The story of the Tower of Babel is found in Genesis chapter eleven. It is wedged right in between Noah and Abram (AKA Abraham). It’s a tiny little story – less than half a page in an average size Bible.
All my life I was taught two things about this story.
- Babel was where all the different languages originated.
- God confused their language as punishment because they were being prideful and trying to attain god-like status by building a tower that “reached as high as heaven.”
I’ve spent some time really digging into this story lately and I was surprised to find that it really doesn’t say that at all. I suppose it would be possible to infer that but, consider this:
Noah survived a terrible disaster. There was only a tiny handful of people left on earth. Whether you believe it was literally only Noah and his family or if your interpretation is more liberal, the gist of the tale seems clear. God wiped the slate clean – almost.
When the dust settled, God gave the survivors very clear instructions. “Be fertile, then, and multiply; abound on earth and subdue it.” (Genesis 9:7)
It seems clear that they were supposed to have descendants who would spread across the earth and settle the various lands.
What did they do?
“The found a plain in Shinar and settled there… Then they said, ‘Come, let us build a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:3-4)
There is no mention that they were engaged in any kind of horrible evil. In fact, in chapter 11, verse 1 we are given to understand that they were all of one mind – probably a very peaceful and productive people. Certainly they were innovative! They wanted to make a name for themselves, so perhaps that could be construed as arrogance but, really, don’t we all want to do that? Don’t we want to live a life of significance and be remembered when we’re gone?
So we’re told that 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 impossible for them. Let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” (Genesis 11:5-7)
He doesn’t really sound angry to me. This is the same God who is spoken of as having burning wrath when people tick him off in other parts of the Old Testament. To me, this is more like, “Huh! Well, look at that.”
What if God’s plan was for people to spread across the earth and develop civilization slowly over a long period of time? Perhaps their like-mindedness and determination to build something great would lead them to a technology greater than they were ready to handle at that point?
So, if that was the case, God wasn’t dishing divine punishment out on them. He was just redirecting them back to the right path.
If my four-year-old dragged out a pan, put some food in it, and climbed on the counter and turned the stove on I would be very impressed. He used the good brain given to him to solve a problem. Also, I would stop him and redirect him to another activity. Not because what he did was naughty. It was awesome and forward thinking! But he is not ready to handle the responsibility that comes with cooking on a hot stove just yet. In time, I will let him grow into that skill.
As I’ve been reading and re-reading that story in this light, I can’t help but consider Einstein’s famous quote:
I wonder if we aren’t again “building towers” before we’re truly ready to undertake such tasks. What do you think?
Are you, too, seeking to save the earth, promote world peace and raise productive citizens without expending too much effort?
If we work on our goals together, they may be a little easier to achieve!
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