"Kierkegaard and The Boss Head to Babel"
Genesis 11 and Acts 2
The Rev. Dr. Fred Garry
May 30, 2004
The first eleven chapters of Genesis move from creation to the Tower of Babel. These eleven chapters are known as the primeval stories, the pre-ancestral narratives. Each one can be seen as an answer to a child’s question: Where did we come from? Why do people die? Is this the end? What is a rainbow? Or in this instance, why do people speak other languages? If you ever want to sign up for teaching Sunday school see if you can get these stories, they are the best. You get to build a boat, a tower, there is a snake, and Cain killing Abel is the best way I know of to show how brothers should play nice.
On the surface the stories are rather straight forward. God says enjoy the garden but don’t eat from that tree, Adam and Eve eat from the tree, and they are punished. Cain is jealous and he does a bad thing, he gets punished. The world is filled with bad things and God decides to punish everyone and start again, the flood. By the time you get to Babel, punishment is being developed as a leitmotif. Indeed it seems to connect all the stories. To feed their pride and lust for power the people build a tower to reach the heavens. God looks with disdain on such hubris and punishes the people with different languages, scattering them to the four winds, the four corners of the globe.
This is a pretty obvious interpretation of the primeval stories. God gives us all opportunity and we blow it and receive the punishment we deserve. For the Tower of Babel this line of thought has led to many commentaries and sermons on how Babel represents our quest for technology and ultimately a kind of well deserved punishment. The Tower of Babel can be seen as a metaphor of just such a moment, getting bigger than your britches, overextending. Most Greek tragedies are a kind of warning about this very thing: those who strive with the gods fall the farthest and the hardest; in fact, this is what the word hubris means, the painful lesson of trying to be a god.
I must concede that this vantage for understanding Babel and the other stories is there, yet, if truth be told, I don’t need these stories to learn the relationship between failure and retribution. Any school yard can teach you rules, any career can show you the risks of success and failure, any marriage can teach the challenge of temptation. The primeval stories do show a basic movement of opportunity, failure, and punishment, but if that is all they show, they are not to be esteemed and certainly not to be venerated. In the same way, many commentators look to these stories and others like a detective looks for evidence of the guilt of humankind. Yet again, we don’t need these stories to make the case that we have a propensity for error, or violence, or pride.
Coming straight at these stories doesn’t offer much. Turning these stories over, though, like a child turns a rock over looking for bugs, we can find a whole other world, or better yet, a whole other way of looking at the world. Soren Kierkegaard turned these stories over. When he read these stories he said, alright, these are the stories of the first humans, fine. But what if they are also about everyone since? What if these stories are not only a description of how life began, but also how life begins again and again? What if these stories are a textbook of human development, a kind of primer?
With Kierkegaard’s view something interesting happens here. All of sudden the garden stories, the flood, and Babel become a window to view not only the beginning of the world, but also how we move unto adulthood, from birth to independence. The garden Kierkegaard argues is how we all fall into consciousness, how each one of us steps into the world. Using the same logic with out passage today, Babel becomes not only a story about the origin of languages or the migration of the peoples, but also the way we leave the nest, the way we leave home and enter the world.
Follow me for a moment, this is actually really neat. To follow me, though, you will have to put something aside. You will have to put aside the image that God is in control of all things all the time and the world is a mere extension of his power. You need to put this aside here because it is absolutely not in these stories. The image of God and creation in the first eleven chapters of Genesis is not one of smashing success and orchestrated control, but chaos and failure and misdirection and second tries and third tries. Adam and Eve- it didn’t work out. Cain kills Abel. God floods the earth to try again with humankind. Noah ends up with a penchant for getting drunk and naked. By the time we get to Babel the creation experiment doesn’t look like a slam dunk, but a shot that is still bouncing around the rim not yet in or out.
From this vantage Babel looks a little different. Here it is not just people putting on airs and trying to storm the gates of heaven with technology, but the moment when the fledgling experiment has come of age. What began with Adam and Eve is now ready to leave the nest, to fly or fall, ready to jump and sink or swim. Babel, rather than being a failure, is a kind of graduation day. And the languages and the scattering is not so much a verdict as a great risk, filled with hope and fear and that parental turn in the gut that winces as it says, "you’re all grown up now."
Consider this, wouldn’t it have been easier for God, at least from a management position, had the people grown from one place and spoken one language? Yes, dialects would have developed that stretched this- someone from Jersey has a hard time understanding someone from Alabama, but it is really the same language. Consider also, that keeping them in one place is also keeping them safe, keeping them at an arms length, or at home. Here, though, we are leaving the management issue for a more parental one.
Something begins to happen when we look at Babel this way. If you are a parent you know what seemed like such a great challenge when they were tots pales in comparison to the teenage dilemmas; helping them learn how to ride a bike seemed dangerous until you are teaching them how to merge with seventy mile an hour traffic. And as so many people have shared with me, it only gets scarier: the risks, the failures, the dangers, the problems. Fighting over bedtime is not the same as fighting an addiction. All of a sudden Babel is not so much a punishment, but the love of a parent letting go.
Making the transition from dependence to independence, from control to risk, from being at home to being out there on your own, this is what lies underneath the Tower of Babel. And the image of God is just as provocative. Rather than being a kind of zapping Zeus who feels threatened by technology, Babel is a kind of wake up call that its time to let the fledgling creation go, to let it become what it was intended to be. Babel is the late night talk you have with your spouse when it’s three in the morning and she’s not home, when he can be just as sarcastic as you can, when life needs to be as big as they are. From this vantage Babel is not a punishing God, but a loving father reluctantly letting go.
We too let go reluctantly. Many loving families, good kids, caring parents flounder through this, stumble their way through this. I had a wonderful childhood and an easy adolescence, but stepping into the world was awkward and shall we say less than perfect. I can remember listening to a Bruce Springsteen song called Independence Day at this time in my life and while my situation was far less dire or dramatic the words rung true.
Well Papa go to bed now it's getting late
Nothing we can say is gonna change anything now
I'll be leaving in the morning from St. Mary's Gate
We wouldn't change this thing even if we could somehow
`Cause the darkness of this house has got the best of us
There's a darkness in this town that's got us too
So say goodbye it's Independence Day
It's Independence Day all down the line
Now I don't know what it always was with us
We chose the words and yeah we drew the lines
There was just no way this house could hold the two of us
I guess that we were just too much of the same kind
Well say goodbye it's Independence Day
All boys must run away come Independence Day
Papa now I know the things you wanted that you could not say
But won't you just say goodbye it's Independence Day
I swear I never meant to take those things away
My adolescence was far less angst ridden than this, but still the words rung true, that things had gotten too small, or how the more you become alike the more you grow apart, or perhaps the most heart rending, the sense that growing up is somehow taking something away from a parent, becoming an adult means they lose the little boy, the little girl they cherish. Sometimes the winds of change are bitter sweet.
Again not everyone struggles through this, but most do or we live through a sibling who does. Again, Babel could just be a moment where people failed and were punished, and the punishment was different languages. It can be that- this is a theme in scripture. Yet I find myself understanding God better as a father letting go at Babel, realizing the creation, the child he has nurtured up to this moment must be let go, must become as big as they can be, I understand God more this way than simply as a source of retribution. And from here the tower makes sense: life needed to be as challenging, as risky, as open as love is meant to be.
Independence Day or leaving home is always difficult for some, often for everyone on some level. For parents it is all the risks, all the dangers: to the world they are just a stranger, but to us they are the child we loved and labored to protect. At a moment like Memorial Day we are even more mindful, more reluctant to let them go. Memorial Day is meant to give us pause as we remember some of the young men and women didn’t come home, some of our children were lost. It is also a day to realize that some who did come back have yet to come home. Memorial Day is not only to remember the fallen, but those yet to be found.
I am not sure why but I take great comfort in Babel. Its partly the idea that God suffers with us, knows the same fear of freedom and the challenge of love, a love that doesn’t control or incarcerate, but frees. I find a strange comfort knowing that God stands in solidarity with the mothers and fathers trying to let go and hoping for the best. Another part is a strange joy: in spite of the danger we are set free; God’s love is for a creation that grows and dares and dreams; we try and fail, succeed and stumble and God doesn’t stop or impede this.
Yet perhaps most important is one line. "This is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will be impossible for them." Before, from the simple vantage of misdeed, this was a rather insidious picture. It meant we could do all sorts of bad things. Now though it makes more sense; it has a great purpose. We can do all wrong, but we can also do all right. Like Paul said, I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me. In the love of God who sets us free, who forgives and heals and redeems, so too can we do all things. Amen.