When we heard the story of the Tower of Babel, some of us may have thought that most cultures have old stories a bit like that. Whether they are
· the Dreaming stories of Aboriginal Australians,
· or similar stories told by Pacific, or African, or Native American peoples,
· or the old Norse or Celtic myths,
· or the myths of ancient Greece and ancient Rome,
· or these old stories in Genesis, the stories of the Jewish Dreaming;
these old stories all have this feel to them of the adults in a culture trying to explain the realities of the world around them to their children in a way the children can grasp.
It begins when a child asks a question: “Daddy, Why is the sky blue?”
“Er … um … ask your mother.”
“Mummy, why is the sky blue?”
“Have you asked your father?”
“Yes, Mummy, he told me to ask you.”
And the eventually the question gets referred to the ultimate source of knowldege of such things: Grandma, Gran, Granny, Gan-gan, Nan, Nonna if your family is Italian, Oma if your family is Dutch, or whatever she was called in your family. (Or whatever you are called if you happen to be an Oma yourself.)
And a wise Oma often answered the question with a story, the sort of story only an Oma can tell. We have a lot of these Oma stories in the book of Genesis, found in the front end of the Bible, these early stories of the Jewish Dreaming. And one of these Oma stories is the story of the Tower of Babel.
“Oma, why do people speak different languages?”
“Nonna, why are some people nasty to people who look – or who speak - differently from themselves?”
And so, back in the ancient days of the early Hebrews, one Oma told a story. And this Oma story was so good, we still have it today, and we find it in our Bible.
There was a time when everybody spoke the same language. And, as well, people were, to use a good Australian expression, getting a bit full of themselves. They had the idea, “Hey, let’s build a tower … I mean a big tower … a huge tower … a gigantic tower … a gy-normous tower … a tower where we could touch the sky … a tower that could put us at the same level as God.”
The people all liked this idea but, obviously, God didn’t.
God had a different idea, and said to Godself, “I’ll confuse their language. I’ll get them speaking all sorts of different languages so they can’t understand each other. This will be their punishment for trying to play God.”
The confusion that resulted meant that the idea of the big tower was abandoned, as all anyone had time to do was to find a few others who could speak the same language.
And the moral of the story depended on whether the Oma telling the story was a wise Oma or a silly Oma.
· A wise Oma would say something like, “But of course people are people, and deep down inside we’re all the same, however we look, however we sound, or whatever we believe.” That’s what a wise Oma would say, but (unfortunately) not every Oma is wise.
· A silly Oma would say something like “And, of course, this story tells you to stick with your own kind, so that bad things don’t happen to you.”
The important thing to remember about the old Oma story from deep in the Hebrew Dreaming is that this division into racial, national and language groups was because people were getting a bit full of themselves. It was never part of God’s original intention.
And, when the story of Pentecost was first told by the early Christians, it was told by – and it was told to – people who knew the story of the Tower of Babel very well. The presence of God’s Spirit that the first group of Christians experienced soon after the first Easter was explained in terms of a reversal of that old Oma story from the Hebrew Dreaming, the one about the big tower.
· In the Babel story, God confused people’s speech so that people who could once understand each other could no longer do so.
· In the Pentecost story, God “un-confused” people’s speech so that people who once could not understand each other could now do so.
And if the Babel story tells us how racial and national divisions among people are a result of people being far too full of themselves, the Pentecost story tells us that being full of God’s Spirit, being God-intoxicated, can lead us to the realisation that, as far as God is concerned, all humanity is a single family.
And so may it be for us all.