“Origin Stories: Babel’s Tower”

Genesis 11:1-9
Matt Goodale
January 30, 2022

If I made the statement, “Life is hard,” how many of you would agree with me? I think everyone’s hand would shoot straight up. We know that life is hard. We live it every day.

Now let’s try out another statement—let me know if you agree with it: “Life is even harder when we pretend that we have no limits…when we pretend that life is full of limitless potential.” If you agree with me, then you’re dismissed early for coffee hour…we’ll see you in there in about 30 minutes. But if you’re perplexed by this statement or curious about it, then stick around and we’re going to take a deep dive into it.

Limits. I wonder if there’s a word in the American vocabulary that is liked less than the word “limits”. Take speed limits for example. We all know that they aren’t really speed limits, and more like speed guidelines or speed suggestions. Or take mask mandates, quarantine and testing requirements—all of them limits placed on how we are supposed to interact with our fellows citizens. The pandemic has revealed just how much disdain many of us have for limits placed on us.

Now, part of this disdain we feel isn’t entirely our fault. Because growing up in America, we have been taught from a very young age that “the sky is the limit.” Starting in kindergarten or earlier we are told that we can be whatever we want to be when we grow up.

It’s not bad to encourage kids to dream, but deep down we know this isn’t true. Not every kid has the natural intelligence to be a brilliant mathematician. Not every kid has the athletic prowess to be an Olympian. Not every kid has the creativity to be an artist or the mental focus to get straight A’s in school.

As we grow up we begin to bump into our own natural limits, which we learn to either ignore and blame the systems or people around us, or to internalize these limits with deep shame, believing there to be something wrong with us, because we can’t live up to expectations. If we just tried harder, then perhaps we’d be able to become who we want to be and succeed at what we can’t. The problem, we’re taught to believe from a young age is not aptitude, but effort. You can be whoever you want to be, so why don’t you just work harder at it.

We don’t like limits being placed on us – we don’t like being told what we can’t be or can’t do.

Let me ask you a question. How many of you wake up most days feeling exhausted before the day has even begun? Do you experience a consistent background feeling of guilt about how little you accomplish each day? Are you weighed down by a sense of how much there is to do yet so little time in the day? Does this sound familiar?

As a pastor I struggle with this most weeks since there’s always more I could do: there’s always more people I could visit or call—there’s always more time I could spend crafting a sermon; I could always work to become a more engaging preacher or a more informed pastor. I’m burdened by an exhaustion and sense of guilt that there is always more people and more projects that need more attention than I can give them.

But this isn’t just a pastor problem: the warehouse operator could always become more efficient at dealing with inventory; the realtor has never sold enough houses; the stay-at-home parent never seems to get to that neglected mess in the corner of the house. Counselors might have asked better questions; teachers could be better prepared each day for classes; students wish they could focus their attention longer; and the retired person could always use their time more wisely or productively. We all constantly collide with our limits. We wonder how much is enough, when we’re told “the sky is the limit.”

But this guilt and exhaustion we feel from constantly running into our limits is not only felt in how we spend our time, but we feel it in our bodies too. “With every passing year the metabolism slows down, the aches increase, and there is the undeniable sense that our bodies need more attention, from the food we eat and the exercise that we should do, to the medical treatments we need” (Kelly Kapic). We all know that encountering the limits of our bodies is just a part of growing older. As someone once said to a friend who was complaining about getting older, “You have two options: either you are getting older, or you are dead” (Kelly Kapic).

Getting old wouldn’t be so bad, but for the fact that we live in a society that only values youthfulness, and there is every pill and every treatment under the sun that promises to make you look younger and feel younger. Forget the natural limits of your body…just take this pill or get this skin treatment or go on this diet or workout plan.

Life is hard. But life is even harder when we pretend we have no limits. And so what I want to suggest this morning might sound a little strange or baffling at first, so just hang with me. I want to suggest that the natural limits we experience and run into as humans are good and healthy and were given to us by our Creator to help us thrive; in other words, we were designed by God to have limits, and these limits are good.

I can tell you don’t buy it yet. That’s alright, I was skeptical at first too, so just stick with me. We’re going to take a look at another origin story from the beginning of Genesis, a few chapters after the story of Adam and Eve. It’s a story that’s all about the goodness and beauty of limits.

In Genesis 11, we read the story of the Tower of Babel. It’s a very very old story about a group of people who decide they’re going to build a tower that reaches to heaven. For them, the sky is very literally considered the limit. They decide they want to build a tower so that they may make a name for themselves; otherwise they’ll be scattered over the face of the whole earth. But as the story goes, God comes down and inspects what they’re doing and decides that if they can do this, then “nothing will be out of their reach” (JPS). And so God decides to come down and confuse their language and scatter them so they will not understand each other. End of story.

Do you see what I mean now? Limits are good.

No? You don’t see it yet? Alright, well let’s take a closer look at this story then, because maybe there are some things we missed in our first read through of the story.

First of all, we might have missed who built Babel. If we go back one chapter we read: “Cush was the father of Nimrod, who became a mighty warrior on the earth. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord…The first centers of his kingdom were Babylon [also known as Babel]…in Shinar” (Gen. 10:8-12).

What else do we know about this Nimrod character? Well, the name Nimrod comes from the Hebrew root word for rebel. Hmm. Interesting.

And why does any of this matter? It matters “because by the time you get to the story about the Tower of Babel, what we know is that it’s being built by a very, very violent and powerful warrior who is also building lots of other cities and that his name is connected with the idea of rebelling. That is called empire building. It’s what happens when someone, or a group of people, use military might and economic dominance to crush anything—and anyone—in the way of their plans.” (Rob Bell).

Now (let’s hold that detail in our minds) are there any other details we might’ve missed in our first reading of this story? Yes, actually. What was it that they said to each other about how they were building the tower? The text reads: “They said to each other, ‘Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.’ They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar” (NIV).

These details are huge. They used brick instead of stone. Have you ever tried to build something tall out of stone? It’s next to impossible because stones are round and smooth and all different shapes and sizes. They’re hard to stack on top of each other. Total hassle. (Rob Bell)

But this story is about bricks. Someone just invented the brick! Bricks can be all made to the same size and can be easily stacked on top of each other. And it’s not just bricks they’re building with in the story, they’re also using tar for mortar. Mortar is like cement, helping the bricks stick together.

And if you’ve been building things with stone for like, forever, and all of the sudden you have access to this new building material known as bricks, what kind of questions might you immediately have? Probably questions along the lines of: ‘These bricks are amazing. They make all kinds of building possible that wasn’t possible before—just how big could we make something with these new bricks?’” (Rob Bell)

What’s another name for these details about brick and mortar?…Technology! This is a story about, among other things, technology. It’s a story about what happens when something new is invented that allows people to do what they previously were unable to do.

Technology can be a beautiful thing. With the new technology that humans continue to create we are able to extend and save life, we can communicate with our family and friends on the other side of the country, we can ease pain, we can explore space; we can build tall towers. Technology can be a beautiful thing, and I praise God for so much of the technology we now enjoy.

But technology, like most things, becomes harmful if it’s used without wisdom or without limits. We’ve seen this, haven’t we? Technology can save and extend life, but at what point are we ever truly faced with having to grapple with our mortality. There’s always another treatment, another surgery we can try.

Technology allows communication across the world, but at what point does our social circle get too large? There’s always more people you could keep in better contact with, there’s always more news articles to inundate yourself with; there’s always more screens to distract yourself with.

Technology can ease pain and make us look and feel younger, but at what point do we realize we’ve spent so much time and money trying to avoid pain and old age that we don’t know how to live with it when it can’t be fixed.

Technology always promises more; it promises better; it promises “if only” and “not yet.” And this seems to be God’s concern for humanity as God watches this group of people building a tower out of bricks. God worries that if they can build this tower, then “nothing will be out of their reach.” When you start building a tower, how tall is tall enough? When you start building an empire, how large is large enough?

And so what does God do? God places limits on their ability to communicate and congregate. God gives them different languages and spreads them out.

Now, this is the part in the story where many interpretations go wrong, in my opinion. Many interpretations of this story state that causing humans to form different languages and cultures was God’s punishment for trying to build a tower up to heaven. The issue with this interpretation is that it paints diversity as a bad thing; diversity is the punishment for humanity’s disobedience. You see the issue?

But placing limits on humanity’s ability to communicate and congregate by creating different languages and cultures is not God’s punishment; it is God’s blessing and gift. Nowhere in the text does it say it’s a punishment! We read that into the text. Besides, on the day of Pentecost in Acts, when the Spirit descends, she maintains the diversity of human language by enabling everyone to hear the gospel in their own language, not a single universal language. Diversity is therefore not a divine punishment, but something to be celebrated.

It is a limit though. Have you ever tried to communicate with someone who speaks a different language? It’s challenging! Overcoming difference is challenging; difference can also be frightening and uncomfortable.

BUT, difference and diversity helps us to recognize our own shortsightedness and our own blind spots that we would have otherwise missed if we were only surrounded by people who thought and looked and believed like us.

The limits we run into when trying to communicate across languages, cultures or beliefs can be painful sometimes, but they are also a blessing that can open our eyes. I could preach a whole other sermon on that, but for now, notice that God places a limit on these people’s ability to build an empire. Why? Because without limits, “nothing would be outside of their reach.” Because without limits, an empire in the hands of someone by the likes of Nimrod (remember him? The violent warrior, ruler.) would be never be big enough. Without limits, we will use and abuse each other on our march towards whatever we’re aimed at, whether it be empire-building or success or efficiency or wealth. In a world where the “sky’s the limit”, we will never be enough until we reach the sky.

The Tower of Babel has enduring power as a story, because it is a reminder and a warning that we are building the world. It is a reminder that we are creating something together—we’re creating communities and determining the rules for engagement in these communities. Do we like what we’re making? Do we like the constant exhaustion, the constant rat race, the constant fear that I am not productive enough, I’m not smart enough, I’m not beautiful enough, I’m not young enough, I’m not rich enough, the sense that I AM NOT ENOUGH and the fear that I may never be enough?

Part of why we gather as often as every Sunday is to be reminded that in the very first verses of the Bible, God created us and declared us to be not just enough, but declared us to be very good and blessed. Later on, God declares that we are God’s beloved, with whom God is well pleased. Does this sound like a parent who wants us to always be doing more and being more, driving ourselves mad with exhaustion and a sense that we are not enough? Or does this sound more like the parent who gives their children limits, because he knows limits help us to grow and thrive and be healthy?

We may not like limits, but it’s hard to deny that without limits life is so much harder, because we inevitably end up hurting others and ourselves in our chase after the sky. We need this story about a Tower in Babel to remind us that we were not designed to have everything within our reach. We were designed with limits, and even these limits were declared to be good. Amen.