The Tower of Babel and the Greater Story
The account of the Tower of Babel in Genesis, Chapter 11 is at its very simplest an explanation tale, but more than that it is a fine example of the repeating pattern in the Bible of estrangement, and even foreshadows reunion. This story is found in Genesis of the Bible, traditionally believed to have been written by Moses, but that is not the only place it is mentioned. The Greek historian Herodotus describes his own visit to the legendary tower; Flavius Josephus recounts the tale in his Antiquities of the Jews; as does Florentine historian Giovanni Villani (Babel Encyclopedia).
The Tower of Babel itself was considered to be a ziggurat: a Mesopotamian form of architecture. These often functioned as temples and were “thought of as mountains, where the gods dwelled.” (Schneider Adams 20) A difference between an ideal ziggurat and the Tower of Babel would be that it was not made to glorify God or to be a dwelling for him. Instead the ancient builders described their purpose in creating the tower saying: “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:4) Note the priorities of the builders: using words such as us and ourselves twice over. This shows that the entire purpose of the tower was to glorify mankind’s achievements and not their Lord’s. Interestingly enough, this doesn’t seem to be a completely unusual application of the ziggurat as other Mesopotamian ziggurats sported names like “The House of the Link between Heaven and Earth,” “The House of the Seven Guides of Heaven and Earth,” “The House of the Foundation-Platform of Heaven and Earth,” and “The House of the Mountain of the Universe,” which suggests that they were also meant to connect Earth with Heaven (The NIV Study Bible 23).
According to Exploring the Humanities: Creativity and Culture in the West by Laurie Schneider Adams, “One cultural purpose of myths is to explain what otherwise seems explicable.” (191) The story of the Tower of Babel does just that. God’s judgment upon the prideful builders was to “confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” (Genesis 11:7) Thus the people had lost their unity and divided into groups that shared the same languages they did. This not only explains the fact that there are many different languages spoken in the world, but that there are so many different communities and cultures. The Bible makes similar explanations in other places, particularly when describing the sons of Jacob which would each be the origins of the twelve tribes of Israel.
An important thing to remember when viewing this story as part of the larger tapestry of the Bible is the nature of the relationship God is said to have with his people. Back in Genesis, chapter 3, man had sinned against God by disobeying his commands and instead trusting in his own knowledge. Because of this, mankind was banished from paradise and would eventually have to face death. In other words, mankind was estranged from God by their sin. A popular way to illustrate this in Christianity is to refer to two cliffs on the edges of a deep chasm.
What happened in the story of the Tower of Babel is that mankind tried to fix this problem by his own hand. In building a tower that reached from earth to sky, he was trying to build a bridge between mankind’s mortality and the heavenly realms of God. But this act was an arrogant one. It assumed that God did not have the power to help mankind, but mankind must take what it wanted. In truth, the Tower of Babel was nothing more than a battering ram on the gates of heaven. Its creation was an act of war against God and an invasion of heaven by force. In a sense then, the builders were lucky that God chose to “confuse their language” and stop them from building more before they became responsible for the ultimate crime against God and found themselves irredeemable.
What redemption can be found in the Tower of Babel? Certainly mankind escaped from their hubris with only their unity lost, instead of, say, being turned into pillars of salt (or piles of ash for that matter). Still, the price is fairly high. Loss of unity meant loss of achievement. If the original builders of the Tower of Babel were truly capable, as the story claims, of building a tower to reach the heavens, even in that time, then that is quite a statement to make about the power of human potential. The dissonance of humanity’s clashing cultures and creeds makes it difficult in any day and age to accomplish goals for mankind’s benefit.
Redemption does come to this tale of language-based woe, but it doesn’t come in Genesis. In fact, it doesn’t even come in the Old Testament. The Bible is one narrative built up of smaller stories that, like the patches on a quilt, form the blanket that is Christianity. Jumping around is essential when finding the meaning of these verses since everything is interrelated. The true end to the story does not happen until the fiftieth day; in other words: Pentecost.
The account of Pentecost is located in Acts chapter 2 and occurs after the death of Christ. To go back to the illustration of man’s relationship with God for a moment, the sacrifice of Jesus, being believed to be the son of God and without sin, created a bridge across the chasm, allowing mankind to have a relationship with God and an eternal life in heaven.
In that way, mankind was able to connect with God again and get back what they had lost through their hubris. In the story of Pentecost the disciples of Jesus were gathered to celebrate the day of Pentecost (the 50th day after the Sabbath of Passover week). In this account they: “were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues.” (Acts 2:4) The disciples of Jesus were able to preach the word of God and, through the Holy Spirit, anyone who listened would be able to understand the words in their own language. This suggests that despite the chaos that came in the judgment of mankind at the Tower of Babel, through the gifts of God that unity can be restored.
The Tower of Babel typifies the arrogance of man and the estrangement from God because of it, and its sister story of Pentecost speaks of humility and reunion. Therefore, the Tower of Babel is more than just an explanation tale; it is part of a larger story that demonstrates the belief system and philosophy of an entire group of people whose stories and interpretation of life still resonate with many to this very day.
“History” The Virtual Babel Encyclopedia. April 2006. 20 October 2009.
The NIV Study Bible. Kenneth Barker, ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984. 778, 779, 1053.
Schneider Adams, Laurie. Exploring the Humanities: Creativity and Culture in the West. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc, 2006.