Before even embarking on this journey of theological thought, I feel that I should throw out a disclaimer. When bringing up God during any crisis, one often leaps to a conclusion that the author is suggesting that God somehow created the crisis in order to punish humanity or a sector of humanity. This is not the direction in which I am headed nor the theological standpoint from which I am starting. Instead, I am looking at the concepts that can be interpreted from biblical stories and the comparisons and lessons that might be learned during our present time. I do believe that God works within the events of history and from the very beginning, has a habit of bringing life and order out of chaos. Let’s first look at the story of the Tower of Babel. It is a short story in the first book of the Bible, Genesis chapter 11: 1-9. While only nine versus long, it has had a lasting impression; in art, literature, architecture, and thought. Your might want to familiarize yourself with the story even if you’ve heard it before. Oftentimes our memory of a story changes and we see things differently as an adult. (For some reason, people think this is some sort of vast conspiracy or evidence that we are in a different dimension or timeline, but the Mandela effect is a topic for a different day.) Just in case you don’t have a Bible handy, here is one translation:
Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 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.” But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. 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. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 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. (New International Version)
I’ll be quite honest with you and confess that this story never quite sat well with me as a child. Why would God punish humanity for trying to work together? Why would God cause division which ended up as the basis for nationalism, racism, and bloodshed? But it’s really not as simple as all that. This is the trapping with which to try and understand a reality. The meaning is in the details. The people wanted to proclaim their independence from God. Being united was only a means to an end. They would create their own heavens and earth. They would be the Creator and they would possess the Name. They would have no need for God because they would have become God themselves. God was not upset that they could accomplish something as a united humanity but that in doing so, they believed that God was no longer necessary in their lives. And so God confused them, proving that their knowledge was childlike and their wisdom worldly. Their punishment was poetic for it was the very thing that they hoped to avoid by elevating themselves to godlike status. Once scattered, they had to relearn, rebuild, and rely on God as they saw the world from a different perspective.
I don’t think that it is a stretch to see parallels in our world today in which God has been removed from so many segments of society. And while there are many more atheists and agnostics than in the past, we should not forget that there are still a good deal of believers across the globe. Yet it seems that often the intolerance of the unbelievers has effectively silenced those who maintain their faith. If one looks at our history; in the stories, art, architecture, and even work habits; God (under various names and religions) has undeniably been incredibly influential. Not so much today. People, groups of people, organizations, and nations are given the praise, not any higher power. Sure, individuals may thank God during awards ceremonies but the accolades are for them, not their God. As in the story of Babel, the most important thing is to discover what we can accomplish and make a name for ourselves. It is not a far stretch to proclaim that we have done what the people of Babel tried to do. It can be summed up in the prayer over the meal in a Simpson’s episode in which Bart says, “Dear God, we pay for all this stuff ourselves, so…thanks for nothing.” While most might not put it so bluntly, the thought is undoubtedly there.
So what has all this have to do with COVID-19. At a time in history when humanity has essentially proclaimed that we can do anything, we are struck down by a tiny, practically invisible virus. Shops, restaurants, schools, bars, beauty salons, sporting events, and even places of worship were all shut down. The people no longer congregate in one place but are scattered to their individual homes. So much work is stopped. Business is halted to the point that economists panic and feverishly shove models at each other to find solutions. Scientists in the world of medicine work tirelessly as governments demand that a cure and vaccines are created without delay. But the only thing that seems to work is scattering the population that believed they could accomplish anything and everything without God. Politics aside, this is the reality of what is occurring with this pandemic. Like the Babel parable, humans have been physically scattered which has adversely affected not only their economy, but relationships and mental health as well. We have yet to see what will happen when life begins to go back to “normal” as people call it. But what can we learn from this experience so far and what else might the Scriptures have to tell us? For Christians, the Tower of Babel story has a “part two” in the New Testament. From Acts chapter 2:
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”
Many believe this event that occurred on Pentecost after the Lord’s resurrection is a reversal of the punishment at Babel. Now all are hearing the word of God in their own native tongue. There is no confusion as to what they are saying. There is of course, confusion as to why and even accusations of drunkenness, but the message is spoken for all to hear, regardless of their reaction. This is an opportunity to acknowledge the good works of God and no longer rely only on yourself. The passage continues with a beautiful speech, or sermon, by Peter which he concludes by pleading with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” The masses who were scattered are now gathered in one place and can understand regardless of their language. They are given a clear message about God’s faithfulness and given a choice whether or not to accept and believe; or to go on their way, back into the darkness and confusion. The question for us today is what choice we will make, not only as individuals or even as a nation, but as a humanity.
As we are well aware, during this pandemic, civil unrest has also erupted just as segments of society were hoping that we would get through this together. Once again, division is brought to the forefront and conversations about race relations and the abuse of authority are heard across the land. Is this the continuation of Babel, or just the realization that we as a people are still scattered? I believe that we are teetering on the line, between Babel and Pentecost. We have caused ourselves to scatter and many are trying hard to bring people back together. An observation that I make however, it that so many are attempting to do it as was done before, without the help of God. I realize that this is a blanket statement and there are certainly groups and individuals who realize the need for divinely inspired solutions to our division, but these voices are not heard nearly as loudly as the former. This is not to say there aren’t prophetic voices out there, but how can they be heard amongst the noise? It seems the division now, both socially and politically is worse now that in recent history, with the divide between political factions and social influencers determining what one believes or supports.
That Pentecost in Jerusalem challenged people to realize that they were not all that different, that they could listen to and understand each other. Perhaps the greatest challenge that we have now is to learn once again how to seek to understand, to move out of our social bubbles and hear what others are saying, really hear them. In other words, even if some still feel the need to physically distance, it is imperative that we stop social distancing both from each other and from God.