Professors in seminary can make all the difference. Some can call you into the strange new world of the bible through their passionate lectures and you will never be able to look at scripture the same way again. Some can refers to moments of history in the church that decisively reshape the way you understand the church today. And still yet others can turn your entire understanding of the kingdom of God upside down through just a few lines in one lecture.
Stanley Hauerwas is one of those professors.
In 2013, I had the good fortune of participating in his last ethics class before he retired. In it, he did his best to make us Christians more Christian. By highlighting problems that the church is facing, and has faced for a long time, he helped to provide a better grammar for what it means to be a Christian in the world.
During one of his lectures on the remarkable importance of the gathering community, he briefly mentioned a sermon he once wrote on the story of the Tower of Babel from Genesis 11. At the time, the story of Babel was one that I remembered from my youth; the pictures we drew of people attempting to build a tower to God, the lesson it conveys about why there are so many languages on the earth. But I honestly hadn’t thought about it having much to do with my life as a Christian.
Dr. Hauerwas said, “The divisions at Babel are healed and reconciled at Pentecost. The language divisions were still present, but within the gathered communal identity of the church was a common Lord in Jesus Christ. Pentecost was a new day of creation, not unlike those we read about at the beginning of Genesis.”
In just a few sentences, Hauerwas jumped from Genesis 11 to Acts 2 and it blew my mind. Now it seems so obvious, that the Lord would bring together God’s people through the power of the Holy Spirit therefore redeeming what had happened at Babel. But when Hauerwas connected them in that lecture, it was like I was given a new lens by which I could read scripture.
For a time I attributed this new way of thinking and reading to Dr. Hauerwas, and it was only later that I realized he got it from Karl Barth.
In Church Dogmatics III.4 Karl Barth uses the story of the Tower of Babel to evaluate the problem of nationhood in the modern period. For Barth, Babel contains every bit of the human desire to remain self-reliant and focused on pride, which has resulted in our divisions as a species. It is a story, not unlike Adam and Eve’s first sin, that reminds us of the brokenness in our world.
I have always seen Babel as a kind of means by which we can teach a lesson to children or young Christians about the dangers of pride. I have seen Babel as a shadow of what the church is supposed to be. But for Barth, Genesis 11 is all about grace.
Barth is quick to note that, “A Christian people is one in which heathenism and national egoism are broken, judged, and purified by the Spirit of Christ… As we are warned in Genesis 11, rebellion against God leads to the forceful disintegration rather than the organic development of national identities.” Babel should frighten us, as a people, about what happens when we rebel against the Lord to such a degree, but the story is about much more than the Lord’s “punishment” at the end.
The Tower of Babel, for Barth, contains elements of both divine wrath and divine blessing. The story begins with: “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words” (Gen. 11.1). As a unified people, they settled into the land of Shinar and decided to use bricks to make themselves a city and a tower, “otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Gen. 11.2-4). In response to this, the Lord goes down to examine the city and tower and eventually confuses humanity’s language to remind them of the divide between Creator and creature.
Barth immediate questions the supposed sin within the story: What is inherently wrong with building a city or a tower? The constructions of such objects were not completed against God; attempts at civilization are never formally wrong. For Barth, the thing itself, the object built, is not the fault but rather when a people want to create something for themselves in order to reach an attempted equality with God there lays the sin. The depth of humanity’s sin is the “arrogance of thinking that man himself can and must take himself as he takes the brick and mortar, and make himself the lord of his history, constituting the work of providence of his own work.”
In light of humanity’s over-determined arrogance, God must respond with punishment. If God let humanity build the tower to completion, just as if God had let Adam and Eve stay in the Garden after eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, humanity would further perpetuate itself as a sinful people. The scattering of the nations at the end of the story is an example of God’s divine wrath, and usually where I would let the story finish, but for Barth (and Hauerwas) we cannot understand Babel without the rest of the Bible.
Barth sees grace at Babel through, of all things, Jesus’ parable of the sower: “The constant sowing of the seed of the divine Word will always find soil even if there is no true harvest in one place. Even in this passage we must not fail to see the Gospel in this sense. Even in the terrible decree of v. 7 (“Come let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”) we must not miss His grace.”
Important for Barth’s understanding of God’s grace in his exegesis is the fact that God could have easily used an earthquake or another divine miracle to achieve God’s condemnation. But rather than destroying creation, as had been done through the flood in Genesis 7, God merely divides humanity and confuses their language. Instead of raining destruction upon humanity, God limits the punishments to linguistics.
Additionally, God does not abandon humanity to their own devices even after their construction. Regardless of the self-righteousness employed by humanity, God will remain faithful even when we are not. Babel could have been the end of the relationship between the Creator and the creature, but God remained steadfast.
Morever, Barth’s final move regarding the babbling grace of Genesis 11 comes in the recognition that, as Christians, we are aware that God has more in store for his creatures than the end of the story in Genesis; we know what happens at Pentecost. What transpires at the end of the Babel narrative is not the ultimate decree on the matter but rather, “only a penultimate word, and that the curves of the separated ways are so ordered in advance that they will finally come together again.” Here is where Barth shines the light of God’s glory the brightest: even though the main emphasis of the Tower of Babel in on how the separation and division of people was right (at the time), God’s original desire is for humanity to be in unity.
For Barth, we cannot read Genesis 11 outside of, or in spite of, Acts 2. These two different stories, separated by thousands of years, though different in form and content, contain the beginning and the next step of God’s action toward creation. God intended for humanity to remain in unity, and through our own self-righteousness were have rejected the divine unity for our own division. And yet, according to Barth, we are to remain grateful to God’s out-pouring of grace which simultaneously remaining discontent until there is a total reunification of God’s creation.
Barth, time and time again throughout Church Dogmatics, refuses to read particular texts as isolated witnesses. To read the bible is to read it canonically. Narratives from different places help to inform one another and the Old Testament reads into the New just as much as the New reads into the Old. Babel and Pentecost are connected. Eden and Revelation are connected. David and Jesus are connected. Exodus and Acts are connected. And so on.
As Christians reading scripture, we have the benefit of knowing how the story “ends.” We know that in the person of Jesus Christ the previously divided nations have come together. In the Holy Spirit of Acts 2 the conclusion of Genesis 11 takes place: “The miracle of Pentecost tells the us how the decision is take to look and break out from the nations to the one people of God, how the divine disposition of Genesis 11 is rightly understood as a teleological divine purpose, and how it is recognized in the form of the corresponding orientation from the near to the distant, the narrower sphere to the wider.”
Barth’s reading of scripture, and in particular his exegetical work in the excurses of Church Dogmatics has directly influenced the work of Stanley Hauerwas and a whole mosaic of theologians over the last century. To be a Christian is to read, and to read well; to look for the connections from book to book; to identify the thread that God pulls through seemingly unrelated stories; to see ourselves as characters in God’s great narrative.
And for Barth, the story of Babel is not one for us to leave for children’s Sunday School rooms and flannel-graphs. It is one that we must read with conviction knowing full and well how the story ends. Just as with the construction of Babel, humanity still consistently places brick after brick of our own presumed infallibility in direct contradiction to the One in whom we live and move and have our being. Barth’s work reminds us that we have divided ourselves against God’s original and good intentions, and to complete the end of the story we must take seriously God’s mighty acts in Jesus Christ, desiring for humanity to one day be made perfectly one.
 Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics III.4. (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), 306.
 Ibid., 314.
 Ibid., 314.
 Ibid., 316.
 Ibid., 317.
 Ibid., 323.