Let’s revisit a popular children’s Bible Story, the story of the Tower of Babel found in Genesis 11:1-9. I believe you will find that there are some deeper lessons to be found here that are more for adults than kids. Let’s set the stage:
The descendants of Noah all spoke a single language. As they increased in number and began to spread eastward, they found a fertile area called Shinar and settled there. They decided to build a city with a tower that “reached to the heavens.” They wanted the tower to be a proud monument to themselves and a symbol that would keep them united as a powerful people. God wasn’t happy with them. He came down and looked at the city and tower and 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. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” (NIV, Genesis 11:6-7) So God made the people speak many different languages so they were not able to finish building the city and the tower. As a result of their inability to understand one another, various groups chose to settle in other places, and the people were scattered, as God told them to do originally. The city was called “Babel” because God confused their languages.
Where was the Tower of Babel? Most people believe that the Tower of Babel refers to an ancient pagan temple tower similar to the ones the Babylonians would later build, called ziggurats. Many ziggurats have been found in Iraq, which is the ancient land of Babylon, definitely east of where Mount Ararat is. Archaeologists have uncovered ruins of structures built back then and have found that baked brick and tar mortar is not the normal building material for a house or even for city walls or fortresses. It is expensive material reserved for palaces and temples. What does Babel mean? Babel was the Hebrew name for Babylon which means “gate of god.” But it is also similar to the Hebrew word balal which meant to confound or confuse. That is where we get the word, “Quit babbling!”
There is more to this story than just an explanation of why there are so many different languages on the earth today. First of all, we need to understand what people then thought of the heavens. They thought that there was a canopy over the air where heaven was, and beyond that canopy was where the gods lived. That canopy had holes poked in it and the glory of the land of the gods shone through those holes that we know now as stars. So they didn’t think the heavens where the gods lived was very far above the earth. Close enough that they could build a tower to reach it.
But I think we need to understand something else about ziggurats to really understand the story. As a child I have been told and myself as a teacher have taught that that the reason they built the tower was so that humans could ascend into heaven and be like gods. And then, of course, the one true God would see this as pure arrogance. And so he put an end to the people’s delusions of being powerful and important like gods. But in Babylonian culture ziggurats were actually structures that were built so that the gods could come down to earth. They were designed to provide stairways from the heavens (the home of the gods) to earth so that the gods could come down into the temple and into town and bring blessing. Most ziggurats were designed with a small room, including a bed and provisions, at the top of a tower for a god to rest on his decent down to earth.
What it seems has happened since Noah and his family had their encounter with the one true God, is that people began to make God into someone with human qualities and features, So in reality this story isn’t about how corrupt people were becoming (which they WERE!) This story is showing the nature and the SOURCE of their corruption. They were distorting the true nature of God and warping him into a god or a multitude of gods that they could manipulate. They totally lost any understanding of the nature of the one true God who brought Noah and his family through the flood not that many generations ago.
So there is more to the story than just the point in time where the world got all their languages. And it is only partly about MAN was wanting to be like GOD. This isn’t a story about people trying to reach up TO heaven but is really a story about selfish desire and what happens when people do what THEY want to do without listening to anyone else in authority. Man was wanting to lower God to their level.
Lessons from Babel?
#1. It is easy for people to go through life thinking that they don’t need God. They don’t have to trust or obey God. They are sufficient and doing well for themselves and don’t have anything to do with God. Because of our technology, or money, or a good job, or other things, people make it through life on their own. But when people say, “I can survive on my own” they are making themselves like God, who takes care of us all.
#2. We may be tempted to think we no longer need to trust and obey God. We may believe our learning, sophistication and technology are all we need to be self-sufficient and guarantee our security. The lesson of the Tower of Babel is that such self-sufficiency is a delusion. History has shown that many nations and their leaders have fallen into the trap of arrogance and self sufficiency. Like Babel, those nations have eventually ended up in ruins.
#3. When nations conspire together to try to achieve some sort of corporate unity which makes everyone the same, it is a recipe for disaster. I believe in a world of sin it is diversity which keeps things working like they should. Notice what happens when nations try to make everyone look the same, own the same, earn the same, have the same. It doesn’t work. I think we see something similar to Babel when we see people trying to get the world to use one universal currency, to adopt one universal way of conducting business.
When God says, “nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them” that is not saying that man is capable of achieving anything he wants if he works together. Many good things have been done in a cooperative effort of unity. What is he saying? Nothing will stop them from doing what THEY want to do. They will become totally secure in their own fame, reputation, power. I personally see an adult version of Babel when I look at how a government can get so powerful that it can virtually do whatever it wants to do, because it has created so many people dependent upon it for survival that no one can act independently anymore. Let us always remember the danger of moving from “In God We Trust” to “In Government We Trust.”