The Tower of Babel

Tower of Babel by Lucas van Valckenborch in 1594
Tower of Babel by Lucas van Valckenborch in 1594 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Reading the Bible is an experience, especially when you actually pay attention to what you read. You find things that confuse you, scare you and upset you. Sometimes you find things that just seem wrong and make you doubt. God also isn’t very quick on the guidance part. It sometimes takes months to get clarity on some things (not on the important stuff, thankfully).

I was reading Genesis 11 a long time ago and the story of the tower of Babel really disturbed me. Here’s an excerpt from my reading note for it:

“I do not believe the story of the tower of Babel. To be frank, it sounds rather ridiculous. The people wanted to build a tall tower. […] They want to do it in order to make a name for themselves and not be scattered across the earth. At least, those were the stated reasons. However, God “comes down” and sees their tower and doesn’t like their actions for some reason. So he gives them separate languages and scatters them. […] How bad can it be to just build a tower? What was the danger – their arrogance? Even if you simply brush this off as another reason Christianity is false, you still need to answer the question if you wish to give it all the respect you give any other literary work. What exactly was it that God did not want them to do? […]”

I attended a dinner yesterday and the pastor gave a little speech on the passage that gave me just a little more insight. God didn’t confuse their language because he was scared of their tower. He confused them, literally dividing them, because in their unity they could do things that he didn’t like. Things that were wrong and harmful and they would have more success because they were united. In other words, what he said.

“The LORD said, “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.”

Or as the Message puts it,

“God took one look and said, “One people, one language; why, this is only a first step. No telling what they’ll come up with next—they’ll stop at nothing! Come, we’ll go down and garble their speech so they won’t understand each other.””

The story of the tower of Babel teaches the importance of unity and tells of God dividing humans because united they could do so much more. And whether they did good or harm depended on how in tune with God’s will they were.


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I’m Tracy

4 thoughts on “The Tower of Babel”

  1. Nice post. I have not read the Bible in years, but as I recall the morals of the story was a metaphor for humans defying god. This might, or might not make more sense, if it was seen in accordance to some other Bible passages, like for example the previous promice of the god of Noah, not to destroy mankind and the earth again, like in the flood story.

    However, if we try to understand the story from the viewpoint of the ancient people in Levant (the story was propably familiar to other nations in the area besides the Hebrew, especially if it has any truth to it), there is a bit of a different angle. The tower was reaching for heavens. In effect, the builders could see it as an attempt to narrow the gap between gods and men. The Babylonians were certainly not monotheists, so their idea of gods was totally different from that of the Hebrew. What ever happened historically, that may have been the original events, which gave birth to this story, must have been totally differently interpreted by all the other people in Mesopotamia, Syria, Lebanon and Persia area.

    The Babylonian and other people in Mesopotamia did build mighty towers, taller than the imagination of most people in that age. We know they were symbols of political power for their theocratic priesthood, but they were also observation towers for their astrological studies. When the Hebrew were in servitude to these people, or visited their cities, they propably had no idea what the towers were for. They were enormous man made constructs to reach heavens, and propably most common people even in Babylon saw them as such. It is no wonder, if they were seen as defiant towards the supernatural powers in heavens.

    When the culture to build ziccurats died out and the empires they symbolized died along, the most obvious explanation monotheistic Hebrew came up with was to think a god must have ended, that earthly empire. The mixing of languages is of course a natural phenomenon. When an empire rises, its language becomes the predominant means for communication, that is why we write in english, though it is not my native tongue. When an empire declines the unifying language is splintered into smaller languages like latin when the Roman empire fell. In the mind set of ancient Hebrew, who else could have achieved all this, but their allpowerfull god?

    1. Thank you for your comment, rautakyy.

      I read the story recently and I did not notice that the moral of the story was humans defying God or any of the other things you suggested. Would you like to tell me how you came to that conclusion? Perhaps you should read it again?

  2. Yes, I should propably read the Bible again. I can not remember why I thought that was the metaphor. Back in the days when I read the Bible I was more interrested in the moral content of the stories. Later on and with my studies in archaeology and ancient cultures, it has started to interrest me on cultural and historical level. We easily tend to read it like it was meant for the modern reader, and through our own cultural view. However, these stories did not come from a vacuum. They tell the history of many nations and cultures and different religions, though allways, through the eyes of the Jews.

    I have to add to this, that I have my doubts on how monotheistic the Hebrew were at the time when the story of the tower of Babylon was added to the Torah. They had allready rejected to worship any other gods, but it seems to me they still did not think the other gods did not exist at all.

    Alas, I have other reading to do at the moment. I have not yet read the Quran, or the Mahabharata and I plan to read them next (have not yet decided wich one first). I could recommend you a couple of my own favourites among stories that tell the tale of ancient cultures and religions like the Edda poems and the Kalevala epic. In my opinion the Greek and Roman myths are a bit boring, though they might give an insight as to how Christianity has evolved from Judaism. If you are interrested in that aspect.

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