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A couple of months ago, my Dad asked me why Genesis says that God confused the language of the people when the Tower of Babel was being built. Doesn’t this mean that God is a god of confusion?
My Dad enjoys getting into theological debates and sparring with other people about their ideas regarding God, the Bible, and the life of faith. Sometimes his ideas have upset people because they can be so far off into left field, and other times I’m sure he has made others think. At the end of the day, I think it’s this willingness to challenge people’s long-held beliefs that makes my Dad brave. Not a lot of people have the courage to push back against the accepted narrative, because introducing ideas that cause tension can be uncomfortable and scary.
I re-read the Tower of Babel story after my Dad brought it up and thought I might share how I understand this story today and integrate it into my faith.
The story of the Tower of Babel is only nine verses in Genesis chapter 11 and takes place some time after the Flood. For those unfamiliar with the story, it goes like this:
Long ago, everyone on Earth spoke the same language. As people moved east, they settled on a plain in Shinar (located in the southern region of ancient Mesopotamia) and decided to make bricks instead of using stone to build their new city. The people also decided to build a tower that reached to the heavens so that they could “make a name” for themselves. They hoped that their new city and tower would keep them united and from being “scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
After God came down to see the city and saw the tower the people were building, he decided to confuse the people’s language because with one language “nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.” And so, confuse them he did. Once the people could no longer understand each other, they stopped building, and there stood an unfinished tower. According to the biblical writer, the new city was called Babel because it was there that God “confused the language of the whole world.”
The Problem with the Tower
I don’t know about you, but I don’t think God comes out looking good, or even reasonable, in this story. So what if people wanted to build a tower? What’s the big deal?
Growing up, I was taught that the “big deal” was that the people building the tower actually wanted to use it to enter Heaven to challenge God’s authority and basically unseat him from his throne. In other words, the tower represented an act of rebellion. (As a kid, I always imagined the people were building a tower that matched the height of Jack’s beanstalk from the popular children’s fairytale.) So, even though God’s reaction to this seemingly benign human enterprise might seem extreme, the truth is, says the traditional teaching, that he confused the people’s language because this was yet another instance of humans trying to be like God.
The problem is that Genesis doesn’t actually say that. Nowhere in Genesis chapter 11 does the biblical writer say that the people built the tower because they aspired to enter Heaven or to rebel against God in any way. All it says is that they wanted to build a city “with a tower that reaches to the heavens“.
The Hebrew word for “heavens” is shamayim, which can mean the sky or the place where God resides. A popular English translation of the Hebrew Bible uses the phrase “a tower with its top in the sky“, meaning that what the people set out to build was a really tall structure. (Many scholars agree that the edifice being constructed was a ziggurat.) Why? The writer goes on to say, “… so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” According to Genesis, the sentiment driving the building of the tower was not rebellion but a desire for fame and to bring people together in one place. Think the government of Dubai setting out to build what would become the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building.
Although some people might say that seeking fame can be a form of rebellion against God, that is still quite a leap from the words of the text. Frankly, the text doesn’t say that God considered the people’s desire to “make a name” for themselves to be an act of rebellion, or that the people even had an inordinate desire for it. Only three chapters later, God has no problem telling Abraham he wants to “make [Abraham’s] name great.” Another interpretation of this story says that God confused the language of the people because a purpose of the tower was to keep them from being scattered across the Earth, which defied God’s command to Noah and his sons in chapter 9 to “multiply on the earth and increase upon it“. But, again, the text doesn’t make that connection. Indeed, some have suggested that God’s words two chapters earlier were not a command, but a blessing.
Read plainly, the clearest statement we have regarding God’s feelings in this story is in verse 6, where God says, “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.” According to the story in Genesis 11, God didn’t like that, with a common language, the people were able to build a tower because then the sky was the limit (see what I did there?) to human ambition.
How Did We Get Here?
Personally, I no longer believe that the events in this story actually happened. I don’t believe that God confused the language of the world because people were either rebellious or arrogant. The truth is, I no longer think that we need to believe that all of the events described in the Bible are historically accurate or prophetic in order to believe that the biblical writers were inspired by God. But that’s a discussion for another post. For now what’s important to point out is that, somehow, over thousands of years, people managed to infer something about this story that is not actually there (e.g., people set out to build the tower because they wanted to challenge God’s authority in some way) and then used it to inform their thinking about God (i.e., God confused our language because we humans didn’t know our place).
In fact, the interpretation that the people in Genesis 11 set out to enter Heaven or rebel against God is so old that the Book of Jubilees, an ancient Jewish text from the second century BCE (or earlier according to some scholars), says this:
For they departed from the land of Ararat eastward to Shinar; for in his days [the descendants of Noah] built the city and the tower, saying, “Go to, let us ascend thereby into heaven.”Book of Jubilees 10:28
Likewise, the Sanhedrin, a tractate in the Babylonian Talmud composed hundreds of years later in the fifth and sixth centuries CE, says:
The school of Rabbi Sheila say that the builders of the Tower of Babel said: We will build a tower and ascend to heaven, and we will strike it with axes so that its waters will flow.Sanhedrin 109a:4
What were our ancient counterparts up to? How could they have drawn such an incredible conclusion from a text with so little detail?
For my thoughts on that, tune in to Part 2 next week.
Image credit goes to ArtStation: https://www.artstation.com/artwork/584gRA
The summary of the Tower of Babel in this post is my own summary of the story and not a recognized translation or paraphrase. I encourage you to read the account in Genesis Chapter 11, verses 1 to 9, for yourself.
The popular English translation of the Hebrew Bible referred to above is the translation by the Jewish Publication Society.
For more on what the ancient interpreters had to say about the Tower of Babel story and how modern biblical scholars understand it, see James Kugel’s How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now.
For a survey of the Talmudic and rabbinic interpretations of the Tower of Babel story, see The Tower of Babel: What Was Up With lt? See also The Tower of Babel: A Case Study in Combining Traditional and Academic Bible Methodologies for an overview of how some scholars understand the story using a combination of rabbinic commentary and academic biblical scholarship.