Tower of Babel
The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the LORD said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
—Genesis 11: 5-9
Traveling with a group of students in Mexico, I was pleased when, every now and then, I felt my long-dusty memory of Spanish returning. Though I studied it more than 30 years ago, I live in a part of the country where this language is spoken routinely; unless a person never ventures into a public space, it’s likely that he or she will hear at least a smattering of Spanish every day.
That said, however, I was soon reminded that being able to ask rudimentary questions of the locals in downtown Cuernavaca—How much is this? Which bus do I take?—isn’t the same as knowing the language. Case in point: Having been led through the city’s central market earlier in the day, three friends and I were on our own getting back to this rendezvous spot. “Piece of cake,” I had thought. “How could we miss something that large?”
I now know exactly how. If you can’t remember the words for “right” and “left,” asking for directions in a foreign language can be a daunting experience. It also complicates matters when a city has not just one market, as you may have imagined, but a host of them—all apparently without names.
Like the ancient Hebrews, countless other cultures have stories that explain the fact that we often fail to understand one another because of our language rift; some include the building of a Tower of Babel-like structure and some do not. What most do share, though, is the belief that at one point, all humans were united as a family, and that their separation was a regrettable event.
Perhaps it’s worth considering whether we truly desire such unity today. Do we really want to relate to the people of other nations as our brothers and sisters? Do we long for a day when sharing our common humanity will be enough to bring us together with strangers? Is the path of harmony within diversity a route we will choose to take?
O God, let all of your children, regardless of what language we speak or what name we give to you, live in unity and peace, recognizing that we are already bound together by our common needs, by our common hopes and fears.