The first thing to know about the Tower of Babel is this story is all the way made up.
You can imagine how it happened. Once upon a time, a curious six-year-old asked her grandfather, “Why are there so many different languages in the world?” Her grandpa thought for a minute, then he cooked up a story. And she loved it. So she passed on the story to her grandchildren, and they kept it going, until this is the version that landed in our Bibles. Right after the story of the Great Flood. Right in the middle of the genealogies listing the names of the descendants of Noah.
In the beginning, the whole earth spoke the same language. There was one people with one vocabulary. As the people migrated and settled in the land of Shinar, they said to each other the same words that God said when she created the earth. They said, “Come, let us make…” Now instead of a world, the people started making bricks. They built a tower aspiring to reach the heavens. And they said, “Come, let us make a name for ourselves!” And God heard them.
Now even though their tower was higher than any tower, higher than the cedars of Lebanon, the LORD our God had to go over and crane their neck to look down. God had to come all the way down to see what the people were up to. Maybe the grandpa paused to ask his brilliant granddaughter, “What do you think God said when they saw what the people were building and heard what they were saying?”
Maybe the granddaughter thought for a minute and said: “I bet God looked at the tower, and looked at the people making a name for themselves, and I’m pretty sure God said ‘Huh. See they are one people, with one language, they are just getting going. Nothing they do will be impossible. So I know,’ says God with a sparkle in her eye and a smile she is trying not to smile, ‘Come, let us go down there, and confuse their language, and scatter the people.’”
That is exactly what God did. The tower was left unfinished. The people did not make a name for themselves.
If you’ve ever heard this story before, you might have also heard one traditional interpretation. If you haven’t, you could guess it. This interpretation correctly identifies, the problem in the story is the hubris of the people. They want to be like God. They want to get famous for building a city all the way to heaven. Now we can shake our heads at them, and cluck our tongues, and shame on them for their pride and arrogant ambition. Okay, why not.
In my opinion, the problem with this traditional interpretation is how it misses the humor. It insists that God is angry, that he is storming down from heaven to punish the people. As though God is really out to punish us. As though it’s not about humility, it’s about being made ashamed and afraid.
Then you can hear where this is leading, right? We could start to believe that the reason why we come before God in humility is because we are bad, and God is scary. And that’s not it at all. That misses all the grace and all the humor.
Another interpretation proposes, maybe God is having some fun and messing with the people. This fits the playful tone of the story, and it makes more sense with the ending. Seems to me, the story actually ends with the LORD our God issuing an unspoken dare: “Come let us go down there and confuse your language, and scatter you people, then —whatcha gonna do about it?”
Because you and I know the people did something about it. They traveled from place to place meeting new people and reuniting with old friends. They learned new languages. The people proved that being confused and scattered was not a sentence handed down by God the Mean Judge, and it definitely isn’t our destiny.
We human people keep on crossing boundaries, and learning new language. As though we have the curiosity of that six-year-old. As though our humility is what makes us open to the grace of God. As though we know the world-changing words that go: “I want to understand. And I need help.”
Today we’re beginning a new series at Church of Peace called “This Changing Church.” Often in October, we celebrate the heritage of Church of Peace. Paradoxically, one of our most defining traditions is that our church keeps changing. In eighteen ninety-five, we were founded in German as the Deutsche Evangelische Friedens Gemeinde. After World War One, we became an English-speaking congregation, the Evangelical Church of Peace.
One look at the climate in our nation and you’ll understand why we switched. There was growing anti-German sentiment during and after the World Wars. According to an NPR article, in nineteen-fifteen, twenty-five percent of high school students in the United States studied German. By the end of World War One, only one percent of high schools even taught German.
Listen to this quote from historian Paul Finkelman: “During World War One, there was this notion that language was somehow organic to your soul. So if you spoke German, you would think like a German, you would become totalitarian in favor of the kaiser.”1https://www.npr.org/2017/04/07/523044253/during-world-war-i-u-s-government-propaganda-erased-german-culture
Now I do not believe speaking German turns someone into a totalitarian. I do think our language is connected to our soul. Before I knew better, I used to think there was really one language with each different language just supplying its own vocabulary. Later I learned, actually, languages have their own grammatical systems. Later I learned, language is deeply connected to how we think and make sense of the world. Language both expresses our identity and informs our identity.
Church of Peace was German. So how was it possible for us to give up our language and still be who we are?
This is when I discovered, I had been imagining this transition wrong: It is not the case that we were one hundred percent German speaking until the day we switched and became one hundred percent English speaking. As though over night, a clandestine council swooped in replacing all the Bibles and Pastor Rolf declared: “Wir mussen nicht mehr Deutsch sprechen! From now on, English only!” making everyone feel ashamed and afraid. This is not what happened.
Turns out, the transition reveals two critical truths about Church of Peace. One: for a significant period in our development, we were a bilingual congregation. Two: part of our heritage is being a people who learn new language.
In the early nineteen hundreds, Church of Peace operated a German school for English-speaking children. It was said that the “church fathers” got together and decided all the children of the church needed to learn German so they could learn catechism and scripture. Tuition was fifty cents per child per month.
In our ninetieth anniversary booklet, Fred Helpenstell says this: “The services were entirely in German, and I understanding not a word of that language, understood none of them.” He was a student at the German school, but you know how it goes. He also spoke highly of his Sunday School teacher Mr. Fred Schenk who was the first man from Church of Peace to enter the ministry. Mr. Schenk would take all the German Sunday School material and translate it into English for his students.
In the nineteen-teens, our Ladies Aid Society split into an English-speaking chapter and a German-speaking chapter. All the way into the nineteen twenties, after English became the primary language here, Reverend Rolf offered a German language worship service on Sunday afternoons. We still hear the Gospel read auf Deutsch on Christmas Eve; we still sing Stille Nacht.
Now even though we mostly speak English around here, we’re still a people who keep learning new language. The shift from printed communication to electronic communication is a change in language. If you can both handwrite a note and text somebody, you’re kind of bilingual. There are people here who are fluent in music, in medicine, in engineering, in high school. All these communities have their own lexicons, and when we come together, we learn new language the only way it is possible —from each other.
Because this happens gradually and organically, we might even forget, there’s nothing easy about learning a new language. It summons our deepest humility and teaches us to say these world-changing words: I want to understand. And I need help —the exquisite fusion of humility and curiosity. I want to understand. And I need help.
You know, our God-given humility is the partner to our humor. So there’s no way to learn a new language without making a fool of ourselves. We will say the wrong thing, and chances are, it will be hilarious. This is how someone new to texting meant to say, “I think you’re great! Lots of Love -LOL” but got mixed up and wrote “I think you’re great! LMAO” This is how someone who was washing dishes with her German class, turned to the only male student in the room and tried asking, “Do you want me to wash that?” but actually said “Do you want to wash me?”
What if our real legacy is not that we’re the German church that became an American English-speaking church, but what if our legacy is that we have always been a people who will keep learning new language…
The story of the Tower of Babel ends with God confusing the languages, scattering the people, then probably looking upon humanity and asking, “Okay, whatcha gonna do now?” Oh God, you will see.
We want to understand, and we need help.
May this be how we come to the table of Jesus Christ.
May this be what we offer the world: our humility, our curiosity, and our faith in God who laughs with us. (God is laughing with us, right? I’m sure that’s it.)
May it be so.