As Genesis describes it in the primal history of the world, everyone used to speak the same language. The kids liked it, as they didn’t have to take a foreign language at school. The adults liked it, because they didn’t even have to deal with regional accents, wondering why someone called soft drinks “soda” or “pop.” The government loved it because it meant that you could get people to do what you wanted with clear instruction. It was all good.
A Pentecost Sermon on Genesis 11.
So as the people made their way across the plain in the land of Shinar, they laid out plans for a city and the first skyscraper, a tower reaching up to the heavens. They wanted to make a name for themselves, to build this impressive and massive fortress. And they imagined that in this skyscraper, they could add in condos—surely costing more the higher you went up—so they could continue to live together instead of being spread over the face of the earth. They wanted the whole world to know that they could do anything they set their minds to.
And God didn’t like it. Upon inspecting the building project, God 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.” They were too industrious. Too resourceful. And so God decides to mix things up.
Here’s how God describes it: “Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” The writer of Genesis continues, “So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.” Which sounds to our Western and industrial ears that God is just being spiteful. God didn’t like it that humanity was coming together to build things. God couldn’t handle people working with one another in order to achieve greatness. And God wanted to keep the power all to Godself, needing to do something quick to keep us humans in line.
Which melds nicely with our ideas about the God of the Old Testament being mean and vengeful, and the God of the New Testament being loving and good. How God back then used to be harsh, causing pain and sickness and suffering. We still fear that that God might tighten the screws on us from time to time. When things go south, we wonder what we did in order to raise God’s hackles against us. And we see it again here, when the people start working together to build an impressive city, God comes down like Godzilla wanting to thwart all their plans.
Which is a bit too neat and tidy of an explanation, really. If God can create all of humankind, why would God be so threatened if we started working together? Why does God need to be vengeful toward humanity just for speaking the same language? Is this just God being petty, or is there something more going on?
Last Fall I preached a sermon series on the Jewish mystical concept of zimzum. The belief is that only God could exist at the beginning of all things, so God first needed to create space within God’s being by withdrawing inside Godself. Through this making of a womb by God pulling back, God could then create the entirety of the cosmos. I described the intricate beauty of the created world, from the smallest of microorganisms to the breadth of the billions of galaxies. It all began with God’s first act of creating space. Of sacrificial love for us being shown in God’s withdrawing.
Which is a far cry from the vengeful, angry god of the primordial times that we imagine. Our images come more from the stories of Tiamat, the far east god who is destructive and angry, and so many others like it. God creates, and god is fickle. But if God opened up room for all of the created world inside God’s very being, well, that would mean this whole enterprise is rooted in love and caring. In wanting the best for us and our world. Of tenderness instead of retribution.
We Americans work too much. US workers average 1,767 hours each year. 435 more hours than German workers each year, 400 more than those in the UK, 365 hours more than the French, and 169 more than workers in Japan. That’s the equivalent of 4 to 11 additional 40 hour workweeks each year. Get this: 134 countries have laws that set the maximum hours a person can work each week; the US, of course, does not. We’re the only industrialized nation without mandated annual time off. We’re also the only one with no minimum parental leave time—which currently stands at over 20 weeks in Europe, and 12 weeks for most of the world. When it comes to work-life balance, there’s this: 70% of American children live in a household where all adults are employed. Only 77% of American workers get paid time off—a troubling data point—and we only use 51% of those days. Finally, studies show that even if we do take a vacation, 61% of us still do work during that time. We check emails, take phone calls, hop on zooms and the like. We do not rest.
Because we like to make a name for ourselves. We like to build cities and towers of awe. And God comes down and looks at all of it and thinks it’s deja vu all over again. That the gifts God showed us at Babel have been eschewed once more.
You see, what God did at that tower so long ago was indeed done out of love. It was a gift for us and all humanity. First, God showed us that our worth is not based on what we accomplish. As theologian Jeff Paschal puts it, “God’s invitation is to slow the feverish pace of life and to rest in the assurance of God’s love that is given, not earned.” Let me say that again, for we are all a bit slow on the uptake. God’s love is given, not earned. We do not need to exhaust ourselves in order to prove to God—or others—that we deserve their love. We are loved just as we are. Full stop.
But I also want to highlight Rev. Paschal’s other point, at Babel God shows us the gift of a slower pace of life. The majority of us struggle to take even a few hours of Sabbath time, let alone a 24 hour period each week. We do not take all our time off, if it’s a benefit for us—and many hourly wage workers don’t even get that—and then when we do take off for the Cape, we stay connected to the office. We are killing ourselves. Stress, overwork, the feverish pace, none of it is good for us. And ironically, studies show time and again that when we do fully disconnect from work, our productivity increases. It seems that time away is not only good for our souls, but for our creativity, energy, and joy.
Finally, this story highlights God’s love of diversity. We saw this in the Creation account already. Certainly a God who can dream up a platypus, redwood tree, and puffer fish, wouldn’t be content with humans of just one flavor. A commentator puts it this way, “God relishes having a world full of faithful people of different colors, sizes, shapes, ideas, and languages.” God saw the people of Babel and uttered, “Meh.” From those single minded overworked people, God brought forth the gift of many different languages and ethnicities, those who live in the Orient and Africa, the Native Americans and other indigenous groups, and Europeans and South Asians. While we like to simplify into categories like brown or black or white, God really made a vast array, the full spectrum of the rainbow. And God relishes in it. God relishes in us.
That’s the glory of this Day of Pentecost. When the Spirit descended, the disciples all began speaking in those many languages to the assembled crowd. The message was the same, that God loved the world, and sent Jesus to bring healing, restoration, and renewal. It’s a message we all need to hear, because for too long we believed that we had to go it alone. That we had to earn favor. That we needed to make a name for ourselves.
And God says that we already do have a name. It’s “Beloved.”