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.