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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Confused Languages, Scattered People
distributed 5/13/16 - ©2016

In many churches this weekend, two of the scripture readings defined by the Revised Common Lectionary have an immediately obvious pairing -- Pentecost and the Tower of Babel.

  • The ancient story of the Tower of Babel explains the proliferation of languages, and the inability of neighboring communities to understand each other or work with each other.
  • The Pentecost story tells of a miraculous linguistic outpouring which enabled the Galilean disciples to speak coherently to people from across the Mediterranean world.

In one of the stories, the babble of languages confuses and frustrates; in the other, the babbling serves to enlighten and inspire. Of course the two stories are told together.

But the important and still-relevant meaning of the Babel story is easily lost when it is seen only as the background for Pentecost. Our theology is distorted away from Earth-honoring perspectives if we think the Babel message has been overturned.

(Unfortunately, the Babel story only shows up in the Revised Common Lectionary for Pentecost of year C, which makes it very hard for preachers to give focused attention to this powerful account.)

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The Babel story occupies only 9 verses in Genesis 11. It has the same vivid, yet sparse narrative style as the Garden of Eden account, and also shares that theological perspective -- which is hardly surprising since both come from the Yahwistic storyteller.

Back in those early days of humanity, we hear, the whole earth had one language. The growing human population discovers a new technology: durable bricks and mortar. Those creative, power-hungry, and insecure folk then say to themselves, "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 same God who strolled through Eden comes to visit the construction site, and becomes alarmed. God says to God's self, "This is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them." To thwart the misdirected human potential, God confuses their language, and the people are dispersed.

Thus the full irony of the story emerges. Those who sought identity and security in building monumental things are scattered. They bring on themselves the very destruction that they feared.

God's intention for the humans is implicit in the story. The ones who were created to till and keep the garden should not aspire to such power and glory. The ones who disobeyed in eating from the fruit of the tree of knowledge have made the same mistake in over-reaching the appropriate scope of human endeavor.

The Genesis message about the God-given limits to human power is still appropriate and timely. It is a theme that deserves serious theological reflection in its own right. It is a message that all too relevant as humanity overwhelms planetary systems with our self-serving and self-glorifying ways of life.

The amazing Pentecost account of communication across language barriers can lead us -- incorrectly! -- to believe that the Babel message has been negated. Pairing these two stories makes it too easy for us to believe that we are now empowered by God to do whatever we want.

Pentecost, of course, is not about doing what we want. Far from it. It is all about the revelation of God's will. And Pentecost does not lead to the disciples coming together to create a permanent monument to their own glory. They, too, are scattered across the face of the earth -- but this time, in the intentional service of God. The two forms of scattering is the more appropriate sermonic tie between the two readings.

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It really boils down to the use of an apostrophe. Which exclamation accurately represents our self-understanding?

(a) We are God's!
(b) We are gods!

The presence or absence of one little apostrophe makes a profound difference in meaning. When spoken, the two lines sound identical. But they are utterly different.

Option (a) says that we understand ourselves primarily in and through our relationship with God. We commit ourselves to God's purposes, and we claim our responsibility to care for God's creation. This is the faith perspective of the disciples at Pentecost, and of people of faith through the 3,500+ years of the Judeo-Christian heritage.

Option (b) says that we are the center of it all. Our interests and whims are supreme. We have the power, authority and right to do whatever we want. The creation belongs to us. This is the claim of the builders of Babel -- and of our modern culture.

There is an ironic linkage between the Babel story and today's headlines. The builders of Babel -- in their quest to be god-like -- were able to make a durable structure by using bitumen -- the same gooey gunk that is heavily processed these days to produce fuel from tar sands []. Bitumen was the kind of oil that would have been pumped through the controversial Keystone Pipeline. Bitumen and other fossil fuels, once again, are being used to cement and support a self-glorifying and self-serving culture. The problem, of course, is not with the tar sands, but with humanity's propensity to over-reach.

We -- the consummate city-builders, the ones who have unleashed nuclear power, the ones who tinker with genetics, the ones who warp planetary climate with our reckless burning of fossil fuels -- we are mirroring the tragic mistakes of Babel. And it is becoming clear that, whether by God's direct intervention or by the collapse of overwhelmed natural systems, our quest for power and glory also is destined for scattering and confusion.

But perhaps we are learning. This month, bold acts of protest and witness are being held around the world, with the common theme of "Keep It in the Ground." In the face of tar sands, fracking and other extreme energy production; in the face of the air and water pollution endemic to fossil fuels; in the face of explosive rates of climate change, the movement is calling for a different future. Rather than believing that we can have it all and do it all -- the mindset of Babel -- the movement to "Break Free from Fossil Fuels" acknowledges that we need to live within limits, and that we need to live in relationship with all of God's creation. May we learn that lesson quickly, and act now!

Pentecost and Genesis 11 are both stories of profound truth. They go together well, though, only when we affirm the depth of both accounts.

I pray that we may make the shift from Babel to Pentecost by the re-insertion of an apostrophe. May we renounce our quest for pride and glory. May we rediscover our calling in the service of God, and of God's creation.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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This week's Notes updates a similar message distributed on May 17, 2013

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