On the Story of the Tower of Babel and What it Says to Us Today

In our Parish Sunday School classes I have asked that we read basic Bible Stories and discuss them, along with the rest of the curriculum. There is nothing like an old Bible story to teach fundamental points. For my part I teach the parents while their children are in class. Today we discussed the story of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11). It is a story that has much to teach us, especially in this modern and proud world.

I’d like to ponder one particular aspect here on the blog, the issue of technology, and how it relates to modern times and the problem of pride.

Consider the opening lines form the story:

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves….. (Gen 11:1-4)

Note in this story that there is a technological innovation: the making of fire hardened bricks that were both uniform and very hard. As such they could bear enormous weight. Further the uniform size of the bricks and the use of tar (asphalt) to bind them, meant that the weight was more uniformly distributed, and thus the walls could reach much higher than stone walls which bore weight so irregularly due to the varying shape and sizes of the stones.

So, we’re dealing with a technological breakthrough and now the men of that early time could build higher than ever before. The results were impressive and man, being in his fallen condition, took great pride in what he had done. He claimed now the capacity to make a name for himself and build a tower so high he could walk into heaven like he owned the joint.

And this is very much our stumbling block today, for we are very technological. The fact is, we have been through a period of wondrous invention, ingenuity and technology. We have been to the moon and back! We have seen the dawn and advancement of electricity, computers, televisions, medical science, physical sciences, and all the endless gadgets and devices that enhance and simply our life.

But technology has a way of fooling us, as we see in the story of the Tower of Babel. We start to think we are so great, that we can save ourselves, that we don’t need God or the wisdom of our ancestors. If Babel rose high, look at our Skyscrapers! It is very easy to be impressed with ourselves.

But it is an illusion. We really know so very little. What we know amounts to a period (.) at the end of a sentence, in one book in the Library of Congress. Our technology inebriates us, just like it did of old at Babel. And in our stupor we overestimate our strength and become braggadocios. Like teenagers we proclaim, “I know a few things!” To which God must have to laugh and say, “You are right, you do a few things….very few things.”

Pride is a very deadly thing, for by it we come to think of ourselves incorrectly and we take dangerous risks. We tend to think we are more powerful than we are. We think we can beat the consequences of our acts.  Through pride we act recklessly, and think we are no longer small, tiny and in need of God and one another for all we do. We forget we are contingent beings, fragile and vulnerable. So, through pride we go on sinning and think we will never have to face judgment, or even the simple physical consequences of what we do. Through pride we can feel so invincible. But this is very dangerous, because we are NOT invincible.

We forget that we are tiny specks, on a slightly larger speck (earth), sailing around a fiery speck (the sun), in an immense cloud of specks called the Milky Way. But even this seemingly large galaxy is but the size of a speck in the full range of space, for there are over 100 million galaxies.

It is a fascinating thing to consider that we, and all our large cities are not even visible from low earth orbit. Notice the photo of the greater New York Area, at upper right, taken from the Space Shuttle orbiting at about 330 miles above the earth. Where are the cites, and our tall buildings? There are over 12 million people living in the area photographed, and there is no evidence of them (us) at all!

Humor comes in the story of Babel, so that when the tower is built, the great tower, with its “top reaching to the heavens,” the truth is, it is actually so puny that God has to come down from heaven to see it. The text says,

And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built (Gen 11:5).

Now, of course, as omniscient, God clearly sees everything, and the humor in the text is not some primitive notion of God. Rather the humor is for our benefit. For, in effect, it says that our greatest, tallest, most prominent and glorious work that we saw as reaching heaven itself, is in fact so puny, that God has to stoop to even “see” it. He has to descend to get a glimpse of it.

God therefore must act. Pride is our mortal enemy. There is nothing so destructive in us, as individuals and as a race, as pride. Pride is the most deadly of all drives. It leads to every other sin, for we think ourselves wiser than God. It makes us forget of God, and our debt to others and to the resources of this world. Through pride we think too highly of ourselves and forget our fragility, we stop accepting necessary and healthy limits, and consider the wisdom of the past to be childish. We over rule God and our ancestors too. Pride is so foolish, but, being blind, it does not even recognize itself.

Thus the Lord must act and put an end to this foolishness before we did something really stupid:

The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be restrained for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth. (Gen 11:1-9)

One might ask if God will act again and scatter our language or some other thing. Perhaps he will.

But I wonder if he has not already do so. Consider how hard it is (in this age of communication) to actually communicate. People have developed such different world views and work from such fundamentally different premises that it almost becomes impossible for us to have a conversation. We have dabbled in the language of relativism so long, we really have little left to say, and do not agree even on some of the most basic moral, let alone civic principles. And as developing any consensus becomes increasingly impossible we see a breakdown in the unity we desperately need to survive.  The West as we have known it is passing away. We are depopulating, our families are disintegrating, our economies are in ruined states and there seems to be no agreement on what to do about it. We know we should spend less, but no one is willing to do so, so deeply selfish have we become. Economic reform means some other slob has to take a hit, but don’t touch my precious program or benefit. Developing any moral or political consensus seems quite a remote hope.  Even as things get more and more critical we still can’t come to any agreement or even agree on the language of an agreement. (Babel anyone?)

Perhaps we are being scattered and our language has been confused. Perhaps this is increasingly why we can no longer agree or even hold intelligent conversations, let alone reach consensus. Hence our unity is scattered.  Perhaps God has taken the proud and now thoroughly secular West and made it less possible for us to “build our city.”

An old story, Babel is,  but ever fresh.

In this video, Fr. Barron makes an interesting point about our skyscrapers (Our modern towers of Babel?)

25 Replies to “On the Story of the Tower of Babel and What it Says to Us Today”

  1. You should have one of your teen parishioners translate this column into “texting.” 😉

  2. It’s been a while since I’ve commented, but this caught my eye, partially because the Tower of Babel has always been a troubling narrative to me. In some ways it seems as though your arguments here partially undermine themselves (notwithstanding the irony that you have used that monolith to man’s technological innovation, the Internet, to disseminate your argument and satellite imagery to make a point). For example, your argument seems to hinge on the premise that technological (and therefore scientific) innovation has a tendency to increase our pride, perhaps providing an occasion to inflate our own self-worth and forget that we are, as you note, tiny specks in the cosmos. Although I don’t deny that people take pride in the wit, skill, or importance of discovery, our scientific and technological innovations have served to do precisely the opposite, especially in the last few centuries: they are precisely the discoveries that have led us to realize our status as a speck in the cosmos. We have progressed from a cosmos in which our planet was the physical center of reality in a universe just over 100 million kilometers wide to one in which our planet is a dust grain in a universe over 92 billion light years wide, in no small part due to technological innovation. If anything, the scientific philosophies of our age teach us to consider man in a far more insignificant light than do most religious theologies.

    In the end, then, I suppose my greatest concern is simply this: why must we be ashamed of what we can do? Granted that we are insignificant specks floating on a pale blue dot (itself an insight deepened by our accomplishments), why should we not rejoice in what we have accomplished? Perhaps one of the reasons that religion seems increasingly irrelevant to many of our secular fellow human beings is that religion – especially some interpretations of Christianity – are represented to them as life-negating, energy-negating, dour-faced philosophies that require us to constantly heap shame or guilt upon ourselves even in our accomplishments. Was man only to be allowed to build it if he built it in constant self-abasement; in exaggerated form, “let us build a cosmically insignificant tower, a speck of mud that will be lost in time, the handiwork of a miserable and ignorant little creature?” Shouldn’t we instead be looking for ways to ennoble and raise these natural impulses, to embolden man to recognize the goodness of his creativity, intellect, and effort? After all, in some ways the use of technology can be understood as part of response to the command to have dominion over the earth and subdue it.

    1. As to your 1st paragraph, life is filled with paradox and juicy irony.

      As to your second paragraph: avoid all or nothing thinking. Perhaps there is a middle ground between pride and, as you describe it, “being ashamed of what we can do.” I am not sure how you get being ashamed out of the Biblical story. That is your description and all or nothing thinking. What the Biblical narrative does teach, is the danger of pride. Your descriptions of the account say more about you than the narrative. I would argue that it is you who exaggerate. There are dangers of which to be aware. But noting those dangers does not amount to being life-negating, dour-faced etc. I am actually rather cheerful and enjoy life and technology, and I was amazed to witness our first walk on the moon, live on TV. But there are dangers that we must avoid and I am not sure that we moderns have well avoided them for the reasons stated. We have become very secular and it is not all the fault of “dour-faced” Christians. There are many other tendencies that have led to our newly-secular West, one of which is pride, as the narrative describes. There is a moral lesson to heed. But it is you who interpret the whole thing in an all or nothing way. I do not, and I doubt most of the readers here, interpret the story that way.

    2. You’re looking at it all wrong. You’re looking at it scientifically, and you’re right, with that it is okay. What the author is saying is that looking at it this way with pride very easily leads to the idea that we do not need God. For example, when we have medical problems and we fix them and take all of the credit out of pride it becomes very easy to forget that God had a big part in healing someone. Then the more we take God out of everything (not just medical problems) because we easily forget that we need Him the more trouble we might be facing. Ultimately humans need God and we should recognize that with knowing that we do with the sacrifice Christ made and remembering it. I know christians say this all the time, but know that it is possible, but instead of reading this article through the eyes of man, read it “through God’s eyes” and it makes a little more sense.

      Remember: pride of ourselves easily leads to us feeling like we don’t need God or just forgetting with all of our own advancements, and the more things we don’t need God for the more easily it becomes to forget that we need God for everything from daily life to life and ultimately afterlife in heaven. The tower of babel relates to this story because that is what they tried to do is forget about God to try to get to heaven and find their own way there. If God let us live long enough maybe we would discover a spiritual realm and try to get there without God just like they did.

      Does that make the story make more sense?

  3. Msgr. Pope + Fr. Barron = Good Stuff!

    Keep up the good work in catechizing the “lost generation!”

    Another great reminder that the world was created for man not man for world. Man needs to remember that without GOD man can do NOTHING.

    So here is my life insurance info.

    God = Carrier
    Premium payments= living the beatitudes and constant communication w/ Carrrier
    Beneficiary = Policy holder payable upon death. See addendum


    The holder of this policy in having failed to fulfill the obligations required in the premium payments will be required to complete a purification process before gaining access to the promises revealed by the Carrier.


  4. I too find it a bit disheartening that with increasing technical sophistication, and therefore more ready availability of facts, more than ever it seems that we cannot agree what those facts are! You need only look to Washington to see the classic example, but we also see it in the priests who are forming groups to “explain” God’s teachings to the Church. There are so many people who want to step forward today and say: “We know! (And you don’t).” And ne’er the ‘twain shall meet.

    It gives me sadness, and yes you are correct in saying that underlying it all is pride. I wish I could explain to all those people how wrong I know they are. 😉

  5. One could write a long dissertation on these ideas. But I don’t think people really think they can ” save themselves. ” A few odd balls might but the remainder are divided between those who just aren’t interested and those who think God will save us no matter how we live our lives. A small minority however does still know that we are saved by God’s grace and how we conform our lives to that grace – Faith, good works, prompted by God’s grace, accomplished through His mercy is the road by which we are saved..

  6. The Twin Towers as example?

    Related is the frustration that I, a senior raised up with the English of my grandparents who never spoke an ungrammatical sentence or failed in logic, suffer these days.

    I, myself fall victim to and use phrases and grammatical mistakes because they are so common.

    The greatest problem I have run into however, is trying to communicate with medical personnel. Words just don’t mean the same thing to the twenty to forty year old doctors and other medical personnel. Ask a question and get an answer, not to the question you asked, but to another that you must try to figure out. Make a statement and get no response or a statement utterly foreign to yours. I began to wonder if it was just me, however recently I had a conversation with a woman who has edited medical journals and textbooks for almost fifty years and she said that she laments what has happened. Doctors and scientists just cannot write clearly or even with basic logic, grammar, spelling or coherence. Her experience should frighten us.

    Some of this can be traced to the hiring of foreigners, but it is operative in American bred and born also.

  7. Here’s the thing I would like to know, Monsignor Pope. I am in a parish group studying Genesis, we did the tower last week (this is the excellent Catholic Scripture Study International program). How do you read these passages and make the obvious connection with modernity in the old text? That’s the thing I can rarely do. How did you develop the talent for expositing a current application from an ancient teaching?

    And don’t say “raw talent”, OK?

  8. In our fallen state we can (mis)use anything. We can use language to show love or hatred for another; and we can use technology to serve or to kill others. Perhaps the tower of Babel story reminds us to use our God-given gifts of curiousity and inventiveness to serve one another in humility – and not to glorify ourselves or, even worse, eliminate God from our lives.

    I think we see too many people today for whom technology is no longer a means to an end – but an end in itself. Many seem to value “connectedness”, or the ability to access any information at any time, over the actual benefits of this access. The strange consequence of this, at least in parts of the developed world, are people able to connect from a distance to anything but who do not interact directly with most people.

    1. Jeff,

      I think you have given an oh-so-beautiful and most accurate responce to Scott Ellis’s concern above. I think that Mr. Ellis’s questions/concerns are quite legitamate…there are many honest people of good will who remain confused because religious thought is so fragmented and polarized these days and often lacking in the thoughtfulness needed to see clearly when there is apparent paradox.

      Anyway, I just wanted to respond and say that your posting brings such a beautiful clarity and, to my mind, a perfectly accurate understanding to the paradox presented! It helped me a great deal since I understand what Scott Ellis was trying to say, knew in my gut that there is more to it, but couldn’t articulate it myself. You did so nicely!

      Thank You!

  9. Msgr. Charles Pope,

    Your post has come very timely for my today’s meditation. The Office of Readings for today includes Psalm 73. I just love it so much that I recited the Psalm over and over again. I’d like to recite it here again:

    ” How good God is to Israel,
    to those who are pure of heart.
    Yet my feet came close to stumbling,
    my steps had almost slipped for I was filled with envy of the proud
    when I saw how the wicked prosper.

    For them there are no pains;
    their bodies are sound and sleek.
    They have no share in men’s sorrows;
    they are not stricken like others.

    So they wear their pride like a necklace,
    they clothe themselves with violence.
    Their hearts overflow with malice,
    their minds seethe with plots.

    They scoff; they speak with malice;
    from on high they plan oppression.
    They have set their mouth in the heavens
    and their tongues dictate to the earth.

    So the people turn to follow them
    and drink in all their words.
    They say: ” How can God know?
    Does the Most High take any notice?”
    Look at them, such are the wicked,
    but untroubled, they grow in wealth.

    How useless to keep my heart pure
    and wash my hands in innocence,
    when I was stricken all day long,
    sufferred punishment day after day.

    Then I said: “If I should speak like that,
    I shoudl abandon the faith of your people.”

    I strove to fathom this problem,
    too heard to my mind to understand,
    until I pierced the mysteries of God
    and understood what becomes of the wicked.

    How slippery the paths on which you set them;
    you make them slide to destruction.
    How suddenly they come to their ruin,
    wiped out, destroyed by terrors.
    Like a dream one wakes from, O Lord,
    when you make you dismiss them as phantoms.

    And so when my heart grew embittered
    and when I was cut the quick,
    I was stupid and did not understand,
    no better than a beast in your sight.

    Yet I was always in your presence;
    you were holding me by my right hand.
    You will guide me by your counsel
    and so you will lead me to glory.

    What else have I in heaven but you?
    Apart from you I want nothing on earth.
    My body and my heart faint for you;
    God is my possesion for ever.

    All those who abandon you shall perish;
    you will destroy all those who are faithless.
    To be near God is my happiness.
    I have made the Lord God my refuge.
    I will tell of all your works
    at the gates of the city of Zion.

  10. Wow! Once again, thank you, Monsignor, for an excellent post. That aerial image is particularly “awe”some, in the original meaning of the word. The counter to pride is naturally humility, but perhaps also a sense of awe at the magnitude of God. We should always bear in mind the words of Mary’s wonderful prayer (and work of poetry), the Magnificat, in order to keep a proper perspective on all things. Our lowliness is itself part of the infinite greatness of God, since the fact that he should deign to love such negligible specks of dust as we (over angels) to the extent of taking on our flesh in the incarnation bears witness to his magnanimity, literally translated, the greatness of his soul.

  11. I’ve often wondered if the proliferation of all the different computer programming languages isn’t kind of similar to the way language became differentiated at the time of the Tower of Babel.

    1. I promptly forgot all I learned about FORTRAN and COBOL as soon as I handed in the final exam for the respective classes.

  12. This story has always bothered me to the core of my person. I feel that your may be wrong. You are not really addressing the text with your assumption when you State “Thus the Lord must act and put an end to this foolishness before we did something really stupid:”

    The issue that bothers me is the most important sentence of this text and scares me. That is “The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be restrained for them.”

    This has the sound of fear of what man can do. I know it is rediclious for the idea of man to make God fear is absurd, but this says nothing like what you state. It seems to be jeliousy or that God wants to restrain our ability to grow to our potential, which seems to be endless.

    I was wondering if you could go a little deeper into this line of the text and unpack it’s meaning for me.

    1. No I am sorry I really can’t, this is a very old post, and I don’t have time. But I might suggest that you yourself have shown the weakness of your own concern. Definitionally God is not a afraid of man. Hence it seems the “God is afraid” theory is a non-starter.

      1. Stem cells, cybernetics…. God doesn’t fear man, but he could fear the atrocities man is prone to commit

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