In my previous post, I attempted to simplify matters pertaining to the study of Bible and especially my thoughts on the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. Actually, just saying that is a paradox since most of us already had an overly simplified view of it that I am now complicating. But my real aim is to get us to un-think old thoughts and rethink with new ones, and I hope to simplify that process as much as possible.
I hope I adequately demonstrated that the old view holds the story of the Tower of Babel as nothing more than mere trivia. It gives a novel explanation for why different languages are spoken all over the world, and not much more.
But surely the word of God is not just trivial.
What else could it mean?
I must, at this point, disclose, I am not a Bible scholar. I am not an expert in the field. And just because I am able to raise a devastating question and pose it against a long-held, time-honored traditional view does not necessarily mean that my offerings in its place are the best alternatives. They have not been peer reviewed or tested as disciplined theories. So, let us move forward with caution in intellectual humility.
With that caveat out of the way, I want to suggest that the Tower of Babel, among other possible and even likely purposes, functions as a template for world empires. It tells us something about the powers behind great nations: what they want, what they fear, what they do, and about God’s dealings with them. And as you can see, questions like that are anything but trivial, and they are hard to simplify also.
So, what am I saying exactly… in English??? (pardon the humor)
I’m saying that way back at the beginning of creation, just a few generations after God made it all and after sin and death came in to wreak havoc on all his good order, a group of very fearsome and fearful people came together to analyze their situation and determined to build a grand city with an amazing tower in order to “make a name for themselves” so that they would not be dispersed over the face of the earth.
Look at that closely. They fear drifting apart around the world. They see strength in banding together, but they need a social force to do it, and the force they find is vanity.
They will construct an awe inspiring tower and then pat themselves on the back for it. They will be proud of their own work. And doing work one takes pride in is a great motivator even today. Once you see your work displayed and honored, you willingly give your allegiance to it. And when everyone gives their allegiance to the same symbol, it becomes a strong, cohesive, unifying, social force. (This is already starting to sound and feel a lot like idolatry.) It turns out pride is infectious like that, making willing slaves by subduing the will of its subjects.
Soon there is this imposing tower out there on the plain of Shinar, and if any nomad or barbarian – or his tribe – were to see it, he/they would immediately recognize the grandiosity of it. And he/they would fear it!
Then those tower builders would not fear others, but instead would strike fear in others! They would make a name for ourselves as they looked out for their own collective, best interests, their own safety, their own glory and pride.
This sounds a lot like Egypt, the first empire we meet on the pages of the book in which this story is found. And not only that, but if you look closely at Genesis 11:3, you will see that these people on the plains of Shinar make bricks with which to build their tower.
By the time Moses comes to tell Pharaoh that God wants him to “Let My people Go”, God’s people are serving the proud empire that makes a name for itself as lowly, brick-making slaves serving tower-building masters!
Let’s simplify it like this: Bricks make Towers. Bricks make Empire. Tower = Empire.
It’s almost a silly observation; I know. But a stubborn one all the same. (“Bricks” will be important in subsequent Bible study. So save that idea in a special file for a later time.)
So, in the interest of simplicity, I will point out that Egypt is only the first in a long line of empires that rule God’s creation with little or no regard for the Creator as they make names for themselves, take pride in themselves, cast fear in their subordinates and in outsiders, and provide “safety” for those who engineer the towers therein. And the list is long – including Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, Britain, France, and … yes… even the United States of America which has a very official “separation of church and state” (as Thomas Jefferson called it) while it builds a tower of strength and pride in which we are free to make a name for ourselves and pledge allegiance to it’s symbols of pride.
Am I keeping it simple enough?
Believe me. I could say a lot more in support of all this, but I am attempting to take every shortcut and straight line I know how to keep this simple. (I will be happy to provide more complex evidence upon request.)
Now… assuming my expeditious outline here adequately supports a worthwhile alternative understanding of the Tower of Babel, the next question will be something like: What do we do with this view of things? What does it mean to us now? What guidance does this story offer us besides explaining why we speak English? What exactly is the problem with building towers/empires and making a name for ourselves? How is “confusing the languages” an answer to the problem?
I expect to offer another post where we take aim at those kinds of questions next time.