Like last week’s exploration of Noah, the flood, and the Covenant, the story of the Tower of Babel is one which may loom large in our imaginations and short in our Bibles. I was surprised as I continued to read through Genesis that the story of Babel, one I thought I remembered so well, turns out to be only nine verses, seemingly inconsequential, flanked by two genealogies (one of Noah and the other of Shem).
Before you begin to prepare for this week’s lesson, read through the text carefully. At this point in our story, we have been working primarily with creation and its undoing–creation’s alienation from God, the earth, and other created things–a theme we continue this week. The alienation we experience here is a tad different; first, the alienation itself seems intentionally created by God, and second, it has some permanence. Unlike the flood which come to an end and is reversed in some ways by the multiplying of peoples after it and the establishment of a covenant between God and creation, the confusion of language creates an almost permanent wedge in human community.
This story begins with the claim that all of the people of the world had one language (11:1). They migrate over the earth (from the east) until they find a place to stay and build a city (11:3), a city and a tower “with it’s top in the heavens” (11:4). The reason for such a fine city and tower is to prevent the people’s being scattered over the face of the earth (the reason for this particular fear is unknown. Are the people already under threat of being scattered? By whom?). When God comes down to examine the city and tower, God observes that they have been able to build such a tower because they share language. Now, it seems, nothing will be impossible for the people (11:5-7)! God confuses the languages of the people and they scatter over the face of the earth.
One common reading of this story sets it in juxtaposition to Pentecost. The fragmentation and scattering of the people is paralleled by the formation and coming together of a community of people at the Pentecost occasion (where people begin to speak in other languages as a response to the Holy Spirit and the story of the Gospel (Acts 2). Here, people are also “scattered” as they are set out to proclaim the Gospel of Christ to people in various languages. Laurence Hull Stookey puts it this way in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church: “Babel results in disconnectedness, in a confused individualism. The church implies connectedness[…].” This juxtaposition helps us see the significance of this story in our salvation narrative–before we can ever get to Covenant, Christ, Church and Calling… we experience the Crisis of Fall, Flood and Fragmentation, the increased alienation of the created order from what God intended it to be.
Hear the Word
Share the story of the Tower of Babel from Genesis 11: 1-9. This story is short enough that even our youngest children can sit through its retelling. The Jesus Storybook Bible tells this story under the title “Stairway to Heaven” (beginning on page 48). The Children’s Illustrated Bible tells this story on page 28 and includes some historical tidbits about brick and Ziggurats that older children might find interesting.
Respond to the Word
1. Building Babel: Begin by asking each child to draw a “blueprint” of a tower that they would like to build. Then describe some of its qualities. How high does it go? Is it strong? Fortified by additional walls or a moat? Then, put your students in two groups, using the cardboard blocks from the supply closet, let each group work together to build their version of the strongest tower. Afterward, each group can take turns describing why their tower is so strong. Discuss why God was worried about the tower building. Some have suggested that in relying on their own demonstration of power, the people forgot to rely on God for their safety. How might people build cities and towers differently if they were not worried about a display of strength? Let your students creative responses fly! Bonus: Babel Tower Falling Down: Did you already build a tower? Give each child a turn to remove one block from each of the two structures, until the tower falls down. See which group can remove the most bricks without it falling!
2. Building Babel a Block at a Time: Borrow the large plastic legos from the nursery (don’t worry, their Sunday School hour is very light and if you let me know before hand, I can remove the legos before the children arrive). Divide your class into two teams. Each team has one person who tosses one die and tells another team member how many blocks to get. The other team members take turns running to the lego blocks, collecting the correct number, and adding the blocks to their tower. Once they have finished, the die is cast again and the next teammate goes. The goal is to have the highest tower by the time the teacher says stop! Older children may like to play a variation on this game using this printable gameboard.
3. Act it out!: Work on some of the details of the story together by writing a script. Then, assign each person in your class a different character (you might need God or a narrator and some city people). Use costumes in the supply closet and act out the story together. Alternatively, You may like to use this script.
4. Babel in Picture: Spend some time together looking at artistic depictions of the tower of Babel. You can use the image above, or this, this, this, or this. Discuss how each artist depicts the events of the story, and (if shown) Gods response. Which of the images offers the best interpretation of the story? Which of the versions is closest to what we find in our Biblical story? Which of the images do the children in your class like the best? Why?
5. Wonder Together: Wonder together about the story of Babel. Why is it that God scatters the people and gives them a different language? What is it that they are doing wrong?
6. Explore different languages: The languages of the people at Babel were confused so that it was difficult to communicate. Learn how to say a simple phrase in different languages: here’s how to say hello in 21 languages, here’s how to say “I love you” in 101. If your students are older, you may even want to share the connection between the story of Babel and the story of Pentecost. In our time, the Church has been sent into all of the world to share the story of the good news of Jesus with all people (in their own language) with the aid of the Holy Spirit. Make a poster with all of the ways to say a simple phrase in another language.
Close with Prayer and a Feast