And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. And the Lord said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them. “Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city. Therefore its name is 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. (Genesis 11: 3 -9)
The scripture lesson of the tower of Babel is a very troubling one to me. God seems petty and hardly omnipotent – He is worried that the humans will build a tower to His heaven. If anyone should know this is impossible, it should be God. To prevent humans from cooperating with each other, God creates the cacophony of jumbled human languages so humans cannot talk with each other. The historical effect is an endless series of wars, oppression, hatred, terrorism and human separation and division. It almost makes me think that our petitions for peace in the Orthodox liturgies are actually prayers against God’s will. Or I can imagine children sassing their parents when they are told to play nicely together or to cooperate by reminding the parents of the Babel story – God doesn’t want us to be able to cooperate. Nevertheless, I will continue to pray for peace for the world and for God’s mercy on the entire world and all its peoples.
Additionally, if one reads Genesis 10 (the chapter before the Babel story), one sees there is a natural spread of peoples and languages after the Great Flood, as Noah’s sons and their descendants spread throughout the world. But then in Genesis 11, a new explanation is given for the multitude of languages – it is a punishment from God for people attempting something which is patently absurd – they think they can build a tower to heaven.
Below is one modern possible way to extract meaning from the story:
From civilization’s inception, humankind has had an insatiable hunger to reach the heavens, to pave the way to God. We build towers that stretch into the skies, whether in New York or Babel. You may remember the old story of Babel’s tower from Sunday school, or maybe you can hear the distant tunes of Bob Marley preaching about Babylon.
God’s people decided to build a sky-skraping tower (Genesis 11). Scripture says ‘the whole world had one language,’ and the people seemed quite impressed with their limitless power. So they began erecting an idol of human ingenuity to ‘make a name for themselves.’ They hoped to attain the beauty of the heavens only to find themselves growing farther and farther from the God who dwelt with them in the garden of Eden. During the project, God noted that ‘nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them‘ (Genesis 11:6). You can almost hear the echoes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki here.
It seems that God has an aversion for limitless power. It’s not that they were a threat to God but that they were a threat to themselves. This type of grand collaboration wouldn’t be God’s solution to a world ‘full of violence’ (Genesis 6:11). Instead of letting them build a bridge to the heavens, God came ‘down’ from the lofty heights and scattered the people across the land, confusing their languages and bringing them back down to earth. They became babblers. God confused the language of the whole human family, and any hope for harmony, communication, and reconciliation now lay only in God’s hands.
This tale is less a tragedy of divine punishment and more an act of divine liberation of humankind from an imperial project that would lead to death. The land around the tower became known as Babylon, which will rise as the quintessential symbol of empire. The Bible ends with the depiction of counterfeit beauty personified by ‘the Great Prostitute‘ named Babylon (Revelation 17), with whom the kings of the earth, the merchants, and the nations commit a naughty romance. They are dazzled by her splendor, transfixed by all she has to offer. The whole world stands in awe of her beauty… Before she falls. It is no coincidence that what is written immediately after the scattering at Babel is the calling of Abram and Sarai (Genesis 12). Homeless, small, and powerless, they were the antithesis of the Babel project. God called them out of the babbling confusion to become a peculiar new people whom God entrusted to bless the world. God set them apart with a new law, a new culture, a new destiny that was nothing short of the redemption of the human race.
[I would note that Abraham and Sarah are called by God not to rid the world of evil but to become a particular people in the world – to be the salt of the earth or light to the world. It is what Christians are called by Christ to be as well (Matthew 5:13-14). We are to witness to God’s way in the world, not to rid the world of evil. Christians who want to rely on guns and armies to enforce Christianity on the world, completely miss the point of the Old and New Testaments.]
It is not only their story; It’s our story. It’s the history of our ancestors, the dysfunctional family of our father Abraham and mother Sarah. God created this family for the sake of redeeming the world. God told Abram, just before he was given the name Abraham, meaning ‘father of many nations‘ (Genesis 17:5), ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you’ (Genesis 12:1-3). (Shane Claiborne, JESUS FOR PRESIDENT, pp 30-31)
[It also calls to my mind the statement from Galileo: “The Bible shows the way to go to heaven, not the way the heavens go.”]
See also my posts When Babbling Towered Over All, Building a Tower Into Heaven, and Babel: An Evil Peace?