Helmut Gollwitzner on the Tower of Babel: How to Preach the Old Testament by Example
Tower of Babel (source: wikipedia)

Tower of Babel (source: wikipedia)

In Helmut Gollwitzner's collection of sermons, The Way to Life: Sermons in a Time of World Crisis, contains a sermon that is an excellent treatment of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). I've provided a quotation from it because it exemplifies how to preach the Tower of Babel. Stanley Hauerwas lectures and writings on the Tower of Babel have a similar interpretation where the story explains how the pride of man resulted for acquiring the technology of brick building, however the advantage of Gollwitnzer's approach is that he improves upon Hauerwas's hermeneutic and does so in preaching.

The following quotation is from Helmut Gollwitzner's sermon, "Work that is worthwhile", preached on May 2nd, 1976 on Genesis 11:1-9. This example may be used as a template for preaching the rest of the Pre-History in Genesis 1-11 (not only the Tower of Babel). This approach is incredibly more helpful and illuminating than the common anachronistic reading of Genesis 11 as modern history and as something that is undone by Pentecost.

The building of the Tower of Babel is the history of the great Empires, from century to century the great Empires and their great Caesars. They unite many lands and people under their rule, one ruling language, one administration, one culture. All this happens in the name of union and peace, all, it is claimed, for the blessing of mankind—Pax Romana, Pax Germanica, Pax Britannica, Pax Americana. But when the unification reaches its culminating point, the decay has always already set in. There must be some kind of canker in these attempts at unification. And yet today we really need unification. Do you remember how, after 1945, after the end of the attempt to unite Europe under German domination, everybody spoke of world government, whose time had now come—and today mankind is as fragmented as ever it was, particularly today when really a common effort of will among all nations is necessary to end the madness of armaments, for a new world economic order, and for the saving of our biosphere if we do not wish to perish. Instead of that we hear today the despairing talk of the "ungovernable character of the world". In great matters as in small, in large-scale politics as in small groups, in town-councils and in Presbyteries, our work remains fruitless because we cannot understand languages, because what continually happens is like what is said here, that "no one any longer understood another man's language".

Thus the ancient narrator three thousand years ago described what he saw round about him when he looked at the great Empires of that time, Egypt and Babylon, and at the same time he predicted the history of mankind up to the present day. For this purpose he used a story which he did not himself invent, but which people were telling each other everywhere in the oriental world at that time, and by which they used to explain the origin of two quite different phenomena, the origin of tower-like mounds, or rather high towers and ruins of towers, which people gazed at with wonder in the Mesopotamia of that day—and the phenomenon of the many kinds of language, which are so troublesome because they make it hard for one man to understand another. The gods must have interfered here—hence these enigmatic mounds and ruined towers, and hence the confusion of the nations and languages.

The biblical narrator, who adopted this aetiological saga (that is what scholars call such stories about origins), has no concern for the gods, he does not believe that there live above us gods who feel jealous and anxious because of the great powers of man, and for that reason intervene in defense of themselves. He knows, as an Israelite, the one living God, the Creator, who loves his creatures, who has equipped his human beings with many gifts and great powers, who wills to bless their work and make it prosper, who rejoices in the powers of his creatures. And yet he sees a truth in this saga, and for that reason he places it at the end of his account of the beginnings of the history of mankind, which is now contained in the first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis. Thus a good beginning—the man and the woman in the garden of this earth, they have food and work, they live in peace and fellowship, the work is profitable, it is a healthy world. Then this one special, specially endowed creature of God—man, destroys more and more the Creation and himself, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the men of the story of the Flood, and lastly this tower-building—these are the stages of an accelerating disorder, destruction growing like an avalanche which starts with men and turns bad on themselves. The narrator merely tells the story; he does not comment on it. But his narrative forces this question upon us, what has gone wrong here, that man is so destructive, and that God does not bless men, but confronts them with his judgment?

Gollwitzer, Helmut The Way To Life: Sermons in a Time of Crisis. England: T&T Clark, 1981. Trans. David Cairns. 2-3. Print.

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