The Tower that should not have been built
Genesis 11: 1-9.
I have been going nuts over this passage for about a month.
When Gil realised that our harvest was the week before when the material said it should be, he wanted to confirm that we were moving harvest to today.
And I said that we would keep harvest when we always had it and switch the two weeks around so the passage we were meant to use last week, this passage, we would just use this week.
Gil wasn't happy with that because he was looking at it and saying he couldn’t really see what was happening.
So I had a wee look at it.
The more I looked at it the more I was struggling with it.
It is a passage that is quite frightening, but because it is so common and so well known we glance over it and don’t really think about it.
Here were a people that decided to protect themselves from attack from others. Decided that they didn’t want to be attacked and taken captive, made into slaves. So they banded together to make a fortified city with a ziggurat, a tower, where they could keep watch over the area so that they could see if attackers were coming and prepare the city to defend itself.
God comes along and isn't happy about this. At first reading it looks like God is unhappy that we can do amazing things, that we can make advances and move forward.
So he confuses their language so that they can’t work together and the chaos forces them to distrust each other and move off into separate groups.
At first glance that is what this passage seems to be is saying.
And the more I thought about it the more it disturbed me.
Why was God angry at them for building a tower?
Now from my childhood I had it in my head that the tower was built to reach up to heaven so that the people would be like gods. But that is not what the passage says.
The people want to make the tower reach up to the heavens but that would just mean they want it to be really high. The higher it is the further they can see into the distance to protect themselves.
I read what the material we use was saying about this passage and it talks about God telling Adam and Eve to go out into the world and multiply, and then God telling Noah to go out into the world and multiply. Therefore, the theologians say, the people wanting to settle in one place means that they are going against God’s command and they have to be punished for it.
But that seemed a bit hard. Especially as in the very next passage of the Bible we look at Abraham...and God wants Abraham to settle in Canaan. In fact God gets annoyed with Abraham because he keeps on moving about instead of settling down.
So why would he punish the people for settling in the one place and not Abraham?
So lesson 1.
The Bible isn't a children's book with children's stories.
Look at any children's Bible or a book of children's versions of some of the Bible and you will get the same stories in there. David and Goliath, Noah and the flood, Joseph and his amazing coat, the tower of Babel. And because these stories can be found in children's books we think of them as children's stories.
I will repeat it again.
The Bible is not a children's book with children's stories.
That is really important because often we read it that way and then feel guilty that we can’t understand it, so we pretend that we do and move on quickly and hope that no one notices that we are struggling.
The Bible is God’s book to us.
The early Jewish theologians believed that when God was inspiring the writing of the Bible that he made sure that there were lots of bits in it that we would struggle with.
Much of the Bible is simple, and it should be. Some stuff is really basic and there are some truths that we just need to know.
God is love, God cares, God watches over us, we can trust in God.
But sometimes when we are living our faith in the world there are times when it isn’t simple, and our faith needs to be more nuanced. Things aren't so black and white.
Look at slavery. We would say slavery was wrong. But if you lived in a country where slavery was common and suddenly you insisted that every slave must be made free then what do the slaves do when you have freed them?
You may feel morally smug that you freed the slaves, but you have also cut off the slaves from their source of shelter, protection and food. As long as they were slaves the master had a moral obligation to look after them, now you have put all these slaves into the streets with nothing except the clothes they wear. You may have dumped thousands of people who were once slaves into a life of slow starvation because you didn't cater for what would happen next to them.
Life is not simple, and in the end faith is not simple.
In the same way that my marriage is at the same time one of the most simple things in my life, and one of the most complex things in my life...so our faith and how it interacts with the world is both one of the most simple things in the world, and one of the most complex things in the world.
Life is a struggle and relationships are a struggle and they have to be worked at.
So our relationship with God and the world is neither something glib nor simple.
So God puts in the Bible bits that we will struggle with so that we are forced to reflect and consider deep what they may mean. We are forced to stretch our minds with the hope that in the reflection maybe grow a bit.
I think this is one of those many passages.
At first glance it seems like a simple passage. But if you sit down and ask someone, what do you think the message of that passage is then it becomes a lot more difficult.
So with grown up brains let’s look at this passage.
There has been a technological growth. People have learnt to make bricks.
Before this time they used stone and mortar. So they were limited by the houses they could build because every rock they used was of a different size and shape than every other rock.
So you would build a house the way you would build a dry stone dyke, putting all the odds and weird shaped rocks together so that they are stable. That is hard work, intricate work, slow work.
But now you have bricks. Uniformed sizes. Easy to put together. Quick.
You can build larger buildings a lot quicker and with greater stability.
There is a reason that Lego is so popular with children, because they can build fast and easy and big. If the Lego was uneven then once you got to a certain height then it would fall over because it was badly balanced.
But if the bricks are all the same size then they can go as high as you want as long as the base is wide enough.
Every child knows that.
So now there has been this advance.
The next question is, what are you going to do with this advance?
Well they want to make a name for themselves.
And that is the problem.
The problem is not what we do, the problem is what do we do with what we have done.
If we look at this passage it kind of sticks out like a sore thumb.
Before it we have the passages about Noah and how God works with Noah. It is a passage about individual faith and how God works with individuals in their faith.
After this passage we look at Abraham and the generations of his family and how God works thorough those different individuals in different ways; Isaac and Jacob and Joseph.
It is all about God working through individuals.
And how those individuals have a choice of either following God’s plan for them or not.
And I wonder if this passage is just a nod to let us know that, just as God has a plan for individuals, so God has a plan for communities, and structures, and institutions. And those communities and institutions also have a choice to either follow God’s plan for them or not.
And that is important. Because if they have a choice then we can acknowledge that sometimes they don't follow those plans for God, and we don't just accept that things are the way things are...that they have a choice to make themselves better, that we have choice, and that we can choose to make them better.
So in this case the people had invented bricks. Bricks are not inherently evil, but what we might do with them might be. These people had a choice.
They could have used the bricks to make stable housing for all the people. Protect them from earthquakes. They could have used the bricks to make homes that protect them from the ravages of storms. They could have used the bricks to make walls to shore up the rivers so that they didn’t get flooded.
Instead they built a ziggurat. A ziggurat is like a pyramid with a path that goes round it so you can walk to the top. To make a ziggurat, or a pyramid, you need slave labour.
Of all the things that they could have done with the bricks they used it to make people slaves. They hid their motives round wonderful phrases like, ‘this will keep us safe, this will protect us from invasion’. But the truth is that they used their advances to keep others down, they made people into cheap labour that was expendable, so that they could have a better life than others.
That is why God was angry.
The misuse of power.
And we see it today in our own institutions.
Somehow institutions that are meant to be for one thing become twisted.
In the news just now is an international firm that is meant to make safe food for people to eat. That is their reason for existing, just to make safe food for others to eat. But a teenager died on a plane because of an allergic reaction to their food.
The thing was, this was a problem that had been highlighted before but had been ignored as being just one offs because to label all their food ingredients would have cost money.
You could argue that the law didn't require them to label the food. But as the mother said, you don't need to wait for a law to do the right thing. They could have decided to label their food but didn’t.
Because someone, somewhere decided the extra money that it would cost wouldn't be worth it.
And that second agenda to make as much profit as possible became more important than the first agenda to make safe food.
We see the same thing happening in teaching, in health, in policing, in politics, even in churches and chapels and mosques and temples...each has a purpose that is noble, worthy, but each can be corrupted by other agendas.
But just as each of us has a choice to follow God’s plan for us or not, so each of these institutions has the same choice.
If they are not following God’s plan for that institution then we can do what we can do to influence them for the better.
I think this passage is telling us that there is no part of the world that God has not got a plan for.
If we see wrong in any part of our life, or someone else's life, then there is no excuse for walking by.
Any wrong, is against God’s purpose.
Any wrong, any place is against God’s purpose.
Maybe it was a simple message after all.