Learning to be Silent :: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “The Tower of Babel”

Pieter Brueghel - Tower of Babel.jpg
Pieter Bruegel, De bouw van de toren van Babel; oil on panel; 1563.

Sin and temptation are funny things. They often disguise themselves in respectability and inventiveness that catch us off-guard at the last minute. Genesis 11 tells the story of a community’s effort to construct a great tower at a time when humanity shared common speech. The vision statement for the project was: “Building a tower to heaven to make our name great” (see Genesis 11:4). T-shirts and coffee mugs with the vision statement emblazoned on them were distributed all over town and the project commenced with great zeal. The only problem was that this effort was one more in a string of typical human aims to displace God and put humanity in His place. God will have none of it and stops everything before it reaches conclusion. Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting shows the colossal effort involved in this project. The architecture intentionally reflects that of the Roman Colosseum, reminding the viewer that both Rome and Babylon were biblical cities representing prideful humanity’s stance against God. Already in the painting we can see some arches beginning to crumble. The tower’s construction cannot hold together architecturally just as pride in communities and individuals pulls against itself, ending in collapse. We’re told in Genesis that God set out to “confuse their language so they will not understand each other” (11:7). This may sounds harsh until we realize just how disastrously far human brokenness and sin can go when gathered together around collective endeavors. We read about it in our history books and today’s news: war and hatred, greed and emptiness, repression and injustice. The journey of Lent reminds us that this is not only true in history and in the news, but also in us. Lent teaches us to lay our pride down and learn to be quiet–even silent–before God.

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