Week 3, Genesis 11:1-9 “The Tower of Babel”: The Lessons of Babel—Saved Together

Thursday, March 16

“At that time I will change the speech of the peoples
to a pure speech,
that all of them may call on the name of the LORD
and serve him with one accord.
From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia
my suppliants, my scattered ones,
shall bring my offering.
(Zephaniah 3:9-10).

Today, we are reading a passage from the book of Zephaniah that is based on the tower of Babel story. The connection may not be clear at first—after all, Zephaniah never mentions Babel. But the connection between the texts is apparent in Hebrew—expressed, appropriately enough, through word play!

Although this prophetic word deals with the restoration of Judah after the Babylonian exile, God’s promised restoration begins with the nations, not with Judah: “Then I will change the speech of the peoples into pure speech, that all of them may call on the name of the LORD and serve him with one accord (Zeph 3:9). While in Zephaniah, the nations are given “a pure speech” (saphah berurtah), in Genesis God confuses their speech (again, saphah; see Gen 11:7), so that humanity, which had been united by “one language and the same words” (Gen 11:1), became scattered. Just as, through the confusion (Hebrew balal; Gen 11:7) of their speech the nations had been scattered (Hebrew puts; Gen 11:8), so through the purification (Hebrew barar; Zeph 3:9) of the nations’ speech God returns the exiles—those God calls “my scattered ones” (Hebrew bath-putsay; Zeph 3:10)—to their home. Israel’s peace is gained, not through the conquest or destruction of the nations, but through their purification and union in service to God.

Sadly, ethnocentrism—the belief that people like me are better than other people—is alive and well in modern America.  Political scientists Marc Hetherington and Drew Engelhardt of Vanderbilt University asked whites how favorable to unfavorable they found blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, gays and lesbians, and transgender people, as compared to themselves.  Overall, 23% of all white respondents rated these groups favorably, while 57% rated them unfavorably. May this Lent be a time for our own confession of and repentance from the sin of ethnocentrism.  After all, if Zephaniah is right, our own healing can only come with the healing of the nations.

Prayer: O God, when we forget remind us that we need one another. In your will and wisdom, we are not saved separately, but together. Through Jesus our Christ, who said “I am the vine, you are the branches” (John 15:5), Amen.




Week 3—Genesis 11:1-9 “The Tower of Babel”: God Wills Diversity

Wednesday, March 15

So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 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” (Genesis 11:8-9).

The people of Babel wanted to stay all together, and all the same. But God willed differently. The Babel story itself gives no indication of whether or not the people realized that their desires ran counter to God’s. But the old priestly traditions in Genesis state this plainly. The priestly accounts of creation and flood alike declare that humanity was to “fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28; 9:1). As the Table of Nations in Genesis 10 concretely describes, this meant not only being geographically scattered, but ethnically and culturally diverse.

By staying together and squelching difference, the people of Babel—whether knowingly or not—were standing in the way of the diversity of expression that is God’s intent for human beings. So too our own attempts to impose homogeneity on our communities run counter to God’s will. Racial and cultural diversity is not a problem to be overcome. It is a gift of God, to be celebrated and embraced.

Prayer: Forgive us, O God, when in our longing for comfort and familiarity we stand in the way of your plan and purpose for us. Teach us to reach outside our safe enclaves and welcome all your children as our sisters and brothers. In the name of Jesus, whose reign embraces all, Amen.


Week 3, Genesis 11:1-9 “The Tower of Babel”: Our Own Kind

Tuesday, March 14 

“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” (Genesis 11:4).

In 1956, Rev. W. A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas—at that time the largest Baptist church in the world—was invited to address the General Assembly of the South Carolina legislature on the subject of racial segregation. In his cringingly self-revealing remarks, Criswell condemned “scantling good-for-nothing fellows who are trying to upset all the things that we love as good old Southern people and good old Southern Baptists. . . . Don’t force me by law, by statute, by Supreme Court decision. . . to cross over in those intimate things where I don’t want to go. . . Let me have my church. Let me have my school. Let me have my friends” (Cited in Robert P. Jones, The End of White Christian America [New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016], 167).

Rev. Criswell could just as well have spoken for the First Church of Babel. The denizens of that place built their city and their tower to ensure that they would stay together homogeneously: “otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4). We sometimes refer to the confusion of the world’s languages and the scattering of humanity as the “curse of Babel”—but being “scattered abroad” was exactly what God intended for humanity! The real curse of Babel is staying where we are comfortable and unchallenged, in “my church,” “my school,” with “my friends.” Babel itself, in its safe, comfortable, stultifying sameness, is the curse.

Prayer: O God who comforts the troubled, we pray that you might also trouble the comfortable. Push us out into our growing edges. Show us the blessing brought to our communities by those who are not like us. This we pray in the name of Jesus, who reminds us still, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold” (John 10:16), Amen.



Week 3, Genesis 11:1-9 “The Tower of Babel”: Unchecked Ambition?

Monday, March 13

The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built.  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’” (Genesis 11:5-6).

Traditional readings of the Tower of Babel story see it as a warning against unchecked ambition. The sin of Babel is the tower, with which they sought to reach the heavens on their own. It is to halt this prideful ambition that God curses them by confusing their languages, stopping the construction and forcing them to divide into language groups and scatter. But as Theodore Hiebert has observed, that traditional reading misses the reason the text itself gives for their building: not so as to reach the heavens, but because “otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4; Theodore Hiebert, “The Tower of Babel and the Origin of the World’s Cultures,” Journal of Biblical Literature 126 [2007]: 29-58). Sure enough, when God decides to act, God says nothing about the tower, or pride—or indeed, about punishment. God acts because the people are about to succeed in their goal of remaining “one people” with “one language,” so that “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” Having circumvented God’s will in this, what else might they do?

This is neither a story condemning the sin of unchecked ambition, nor an account of divine punishment for that sin.   It is about God stepping in to ensure difference and diversity, just as humans are about to succeed in enforcing sameness. Why does God do this? Perhaps because, as Argentinian Methodist theologian José Míguez Bonino wrote, “God’s intention is a diverse humanity that can find its unity not in the domination of one city, one tower, or one language but in the ‘blessing for all the families of the earth’ (Genesis 12:3)” (José Míguez Bonino, “Genesis 11:1-9: A Latin American Perspective,” in Return to Babel: Global Perspectives on the Bible, ed. Priscilla Pope-Levison and John R. Levison [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1999], 15-16). As we saw in the account of creation in Genesis 1:1—2:4a, God loves diversity.

Prayer: God of rainbows, sometimes we talk about being “color-blind,” as though color itself was the problem. We talk about being “post-racial,” as though race itself was the problem. By your Spirit empower us to see as you see, and to love our world as you do, in all its hues and cultures and languages. This is our prayer, in Jesus’ name, Amen.





Second Sunday of Lent

Sunday, March 12:

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.  And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”  When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.  But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”  And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead” (Matthew 17:1-9).


Week 2, Genesis 1:1—2:4a “Created in God’s Image”: In God’s Image—No “Kinds” of People

Saturday, March 11

No text is given for today’s devotional, because today we reflect, not on what Genesis 1:1—2:4a says, but on something that it doesn’t say! Until the creation of human being, all living things in this account come in “kinds.” On Day Three, when God invites the earth to “put forth vegetation” (Genesis 1:11), the earth produces “plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it” (Genesis 1:12).  Similarly, on Day Five, God creates “every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind” (Gen 1:21). On Day Six, God again invites the earth, “bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind” (Gen 1:24).

When we arrive at the creation of humanity at the end of Day Six, however, nothing is said of there being any “kinds” of people (see Phyllis A. Bird, “ ‘Male and Female He Created Them’: Gen 1:27b in the Context of the Priestly Account of Creation,” Harvard Theological Review 74 [1981]: 146). This is certainly not because the ancient Israelites were ignorant of other races and cultures: Palestine was a crossroads of ancient civilizations. The Israelites were fully aware of Africans and Asians, people of varying ethnicities, speaking a host of languages, coming from a variety of cultures.  Yet Israel does not distinguish among these races and nations, as though some are more human than others.  Certainly, this text does not identify the Israelites as human, and their neighbors as something less. Instead, as George Kelsey (African American theologian and mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr.) understood, there is just ‘adam: one single human family (George D. Kelsey, Racism and the Christian Understanding of Man [New York: Scribner, 1965]).

This is a remarkable confession, rejecting every form of racism and jingoistic nationalism. Again, as Scripture sadly but faithfully bears witness, Israel was not always faithful to this insight. But as we will see throughout these Lenten reflections, it is an insight that recurs again and again—and one that the church in our day must reclaim.

Prayer: Holy God, Genesis identifies no “kinds” of people, but we have been swift to make up that lack, hastening to identify all sorts of folk as outsiders, strangers, aliens, who are not welcome in our communities. Help us to see and repent of this sin, Abba. Teach us to love whom you love, as you love, for this is our prayer in the name of your son Jesus, who “came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (John 1:11), Amen.

AFTERWORD: In his theology and ethics, George D. Kelsey “pointed to the Genesis creation narrative and its assertion of a singular and common ancestry of all humanity” (Torin Alexander, “World/Creation in African American Theology,” in The Oxford Handbook of African American Theology, ed. Katie G. Cannon and Anthony B. Pinn [New York: Oxford University, 2014], 186.)




Week 2, Genesis 1:1—2:4a “Created in God’s Image”: In God’s Image—Male and Female

Friday, March 10

So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them”
(Gen 1:27).

The familiar, traditional reading of this passage, from the King James Version, is “Let us make man;” the NRSV instead reads, “Let us make humanity” (Gen 1:26).   This is not “political correctness,” whatever that bugaboo of our times may mean: it is a matter of accurate translation. In Hebrew, the word for “man” is ‘ish. But that is not the word used here. In Genesis 1:27, God creates ‘adam, which means “humanity.” It is particularly important that we translate ‘adam correctly here, because Genesis 1:27 goes on very plainly to state “male and female [God] created them”! Masculinity and femininity, maleness and femaleness, are both reflections of God-likeness in this verse. There is no hierarchy of the sexes here, no basis for regarding women as inferior to men.

Our traditions have not always been equal to this insight—yet here it is, at the very beginning of the Bible!  Sexism is denied any legitimate place in God’s rightly ordered world.  Further, to say that both maleness and femaleness represent “God-likeness” is also to say that God is neither male nor female—or more accurately, that masculinity and femininity alike reflect aspects of God.  While the dominant images of God in the male-centered culture of ancient Israel were masculine, there are texts that depict God in feminine terms—for example, as midwife (Psalm 22:9-10) and as mother (Hosea 11:1-4). Further, one of the dominant features of Israel’s theology from early on, central to the foundational texts of Israel’s covenant with God, was the absolute refusal to make any image representing God (see Exodus 20:4-6; Deuteronomy 5:7-10), for no one image can adequately express the One whom Pulitzer Prize-winning African American novelist Alice Walker calls “That Which Is Beyond Understanding But Not Beyond Loving” (Alice Walker, The Color Purple [Orlando: Harcourt, 1982; preface 1992], vii). All of our language about God—including God as “King,” “Lord,” or even as “Father”— must be held lightly, because whatever image of God we have in our minds, God is not that! Inasmuch as our images of God open us up to become channels of God’s love and peace into the world, they serve their purpose. But if our images of God shut us off from one another, they also shut us off from God; they become, in that moment, idols that kill.

Prayer: God our Mother and Father, our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, give us a hunger for you that will not be satisfied by the thin gruel of our own conceptions and imaginings. We long to know you, not to know about you, but we cannot know you if we close our hearts and minds and ears to half of your image in humanity. Open our eyes to your image manifest in women and men alike. Through Jesus, who made the Samaritan woman the first missionary (John 4:39-42), Amen.




Week 2, Genesis 1:1—2:4a “Created in God’s Image”: In God’s Image—A Human Face

Thursday, March 9

“Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth’” (Genesis 1:26).

Volumes have been written on what it means that we are created in the image of God—some of it blasphemous and wrong-headed. So, for example, the white supremacist Church of the Creator claimed that only white people are created in God’s image, while the other races are “mud people,” made from the dirt (a deliberate misreading of Genesis 2:7). Others insist that only men are created in God’s image, not women (something tomorrow’s devotional addresses directly).

But by saying that humans bear God’s image, the priests were saying something about God, as well as about humanity.  The gods of the nations surrounding Israel were embodiments of natural forces or powers: Baal was the thunderstorm, Asherah was motherhood, Ishtar was raw sensuality. But in Genesis 1:26, the priests of Israel say that God’s likeness is seen in humanity: to understand what God is like, we are to look, not to raw elemental powers, but into the face of another human being. Our passage understands God in personal terms. The rest of the Bible, it could be said, pursues the question, “How can we be in relationship with God?”  Right at the start of Scripture, we have a clue in our very humanity.  Our own longing for relationship, for connection with one another, tells us something of God’s love for us. As the Bible frankly and extraordinarily declares, “God is love” (1 John 4:8).

Genesis 1:26 goes on to define what being created in the image of God means in greater detail: the image and likeness of God in human being is related to “having dominion” (Hebrew radah) over the rest of creation. Under God’s divine lordship as the ruler of the cosmos, we concretely represent God’s rule in this material world. Unfortunately, in the history of our faith, believers often have misunderstood governing the earth to mean abusing the earth: as if we are free to use the world, and even to use it up, as we see fit. But as we have seen, Genesis 1:1—2:4a affirms God’s valuation of the world in and for itself.  If we exercise our dominion properly, we too will recognize the wonder, beauty and inherent goodness of the world that God has made, and exercise our responsibility to be faithful stewards of God’s earth.

Prayer: O Creator, in Jesus you have shown us a human face, full of compassion and love. May we search one another’s faces for your face, and so learn to love you by loving one another. In the name of Jesus, who gives us your new commandment: “love one another” (John 13:34), Amen.


Week 2, Genesis 1:1—2:4a “Created in God’s Image”: Multiplication by Division


Tuesday, March 7

“God separated the light from the darkness” (Genesis 1:4).

At the beginning of our Bible God creates, not only by speaking, but also by separation. As Claus Westermann observed, the first three days of creation all involve acts of separation: light from darkness (1:3-5); waters above from waters below (1:6-8); dry land from water (1:9-13; Claus Westermann, Genesis: A Practical Commentary, trans. David Green [Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1987], 8-9).  The Hebrew word used here, hibdil, is important in the vocabulary of Israel’s priesthood. One of the primary tasks of priests in ancient Israel was to teach their people to keep the holy separate from the common, the clean from the unclean (Leviticus 10:10).

Likely, Genesis 1:1—2:4a regards God and the world from that same priestly perspective. At issue is the goodness of each and every aspect of creation on its own, as a gift from God. Genesis 1:1—2:4a affirms God’s valuation of the world in and for itself. Again and again the text affirms, God saw that it was good(Gen 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25), and when the work of creation is complete, God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good(Gen 1:31). The goodness of creation does not depend on its utility for human beings: God calls the world good well before we show up! The creation is good because God calls it good, in all its diversity.

In our own context, however, we may miss the point. We may think that God baptizes our own divisions, and wants us to stay in our homogeneous boxes. So too, in the human community, God calls us to affirm the created goodness of other races and cultures. God calls us not to bland homogeneity, but to the celebration of our differences.

Prayer: O God, help me to see the world in your terms: as good in itself, rather than good if it is good for me. Help me to see my sisters and brothers, too, as sisters and brothers, rather than as means to my own ends. In the name of Christ Jesus, who “came not to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45), Amen.




Week 2, Genesis 1:1—2:4a “Created in God’s Image”: Delight in Diversity

Wednesday, March 8

“God saw everything that [God] had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).

Although we are barely at the beginnings of space exploration, we have already learned far more than we could have imagined about our universe. Yet so far, every probe we have sent into outer space, whatever its target, has come back with one common, depressing fact: so far as we now know, at least in our corner of the cosmos, there is no life anywhere except on our own blue-green world. That is remarkable, because on this world, pretty much the opposite has proven true. Nearly everywhere we have looked on Earth, we have found life: in every environment, no matter how desolate and inhospitable, from our deepest oceans to our highest mountains, from our most frigid polar regions to our hottest thermal springs.

The priests of ancient Israel knew far less about our world, in scientific terms, than we do. Yet they too marveled at the diversity and complexity of life on earth, describing with wonder the many kinds of life, from plants to fish to birds; from domestic animals who share our lives to wild animals beyond our borders to the remes: the creepy-crawlies who seem to inhabit every nook and cranny of this world. A delightful, if unlikely, story is told of famous biologist J. B. S. Haldane. When asked what his studies had revealed to him about the Divine, he allegedly responded, “God has an inordinate fondness for beetles.”

The diversity and profusion of all life on this planet, beetles included, does indeed reveal something of God. For Genesis declares that God delights in this diversity, declaring continually of the world he calls into being, “It is good; it is good; it is very good.” Surely such a God delights in our human diversity, too.

Prayer:           All things bright and beautiful,

All creatures great and small;

All things wise and wonderful,

The Lord God made them all.

Gift us, O God we pray, with your delight in your creation. Teach us especially to delight in one another, and to learn from one another to praise you more fully and love you more deeply than our separate, single perspectives permit. In the name of Jesus our Christ, whose birth was celebrated by sages from strange and distant lands, Amen (Hymn by Cecil Frances Alexander).