An address preached by the Rev. Ronald M. Ward, B.D
This sermon was found in a copy of Progress, the monthly magazine of the Congregational Church Romford, published in March 1949.
"Let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth."
- Genesis 11:4
"Which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first and counteth the cost, whether he hath sufficient to finish it."
- Luke 14:28
The story of the Tower of Babel tells us how the survivors of the flood determined to build a city with a great tower in it, "whose top may reach unto heaven." At the time, so the story goes, there was only one language on the earth. And so men were able to engage in this great enterprise with the maximum of co-operation.
The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, and because it was such a bold work in which men were engaged He decided to end it. "This they begin to do, and now nothing will be restrained from them which they have imagined to do." And so the common speech is confounded into many language, and men are "scattered ... upon the face of all the earth." The city and the tower remain unfinished.
The first thing to be admitted about this story is that it is not true, at least in the sense that it is not history. This we may confidently assert, not only because it is in the highest degree improbable that the origin of language difference could be explained in such as way, but also because the picture of God portrayed in the story is a false one. This rather petulant Deity, alarmed when His creatures show too much enterprise, is certainly not the God of the universe, neither is He the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Why, then, is the story in the Bible? Should we reject it as unworthy of Scripture, and cease to read it? No. Personally I think it is one of the outstanding examples of genuine inspiration in the Old Testament. Just because it is so full of human error we can see all the more clearly that it is also full of Divine wisdom. What the men who wrote the story meant to say is one thing. What God has to say is quite another.
Let me suggest a possible explanation on the human side. The primitive mind, like the modern mind, was always searching for explanations of incomprehensible phenomena. This story is an ancient and very simple attempt to explain why it was that in different parts of the earth men spoke different languages. The word Babel is linked with the word Babylon, and it means "the gate of heaven." But it was also popularly connected with another Hebrew word meaning "to confuse." The story, you will remember, took place in the plain of Shinar, which is Babylonia. These three facts cannot be coincident, and are likely to fashion the material out of which the story grew. It is not difficult to speculate on what actually happened. Perhaps there was on the plain of Shinar a ruined city with a huge unfinished tower. An unfinished work which promised greatness always has a powerful fascination. Half the charm of the Unfinished Symphony is its name. One can imagine a nomadic people, wandering over the plain and finding this massive ruin. Thus by simple association of ideas the story of the Tower of Babel may have been told.
The myth, for such it undoubtedly is, contains elements which are common to the primitive imagination all over the world. It betrays, for example, a fatal tendency, not perhaps so very primitive, to make God in our own image. That is to say it is a projection into God of something which is really in us. This is not what God does. This is what we might do if we were God. All religious people have to guard against this danger. It is that which provoked the gibe, "All theology is anthropology." That is, all study of God is really the study of Man.
It is also worth noticing that the idea of God, or the gods, becoming jealous of men come to know too much, and perhaps taking revenge, is a common one. The Greek myth of Prometheus provides an example of it. In this story Prometheus, who wrests fire from heaven for the benefit of men, is cruelly punished for his presumption by Zeus.
All these childlike ideas can be read into the story of the Tower of Babel, and they can be forgiven, because after all the story was told a long time ago when men were childlike. I have been at pains to point all this out not in order to undermine the authority of the Bible but in order to assert it. For the fact is that when we have discerned all the childish errors in the story there remains something else, something the writer never intended at all. The myths of Ancient Greece remain myths. They tell us a great deal about human psychology, but nothing more. The great bulk of the Bible is grounded in history, but of course it includes myths too. And the extraordinary, the wonderful thing is that they are more than myths. They too belong to the vast stream of Divine inspiration. God takes the foolishness of man and makes it speak His own wisdom. So that in this simple story there is an element which is deeper and wider than the whole range of human understanding at the time when it was written. The writers would have been astonished if they had known that what they had really said. It is this, I think, which constitutes the seal of God's activity in Scripture. "The Lord hath yet more light and truth to break forth from His Holy Word." So the Bible continues to speak in new ways to each person and to each generation. It is the continual and contemporary miracle.
We have guessed at what the story of the Tower of Babel might have meant for the writer. Let us see what it can mean for us.
The motives for building the tower are significant. First, "let us make a name," Moffat translates this, "let us make a name for ourselves." Now the desire for a name is nothing but the desire for identity, the longing to be someone, an individual, a person. This is one of the strongest impulses in human nature. The history of the race, looked at from one side, is the history of personality coming to flower. Gradually there emerges from the anonymous shelter of the tribe, group, family, the individual person. And the history of the individual is the same. From early childhood we are always seeking ways in which we can assert our individuality and show the significance of a personality which is different from others.
"Let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth." Side by side with the longing to be a person is the longing for community. We want to be ourselves, but we want also to be sufficiently like others to be in fellowship with them. The search for a name drives us away from society, the need for community draws us back again.
The men in this story attempt to achieve these objects by means of a building enterprise. It is a tower like no other tower which they attempt, for it is to reach the heavens. And so it is by making and establishing something, by creative activity, by erecting a city, a culture, a machine, by writing a book or painting a picture or planting a garden or organising a business that men try to find themselves. But they cannot make these things in isolation. There is no point in a name unless someone will call you by it, no point in doing anything unless it can be understood by another.
"Less we be scattered." This implies beside the need for community the need for security. Man needs something permanent to which he can belong. He fears the loneliness of wandering homeless across the world. His cities and his civilisations symbolise the need for spiritual as well as material security. And his art is his hunger for immortality as well as his delight in discovering and displaying himself.
Yet the tower remains unfinished, the city deserted. And at the end of this bold attempt to save his soul he is worse off than he was at the beginning. Even the common language is lost to him.
Why is this? Because he thinks that he can find his salvation in himself. "Go to, let us make brick and burn them thoroughly." Full of confidence, it does not seem to him impossible to build a tower to heaven. And the message of the story is just the impossibility of doing that. Without God none of these legitimate aspirations of the spirit can ever be achieved. And if we think about it we shall see why this is so.
"Let us make us a name." It is quite impossible to make a name. I can only receive one. If I have a name, if I am a real person, if my existence has any particular significance at all, that can only happen because God confers it on me. "Then shall I know, even as also I am known." But I have to be known first. Man only come to self consciousness in religion, and supremely in the Christian religion. There is no other faith in the world which has so quickened his sense of himself as a significant person. And where the Christian, or religious, element is removed, as in a totalitarian state, there personality sinks back again into the anonymous mass. We have an ant hill, but not a family. We have uniformity, but less individuality. Systems matter more than names.
"Lest we be scattered." The hunger for togetherness is perhaps stronger to-day than ever. But it is becoming more and more clear that there is no community except that which is based in God. We cannot impose community from without, we have to grow it from within, out of the response to God. We can regiment men easily enough. That is, we can iron out their differences and destroy their individuality, or, if you like, take away their names. Or we can let them retain this at the cost of disorganised chaos. But religion alone provides us with the means to bind men together in such a way as to preserve the valuable differences which make them persons. In God we can have a community of names. Without God we can only have a regiment of numbers.
The longing for spiritual security, for roots in the universe, cannot be met if we ignore God. And this for the simple reason that death will leave the tower unfinished if nothing else will. To come to terms with death, through God, to see it, by the light of the Cross, as a means of fulfilment instead of a disastrous interruption; this alone can remove that inner loneliness which come with the sense of mortality.
Perhaps, when we read the story of the men who wanted to build a tower to heaven, we smile indulgently. We were prepared to accept this childish mistake as we accept the baby's cry for the moon. But the twentieth century is no wiser than men in ancient time. "Go to, let us build out of our great technical ability, our new psychological understanding of one another, our political wisdom, our economic foresight, a tower ..."
But without God the human enterprise remains a hopeless one. Like the tower, it points its finger into the void. And we shall lose even the common unity we used to have in Europe unless we remember this in time. For already we speak a "different language of the heart."