Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they 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; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth. – Gen. 11: 1-9
Oh, insecure, OT God! You and all of your shenanigans!
In this story, Yahweh is suddenly feeling legitimately threatened by humanity. Maybe it’s because total annihilation is now off the table as a tool?
God seems worried that a humanity that all speaks the same language will suddenly rise up and… do what exactly?
This is weird, fear-based logic here. It’s not like a united collective of people would enslave those different to them, degrade their environment, and move toward the large-scale commodification of the natural world.
What God seems to be afraid of here is what we call civilization. Humans united in such a way that they will see themselves as without boundaries. Humanity that will trample others, turn land into a product to be parceled out, and misuse the gifts they have been given.
“let us make a name for ourselves!”
If people gathered for community, for fellowship, for the joy of sharing life with one another, then that would be one thing. That’s what we are made for. But people gathered together for fame, wealth, and power? Well… that just seems what we always gravitate towards.
Genesis is the collection of myths about human beginnings. And in this part of the story, God is opposed to the idea of a community built around human fears and the need to set ourselves above others. It’s no surprise then that when God does finally come around to the idea of civilization, the rules around how to organize such a thing are many and detailed (see second half of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy).
The Babel story is a cautionary tale about building for pride, ego, and greed. We can build in ways that honor the land. We can build in ways that honor the people who have come before us or the people who will come after us. We can build to honor God. The history of civilization has been building for the sake of making a name for a nation, a ruler, or more recently, a corporation. We build for profit and control. We build to be seen.
What would it look like to build for something more?