Until this year, I wasn’t very familiar with the Tower of Babel. I’d heard of it, of course, but never thought about it. The story is one paragraph in Chapter 11 of Genesis. The people, who were united and had only one language, said “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11: 3 ESV) And God came down to see the tower and was displeased because “Nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” (Genesis 11:6 ESV) So God confused the language of the people so that there were many languages. The people could no longer understand each other, so they dispersed across the earth.
Why is this short story included in the Bible between the story of Noah and the story of Abram? I suppose if you look at Genesis as a history of the people, this story was necessary to show how people dispersed around the world and developed different languages. It introduced the fact that there were now many peoples, and that Abram would have to navigate through some of those peoples in his migration later in the biblical narrative.
Looking at the story more minutely, though, why was God displeased by the city and tower? Is it because humans aspired to become like God? Was he teaching them a lesson in humility? That’s what many scholars think of this story. But that makes little sense to me because of verse 6. If everything humans aspire to is now possible to them, then that implies that it is possible to be like God. It implies that God felt threatened. This is not our modern conception of God, certainly. Was it the ancient perception of God?
Ryken and Ryken point out in The Literary Study Bible that the story is satirical. The people are trying to build a tower that reaches the heavens, and yet God has to “come down” from the heavens to look at it. Also, they were building with bitumen and asphalt instead of mortar. But, again, if their attempt was in vain, then why did God say that everything they aspire to will be possible to them?
Ryken and Ryken also point out that this story is typical of human nature. We strive to develop technology that will make us more comfortable and more powerful – in essence, we strive to be like gods over our planet.