The story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9), is one of the lectionary readings for tomorrow, Pentecost Sunday. It’s a very carefully constructed story. Care in construction is seen in the words used in the nine verses, and in the placement of the story in the book of Genesis.
The story is placed after a genealogy showing two lines springing from Shem, one of the three sons of Noah. The line via Joktan ends in Babylon. The line via Terah, father of Abraham, ends in the promised land.
The story uses repetition to make it’s point, which is “don’t think you can bribe God and get away with pride and disobedience.”
The story is of a mega project, ostensibly to serve God. The project is construction of a city and a tower, which we call “the Tower of Babel.”
Comparison of the text with archaeological findings shows that the construction was most likely of a ziggurat, a tall structure with many platforms and a tower at its centre. It was equipped with stairs, ostensibly for God to “come down” from heaven and meet with man.
I say “ostensibly” because it also served as a landmark, a proud display of grandeur and of technological prowess. Building such structures on the soft alluvial soil of the plain was no mean feat. The foundation and the platforms were composites, built of layers of bricks, woven mats and soil.
The story tells us of another purpose of the sons of Noah, which was to “settle down,” instead of spreading out all over the earth, as they had been commanded to by God and as recorded for us in Genesis 9:1.
The story also serves as a contrast to the obedience of Abraham which we will be told in Genesis 12.
The project – using the forced labour of thousands – was never completed. The story tells us God “saw” and “came down” and did the opposite of what the people expected in return for their gift of stairs.
Instead of blessing them and fulfilling their hopes of living peaceful urban lives protected by city walls and enjoying city comforts, He broke them up and sent them out. He did this not by famine or earthquake or flood, but by creating language confusion among them.
We are told the project was the work of “children of men” (verse 5), not what we expect, which is “children of God.” We should remember our frailty and proneness to disobey God. We should not chase our own dreams and think we can get away with it by bribing God.
For Babylonians – as dictionaries of etymology show – “Babylon” means “Gate of God.” But this story gives us a different etymology.
Why? Because, as it proceeds, the story line of the people of God, the descendants of Jacob-Israel, will show Babylon as a great enemy. The Babel story gives us a foretaste of that enmity through etymological mocking: “Babel” is said to mean confusion, incoherence, babbling.
We must see it as mocking, because Babylon, as a nation or a people group, had already been introduced in the previous chapter, in a list which is often called “The Table of Nations.”
The Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Ethics explains it well. It says:
By this arrangement of its material Genesis is … making the ethnic and linguistic divisions of the world more primal and less a consequence of divine judgment than might otherwise be the case.
I think the only other construction projects in the Bible are of the Ark of the Covenant, the Tent of Meeting, and the Temple. As an engineer, I’m humbled by the thought that the Babel project probably required way more sophisticated technology than the other projects.
The biblical telling of the story of Babel forces us to think about why we build, what we build and how we build. It forces us to think about whether we should stay put or whether we should move. It forces us to think about ways in which we might be bribing God. Lord, have mercy!
Since tomorrow is Pentecost Sunday, I’ll end by noting that Pentecost is the reversal of the story of Babel. In Babel, people heard many tongues, were confused, and did not understand one another (Genesis 9:6-7). At Pentecost, people heard the babble of tongues as recounting, in their own languages, the great things God had done through Christ (Acts 2:4,11).