Growing up in church, the moral of the Tower of Babel story was explained to me in two primary ways. First, humans didn’t want to fulfill God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth,” so they built this tower to avoid being scattered (see Genesis 11:4). Second, the tower represented human pride (again, see Genesis 11:4). In college I learned about etiological tales—short stories intended to explain why something exists, such as multiple languages. And then I learned that some biblical scholars view Genesis 1–11 as Primeval history—the story of the world up until Father Abraham with Babel telling us how humans ended up all over the planet. All of that makes sense to be sure, but whenever I would read the story I was still left with the nagging question of why it was really here.
Let’s back up a little to put Babel in context. So far in Genesis we’ve learned that God created humans in his image to declare his righteous rule over all the earth. We read about the entrance, spread, and devastating consequences of sin. What’s more, sin has so completely dominated human existence that even after the flood and God’s covenant with Noah, Noah gets black-out drunk then curses his grandson (Canaan) when he wakes up to learn his son (Ham) has committed some sort of sexual sin against him (see Genesis 9:20–27). After a chapter of genealogies we land at the foot of Babel’s tower, and despite explanations about hubris, we might wonder what’s so bad about human ingenuity and a longing to remain in one place.
Babel pulls back the curtain on the sin problem to reveal that humans also have a view-of-God problem.
If we dig around in the historical-cultural context and literary context for a bit, I think we can get a better grasp on what the story is about and why it has such a prominent place in Scripture. The Tower of Babel is not a tower in the way that we think of towers in the twenty-first century. Rather, this “tower” is a religious structure, most likely a ziggurat—an ancient Mesopotamian structure that “was believed to be used by the gods to travel from one realm to the other. It was solely for the convenience of the gods and was maintained in order to provide the deity with the amenities that would refresh him along the way (food, a place to lie and rest, etc.). The stairway led at the top to the gate of the gods, the entrance to the divine abode.”¹
The key to understanding what is wrong about the tower is recognizing how its function and purpose depicted the gods who used it. The gods need a convenient way to travel, food to sustain them, and a place to lay down for a quick nap. The gods are remarkably humanlike, who need the very same things we do. The ancient Israelites, whether just departing Egypt, living peacefully in the promised land, or experiencing exile in Babylon, would recognize immediately that this story is about much more than confused languages or human pride because they would have experienced the gods and religious systems of Egypt, Canaan, and Mesopotamia and seen their own reflection in how those gods live. So while the Tower of Babel does chronicle yet another human foible, this time the problem has to do with how humans view the God in whose image they were made.
In terms of literary context, an etiological tale explaining that I speak English and my neighbor speaks Spanish due to human pride is fine and good, but in a book as complex and foundational as Genesis, I think there’s more going on. We already knew that humans have a sin problem that has been characterized primarily in terms of how people relate to each other (violently). We also know that God has a solution to the sin problem: the seed of the woman will crush the serpent’s head (see Genesis 3:15). Babel, though, pulls back the curtain on the sin problem to reveal that humans also have a view-of-God problem, or at least that they will have a view-of-god problem that will be fully developed by the time Moses pens this story.
The Babel story, with God scattering humanity and confusing their common language, forestalls the problem while God initiates the next part of the plan of redemption announced in Genesis 3:15. As Walton points out, “the account [of the Tower of Babel] demonstrates the need for God to reveal himself to the world. The concept of God had been corrupted and distorted; this would require an extensive program of reeducation to correct. So it was that God chose Abraham and his family and made a covenant with them.”²
Genesis 3 introduces humanity’s most fundamental problem: sin. Genesis 4–10 recounts how quickly and widely sin spread, along with its devastating consequences. The sin problem part of the story is easy to identify and agree with. I’ve never met a person yet who would say they’ve never sinned. But Genesis 11 introduces another, more insidious, part of the problem: because of sin and expulsion from God’s presence, humanity no longer knows who God is or what he is like, and so they create him in their image, with the result that the ancient Near Eastern gods that surround Israel represent the very worst of humanity. They are capricious, prone to anger, and nearly impossible to please.
It’s easy to dunk on religious systems whose gods could be dropped into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but if I’m honest, I find God looking much more human than he should. When I was a teenager still living at home I got into some trouble (like teenagers do), and my punishment was that I had to get up at 6:00 a.m. for an hour-long quiet time. I think my stepdad initially meant well with this punishment, but it wasn’t long before he would randomly burst into my room in the early morning to see if I was actually praying or reading Scripture. A few times he saw me just lying in bed, and his face would flash between looks of rage and pleasure at catching me being disobedient yet again.
Those twin looks on my stepdad’s face are still what I see when I think of God’s view of my sin; on the one hand he’s enraged that I would disobey him, and on the other hand he’s thrilled at the opportunity to mete out more discipline. Even typing this I want to say that I know God isn’t like that, but deep down I wonder if he really is. Babel, it seems, is not that far away, and like the original readers of Genesis, I need the God of Abraham to show me who he is and what he is like.