What Are You Building? A Meditation on the Story of the Tower of Babel

The Story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, (which we read earlier today in the Mass), is a memorable story for most. And yet it has a strange angularity to it.

On the one hand it seems to be a retelling of what is described in Genesis 10 of the table nations who spread forth from Noah’s sons, filled the earth and began to speak different languages. Chapter 11 seems to want to re-tell what we already know, supplying us with the inner details.

Further, the reaction of God seems a bit strange, almost human. He (the text has God speak to himself in the Plural “us”  – Augustine sees the Trinity in this use of “us” (City of God 16.6)) seem almost to fear man becoming too powerful. Thus God does was seems antithetical to God, he divides the human family. We are more familiar with God wanting to unite us!

Let’s take a look at this odd little text and see what we can learn.

Now the whole earth had one language and few words.  And as men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.  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.  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.”  And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built.  And the LORD said, If now, while they are one people, all speaking the same language,  they have started to do this, nothing will later stop them from doing whatever they presume to do. 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 left off building the city.  Therefore its name was 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. (Gen 11:1-9)

One Language? Note that the text indicates that the human family originally spoke one language. Other ancient texts seem also to affirm this. For example a Sumerian tablet tells from an extra-biblical perspective the story of a time when all language were one on the earth. (cf, Samuel Noah Kramer, “The Babel of Tongues: A Sumerian Version,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 88, 108-111).

one language and few words – the Hebrew is, ‘echad saphah . . ‘echad dabar which is translated in other Bibles as “one language, and of one speech.” But the RSV (quoted here) seems to imply that concepts and thoughts were also expressed with fewer words. Later things become more complex even among those sharing the same language as words came to have nuances, shades of meaning. This can lead to greater precision but it also tends to set up debates. Often on this blog I will use words in their general analogical sense only to find objections come from highly trained theologians who prefer that I use words only in the strict theological sense. I, in turn, object that average people would be lost in such highly technical terms and insist on speaking in an ordinary sense. Precision is good, but there is also the danger of obscurity.  The debate continues dear readers! But it would appear that, at least from the standpoint of the ancient experience, concepts were shared with fewer words. Is this better or worse? You decide!

The Story takes place in Shinar – That is Sumer, the land of the Sumerians, The area later called Babylon, modern day Iraq.

They build a tower with its top in the heavens – Such towers or Ziggurats are a common archeological feature of this part of the world. They look like tall, stepped pyramids.

The Problem – The tower itself was not the problem. Thinking it could reach to God in Heaven was the sin involved. (St Augustine sees the pride in that they thought they could avoid a future flood (as if anything was too high for God! –  Tractates on John 6.10.2). The later verse calling this place Babel is significant. Babel is the Hebrew word meaning “gate of God” or by extension – “gate of (to) heaven.”  Hence what they really think to do is to try and ascend to heaven, and God, by their own strength. Bad idea here! Remember Adam and Eve had been barred from paradise because they could no longer endure the presence of God. NEVER think you can walk into God’s presence by your own unaided power. Only grace can do this. We cannot achieve heaven on our power. We do not have a ladder tall enough or a rocket ship powerful enough. They are committing a serious sin of pride here.

To make matters worse – they do this saying let us make a name for ourselves. So, they are not even seeking to enter heaven to be with God but, rather, to make a name for themselves. Now that’s pride with a capital P and the rhymes with T and that stands for Trouble. Yes, (to quote the Music Man) we’ve got trouble right here in river city (Mesopotamia = the land between the rivers).

A further insight into the pride comes from the concept of naming. Recall that, in Genesis 2,  Adam named all the animals and decided what to call them. But God named man (Gen 5:1). To name something or someone is to know something of its essence. Parents name their children. In the ancient world this was very significant. Today this is less so.  But ultimately, it is God who names us. In so doing it is he who declares our essence. It is pride, in this ancient sense, for man to try and “make a name” for himself.

Why did they do it? The stated purpose for this prideful act is that is must be done lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. Hence they act in this way to build the tower and make for themselves a name to preserve unity among themselves. But wait! Isn’t this good? Yes, but, though unity is precious to God, it is not a work of Man but must be based on God and his truth. Without God, unity can merely become a despotic source power that is abused. Consider atheistic Communism and secular socialism. Concentrated, centralized power can be a serious problem indeed, if God is not its center and source. Praying for unity is not wrong, but God alone must be its source. Otherwise you can be sure that despotism is on the way.

Comical! And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built – a humorous description. The great tower, so high as to reach to heaven, was really so puny that God had to come down to see what it was!

What is God Worried about?  The text says,  This is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. – God almost seems worried that man will become too powerful. It is true; as the text demonstrates, man thinks he has become godlike in his power. Had not Satan said, to tempt him, you will become like gods! (Gen 3:5).  But what God seems to be getting at is even more negative. In effect God says, if He does not intervene, the depths of our depravity will know no limits. Thus he intervenes and puts limits on us lest wickedness know no bounds. So God does two things:  He confuses their speech and He scatters them abroad.

Conclusion – Unity is good and to be sought for. But unity is not an absolute or shall we say, detached good. The greatest virtue in terms of our salvation is humility. Unity is a great good, but if it fuels our pride we’ll all just go to hell together. Hence, in this case God saw fit to humble us by scattering us and confusing our language. Unity in wickedness is best scattered. Only unity for good is praiseworthy. Of this St Jerome says,

Just as when holy men live together, it is a great grace and blessing; so likewise, that congregation is the worse kind when sinners dwell together. The more sinners there are at one time, the worse they are! Indeed, when the tower was being built up against God, those who were building it were disbanded for their own welfare. The conspiracy was evil. The dispersion was of true benefit even to those who were dispersed. (Homilies 21).

Bringing it close to home – I’d like to conclude with the rather remarkable words of St. John Chrysostom who makes this story a little more personal for us:

There are many people even today who in imitation of [the builders at Babel] want to be remembered for such achievements, by building splendid homes, baths, porches and drives. I mean, if you were to ask each one of them why they toil and labor and lay out such great expense to no good purpose, you would hear nothing but these very words [Let us make a name for ourselves]. They would be seeking to ensure that their memory survives in perpetuity and to have it said, “this house belonged to so-and-so,” “This is the property of so-and-so.”  This, on the contrary, is worthy not of commemoration but of condemnation. For hard upon those words come other remarks equivalent to countless accusations – “belonging to so-and-so, the grasping miser and despoiler of widows and orphans.” [Such behavior will] incite the tongues of on-lookers to calumny and condemnation of the person who amassed these goods. But if you are anxious to for undying reputation, I will show you the way to succeed in being remembered…along with an excellent name…in the age to come…If you give away these goods of yours into the hands of the poor, letting go of precious stones, magnificent homes, properties and baths. (Homilies on Genesis 30.7)

What are you and I  building? Careful. Babel might not be a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, after all.

In the article above I mentioned the song from music man “Trouble in River City” Just for fun, here it is:

15 Replies to “What Are You Building? A Meditation on the Story of the Tower of Babel”

  1. “Babel” not only means gate of heaven but was Israel’s way of mocking the Babylonian’s language. In fact, the story of the tower, much like the story of Cain or the story of Moses, is meant to humiliate Israel’s enemies.

  2. Dear Msgr. Pope,

    I really enjoy your thorough examination of this passage. It has left me with some troubling questions though. From how you explained it, true unity between nations can only come through God and man’s selfish attempts are feudal. I often pray for peace between nations, especially those in the Middle East who suffer from regular internal violence between faiths. If we reach a state of greater global peace regardless of others beliefs, would God not approve of this harmony? I struggle with the idea that God would disapprove of a truce between nations that would create less death and destruction. Is the reality of this flawed world that hopeless?

    Thank you for your writings,


    1. That the tower of babel incident was a selfish attempt of man does not mean every attempt to attain unity and harmony is selfish. I cannot think working for unity is ipso facto doomed. However, it would seem we have not found lasting unity thus far. I suspect God wants us to keep trying. I will say that I cannot think we ever will have peace apart from the truth of the Gospel. However, there may be aspects that God will bless. I therefore would try and stake out a middle ground between myopic notions and utter dispair. To apply a saying of St. Augustine, Work as though it depends on you but believe and know it depends on God.

    2. True unity is in the Church because she is One Church. Her oneness is in fact unity and unicity, that is, peace and uniqueness. From God through the Church comes every form of unity, that is, by her prayers: family unity, national unity, global unity, unity to God, unity to the Church, etc. Ergo it is necessary to be part of the Church and evangelize so all may be part of the Church.

  3. But what really was the tree of knowledge of good and evil? Do a search: The First Scandal.

  4. Great article, and I am a big fan of the Music Man, having seen it on stage a few times and having the soundtrack! Language is a mysterious thing–what about at Pentecost where everyone heard what was being said in their own language? God is definitely the great uniter. I wonder if the remains of the Tower of Babel have been found? I also wonder if there aren’t mini Tower of Babels that occur. Look at all of the computer programming languagesthat exist!

  5. “they do this saying let us make a name for ourselves. So, they are not even seeking to enter heaven to be with God but, rather, to make a name for themselves. Now that’s pride with a capital P”

    For the life of me, it seems to me that there is evidence as plain as noses on faces of the Tower of Babel that has been studied for years with no obvious answer.

    But nobody ever mentions the three pyramids of Giza in Egypt that probably date to around the time of the “Tower of Babel.

    There is an ancient city in the Nile Delta region whose name might have been corrupted: Bilbeis (Coptic Phelbs; Arabic بلبيس) is an ancient fortress city on the eastern edge of the southern Nile delta in Egypt.

    I am not an archeologist; just someone fascinated by the pyramids and the Bible.

    1. You may be right. I have not studied this. But all the usual sources take Shinar in a fairly straight-forward way as the land of the Summerians who also built tall pyramid like structures. Do you have scholarly sources for your theory?

  6. Unity can be confusing and you gave a clear definition of true unity, unity in God. Thanks for the reference to the Trinity that Augustine found in the Tower of Babel story. What troubles me in groups sometimes when they call for unity is that the group members do not acknowledge that God is the source of unity. If God is not clearly at the center of group experience, then all kinds of foolishness and harm surface. As an individual, keeping God in the center of my life is hard work, one day at a time work. If I work on that I can find the unity of God in groups – I can even let Him bring some unity to a group through me. I do not have to constantly give in to the need to be in charge. The beauty of Catholicism is that it teaches me humility, to let God be in charge. With all its diversity, unity survives in our Church and is celebrated because we follow Christ in His unity with the Father and Spirit.

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