Written and composed by: Jonathan Prater
We came to build a tower
Reaching up towards the clouds
Broken dreams and broken pieces
Beauty, sacred, proud.
Scattered needs. Scattered dreams
Nobody knows what scattered means.
In a world that’s upside down,
We all wear a crooked crown.
So scattered gather all around,
Listen to the busted sound.
A song about you…
Brother against brother,
Mother oppose son.
Tongues of fire consume each other,
The scattering has won.
We built a name for ourselves with stones and sand,
But now we’re hurling insults with these stones in our hands.
It’s hard to see God’s image in another’s face.
It’s hard to see the Spirit outside all the hate
The song Babel is an exegesis of Genesis 11. The theme for this song permeated in my heart earlier this year when I was preaching a sermon series through the book of Genesis. The heart of this song is calling the listener to remember that the effects of the story of the Tower of Babel cannot be examined in a vacuum; the consequences trickle down throughout generations. This song works to relate the events of current generations to the events surrounding Genesis 11.
The first verse of Babel is set in Shinar, the home of the famed Genesis tower, as people came for the uniting purpose to build a structure to go to the clouds. The story tells us their greatest desire was to be together- or as one- and make a name for themselves. The last line of the verse centers around three words derived from commentator Sherrill G. Stevens:
“Their error was their arrogance. They believed they could accomplish their goal by their own efforts. The evil of their motive was similar to the defiant rebellion of Adam and Eve against the sovereignty of God. The people at Babel ignored God as if they had no need for him at all. They set out to build a city around a tower. The city and tower were to be the center around which they established their identity, maintain their unity, and develop their security.”
Beauty, there is no doubt that this tower was stunning to see. When we build ourselves an identity we also seek to do so in perfection and to build something that is pleasing to the eyes of our neighbors. Sacred, the space they made was sacred. Whether because this tower was literally made to reach to the heavens, or because the tower was constructed to keep them safe from another flood of terror, or if it was built to elevate the people closer to the gods of their affection, this tower was constructed as sacred space. This is a powerful word in the first verse, working to direct our attention that what we consider beautiful can quickly become sacred to our hearts. Finally, proud. I chose the word proud because of the emphasis on pride in the story of the Tower of Babel. The people were building a tower by their own power, and for their own purposes. The reality quickly became that the most sacred and beautiful object in their eyes was the thing they had crafted which was erected amongst all the beauties given to them by God.
The chorus of the song works at connecting two eras of time, Shinar to today. The focus word in the chorus is the word ‘scattered’ pushing our minds back to Genesis 11:9 “…the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth.” The opening line of the chorus “Scattered needs. Scattered dreams. Nobody knows what scattered means.” is a call for us to remember that even though we can see God dispersing the people throughout the land with different language and culture, the effects of that scattering can never be fully known by mankind. Two of the quantifiable results of this scattering is the dissolving of a dream that all people seem to have at some level- the dream that we would share commonality with all people. We do not all wish to be alike. However, most people would express a desire to know and be known by different cultures at some level; this is often manifested in a need for respect. This leads to the open phrase of “Scattered needs”; our need for respect, our need for one another, our need to know and be known by humanity has been scattered by these events. This need calls me back to a quote from Timothy Keller
“To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.”
I believe that the greatest desire of man’s heart is not just to be loved, but to be known. This drives home the need for us to understand one another, and uncovers our frustration when we feel misunderstood, or when we cannot comprehend another person. Keller relates to be fully known is attached to being truly loved. We lost our dream of knowing each other across culture, language, race, and religion.
The next two lines of the song are powerful for me personally. “In a world that’s upside down, we all wear a crooked crown” We would do well to remember that the entire world is divided into broken kingdoms. These kingdoms are not just countries and nations, these kingdoms can manifest in pockets of people. The destruction of the tower of Babel and the scattering of people soon resulted in not only division of language, but a divide into culture. What we must remember is that the scattering at the tower is not responsible for this dividing of people, but it became the enabling force to divide people, as Rorty stated “The world does not speak. Only we do. The world can, once we have programmed ourselves with a language, cause us to hold beliefs. But it cannot possess a language for us to speak.” Language drives culture, culture divides people. Each of us, then, becomes a sort of king over our own sub-kingdom. We desire to rule over our lives, beliefs, and desires, and some individuals allow this desire to propagate to the point of wanting to rule over other people. Each of us wears a crooked, and imperfect crown.
The second verse seeks to reframe this story of scattering to the present. It seems every day we hear another story about violence and hate rising up between people. In many places in the world families are rising up against one another- which follows a prophecy spoken by Jesus in Luke chapter 12. Not only do we harm one another with our actions, but also with our tongues as the second verse reminds us with a reference to James chapter 3. The scattering that came upon the human race intensified the anger, hate, and malicious spirit of Cain, and now runs wild in our world raising people against one another, as the blood of the innocent is spilled every day.
The second section of the second verse contains my favorite line in the entire piece. “We built a name for ourselves with stones and sand, but not we’re hurling insults with these stones in our hands.” Carefully reading the account of the Tower, and examining much of the world around me it seems that many of the same desires, motives, and actions that caused the people to come together in Shinar would be causing the scattering and harmful actions that define much of the human race in these days. The human hearts that cried out “I want to be where God is, come and help me build” now cry out “I want to be where God is, so I will oppress you.” What once brought us to a spirit of construction now brings us to a spirit of oppression- the human heart is a puzzling place. This line comes from my own place of struggle, that some of my own behaviors, no matter how unintentional, are quite destructive to many people, while being constructive for others. This line works at asking ourselves what the destructive devices in our hands are that were once used for the good of our neighbors.
When you look into the face of another, what do you see? The last verse calls us to remember that even though it is hard to see through many of the actions in the world, the face of the stranger holds a piece of God’s image. “At its root, Christian love consists in seeing all things, including oneself, as elegant, delightful, and full of wonders. This is how God sees you and me and everything else that exists, and as we come to share his love we will see things in this way too.” Even when it is hard, we must work to see the image of God in one another, no matter how much the scattering of people may dominate our world.
We are a scattered people, in need of one another. We need a voice of naming and claiming our common humanity and need for one another to rise up above this hate. My hope is that this song may be a small part of that voice.
Keller, Timothy J. 2011. The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. New York, NY: Penguin Group .
Rorty, Richard. 1989. Contengiency, irony, and Solidarity . New York, NY: Cambridge Press .
Simpson, William A. 1997. From Image to Likeness . New York, NY: Continuum .
Stevens, Sherrill G. 1978. Laymans Bible Book Commentary. Genesis . Broadman Press.
 Sherrill G. Stevens. Laymans Bible Book Commentary. Genesis. (Nashville, Tn: Broadman Press. 1978), 50.
 Timothy J. Keller, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. (New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2011).
 Richard Rorty, Contingency, irony, and Solidarity.( New York, NY: Cambridge Press,1989), 6.
 William A. Simpson, From Image to Likeness . (New York, NY: Continum, 1997).