I ended the last post highlighting some questions our new viewpoint of the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 might raise. I just lobbed out a few that seem rather natural to me. Here again are those questions: 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? Let’s consider some of them now. We may even enhance them, change them, or find new and better questions raised as we get into this stuff.
This list of questions seems natural to me, alright, but they also come at me like a shotgun blast. If a scatter gun could shoot questions, my list would be the shot it fired. So, if you will indulge me…., I want to approach them in an organized fashion that attempts to be biblical in some sense. I expect the process to enhance them a bit.
Here is the way I want to go forward from this point: I want to look at the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 more closely in its own context – particularly the first eleven chapters of Genesis. Then (in a later post) I want to look at the tower as it informs (and/or is informed by) the rest of the Bible. Then, finally, I want to look more closely and specifically at modern life in our neo-towers.
Among our shotgun blast of questions, the one that seems most pertinent to the story within it’s original setting, to my way of thinking, is: What exactly is the problem with building towers/empires and making a name for ourselves? Is there a strict prohibition against building towers? In fact, I can imagine a critic asking me if there is a verse anywhere in the Bible that says, “Thou shalt not build towers”. The idea is so silly that it almost seems ridiculous to mention it. And anyway, go visit a city such as New York City that is filled with towering skyscrapers. I never heard of any preachers saying those buildings were sinful just for existing. Have you?
So. What exactly is the problem with building towers/empires and making a name for ourselves? It’s not like God told us we shouldn’t.
Well, for now let’s look for answers in the first eleven chapters of Genesis, and since we know there are no verses specifically commanding us not to, we will need to look for theological clues sort of between the lines.
A word about the character of the first eleven chapters of Genesis is in order first. Sometime sit down and read the first eleven chapters through all in one sitting. No doubt you are familiar with most of the stories there, but a few of them are really strange. In fact, all of them are strange – even the ones we know really well. They all raise far more questions than they seem to answer – some more than others. And they seem to cram a lot of stuff into too few words too.
I mean… think about it. In the first two chapters we get the story of creation. Seriously, the whole story about how God made all of creation is told in only 56 verses! And part of the story is told twice, meaning even fewer verses to cover all the mystery of creation! I suspect we could bring hundreds of questions to that short text that we would really like to have answers for, yet it shows no interest in answering them. For instance: Where did the dinosaurs come from, and where did they go? Was the sky pink or blue? Was a “day” there a literal 24-hour day, or was it an age or eon. And if it was an eon, how long was that? How did the man and woman run a farm naked? Did they use a plow, or did crops grow miraculously at the mere sight of them making love? And I could literally go on and on and on and on… but this text shows no interest in providing answers to most of these questions!
So what’s up with that? Am I suggesting there is no way to answer these questions?
Well, for some of the questions, that is probably the case. For a few of them, the text itself will give clear answers. For a lot of them in between, we will sniff out theological clues, but probably not be able to verify them with science-like certainty. And that says as much about us as it does the text. We like scientific sorts of answers to our questions! But Genesis 1 – 11 is most definitely not interested in giving us scientific answers or certainty. Instead, this text demands we find answers in faith! And even then, there are plenty of our questions it will ignore and not bother to answer at all.
Still, we will engage the text with all we’ve got, and I expect that God will begin shaping our faith in part by the way he answers the questions he chooses to answer and by the way he ignores others, and even more by the way we pick up on the strange clues he lets us chew on. And we will encounter these twists and turns all through the first eleven chapters. We will wonder whether Adam and Eve had children before they were expelled from the garden. We will wonder who Cain fears when he is punished for murdering his brother. We will wonder who the Nephilim were. And we will look for answers first of all within this initial context.
And so again we ask: What exactly is the problem with building towers and making a name for ourselves within the first eleven chapters of Genesis?
Well, it appears that the tower the people on the plains of Shinar intend to build is meant to keep them all together as a unified group. This tower, they think, will deal with their worry of being dispersed all over the world. It seems strange to us modern Americans with our pioneer heritage that these primitive people would worry about being dispersed all over the world, but according to Genesis 11:4, building this tower and making a name for themselves is their way of preventing this disaster!
Making a name for ourselves is clearly a matter of vanity. It’s practically self-evident. You don’t have to ask: What’s in it for me? When others either celebrate or fear my name (or both at the same time), I get the sense that my place in the world is secure! I will not be reduced to wandering the streets of Lubbock aimlessly looking for charity (a place to sleep, food to eat, and clothes to wear), on the contrary, if my name is honored/feared, the world will bring those things to me and lay them at my feet!
It’s almost like a kingdom! In this tower/kingdom, we (my king and I (or conversely my subjects and I)) will benefit from this creation rather that scavenge our way through it. In fact, we will master it, and creation will bend to our will!
What is the problem with all that?
Well, if we approach it only from the vantage ground of people currently living in such a tower (such as white, middle/upper class Americans) then we are not likely to see any problem with it at all. But if we consider closely the context of Genesis 1 – 11 (which is the task we are undertaking with this post), we will notice that this creation is God’s (not ours), and as such designed by him (not us) to serve him (not us). We learn, in chapter 1 that we humans are created in his image to rule over it all, alright, but not to make a name for ourselves. Rather we rule in his image in order to bring him the glory, the honor, and the fear of all the rest of creation. We rule in his name, not ours! And we must take care not to take his name in vain.
The tower of Genesis 11, no matter what else we say, is a problem because the people building it are in rebellion against the creator God when they set out to order his creation in such manipulative, dishonest, and vain ways. It doesn’t take much to see the lure of it all, the pride and security this tower seems to offer are very tempting, but they are not what they seem. They are vain promises of vain people made to themselves whose end is futility.
This post is getting quite long at this point, and I am sure we could say so much more along these lines. And hopefully the conversation in the comments will continue and more will be said therein. But I trust this offering will suffice to help you imagine richer, deeper application of the story of the Tower of Babel for our lives today.
What other questions from my list above do you think find either answers or clues within the context of Genesis 1 – 11? Do you have questions of your own that you would like to bring to this text and share on this blog? I look forward to exploring this further in the comments (I hope).