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Lenten Devotions from Fourth Presbyterian Church

Wednesday, June 12, 2019              

Today’s Scripture Reading | Romans 8:14–17

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

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. (NRSV)

From our current vantage point in history, it’s easy to read this Tower of Babel story solely through the lens of myth: this sort of primeval, pre-history story would have functioned in ancient cultures not only as an explanation of why there are different languages around the world, but also as a warning against our hubristic ambition to be gods. But while this text serves as a fitting introduction to the new human-divine relationship formed between Abram and God in Genesis 12, it also gives us modern readers a chance to reflect on the ultimate limits of our own knowledge.

We, collectively, know more about ourselves, our planet, and our cosmos than at any other point in human history—and that knowledge will almost certainly continue to be furthered each year. Our increased knowledge has frequently been a massive gift for our species—our collective quality of life has certainly come a long way from whenever Genesis was first transcribed. And yet I can’t help but think of a quote attributed to Aristotle: “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” Despite our massive gains in knowledge, we are still barely scratching the surface when it comes to understanding our observable universe (much less things like dark matter).

Whenever I read this Tower of Babel story, I cannot help but reflect on how much of life will always lie beyond the limits of my understanding, despite my hubristic desire to both know and control. It is a humbling thing to grapple with our own limits—but ultimately, I think, a healthy one.

Holy God, I thank you for reminding me that you always lie beyond the limits of my knowledge and understanding so that, in humility, I might never confuse myself with you. Amen.

Written by Matt Helms, Associate Pastor for Children and Family Ministry

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