Babel in Our Time

Texegetics is a regular column from the perspective of the Christian faith, exploring Biblical texts and how they relate to life today. The name ‘Texegetics’ is a play on the word ‘exegetics,’ the practice of interpreting sacred texts.

“Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.” So begins the story of Babel, found in the book of Genesis, near the beginning of the Bible.

Babel is the Hebrew name for Babylon, a real historical place, but also a play on the Hebrew word ‘confusion.’ The story tells of a people who build a great city, Babel, with a great tower reaching heavenward. It is traditionally interpreted as a cautionary tale, warning against pride and the temptation to ‘play god.’ The story says that the builders wanted to “make a name” for themselves.

Easily overlooked is a second reason given by the builders for their project: “Come,” they said, “let us build ourselves a city, with a tower… otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” Fear, in other words, undergirt their whole project. Theirs was an inward-looking civilization, fearful of the beyond, mindful of their own security. The tower lent a sense of identity, purpose, and cohesion.

What happens in the story is that God shows up, mocks and denigrates the tower, and confuses the language of the builders. Finally, He scatters them forth “over the face of the earth.” The very thing that they had feared happens to them: “The Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.”

The Bible nowhere says that God destroyed the Tower of Babel. It twice says that He scattered its builders.

On its face, the story has a simple moral: Don’t build too big, don’t be too prideful, don’t trust too much in your towers, in your technology, in your nation, in your armies, etc. We live in an age of skyscrapers, voice-commanded appliances, and burgeoning virtual worlds. The towering achievement of our own age, the Internet, is a far vaster endeavor than any brick tower built by the ancients. Could it be that this great project may one day flounder and cease, driven aground by too many babbling voices?

It’s easy to engage in this kind of moralizing. The Tower of Babel is everywhere around us if we care to look for it. But the story actually contains a deeper theological truth. After all, it is a story not just about man and his grand ambitions, but about God.

Earlier in the Bible, at the very beginning, God tells mankind, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Our original mandate is to prosper, to live, and to enjoy the great, teeming creation. In light of this we can interpret the fear of Babel’s builders as misguided and unnatural. The very thing that God had intended for us – to be “scattered over the face of the whole earth” – is what they fear.

The lesson of the Babel story is woven with that of the creation story.

God next invites man to name the animals. The first use of human language is at the invitation of God to participate in His creative act. Humanity’s many languages today are vehicles for beauty, culture, and creativity. There are more than 7,000 spoken languages in the world today. Their very diversity adds to the beauty of our world.

Of course, this multiplicity also reflects (and in turn feeds) the brokenness of our collective humanity. Peoples and nations struggle to understand one another, fail to bridge cultural divides, and live in ignorance or mutual suspicion. One might be forgiven for thinking that God is the author of this confusion. In the Babel story He seems to play that role. But in actuality, God confuses only the speech of the people; in their hearts they had already harbored a deeper confusion.

Elsewhere in the Bible it says, “God is a God not of disorder but of peace” (1 Cor. 14:33).

The lesson of the Babel story is woven with that of the creation story. God invites us to take part in his creative life, not forging worlds of our own making, but rather cultivating, naming, and shaping the things around us that belong to the world He has already made. In scattering Babel’s builders, God is nudging them toward his original purposes for them: to go forth and prosper.

As we engage in our own tower-building, we would do well to remember that we are created not to make a name for ourselves on the one hand, nor to fear what lies beyond the cities, worlds, and webs of our own making on the other hand. Unless we are able to disconnect from our projects, from our devices, and even from our own ideals, we are liable to end up spending the rest of our lives piling brick on brick on brick with no end in sight.

Our screens and phones are not part of who we are; our legs, bodies, souls, and tongues – these are what differentiate us fundamentally from machines. No machine, no ‘Artificial Intelligence,’ can truly speak any more than a metallic idol can. (Sorry, Alexa).

Oddly, perhaps, the Bible never speaks of God as an ‘Intelligence.’ It does speak of Him as language, utterance. In Genesis, God is a voice speaking creation into being. In the Gospels, Jesus is “the Word.” In Acts, He is breath, wind, filling people with language. In Revelation, He is a rider, bejeweled, dazzling, whose eyes are fire, “whose name is called The Word of God.”

Ultimately, the Babel story is about the source of all language. Even in this confused and babbling world, God hears and understands every human utterance. We don’t need a tower to reach him. He is the ‘Word’ that speaks to our hearts.

D.R. Photo Credit: Lunch atop a skyscraper, author unknown. Public Domain. 

 Previously in Texegetics: 

Jesus’ most devoted disciples: the women who shopped on Easter