Genesis 11 recounts the building of the tower of Babel, near what would become Babylon. A lot of folks had migrated to the plain in Shinar, and decided to build a city.
Was that really a good idea?
Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not agreeing with Cambodian despot Saloth Sar/Pol Pot in decreeing that “the cities are evil” or advocating the forcible relocation of all citizens to the countryside.
But I’ve gotten the impression that what God really wanted his people to do was not to settle, farm or build cities, but to be restless wanderers upon the earth (Genesis 4:10-12, 17b); spreading over the face of it and caring for its flora/fauna and carrying His name to every corner of it. Citizens of no particular country. Shepherds of flocks and of His people.
Relying on His providence at every turn.
Instead, they built kilns and baked bricks in order to build a tower that “reaches to the heavens.” (Interesting to be writing this on the day that the newest “world’s tallest building,” the Burj Dubai, officially opens. Its shape is reminiscient of the ziggurats built in ancient times in surrounding Mesopotamia.)
God frustrates the building of Babel’s tower-or-ziggurat-or-brick-heap by confusing the language of the people there; multiplying the tongues with which they spoke. Linguists might snicker at this notion just as biologists might chortle at creation, but while both are correct in observing that languages and creatures grow and adapt, languages and creatures also have to have a beginning somewhere, somehow. They’re not, like Topsy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin “never borned; just growed.”
There are lots of interesting aspects of this passage of scripture.
- The ambition of the people. There’s no indication that they’re engineers of any kind, but they are determined to build 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.” Paul puts an updated twist on Deuteronomy 30:12-13‘s achievability of God’s will for us through humility rather than ambition when he says in Romans 10:5-13.
- God’s determination to frustrate their plans to gather and build … because they are frustrating His plans for them to disperse and care for His world? Was God’s intervention for their own safety, as well? How tall could these amateur masons build a tower of bricks rather than stone before it collapsed upon them, killing and maiming … how many? Even towers built in the more technologically-advanced Roman era still collapsed (Luke 13:4)
- God’s high estimation of their capabilities (limited, of course, by the limitations that He is obviously aware of as their Creator): “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.”
- The royal plural used once again. “Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
- The effectiveness of His countermeasure. They stopped building the city. They dispersed. Is the countermeasure still effective? Think about the obstacles to progress in commerce and technology that are still present because we are having to communicate across borders in more than a dozen major languages and hundreds of minor ones. Imagine, for instance, what it takes in order to just communicate the dimensions, weight, voltages, and tolerances of a module for the International Space Station among the partner nations.
The people of the erstwhile Babel intended a tower and left behind a brick heap. They might have avoided the trouble just by listening for – and heeding – what God had been trying to tell us from the very beginning.
Am I off base in perceiving God’s original intent for His people?
Just consider for a moment. Cities collect too many people where there are too few resources. Resources must be transported to them. Farms must be managed to grow food. When cities were finally built, they were walled. Why? For defense. Armies had to be mustered to defend them from raiders. Resources had to be stored there to support people sequestered behind the walls. Farms outside the walls had to be protected. Innocents died. Ambition soared. Self prevailed.
Did Moses boast about striking water from rocks when he was a shepherd in Midian … or when millions were encamped together in Rephidim?
Did ambition trouble David’s life when he was a shepherd in the hills surrounding Bethlehem … or when he was king in Jerusalem?
When pioneer farmers and ranchers settled the American West, were they ever as far from food and necessities as the destitute and homeless in our contemporary cities are now?
There is no question in my mind that there are too many people per square acre of life-supportable land in most of the world today, and nowhere is that more true than in our largest cities. That’s where more people – surrounded by those who should be helping shepherd and care for them – fall through society’s cracks into poverty and desperation and crime and early death.
I believe there’s something in each of us that is ennobled by seeing ourselves not as conquerors but as caretakers; by sharing rather than accumulating; by being aliens and strangers in this world – always in wonder at what God has done and might do eternally through us, rather than proud of the brick heaps we have built by ourselves.