The story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) is a memorable one. In Genesis 10, we read the genealogy of Noah’s sons and their dispersion across many different lands with many different languages. The beginning of Chapter 11 describes the scattering of Noah’s descendants and the multiplication of languages in story form:
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? The text states that the human family originally spoke a single language. Other (i.e., non-biblical) ancient texts seem to confirm this. For example, there is a Sumerian tablet that tells the story of a time when all languages were one on the earth (see Samuel Noah Kramer, “The Babel of Tongues: A Sumerian Version,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 88, 108-111).
They build a tower with its top in the heavens. Such towers, called ziggurats, were common in ancient Mesopotamia; they resembled tall, stepped pyramids. The remains of some of them can still be seen today.
What was the problem? The tower itself wasn’t the problem. The sin was in thinking they could build a tower that could reach to God in Heaven. (St. Augustine sees pride in that they thought they could avoid a future flood (as if anything could be too high for God!) (Tractates on John 6.10.2).) The later verse calling this place Babel is significant. Babel is a Hebrew word meaning “gate of God,” or by extension, “gate of (to) heaven.” What they really think they can do is to ascend to Heaven, and God, by their own strength. Bad idea! Remember, Adam and Eve had been barred from paradise because they could no longer endure the presence of God. Never think that you can walk into God’s presence by your own unaided power. Only grace can do this. We cannot achieve Heaven by our power. We do not have a ladder tall enough or a rocket ship powerful enough.
To make matters worse, they say, let us make a name for ourselves. Not only are they seeking to enter Heaven by their own power, but also 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 is the land between the rivers).
A further insight into the pride involved in trying to make a name for oneself comes from the concept of naming. Recall that Adam named all the animals (Genesis 2), but God named man (Gen 5:1). To name something is to have superiority over it and to know something of its essence. Parents name their children. In the ancient world naming was very significant. Today this is less so. 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 to “make a name” for himself. Only God can really name us and assign us any lasting glory.
Why did they do it? According to the text, the 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 want to build the tower to make a name for themselves and to preserve unity among themselves.
Wait, isn’t this good? Yes, but although unity is precious, it is not a work of Man; it must be based on God and His truth. Without God, unity can become a source of despotic power. Consider atheistic communism and secular socialism. Concentrated, centralized power can be a serious problem if God is not its center and source. If God is not the source of our unity, you can be sure that despotism is on the way.
Comical! The text goes on to say, And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. This great tower, so high as to reach to the heavens, was really so puny that God had to come down to see it.
What is God worried about? The text describes God’s concern for the growing pride of the human race: If now … they have started to do this, nothing will later stop them from doing whatever they presume to do.
God almost seems worried that Man will become too powerful, but what he is really saying is that if He does not intervene, there will be no limit to our pride or the depths of our depravity. God intervenes and puts limits on us lest our wickedness grow uncontrolled. He does two specific things: He confuses their speech, and He scatters them abroad. We prideful moderns, who seem to know few limits to our depravity (or even celebrate it), ought to heed this story. God may well have to fell our towers.
Conclusion – Our greatest enemy is pride. In terms of our salvation, the greatest virtue is humility. Unity is indeed a good to be sought, but if it fuels our pride, we’ll all just end up all going to Hell together! 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 worst 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. To those who like to build and to make a name for themselves, St. John Chrysostom has this to say:
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 onlookers 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? Be careful! Babel might not be a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, after all.
Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Towering Pride: What the Story of the Tower of Babel Can Teach Us