Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Tower of Babel (By Minda Schweizer)

The Tower of Babel is not the usual Sunday sermon text. Through the centuries Babel has come to mean confusion and chaos. Yet, Minda's exegesis and practical explanation of it this Sunday as otherwise was a blessing to me. I hope you will be blessed too.


Sermon by Minda Schweizer
July 27, 2014
Irvine Presbyterian Church


Good morning! 

My name is Minda Schweizer.  My family and I have been a part of the IPC worshipping community now for a year and during this time I’ve enjoyed meeting and getting to know many of you.  For those who I haven’t had the opportunity to meet, I am married to Aaron Schweizer, IPC’s Operations Director.  When people first meet me, I often get, “Oh you’re Aaron’s wife…we love him. He is doing such a great job.”  I personally agree.  I think he’s very talented at his job and he has a pastoral heart.  It makes for a great combination.  What some people don’t know is that our roles reverse at different points in the week…and he gets, “Oh, you’re Minda’s husband.”  This happens at our presbytery meetings and at 4:30 on Sunday afternoons when we go to a small church service where I serve as a pastoral intern in Ladera Ranch called Common Villages.  Common Villages is a worship gathering developing into a community of house churches.  

Last year in July, Aaron and I entered into a mid-career ministry transition.  We transitioned from serving in a parachurch ministry as college campus ministers for 17 years with Campus Crusade for Christ to serving in church ministry… sometimes I find myself quietly asking, “How did I get here?” 


It has been said, “We are always the same age inside.”  Do you also find yourself relating to this quote?  When I ask myself, “How did I get here?”  I immediately find myself as a 10 or 11 year old sitting in church in Sunday evening services looking up at slideshows while listening to missionaries share about their ministries overseas.  I remember wanting to be a missionary…I wanted to tell people who didn’t know about God, that there was a God, and God loved them.  That 10 or 11 year old who was so excited about God, is what motivates me today.

A couple years ago, Aaron and I felt the Lord preparing us for a transition in ministry.  Our goal with Campus Crusade was to teach college students how to share their faith in Jesus, how to help someone grow in their Christian faith, and how to live on mission after they graduate.  As they graduated from college, got a job and settled in a neighborhood, and started serving in the community life of their church, we wanted them to be equipped to grow as a disciple and make disciples.  After a decade and a half with Campus Crusade, we felt the Lord nudging us to do the same…we felt like the Lord was saying, “I want you to serve in the church as you served in college ministry.  Take what you have been trained in as missionaries, evangelism and discipleship, and use it in the church.”

Those of you who have changed careers know that it is a faith process.  In hindsight, the timing of the transition worked out, although we felt a lot of stress in the midst of it.  But do you know, Aaron saw the job opportunity here at IPC for a Director of Operations five days after we stepped out in faith and told Campus Crusade that we were transitioning.  God knew!  So here we both are…

…and here I am this morning, very thankful and privileged to bring God’s Word.

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The text from Scripture I selected to preach on today is Genesis 11:1-9, the story of the Tower of Babel.  I chose it because it’s one of my favorite narratives.  It has all the elements I like…it’s poetry… it’s history…it has a twist…and shows God’s faithfulness in God’s redemption plan.

Now hear the word of the Lord from Genesis chapter 11, the first 9 verses…

The Tower of Babel[1]

A         1 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 

B         And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 

C         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. 

C         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.” 

D         The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 

C'        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. 

C'        Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” 

B'         So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 

A'         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.

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The Tower of Babel is an origin narrative[2]…It is a narrative that explains how a past event accounts for a present phenomenon, kind of like other contemporary origin narratives, such as “Why does the United States of America salute to the colors Red, White, and Blue?” or “How did the city of Irvine get founded?”  The Tower of Babel is the last in the Genesis origin series following the origin questions: (1) how creation came about, (2) how sin came into the world, and (3) how the first city and polytheism got started.  The story of the Tower of Babel (4) answers the origin question of how languages came to be. 

Although the Tower of Babel narrative has been a well-known story across the ages, less well known is its important placement in the Biblical text.  It comes right after Noah and his family come out of the ark and they were given the command to multiply and fill the earth in chapter 9.  Also, the Story of Babel is found within a genealogy in Genesis 10-11 that is known as the Table of Nations.  The Table of Nations is unlike other genealogies in Scripture, because the other genealogies order their descent by fathers and sons.  Instead, the Table of Nations follows the line of humanity’s descent after the flood from Noah to Abraham by people groups.  The groups are divided between Noah’s three sons “. . . each identified by its own language, clan, and national identity.”  It explains the origins of the future cultures of Europe, Middle East, and Africa.  At the end of the main part of the genealogy and into the first couple verses of the Tower of Babel, the reader learns that all of these people groups, who descended from Noah, at one time lived in the same vicinity and spoke the same language since it was still a few generations after the flood.  The Table of Nations’ genealogy picks up again after the Tower of Babel and then it narrows in on the line of Abraham’s descent, thereby preparing the reader for the story that comes after the Tower of Babel when God calls Abraham in chapter 12.

Okay, everyone, I’m going to get a little technical, so please bear with me.  I’m a bit of a word sleuth when it comes to the biblical languages of Hebrew and Greek.  I enjoy learning about how the authors of Scripture use words and literary devices to tell the Biblical stories to get across messages.

The Tower of Babel narrative is written in a chiastic structure which means it has a symmetrical layout, with contrasting words from the beginning to the end of the story that point to the passage’s central message.[3]  I’ve tried to make this layout easy for you to identify by simply labeling on the left of the Tower of Babel passage in your bulletins the A verses that correspond to each other, the B verses that correspond to each other, and so forth.  Verse 1 parallels verse 9 with the phrase one language in contrast to confused language, verse 2 parallels verse 8 with settled contrast to scattered, verse 3 and 4 parallel verses 7 and 8 with the idea of mortals’ plans in contrast to the Lord confusing the plan, and then right in the middle on its own is verse 5 which is the climax... “The Lord came down.”  This structure is used often in ancient epic literature…what I really like about the structure is that it makes the story’s climax just jump right off the page. 

As you can see, the grammatical structure of the Babel narrative centers on verse 5…which makes the climax of the story, when the Lord comes down to inspect the city.[4]  If that’s the climax of the story, then that makes the sentence clause that comes before the Lord’s descent, the main theme of the story (v. 4).  In this clause the people show their reason for building the city and tower when they say, “…otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth,” which then prompts the Lord to come down to inspect the city.[5] 

Does this phrase remind you of one of the God’s recent commands in a previous story?  In a couple chapters before, God had just told Noah to “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.”   In the story of the Tower of Babel, God’s command is being challenged directly.[6]

The irony of the Tower of Babel is that the Lord was in the midst of the people all along, without their recognition, while they were disregarding the Lord’s command.  Doesn’t this human situation just seem so relatable?  Haven’t you ever disregarded one of God’s life rules or principles thinking that it didn’t matter?

As you know, we have four kids.  Most families with young kids have seen “The Lego Movie”…it’s a little obligatory given our life stage.  The main plot is about an ordinary Lego construction worker, thought to be the prophesied 'Special', who is recruited to try to stop an evil ruler from gluing the Lego universe into eternally posed positions.  There are several subplots, like you find out the origin of the Lego instructions, those booklets that come with every Lego set in which it is the source of every parent’s frustration trying to figure out how to keep those darn things.  Another subplot is that throughout the movie the Lego people think they are the ones building and creating on their own, until the end, when Will Farrell’s human head descends upon his Lego city that he built in the basement of his home. 

It’s kind of like our story.  The analogy isn’t exact, but when I read the Tower of Babel narrative, I am pretty sure the author intended the narrative to be comical, almost absurd…to point out the futility of people’s plans that are made contrary to God.  As they build, the story tells us that the Lord comes down from heaven to see their tower.  We all know that the Lord doesn’t need to come down to anywhere, for the Lord has the ability to see everything.  Here the Lord is mocking them, essentially saying “You said you were going to build a tower so high to reach the heavens…but I had to come down just to see your teeny tiny tower.”   The people thought that they could just disregard God’s command and that they could live as one in this city.  They believed they could ignore God’s command to disperse across the earth without God noticing, but really God’s presence is everywhere and God’s will is going to be done.

This story of the Tower of Babel shows humanity’s own attempts at controlling their destiny apart from God.  They wanted to make a name for themselves, but ironically the name of their tower Babel, has come to mean “a scene of noise or confusion.”  And the one thing that they wanted not to happen, which was to be scattered over the face of the earth, was the very thing that happened to them, because God made sure that it happened.  You see, God’s will is going to be done...God’s ultimate plan for the redemption of humanity and society will come about -- one based on love, faithfulness, justice, and righteousness.  It is a question of whether we’re going to be part of that will or not.  Humans did not perceive God’s command to fill the earth to be a blessing and so they made a plan to get around it.  They wanted to build a big city for everyone to live in one place.  As we all know, the Tower of Babel ends with God turning their one language into many and the people being forced to disperse to fulfill God’s command to fill the earth. 

There is a pattern Biblical scholars have noticed when in the origin stories in Genesis, that although God pronounces judgment, God also gives a gift of blessing to show commitment to creation for God’s plan of redemption.[7]  For example, to Adam and Eve God gave clothes for cover, to Cain a mark to protect him and to serve as a sign for others not to take human life, and to Noah a rainbow for hope.  Within this story, God embeds the gift of languages, but no one at this point understands the gift, so what role could the embedded gift of languages play in God’s story of salvation and the redemption of humanity?

The story directly following the Tower of Babel moves from the nations to God calling one man named Abraham.  Through Abraham’s faith, God continues to unfold God’s plan of humanity’s redemption through Jesus Christ and salvation being now offered to the nations.  The Tower of Babel story ironically parallels later on the New Testament story of Pentecost in Acts, when God-fearing Jews “from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5), received the Holy Spirit and were able to understand each other’s language…the reversal of the Babel narrative. 

Pentecost inaugurates the birth of the church for the salvation of the nations.  Pentecost’s birth of the Church represents God’s alternative to humanity’s imperial unity of language.  In God’s plan, Christian unity is found in cultural diversity rather than cultural conformity that we find at Babel.

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This probably gives you all a lot to think about in terms of cultural perspective and your faith.  For instance, thinking about the story of Babel, how many of you for the first time are hearing the message of cultures and languages explained as a gift?  Usually we hear that the scattering and the creation of languages talked about in the negative.   Even today the Babel story is still perpetuated, if only we could speak one language to understand each other…just think how much we could accomplish?

            A little while ago I had an interesting conversation with a friend, who is Chinese-American, about the Tower of Babel.   Even before I mentioned the angle of the languages as a gift, my friend said to me, “Can you believe that some people see the creation of languages at the Tower of Babel as a curse?”  I went away from the conversation thinking, the prevailing thought is that the confusion of languages is the curse and she immediately thinks of it as the blessing.  How could that be?  Is there another way of seeing something that you think of as unfortunate, as fortunate?

Have you ever had those moments when someone said something and then later realized how profound your exchange was?  I began to realize that the gift at Babel of languages and cultures to the Church is that they bring a different perspective to the conversation when interpreting Scripture and understanding God, allowing for a fuller meaning within the Christian community.

            The origin narratives sparked by the original sin of Adam and Eve, the murder of Abel, the widespread human corruption which brought the Flood, and the disregard for the command to fill the earth in the building of the Tower of Babel, with each having a corresponding blessing for humanity’s journey in redemption…makes for quite the paradox.

            There’s a Latin phrase, Felix culpa, that comes from Augustine.[8]  Felix meaning “happy,” “lucky,” or “blessed” and culpa meaning “fault” or “fall”…which put together translates to “happy fault” or “fortunate Fall.”  At one point in the early church’s traditional Easter service, the phrase is proclaimed, “Oh happy fault, that earned for us so great, so glorious a redeemer.”[9] 

Wow … the idea of Adam and Eve’s fault or fall being fortunate.  Philosophically speaking, could God be truly powerful, knowledgeable, and good if God did not take the best option for humanity’s redemption? ... Could the Fall really be viewed as fortunate?

            Scripture teaches that the core of the Gospel message is that the world, our relationships, and each of us were designed for good.  But explained from the event of Adam and Eve’s first disobedience, our relationship with God was broken and we now all have the tendency towards self-centeredness and inclination to seek our own good above others. God loved creation too much to leave us separated, so God came as Jesus. Jesus took everything evil with him to death on the cross, and through his resurrection, our relationship has the ability to be restored through faith in Jesus as our Savior and Lord.  In the end of time, all will be fully restored, but in the meantime, the followers of Jesus are sent together to heal people, relationships, and the world.
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            If you’re here today and have never said yes to restoring your relationship with God through Jesus, we’d would love to talk to you and pray with you.  Feel free to come up after the service.

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            Often times we view the Fall as unfortunate, and wish Adam and Eve hadn’t committed the first sin.  What if allowing the Fall was the best option seen by an all-knowing God for a fully alive relationship with humanity?  If God didn’t allow the Fall to happen then, would God be truly good?  God’s plans will be done.  Unfortunate gifts while not immediately apparent can be truly blessings.

Looking back to the Tower of Babel narrative, what if we lived like God’s will is going to be done to bring about the full restoration of creation, despite our choices, imperfections, and failings?  Out of the confidence you’d feel, wouldn’t inside of you then just naturally bubble out love, joy, and peace?  What if within each consequence we’ve experienced from our sin and poor life choices paradoxically there is embedded a gift of blessing for us to be used as a blessing to others?  The challenge is that to see the gift takes time, just like it took thousands of years to understand the gift of language and cultures God gave at Babel. 

What embedded gifts of blessing have you been given as you look back on your journey following Jesus?  What gifts of blessing have been given to you as we are sent together by the Living God to heal people, relationships, and the world? 

Remember how I said in the beginning that at an early age I wanted to share about God with people?  My life took some turns off the path of following Jesus wholeheartedly during my high school and college years.  Now in hindsight, from the circles of friends that I hung out with during that time, the gift God has given me to be a blessing to others is my ease at being around different types of people, because I can see life from a number of points of view having had friendships with people of different faiths and ways of life.  I have found and others have pointed out to me, that I can talk about the Christian faith in a non-confrontational way…in a two way dialogue.  I have continued these friendships which have been mutually enriching.  In Romans, it says that “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God” (Romans 8:28).

Take some time this week to reflect.  Ask God to show you the embedded gifts of blessing you’ve received in your life when you have ignored and then turned back to God.  Then, practically speaking, to ask ourselves, what is it that God wants me to do differently in light of this gift this week?  What “happy fault” has led you to Jesus?  What “happy fault” has led you to use your embedded gifts of blessing to heal people and relationships and be part of God’s epic story to redeem the world? 

God knew about our creative potential, with each being made in the image of God.  … In your life, what has been unfortunate, but now fortunate?  What has been a problem, but now a possibility?  What has been a loss, but now a gain? 

As I remember back to our transition from Campus Crusade …. Prompting the transition was uncomfortable and sometimes Aaron and I questioned whether we were making the right move.  But, being here with you in this church community has turned from what was a loss to now a gain.  You see, it’s not a question of whether God’s plan for redemption of humanity will be accomplished…it will…it is a question of whether or not we’re going to be part of it happening. 



© 2014 Minda Schweizer All Rights Reserved.





[1] All Biblical references from the NRSV, unless otherwise noted.
[2] Claus Westermann, Genesis: A Practical Commentary, trans. David E. Green (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 80.
[3] J.P. Fokkelman, Narrative Art in Genesis (Netherlands: Van Gorcum, 1975), 22.
[4] Fokkelman, Narrative Art in Genesis, 22.
[5] Nahum M. Sarna,  Genesis: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation, The JPS Torah Commentary (New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 83.
[6] Sarna, Genesis: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation, 83.
[7] Tremper Longman, III, How to Read Genesis (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2005), 114-121.

[8] Augustine, Enchiridion,VIII 27, http://www.ecatholic2000.com/augustine/enchiridion/untitled8.shtml.
[9] Phrase in the Paschal Vigil Mass Exsultet of the Roman Catholic Church.

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