The Blessing of Babel

By James Cornwell

A Reading from Genesis 11:1-9

1 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4 Then they said, “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.” 5 The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 6 And the Lord said, “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. 7 Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.


Today’s Old Testament reading recounts the story of the infamous Tower of Babel. Typically, one is taught to approach this text with the idea that the confusion of languages by God is a form of punishment for humanity’s hubris. Indeed, the goals of the people described in the reading are suggestive of the motives that underlie the original Fall.

But what if God’s apparent punishment is, in fact, a blessing? We know that in the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the scattering of humanity is not so much undone as reaffirmed. Being a citizen of one nation among many gives each of us a sense of our country’s provisional nature. It is only when the whole world is perceived to be under the sway of a single governing force that God’s ultimate kingship comes most starkly into question.

But even without knowing Babel ends in Pentecost, note what the text says. Yes, human beings all spoke a single language, but that language had “few words.” Rather than picturing a mature, martial civilization applying itself to reach the heavens, the text actually makes this people sound more like a pack of toddlers playing with building blocks. How many of us today are locked into little bubbles of various sorts, babbling to one another in a language of “few words”? How many of us would benefit from a little scattering?

God was concerned that the people in the reading would succeed, not because he feared what they might be capable of, but because he feared what they might miss out on if they remained fanatically focused upon this single, self-centered project. When our projects fail and we find ourselves scattered, perhaps it may be worthwhile to look about and see if there are new words to be learned, new landscapes to set out upon.

James Cornwell lives and teaches in the Hudson Valley with his wife Sarah and their seven children.

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Today we pray for:

The Diocese of Kabba – The Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion)
The Diocese of West Texas


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