Reexamining the Tower of Babel
This event, known as the tower of Babel, is the last story in the first movement of Genesis (chapters 1-11). After this chapter the narrative immediately shifts to the calling of Abraham. This event concludes the downward spiral of humanity that started in Genesis chapter 3 with the fall. The stories in these 8 chapters point to the pervasive corruption of God’s creation and his image bearers. Then in chapter 12 we see the beginning of God’s redemption plan with his calling of Abraham.
1 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as people 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 dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” 5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. 6 And the LORD said, “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. 7 Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the LORD dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth. And from there the LORD dispersed them over the face of all the earth.
Babylon, in the minds of Moses’ original audience, represented the “anti-kingdom of God”. This idea carried all the way through the storyline of Scripture. In Revelation Babylon is referenced in this way as well (Rev. 14:8; 16:19; 17:5).
One popular misconception about this text is that the people were building a tower to get to God. This is a misconception that I’ve had until studying this text this week. It’s one I’ve always accepted without critically analyzing. The text doesn’t necessarily say this. The Babylonian ziggurat was a temple, a place for the gods to dwell. This is the case even in the Enuma Elish (the babylonian creation story). So it seems as if they are building this out of a desire for God to dwell on earth, which is actually a really good thing. This is the story of the Bible and sacred space. God’s presence dwelt in the garden, it dwelt in the tabernacle and the temple. Now his presence dwells in the community of believers. In the end God will once again dwell in his creation fully.
So the problem isn’t that they are trying to reach God to make a name for themselves. Even the concept of one having a great name isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It just means doing something you’ll be remembered by. In chapter 12 when God calls Abram and makes a covenant with him he promises to make Abram’s name great! The problem then is that they are trying to bring God’s presence here and make their name great, not by God’s initiative and God’s plan and simply for God’s glory. They are instead building this by their own ingenuity and will and for their personal benefit.
This is likely another iteration of the Genesis 3 fall story. Remember, their the knowledge of good and bad isn’t really a bad thing, in fact it is necessary if humans are to rule creation as God’s stewards. However, the humans pursued this knowledge not according to God’s way, allowing him to teach them, instead they pursued it by their own means and for their own ends and violated his law in the process.
So this is history repeating itself, just further on down the line, repeating the same pattern as technology advances. This story is portrayed as an act of hubris, again describing humanity’s vain attempts to make a name for themselves without YAHWEH and for their own benefit. Instead, God will do that starting with Abram in chapter 12.
So this text not only serves as a description of the human condition but it also serves as a warning to the people of Israel to not attempt to bring God’s presence with them on their own terms and for their own benefit, or else they will be scattered to other nations and their language (the foundation of unified cultural expression) confused. This of course ends up happening later in the story of Israel as they are taken captive by… you guessed it… Babylon!
God’s presence with us is a good thing. It seems like what they were striving for was a good thing but for the wrong reasons, in the wrong way and in the wrong timing. What does this tell you about the human condition? We want to usurp God’s way and God’s timing to get what we want. We often think our human ingenuity and our technology and cultural advancements can speed up God’s plan, yet we find ourselves violating his commands and his laws to accomplish it. We deceive ourselves that the ends justify the means. Today commit yourself to following God’s way, God’s timing, and God’s will.
For additional content today I’ve linked you to an interview Preston Sprinkle did with Dr. John Walton. Walton is an Old Testament professor at Wheaton college and he wrote his doctoral dissertation on the tower of Babel.
ff to 43:34 in the podcast for just the talk on Genesis 11.