The Story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, 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. What 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).
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 that 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:
13 Replies to “Humility is Greater Than Unity. – A Meditation on the Story of the Tower of Babel.”
The way in which you’ve presented this reminded me of Isaiah 65:1-3. When I looked up my biblical notes on the aforementioned passage I found references to Proverbs 3:5&6 and to Jeremiah 23:26, which also seem appropriate to me.
It’s not building McMansions that’s the problem…it’s WHY you build something.
Man is created in God’s image, thus like Him we should create things to the extent we can without losing humility. Build. Write. Make.
The parable about building houses on the rock is about a solid foundation on faith. But it’s a parable that relies on assuming that Jesus thought that men who built long standing houses on rock were wise, and those who built shanties on sand were foolish.
So are we to assume Jesus thought these men were wise because they would build long lasting houses for their families to live in, or because they would build them and give them away to the ‘sand builder’ fools?
What about building monuments to one’s name in writing?
Should CS Lewis have rejected all of his royalties for his work and given his first works to public domain and thus never gained any resources to afford to continue his works to glorify God with his writing gifts? Of course not! He created valuable works, and he built on them…attaching his name on them for ages to come.
Obviously God was not intimidated by ‘tour Babel’s’ height. It wasn’t WHAT they were building. It was WHY they were building it that was the danger.
Building a long lasting home with a swimming pool is not an affront to God if you build it to house a loving home for family and sharing life with friends.
And building cheap artless government apartments to house people like poultry is also not necessarily pleasing to God just because it’s given away for ‘free!’
I think the teaching in Mt. 7 is clear. Christ is the Solid Foundation because He is the Word Incarnate and this lesson is about hearing and doing. v24“Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them” v26″And everyone who listens to these words of mine but does not act on them”. The rest of the words are God’s way of speaking to where we are, as He oft does, that we may understand deeper the spiritual realities, that we may enter more fully into His mystery. If I am wrong may Heavenly Wisdom correct me. But back to the tower… modern man’s monuments to modern man make the tower seem as a sand castle. Trouble, indeed! For if, in our living and breathing, our coming and going, our efforts do not redound to the Glory of God, they are in vain.
And what I wrote bothered me. Please accept my apology as I was wrong on first point and you are right. It is about faith… in action. While praying, the word of my Patron shouted “Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.” I promise to pray more before posting again. Please forgive me and Almighty God bless and keep you always.
Theo! No worries, brother!
You are correct that modern man’s monuments to modern man are very “sandy.”
But a painting of a bowl of fruit is a still life of God’s work….using man’s hands to create it. (A good painting that is.)
There’s nothing wrong with the extravagant beauty of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling. But it’s not clear to me that God is only interested in letting the Vatican have great art, and the rest of his children should have bare walls.
We can praise God through our work, building, writing, creating. But we should always be careful about vanity and hubris even when we’re just sitting around!
Good article. During the 2012 election, there was one politician who said he thought Americans should build space stations on the moon and elsewhere. I remember thinking, “We Americans can’t even keep our roads well-paved, never mind using money we don’t have building new societies. Who can afford travel there? Who can afford space suits?” It seemed ludicrous.
God must laugh when He hears our silly, self-inflated, over-the-moon plans.
In a way, this post was very comforting to me. The needs of my family keep me from being “out there”, making a name for myself. Sometimes I feel so insignificant. I see now that that is actually a good thing.
Donna, you can’t really believe that God’s plan for us is to be ‘insignificant,’ can you?
Jesus died on Calvary so that we can all relax and blend into the woodwork?
Grab a shovel and fill those potholes! This is the danger of reading the wrong thing into Babel. Humility is a virtue. Apathy is nearer to sloth.
Zaccheus climbed to the top of a tree to see Jesus over everyone else. He didn’t hide in the crowd.
I ask you, and the good Monsignor Pope…was this quote below blasphemy in 1986? Was that flight another punishment like Babel for reaching too high?
Or was it as I remember it from my youth…I thought at the time, immediately when it happened…that they had achieved so much and inspired so many that God simply moved them to the front of the line…
“We will never forget them, not the last time we saw them this morning as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God,” President Ronald Reagan said in his address to the nation after the space shuttle Challenger tragedy.
No, I never meant that God’s plan for us is insignificant. I only meant that I have had to put aside my own plans, because they clearly are not God’s plans. But that’s a good thing! God’s Will be done!
The world would have us think that we have to be doing all this stuff, making all this money, and making our “mark” in order to be significant. I have a tendency in getting caught up in all that. The Bible tells us this is like chasing the wind.
As for the space program, I think that our country has had some big dreams and has had the opportunities to see where those dreams lead. America has been a prosperous nation and has had the resources to explore what may lie out there. However, it is no longer 1986. It is nearly 30 years later and we are suffering as a nation. Every aspect of our society is in decline. My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that we shouldn’t be sinking money we don’t have in other worlds. Let’s improve the one we live in.
“As for the space program, I think that our country has had some big dreams and has had the opportunities to see where those dreams lead. America has been a prosperous nation and has had the resources to explore what may lie out there. However, it is no longer 1986. It is nearly 30 years later and we are suffering as a nation. Every aspect of our society is in decline. My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that we shouldn’t be sinking money we don’t have in other worlds. Let’s improve the one we live in.”
Even if you’ve never traveled to Africa or the Arctic, it is still part of the World. We care about Africa and the people and animals there, of course, but “The World” also uses oil drilled from the North Sea. It is part of the world we live in.
Genesis reminds us that God created a big place–not just one planet. We’ve known about these new shores since Aristarchus. Imagine as in “A Step Farther Out” when energy comes from orbital solar stations, or minerals come from plentiful asteroids instead of oil and land gained from death and war. Or should we just keep repeating the Old Testament forever?
It is good that we launch communication satellites so that you and I and Msgr. Pope can learn and spread the Word. It is good that NASA/DARPA/USAF spent money to fill the potholes on the information superhighway so I can pull up Psalm 8 with a click to remind us that God put us just below the angels and above EVERYTHING ELSE. We should not shrink from the duty to be what He created.
1 O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! who hast set thy glory above the heavens.
2 Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies, that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger.
3 When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;
4 What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?
5 For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.
6 Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet:
I agree with everything you have written! Of course we should care about our world and do what is in our power to do, with the goal of loving God and our neighbor. Shouldn’t that be the goal for every Christian?
Our conversation has developed from my original remark about a certain politician who said he wanted to put a station on the moon. I sure don’t want to get into a political debate about taxes, debt, overspending, waste and the burden that such programs place on societies. I’ll stick with my original remark which is, “My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that we shouldn’t be sinking money we don’t have in other worlds. Let’s improve the one we live in.”
Thanks, Damon, for your interesting and thought-provoking remarks! God bless you!!
Tower of Babel. A secure fortress where we could shut out God’s rules, as expressed by the wilderness where the Children of Israel prepared to make a transition from slaves of the Egyptians? Secure from the deserts where so many prophets established a relationship with the Spirit? Natural carnivores and herbivores hidden from progressing intro-spection of glorifying what we could accomplish with only our imaginations and without any comparison to God’s greater Glory that could inspire us upward instead of inward? Secure as our modern cities where foods are imported from where they’re grown and harvested by agri-business employees who sit in the control rooms of huge machines so that no one ever gets dirty hands, and the resultant subjectivity of true farming? So many lights along the by-ways blocking out stars so that people started to forget about other places beyond the surface of our planet?
Hmm. Seems like our modern mega cities.
Comments are closed.