Word Magazine September 1963 Page 8-9
THE TOWER OF BABEL
“And they said, Go to, let us build us a city, and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name.
GENESIS XI: 4
(The following script was delivered by Rev. Fr. Theodore E. Ziton, Pastor of the St. George (Eastern) Orthodox Church of Vicksburg, Mississippi, on Station WQBC’s “Morning Meditations” during the week of January 21 to 25th, 1963. The Warren County Ministerial Association, of which the Pastor, Fr. Ziton, is a member, provides the speakers for the program, which is broadcast live from 9:15 am, to 9:30 am, each day. The following messages received overwhelming praise from the Station as well as from the general public.)
This is a strange story. Crude in form as the legend is, it embodies a truth of permanent validity … the futility and the emptiness of human effort divorced from the acknowledgement and service of God.
According to the story in Genesis, the punishment for the attempted building of the tower was the destruction of human solidarity. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth; and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth. Never mind if that is only a childlike explanation of the physical differences in language and in racial life. More important is the fact that here is a true suggestion of the reason for that moral and spiritual confusion of tongues which now afflicts the earth. “They do not speak our language” is a saying that implies a sense of alienation in thought, a gulf cut across the whole area of instinctive feelings on which men and nations need to stand on common ground.
Consider the need in our imperiled world for understanding: How up-to-date this story actually is! We live in a world which is split by wide and deep gulfs of suspicion and misunderstanding, or, to change the figure of speech, by iron and Bamboo Curtains. We cannot communicate with other peoples intelligibly — even the same words do not convey the same meanings. There is lack of proper communication between peoples; and human pride and overvaunting ambition by many peoples, governments and even Churches. Above all, reflect upon the fact that our world can be brought from its confusion into closer and more confident life only by a spiritual humility which will stop men from trusting in their towers of Babel. God’s truth and God’s judgment are still on high, and no human pride or power can climb above them or bring them down. There are eternal moral principles which cannot be defied. That is what all nations alike must learn if there is to be a human family instead of a planetary failure. There is a common language of the human spirit that will be recovered only when men trust less in bricks of their own building and turn more toward God. And if that hope seems distant because some nations or peoples in theory are atheistic, then there is the more need that those nations which claim to be Christian should show what better life a reverence for God can in fact create.
For the remainder of my time this morning I should like to spell out several of the lessons in this story.
1. Pride is our fundamental sin as human beings. The ancient Greeks understood this, and from them we get the tale of Icarus. His father, Daedalus the skillful artificer, made him wings and secured them with wax. He then gave the lad instructions not to fly too high in case the heat from the sun would melt the wax. Then both father and son put on their wings and took flight. Soon the boy, Icarus, began to exult in his new power, and leaving his father’s course he flew higher and higher, until the heat from the sun melted the wax and the wings fell off, and he dropped into the sea and drowned. His father cried, “Icarus, Icarus, where are you?” At last he saw the feathers from the wings floating on the water, and bitterly lamenting his own arts, he buried the body and called the land Icaria in memory of his child.
We are all of like nature with Icarus and tempted to fly too high, to get above our human limitations, to soar over our fellowmen, even to ascend up “unto heaven” and take over God’s throne and run the whole show. Nietzsche once put it this way: “If there were a God I could not endure not being He.” That is a frank exposure of our Omnipotent complex, our inflated and unsatisfied ego, our enormous ambition and pretension.
The Bible warns repeatedly against the sin of pride and its penalties. Read the stories of Adam and Eve, King Saul, King Solomon, and the Pharisee at prayer. Read Jesus’ criticism of self-righteousness, His beatitudes, His demands for humility and a lowly spirit. Biblical writers are unanimous in this: “A man’s pride shall bring him low” (PROVERBS 16:18). And theologians from St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. John Chrysostom, St. John of Damascus, V. Rev. Dr. Georges Florovsky, agree that of the seven deadly sins pride is Public Enemy Number 1.
Pride sets a man against God, as well as against his fellowmen. He resents God’s authority and claims upon him. He prefers his own will to God’s will, and is eager to promote his own ends and not God’s. And as this story of the Tower of Babel clearly indicates, human beings crave to
compete against God, to dazzle the world with their grandiose structures, and to make a name for themselves. Pride is our primeval and perennial Sin.
2. When Man Plays Superman He Comes To Ruin. There is no lesson that history repeats oftener than this. Adam was driven out of Eden because he wanted to be a Superman — “to be like gods” (GENESIS 3:5). These ancient people of Babel found only trouble because they wanted a super-city and a super-tower and a super-name. Nebuchadnezzar, Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon, and Hitler came to tragic ends for the same reason. “He that hath ears to hear let him hear” in this age of super-races, super-bombs, super-highways, super-automobiles, super-dictators, and super-alliances.
That is typical of our century. And we tacitly assume that super equals superior. By such a standard a hockey arena is superior to a cathedral, a melon is superior to a man’s head, and a calf is superior to a baby. But, according to the Bible, God is not necessarily on the side of the big battalions, or greatly impressed by size or bulk. He is very often found backing the tiniest and most insignificant forces — the seed not the mountain, the baby not the king, the cross not the empire.
3. So long as men and women remain unchanged, so long as they put their own interests before God’s, and their own values before His, a better world eludes them, and they continue to live on the brink of disaster. God’s world will function properly and produce its best fruits only in one way, and that is His way.
God and Pagans
Hence if man builds his cities without God, they will become places of greed, crime, and unhappiness. If he builds his nations and empires without regard for God’s purposes, they will collapse about his head. If he builds his homes without God, they will become dens of incompatibility and misery. “The Eternal wrecks the purposes of pagans.” (PSALM 33:10,
Moffat). And when God’s righteous universe begins to rain thunderbolts of judgment man has no place to hide simply none.
The Tower of Babel corroborates the insight of the prophets, who understood that “Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.” (PSALM 127:1)
Our Hope in Christ
4. Our Hope Is In the Babe of Bethlehem Not In The Tower of Babel. We can build our dizzy towers of knowledge and philosophy, of culture and art, of scientific research and technical genius, but they cannot exalt us to the kingdom of heaven. We can even construct our towers of moral virtue, and religious observances and ecclesiastical greatness, and clamber up to their lofty pinnacle, but we do not reach God. We can never know God or learn His secrets until He comes “down” to us, until He discloses Himself, and communicates His mind and heart to us on our human level. . .
Here is the great difference between Babel and Bethlehem. The one was man’s attempt to reach God; the other was God’s condescension to man Emmanuel, “God with us.” The one was man’s quest for status and power: the other was God’s bequest of sonship and grace. The one was man erecting his own futile hope: the other was God bestowing an immortal hope. The one was man in his pride creating a world of confusion and enmity; the other was God in His humility building bridges of understanding and reconciliation. The one was the bad news of frustration and defeat; the other was the good news of fulfillment and victory.
Our choice is Bethlehem or Babel, Christ or Chaos. In Christ alone can our human race find its unity. In Christ alone can we communicate intelligibly across all barriers of race and speech, with the effectual language of love and goodwill. And in Christ alone can we acquire a Name
— in the Lamb’s book of Life.