The story of the Tower of Babel has always confused me. In it, humans are punished for working collaboratively together. But what kind of god causes confusion and separation, rather than illumination and cohesion?
If you don’t know the story—or even if you do—keep reading:
1 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.
3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
The humans are working together, in peace and harmony, to build things. Amazing! How I long for us humans today to cooperatively create. But the story doesn’t end there:
5 But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. 6 The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
8 So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
And so it is that we speak different languages, have different cultures and traditions, and are scattered over the face of the earth. But why did it have to be that way?
One of the traditional explanations for God’s actions is that the people were getting too big for their britches—thinking they were more clever and powerful, perhaps, than God. Oh, but what a small and petty god that would be! No. That god and that story, with that explanation, I still don’t understand.
In the cycle of the Jewish year, this past Shabbat was Parshat Noach, which contains this story of the Tower of Babel. How interesting to reflect on that story of confusion and dispersion while attending the Parliament of The World’s Religions in Salt Lake City, Utah—an event that brought together approximately 10,000 people of diverse religious traditions, identities, and languages from around the world for shared learning, dancing, worship, singing, and eating.
Essentially, the Parliament is a kind of Tower of Babel in reverse—here, we unscattered the peoples of the earth, if only for a few days.
One day into the experience, I realized that what would otherwise seem unique and remarkable sights were becoming hum-drum. I walked past a stage full of whirling dervishes and didn’t even take a picture. I met with colleagues and partners to discuss local issues while Native American drummers performed in the background, women wearing saris chatted nearby, and a Jain monk wearing a mouth cloth walked past. At one point, I found myself annoyed with an older Sikh gentleman who sat nearby, occasionally breaking out into such loud song that it drowned out our conversation.
But wait. These were completely unique encounters, like nothing I see in my day-to-day life—and there I was, experiencing this already as so normal as to be “meh”?
“Meh” the Parliament was not. From the profound Native American presence to the truly incredible langar meal provided for thousands each day by the Sikh community to learning from respected elders of every conceivable tradition, this unscattering was a powerful experience of the beautiful diversity of human peoplehood.
As members of all God’s people came together in a spirit of sharing and goodwill, committing to work cooperatively on some of the biggest challenges we humans have ever collectively faced (*ahem,* climate change), I have to think that God was delighted.
And suddenly, I get it; the Tower of Babel story makes sense. God mixed up the languages and scattered the people because before then, we were completely the same—and therefore, completely boring!
Our challenge now—and we need to accept it—is to work well together on things like poverty, peacemaking, and climate change. For sure, this is a huge challenge. But if we work together in common effort while honoring and respecting our differences, then we have endless opportunities for deep learning, surprising beauty, and great joy.
God created an infinitely diverse world. Rather than fearing or shying away from our differences, let’s celebrate them!
Thank you, #2015Parliament.
Photos taken by the author, Yaira Robinson.