Since it’s graduation season, I’m imagining how the story of the Tower of Babel would play out as a graduation speech. The peoples of the earth gathered together on the plain of Shinar are like fresh graduates – they are ready to put their skills to use and build a monument. They are ready to make a name for themselves that will be remembered.
Most graduation speeches deliver the usual pabulum of unlimited human potential and self-expression – pursue your passion and nothing will be impossible, which David Brooks in his commencement address at Sewanee calls, “the biggest load of crap old people ever foisted on the young.” God, however, delivers a different message in this account from Genesis. He recognizes the possibility of unlimited human potential, as He concedes that “nothing they propose to do now will be impossible for them,” but apparently, like Brooks, He doesn’t think this is a positive development.
Were God to have given a graduation speech to the builders of the tower and the makers of their own names, I wonder if it would have sounded a little like Steven Colbert’s address to Northwestern in 2011. (Did he use the same material here ?)
“OK: you have been told to follow your dreams. But – What if it’s a stupid dream? For instance Stephen Colbert of 25 years ago lived at 2015 North Ridge – with two men and three women. He dreamed of living alone – Well, alone with his beard – in a large, barren loft apartment. Lots of blond wood, wearing a kimono, with a futon on the floor and a samovar of tea constantly bubbling in the background, doing Shakespeare in the street for the homeless. Today, I am a beardless, suburban dad who lives in a house, wears no-iron khakis, and makes Anthony Wiener jokes for living. And I love it. Because thankfully dreams can change. If we’d all stuck with our first dream, the world would be overrun with cowboys and princesses.”
God doesn’t exactly say that, but He does come down to inspect the city and the tower ascending to the heavens and He does decide to change their dreams. He ends the building program by confusing their speech so that they could not understand one another. I like the Jesus Story Book Bible version of what happened.
“God had given each person a completely different language. Suddenly no one understood what anyone else was saying. Someone would say, ‘How do you do?’ and the other person thought they said, ‘How ugly you are!’ It wasn’t funny. You could be saying something nice like, ‘It’s such a lovely morning’ and get a punch in the nose because they thought you said, ‘Hush up, you’re boring!”
The people building the tower had hoped to make a name for themselves, and they do. God calls the city and tower “Babel,” which comes from the Hebrew word for “confused.” “Confused” is not the name they were hoping to make for themselves.
What are we to make of the story of the Tower of Babel? A surface reading seems to suggest that God is some kind of paranoid potentate, threatened by the humans who are getting just a little too big for their britches. It seems as if God is afraid the little minions will build a tower so high they will climb up it and sneak into the back door of heaven to steal His riches.
That’s not the right reading for reasons related to the grace in this passage, which we’ll get to in a minute. But, this story is first a story of God’s judgment. The overweening pride apparent in the builders of the city causes God check their self-serving ambition.
Back to the cowboys – if the Tower of Babel were located in the old Wild West, God might say to them, “You think there ain’t no horse that cain’t be rode,” but I say to you,” “there ain’t no cowboy that cain’t be throwed.” JLo and Pitbull sing, “Oh, we can do anything we want”, to which God responds, “Um… I don’t think so.”
The story of the tower of Babel is an example of God’s “No”. In life, sometimes God gives us a “Yes” and sometimes God gives us a “No”. God’s “No” comes in various forms, most of them bitter pills to swallow: a promotion you don’t get, a relationship you don’t have, a desire denied. God’s “No” is the closed door, which try as you might, you cannot pry open.
Where have you experienced God’s “No” in your life? The most common experience of God’s “No” is when we pray for healing. Sometimes the answer is “no.”
This was true for St. Paul. When he prayed 3 times for God to heal him of some illness or difficult, God’s answer each time was “No.”
When God says “No” to St. Paul, He says something else, as well. He says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in your weakness.” God doesn’t give us a “No” because He happens to be in a bad mood when we ask for something, He’s not like a tired parent who snaps “NO!” before the child finishes the question. He says “no” to things that in the end will not cause us to be happy. He says “no” to things that will lead us to live for ourselves and in our own strength.
And this is what we see in the story of the Tower of Babel. The confusion of language is God’s “No” to human self-dependence and self-justification. Again, here’s the simple yet penetrating language of the Jesus Storybook Bible.
“God could see what they were doing. They were trying to live without Him, but God knew that wouldn’t make them happy or safe or anything. If they kept on like this they would only destroy themselves, and God loved them too much to let that happen. So, he stopped their plans.”
God doesn’t destroy the tower or the City, as after the Flood He’s declared that He’s given up that form of management. But the people, unable to understand one another, just give up and go explore the rest of the world. How wonderful we now speak French ands Swahili and Nepalese!
God’s “no” is a finally a word of grace for people who exhaust themselves building towers into the sky. And once you’re done, do you really want to be there? There is a fortune cookie expression that says, “Top of ladder a nice place, but really lonely.” God’s “no” is finally a word of grace for people who just want to make a name for themselves. For as Colbert also says, “If you love only yourself, you will serve only yourself, and you will have only yourself.”
Really, the tower of Babel was our “No” to God. It was our No to trusting Him. But God didn’t accept our “No.” He knew we could never build a tower into heaven, so He came down from Heaven to be with us, to love us and forgive us.
The Christian Century asked many different theologians to summarize the gospel in 7 words. Their answer, “In Christ, God’s Yes defeats our No.” In other words, God won’t take “no” for an answer!
Our “no” is a human rejection of God’s claim on and care for us, a rejection that produces alienation and isolation, even from ourselves. In Jesus Christ, God defeats that “no” and tells us we are not our own. We belong to God’s love, a love that will not let us go. As St. Paul says, “For all the promises of God find their yes in Him.” Even the No of death, His death or the death of a beloved child, ends in a resurrection Yes. God won’t take “no” for an answer.
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, give us the sufficient grace to accept that Your “No’s” are finally “Yes’s” for a life lived trust and faith in You. And thank you that our “No’s” are not sufficient to stop your “Yes” to us in Jesus Christ Our Lord.
- Genesis 11:1 - 9