"Now the whole earth had one language and few words"
In 1968 my parents gave me a red leather Revised Standard Version Bible for Christmas, a gift I treasured as a 10-year-old and treasure still. The binding and leather still hold the fragile scritta pages well, though the cover has cracked around the edges. Lisa C. Graham is engraved in gold on the cover and I'm revisiting that earlier self as I use this Bible for my reading this year. I note underlined verses, lists made with awkward cursive writing in the back and scribbles in the margins. Bookmarks stir up adolescent memories, like the strip of pink punch tape from my work as a typesetter at Times Litho, and a dried flower stem with a small taped note around it that says, 1975--Spring Canyon. The petals are long gone, yet this memento takes me back to a few weeks I worked on staff at a Christian camp and to a youth leader named Conrad. I find a black and white photo of my father in formal Air Force attire, a yellow smiley face bookmark from days when smiley faces were a new thing, and a tiny note from Mark that says, "I'm going to marry you in 14 days!"
But I digress. I'm appreciating revisiting an older translation with a book that has traveled with me for over 50 years, and notice different things as I read this version now, made clearer in what I didn't underline.
I know the story of Babel, of course I do, being raised in a home that valued biblical literacy. In Genesis 11 God notes a migration of people who settle on a great plain, all speaking one language with a few words (a phrase unique to the RSV). They want to build a tower that will keep them unified, and the LORD says, "Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them."
This story offers at least three moral lessons. Most obviously, building towers that reach to the heavens is neither the path for greatness nor security, at least not in the eyes of God. Second, the story affirms the importance and value of diversity, as God confuses the people's language and they scatter, and so preserve and allow different ways of seeing, understanding and living to emerge. Third (and least obvious): when we rely overly much on words to assert our wants and needs we stop paying attention to other, more subtle ways of discerning them. Maybe when we can sense and experience ourselves as only one kind of creature in a realm of many (none of whom speak our language) our capacity to embrace God's vision of a flourishing creation expands, altering our wants, clarifying our needs. Our teachers may include creatures more attuned to the limits and gifts of seasons and cycles, who experience human excesses as senseless, selfish and destructive.
Gratitude, generosity and humility open clearer pathways to what is great in the kingdom of God, and to what would make us content and secure. Maybe this story is a reminder of an interdependence built less on words and more on an embodied understanding of what it takes to live in balance with each other, including non-human others who can't join our conversations about empire building and so can't assert what our ambitions will cost them, and ultimately us, too. Maybe God's intent was to throw a cog into the wheel of human progress that day, and slow down the inevitable damage our capacities would cause. It could be that.
I wonder if having one language with few words wasn't so much a problem until those few words started being used to justify and oversimplify, and state things that were not true or were only partially true. Maybe the antidote to that is seeing a thing through different languages, different experiences, different lenses, and some of them non-human.
After I set down my Bible reading for the day I went and hiked the Trappist Abbey hills--a place filled hourly with monks' prayers of petition and thanksgiving. On this day I heard in the silence the supplication and gratitude of other creatures besides--mostly tall ones with roots in the ground and branches reaching toward the heavens. A common language with few words.