rose progressively smaller, step like levels from a massive base.  The towers ranged from three or four stories to as many as seven and were constructed of sun-dried bricks covered with kiln-fired bricks.  These bricks are in contrast to the stone and clay commonly used in Canaan.


This story is a literary masterpiece.  There are several things to note about the story:

  1. It is clear that the work on the tower displeased God, but the specific sin of the builders is not mentioned.
  2. The name of the city is a word play. The name of the city in Hebrew is bābel, which is a play on the verb bālal, used to describe the confusion of language in the story.  In other words, the name of the city is really a joke because of what happened there.
  3. The name of the city is the same term used elsewhere in the Bible for Babylon. This is the same Babylon that wreaked havoc on Israel in the early 6th century B.C.E.

While the story doesn’t clearly indicate what wrong the builders did, we do have some clues.  There is a hint that their pride was out of control “they wanted to make a name for themselves”.  The other hint is that the builder’s motivation seems to involve fear “they did not want to be scattered over the earth.”


Pride and fear.  This dangerous combination led the people of Babel to babble unintelligibly.  They neither heard nor understood one another because of their pride and fear.  And, as one person said, “the gods were willing to confuse and scatter them to the four winds.”  (Bennison)


Pride and fear.  I consider myself to be a very tolerant person.  In other words, I like to think that the only people with whom I have very little patience are intolerant, ill-informed and ignorant bigots!


Looking at my earlier recent examples:


I know of a family member of Dr. Corporan and his grandson – two of the victims of the shooting at the Jewish Center in Overland Park.  My friend and her family grieved deeply for the senseless loss of life for a physician, father and grandfather and for the 14 year old grandson who had his life in front of him.  The victims attended Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, the same church my daughter attends.  From these connections – although I didn’t know the victims personally – I was outraged at this tragedy.  My ability to think of this neo-Nazi shooter rationally leaves much to be desired.  Could I sit with him and try to discuss my faith with forgiveness and grace?  Might my pride and fear get in the way?  Don’t get me started on violence perpetrated in the name of religion.



About example #2:

I quit shopping at one of my all-time favorite stores… The same one that made the decision to deny coverage of contraception for women employees.  Don’t get me started on fanatical scriptural literalists and their exhaustive attack on those Jesus sought to include.


The “religious babbling” of those other people makes me angry.  But does that make me equally intolerant or merely discerning and highly principled?  How do we say “no!” to intolerance without being intolerant ourselves?


You see, the Tower of Babel story is a reminder of the dangers of excessive pride and fear.  It is an early witness to the importance – in fact, the divine legitimation – of pluralism and diversity, according to Walter Brueggemann.  The story seems to say that God prefers variety in the world.  That while humans pride ourselves in is what’s comfortable and familiar and we fear “the other”, God gives us opportunities to learn and grow within a very diverse humanity.


For his part, Jesus freely associated with the riffraff otherwise seen as intolerable by the religious authorities of his day.  Jesus suggested at a bi-racial man is better than others, including a religious leader, who passed by the robbery victim lying by the side of the road.  (Luke 10:25-27).


In another story, Jesus showed tolerance for a foreign pagan woman (that’s a 3 strikes and you’re out kind of person).  From her, Jesus was able to hear a universal cry for human restoration.


It appears to be a lesson that tolerance is more than resigned acceptance in the form of cold indifference.  It is to be an openness, a willingness to acknowledge the very real and simple fact that we do not see things the same way because you and I, in fact, see the same things differently.  Just ask all the people a few weeks ago – who, looking at the same dress – saw either gold and white or blue and black.  We see the same things differently.  But to lovingly acknowledge that is quite a task.

Raimon Panikkar was a Roman Catholic priest and scholar of comparative religions. Born of a Spanish Catholic mother and Hindu father, the voluminous body of his life’s work centered on both the multiplicity of expressions and unifying principles of all religious traditions; sometimes expressed in simple and understandable terms:

“One of the metaphors I use is we are all seeing the world through a window. The cleaner the window, the less I see the window. I see through the window. And I need my fellow to say, “Look, here, you’re looking through a window.” But then I have to tell him, “Sorry, but you are also looking through a window.”  … We see the same landscape, but perhaps we see it a different way. So we need each other. 


But here’s another thing. I cannot say that I do not see what I see through my window. I don’t see through the window of my neighbor. But if I love my neighbor, then I have to hear what my neighbor said. … I discover my neighbor does not see the world as I see.  But I also discover that I don’t see the whole world.  Because unless he’s a fool and I’m a fanatic, I hear the other telling me something about the world of reality something that they see through the window that I don’t.  …

You say what you hear, you say what you believe, you say what you experience. And at the same time you hear the other telling other narratives, other beliefs, other experiences.  And then we dialogue.”                            Progressivechristianity.org


This brings to mind the uproar not long ago in New York City about the placement of an Islamic community center in the shadow of the World Trade Center memorial.  The ultimate irony was that the interfaith chapel is intended to unify and promote the truths of peace and justice, mercy and compassion, love forgiveness and reconciliation.  But it was near a raw and painful reminder of our intolerance of one another, and the violence such strife and division can inflict.

How does this apply to our lives today?  The Tower of Babel reminds us that it is easy to lose sight of the common humanity we share.  And that it is all too easy to dehumanize anyone who disagrees with us.




Oxford Biblical Studies Online “Holes in the Tower of Babel”

www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org  “Encyclopedia Judaica: Tower of Babel”

progressivechristianity.org/resources/a-tower-of-babble by John Bennison, September 2, 2012