Genesis 11:1 Now the whole earth had one language and few words. 2 And as men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 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. 4 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, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
“Come, let us..” The humans demonstrate some unity, common mind, and willingness to work together. So far the text has not suggested any strife on a large scale between families, clans, towns, nations, peoples. But human unity, something many modern peoples crave, is not going to produce something of which God approves. Human unity does not axiomatically lead to human unity with God. So it should give us great pause when we hear Jesus say, “that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. The glory which you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you hast loved me” (John 17:21-23). Even with the coming of the God incarnate Christ and the Holy Spirit, has humanity progressed enough to be ready for international unity? Apparently God thinks so. Of course then different Christians at different times have tried to realize this unity in various ways – the one cup of the Eucharist with one bishop, or the one empire under Constantine with one God and one religion, or one holy, catholic and apostolic church with one heart and mind which voices one creed, or the one church under one Papal authority, or the broad and perhaps vague oneness of modern ecumenism.
‘….let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens…” When God first made the humans, he planted a garden for them to live in (Genesis 2:8). Humans left to their own devices build a city to live in. A city in Genesis is a place of human ingenuity. The first builder of a city was Cain the murderer of his brother Abel (Genesis 4:17). God did not command humans to build a city nor did He build one for them, rather He commanded the humans to fill the earth and subdue it and to have dominion over all the other animals. While building a city does not countermand God’s order, city building tends to be done by excluding wild animals and curtailing their numbers within the bounds of city not spending time to develop a dominion over them. Some city building demands that the animals be exterminated within the precincts of the city and once the city is rid of the animals to treat most wild animals as vermin. God’s idea of humans having dominion over animals and subduing the earth seems more related to ideas of farming, being park rangers, or natural resource managers. God did not speak of erecting buildings or fences or walls or barriers or gates. Cities were often built as a means of protecting a population. However, so far in Genesis there has been no mention of war or invasion of enemies. The human vision for what they should be doing is protecting themselves from nature having dominion over them! Humans had been created by God to subdue the earth (Genesis 1:28), and yet the flood certainly showed the humans that they in fact were at the mercy of natural forces and were no better off than dumb animals who were not rational. So perhaps the humans imagined by building a city they could protect themselves from God too. Did they imagine they could wall a capricious and angry God and unpredictable nature out of their city? Genesis 10:32 which leads into the Tower of Babel story says this is where the descendents of Noah spread out after the flood. Is the destructive flood what is on the mind of these men of Shinar? Is building a city the best plan they can come up with as a defense against the forces of God and nature? Perhaps the tower to heaven is being built so that if another flood occurs they can have a way to remain above the flood, or perhaps even escape into heaven from the flood. Or, is the Tower to heaven being built as a hoped for way to control God? Perhaps if they can control God’s entrance into their city – if God has to come down through the Tower, they can somehow predict where and when God appears and thus control what He sees and does. But the humans’ anthropomorphic thinking about God so limits their understanding of Him and underestimates His real power. God scatters the men in the imaginations of their hearts, bringing their plans to naught. Certainly a theme of Genesis 11 is man proposes but God disposes.
Jesus uses the imagery of the man who plants and vineyard and builds a wall around the vineyard and a tower in it as a parable about God who does all of this work in order to yield an abundant harvest (Mark 12). But Jesus doesn’t see the building of this protected space as a place to live but rather a way to protect the grapes from harm so that they can produce an abundance of fruits. Jesus’ own ideas about building buildings and cities may be best summed up in Mark 13:2 when asked about the great buildings that Herod had recently built, Jesus said, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down.” Interestingly, John in the Book of Revelations envisions the final abode of all in God’s kingdom as being a city not a garden planted by God. “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelations 21:2). The eschaton is not a return to the Garden of Eden, but rather a move to a heavenly city. This city is not built by men, but is established by God. There is no tower reaching up to heaven, for the city itself comes down from heaven as God Himself does in Genesis 11:5.