3 October 2020Genesis 11:1-11
‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do’ (v. 6)
Genesis is a book of beginnings and in today’s passage we have another origin story. Following on from the creation of the world and humans, near destruction through the flood and ‘resurrection’ as a small group survive, we have the story of language, with chaos thrown into the mix.
People are a puzzle – we all have common origins but we are divided, yet God created us. If God began everything with two people, or through a small group, then we are all connected. People will then play out those connections, either through family tensions or large-scale collaborations. We could say that collaboration is a working out of the divine intention, yet here it is a problem, God says about it, “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” (v. 6).
It is no coincidence that these events take place where they do – ‘Shinar’ is Babylonia/Mesopotamia and ‘Babel’ is Babylon. Empires have a common language, large-scale projects, conformity, whereas in Genesis God's people are a small group of outsiders and God is the God of outsiders. Genesis is the origin story of God's people just as much as of humans generally, and they are at odds with the world. Of course the Jews had a problem with Babylon and this is reflected in the accounts. What is really striking is that God brings chaos into this story of human cooperation, rendering people unable to work together due to language difficulties (verse 7).
Many people have observed that Pentecost (Acts 2:1-12) is the transformation of ‘Babel’ (babble, confusion), where multiple languages are all understood (Acts 2:7-11). But wider, inclusive, multicultural outlooks stand in a different place to the writers of this story who were oppressed by the conformity of huge empires. Britain seemed, in colonial times, to want to create a huge empire, which lacked full regard for its citizens, perhaps not learning the lesson of Babel. A diverse Church, relating well to others, living out its discipleship in interactions with people of different faiths, creates a better legacy.
- To what extent does God bring both order and chaos into the world?
- How do Babel and Pentecost challenge you about your place in a multicultural society?