Scripture Lesson: Genesis 11:1-9, The Tower of Babel
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
The human impulse for the building of towers did not end with the Tower of Babel. The tallest building in the world currently is the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The building officially opened January 4, 2010. The Burj Khalifa is 2,717 feet high at its highest architectural feature excluding the antenna. It has 163 floors which hold 900 apartment residences, a hotel, offices, lobbies, restaurants, and an observation deck. There are 57 elevators in the building. The fastest ascend at 33 feet per second. Sounds like a ride at Busch Gardens to me! There are 2909 stairs to the 160th floor. The top of the building sways 1.5 meters, almost 5 feet, in the breeze. There are 62 miles of pipes for getting water to the entire building. It takes 36 workers 3-4 months to clean the windows of the glass fronted tower.
Ask if anyone has been to the Burj Khalifa and what it was like.
Evidently, the Burj Kahlifa is so tall that from the upper levels the sun can still be seen for several minutes after it has set at ground level. Thus during the Muslim holy season of Ramadan, those who live on the 80th floor and above are to wait an additional 2 minutes before breaking their fast each day, and those living above the 150th floor are to wait an additional 3 minutes.
And what was the motivation for building this record breaking tower? Wikipedia tells us, “The decision to build Burj Khalifa was reportedly based on the government’s decision to diversify from an oil-based economy to one that is service and tourism based. According to officials, it was necessary for projects like Burj Khalifa to be built in order to garner more international recognition, and hence investment.” Jacqui Josephson, a tourism executive, says, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President of the United Arab Emirates, Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates, and ruler of the Emirate of Dubai, “wanted to put Dubai on the map with something really sensational.” Well, the Burj is certainly sensational as is much of the entire city of Dubai.
Much like the Tower of Babel, which the story in Genesis tells us was built so that, “we might make a name for ourselves,” the Burj was built to put Dubai on the map, make a name for “ourselves.” And evidently it worked because the apartments in the Burj sold out within 8 hours of going on the market. [Information about Burj Khalifa comes from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burj_Khalifa]
Tall buildings do that. They put a people on the map. They make a name for the people. They are a show of status and garner recognition and hopefully respect. The newer highest buildings in the world today are mostly in South Asia, West Asia, many in China, one in Russia. Most are in places that want to make a name for themselves; be counted as players on the world scene. Few such buildings are being constructed in Europe or North America save in New York and Chicago. We have already made a name for ourselves. So, the Burj is the tallest building in the world. For now. It is expected to hold that title for at least the next 4 years when it will likely be surpassed by the Jeddah Tower in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia or the Dubai Creek Tower, miles away in Dubai, among others.
And what surrounds Dubai and the Burj Khalifa Tower? Endless expansive miles of dry inhospitable desert. Plunked on the edge of the desert, bordered by the sea, is this concentration of civilization with all of the glitter and bustle imaginable. This setting is reminiscent of the story of the Tower of Babel. We are told of a concentration of people, banded together, isolated, building a tower to make a name for themselves; to garner recognition and respect. The intent is self glorification. Self-aggrandizement. They are looking out for number one.
The story of the Tower of Babel tells us of a people who join forces to build a tower to enhance their power, wealth, position, and reputation. It is an isolationist act of self preservation. What’s wrong with that? Well, to understand that we need to look back at the beginning of the book of Genesis. In the story of Creation, the human species is created to take care of the rest of the Creation. We are told in Genesis chapter 1, “Let us make human kind in our image, to be like us. Let them be stewards of the fish in the sea, the birds of the air, the cattle, the wild animals, and everything that crawls on the ground.” That sounds like an endorsement of the Endangered Species Act to me. Why don’t we hear about that from all the Biblical literalists that support the current political regime?
A few verses later in Genesis chapter 1 the human creatures are instructed to, “Bear fruit and increase your numbers, and fill the earth – and be responsible for it! Watch over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things on the earth!” The humans are to spread out over the entire Earth, so that they can be sure to take care of the big whole thing making sure the animals and plants are thriving and healthy. The human race is to be globally deployed for the purposes of care-taking of the entire planet and all the life that it supports. This is the first chapter of the first book of the Bible. First things first.
The story of the Tower of Babel tells of a people who are concentrating their efforts on their own well being to the neglect of their wider responsibilities for the rest of Creation. They are banding together to look after themselves with no concern for the well being of the rest of the Earth. They are worrying about their power and prestige and status and forgetting about their obligations to the rest of Creation. This should sound very familiar. We are still living in that reality. This story is still speaking to us.
With the story of the Tower of Babel in mind, we can think about the people of Dubai who seem to have so much money they don’t know what to do with it, buying up all of the rainforest on the planet and making sure that it is not cut down or burned to help mitigate global warming. They could make a commitment to leave the rest of the fossil fuel in their land underground and end the extraction of fossil fuels in their region. They have plenty of sun and heat. They could apply their enterprising spirit to running their country on solar power instead of fossil fuels. The people of Dubai and the United Arab Emirates could make a name for themselves that fulfills the divine intention for the human species.
Yet before we cast our attention only on the splinter in the eye of Dubai, let’s remember that the US has its share of the tallest buildings in the world, and after two of them went down an even taller building was built in its place. We, too, have done our share of choosing to make a name for ourselves and concentrating our efforts on self preservation and self-aggrandizement at the expense of others and the planet. And this orientation of our country continues to put the planet at risk.
In our day of globalization and instant worldwide communication, we know far better than any generation before us that there is no such thing as isolation from the rest of the world. Our only hope is in the commitment to the preservation of all of Creation. We are scattered so that we can be sure to take care of the whole world. Humanity must be diverse in order to serve the greater good of the entire planet. The lessons of the ancient story of the Tower of Babel have yet to be learned.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.