Sermon - 24th July 2011
Seeing Salvation: 6
The Tower of Babel - by Peter Brueghel the Elder
Scripture - Genesis 11:1-9
The story of the tower of Babel is from the book of Genesis, it follows on from the telling of the story of Noah and the Flood. Some people choose to accept these stories as literal fact; others choose to take them as stories containing a nature within them that is true.
Taking a literal interpretation, some people see this as the point where humanity is scattered and different languages begin. But the previous chapter ends by saying that the nations spread out over the earth following the flood, with Noah’s descendents founding communities. So Babel can’t be the whole of humanity, it could only ever be one group of people, one nation at best.
It is quite traditional to interpret this story as ‘the beginning of diversity in the world’, but I think this is flawed, firstly, taking the scripture literally, people were already spread out, we understand that as different groups develop in parallel, then languages evolve and develop.
The other danger in this interpretation is that somehow you could see these differences as being a punishment from God. Again taking it literally, then if you wanted to stop a particular nation from banding together and focussing on the wrong things then changing the language that they spoke would be a pretty effective method!
Naturally there are no architect’s plans for Babel’s tower to look at. No concept models or publicity literature, so the only images of it are those in our minds, understandably, it then becomes a subject for artists and their art.
Pieter Brueghel painted The Tower of Babel in the sixteenth century.
The imagery is that of a Roman structure. The image of Rome is a striking one, already long since consigned to history, the Roman Empire would have still symbolised oppression to many Christians. It was the Roman way to tolerate the faiths of the indigenous people they conquered and colonised, but in its early day Christianity was seen as a dangerous and disruptive sect, so its followers were persecuted.
Rome in this case symbolised totalitarianism and control. Rome may have tolerated the differences in faiths and cultures, but it was a tool to reduce conflict in occupied countries. Those they occupied were gradually Romanised. One way of doing things, one fixed approach; out of diversity they created uniformity.
Look at the painting and you can see it is structurally unsound; it would certainly never get planning permission today!
The scripture which ends with languages being altered and people being dispersed, reminds me that this is what the Lord wants. This is not a punishment for arrogance or dodgy building; it is a reflection of what God wants for humanity.
We are a diverse race, our peoples have diverse cultures and habits, national and cultural identities exist even within the smallest of communities. Just looking out at the group of people sat here today, we have folk from different towns, different backgrounds and histories. We chose to use different labels to identify ourselves. This is a good thing, this is what God wants.
We were not created to be robots. All thinking and feeling the same. We may have common and shared experiences and emotions but we are the individuals we are supposed to be. God wants us to be different. In the New Testament where we consider the fruits of the spirit, there is no shame in the spirit flowering inside each of us to produce a different result; our diversity is not a punishment from God. Our diversity is a tool to be used in building his kingdom.
God expects us to minister to the whole world, in all of its differences and wonder. We are called to glorify God with our lives, that means our whole life, our whole identity.
Our diversity is a blessing from God for us to use in his service.
As we celebrate our lives and the gift of our creation we honour and give praise to a God that knows no bounds, who creates life in all its infinite complexity.
Link to image of painting here.