The Tower of Babel is a story that often presents a challenge to contemporary readers—a straightforward reading leaves a number of unanswered questions. Is this really how diversity of language arose on the Earth? Why exactly was the Tower built? And what was so problematic to God about the building of the Tower that He felt the need to intervene in such a direct way?
Most secular scholars see this narrative as ancient mythology that puts forward an origin story on how the diverse languages of the world arose. The book of Genesis, where this story resides, is famous for its brevity in storytelling. As most Western readers lack a historical or Middle Eastern cultural context for these narratives, it can be particularly challenging for us to “fill in the details” on things in the Torah or Old Testament narratives that the writer assumed the listener or reader would already understand.
While there will always be scholarly nuances to debate about this 3000+ year old story, there are a number of fascinating elements with real relevance for our own modern lives.
The Confounding of Language
First, while the story comes across as an origin story on the languages of the world when divorced from the rest of the larger book of Genesis, from a strictly textual perspective this cannot be the case. The story does indeed say that God confounded the language of those building the city/tower to disrupt their work, but in Genesis 10:5, even before the story of the Tower of Babel appears in Genesis 11, the text already says that there were multiple people groups and languages on the Earth. Thus, what happens in Genesis 11 seems specific to that site and that situation and is not meant to be the strict scientific origin of language diversity on the earth.
The Significance of the Story to the Biblical Arc
However, it is important to acknowledge that the language of the Tower of Babel story is broad and sweeping. For example, the narrative repeatedly uses the phrase “all the earth”. Even if this event were just to take place in one city, which is what the story very explicitly describes (after all, this is one single tower), why would it be so significant to the overall Biblical narrative? Why would the story suggest implication for the entire earth?
Immediately preceding the Tower of Babel story is the story of the flood and of Noah. As scholars have pointed out, up until this point in history, humanity is presumably monotheistic. Noah, after all, is just 10 generations from Adam. The biblical stories at this point describe God as a real presence in the lives of many of the characters, communicating directly with several of them, not an abstract theological concept as experienced by many people today. God appears to be the primary spiritual authority for humanity thus far, so where does the eventual polytheism of the world begin?
According to many scholars, the Tower of Babel story is where idolatry and worship of entities other than God is formally introduced into the arc of the Bible. In fact, immediately following the Tower of Babel story is the introduction of Abraham, regarded by Christians, Jews, and Muslims as the father of monotheism. Abraham is chosen by God to begin a restoration of humanity and a return to true and singular worship of God.
While we will likely never understand all of the nuances and context of an event as ancient as the Tower of Babel, there are interesting themes that emerge from the oldest rabbinical commentaries that seek to shed light on the brief story. The text of the story as translated in contemporary literal translations of the Bible such as the ESV translates the people’s intent of the tower building as follows in Genesis 11:4: “let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” However, some early rabbinical translations as well as other rabbinical commentary from antiquity add to the passage, specifying for example that the people intended to put an idolatrous statue at the top and a symbol of war such as a sword. While these are clearly Jewish midrashic interpretations and go beyond the literal Biblical text, they are approximately two millennia old and provide us some sense of how early Jews may have viewed the passage and the context of the story. Several other early sources which attempt to speculate on the motives of the builders of the temple allude to idolatry as well and a literal reading of the text indicates some sort of rebellion against God, however unspecific.
The Significance of the Story to Our Arc
Perhaps the most important component of this story to me has been reflecting on the nature of humanity’s rebellion. It is well known that the Babylonians, a people group who later conquered and exiled the Jews, constructed such towers to worship their deities and as many scholars argue, this story is in part a Jewish commentary on Babylonia.
Interestingly, both the Babylonians and the Jews encountered God in high places. Moses ascended the mountains of the Sinai Peninsula to encounter God. Elijah, Jesus, and countless other key figures of the Bible also ascend the mountains of Judea to retreat to God’s presence. But the pyramidal stepped towers or the ziggurats that the Babylonians built of brick, which are man-made high places or man-made mountains, reflect a different posture towards God. For the Babylonians, humans can construct access to God on their terms—they can, as the people in the Tower of Babel narrative say, build a tower straight into heaven. God is not someone who is to be sought and encountered in His high places, rather God will be accessed on our terms as we choose; we control the relationship.
Regardless of whatever idol, statue, or symbol—if any—the people desired to put at the top of their tower, the implication was clear—they would be the ones controlling God and not the other way around. Indeed, even in a sincere religious life, the desire to interact with God only on our terms is not far from each of us. This is why when a hardship happens in our life, we are tempted to turn from God because now, He is not obeying the contract we had prescribed for the relationship. Interestingly, some of the early rabbinic commentaries and even the famous historian Josephus tell of the desires of the people of Babel to protect themselves against a second flood by constructing the tall tower. Much of our lives and our interaction with God sadly also focuses on avoiding hardship moreso than pursuing the sort of trust that Abraham embodied.
As best we can tell, the Babylonians chose the name for their powerful capitol and empire from two words in their language—‘bab’ (gate) and ‘ili’ (God)—meaning quite literally “gate of God” when put together. However, ‘Babel’ the Hebrew word for Babylon and the name by which the tower in the story is called, is derived from the Hebrew word ‘balal’, which means to confuse. Clearly, the Jews did not feel the same about Babylon and what it stood for as the Babylonians did.
If we are wise to see it, there is much more going on in this story than a simple tale on the languages of the world. The ancient people who passed down these events, perhaps even Abraham and his descendants themselves, were communicating something much more substantive and relevant to the people of their time (and to ours)—a message that this way of operating, of interfacing with God only as we will have it, is pure ‘balal’, confusion, and error. It is not the gate of God, let us not be fooled like our ancestors.