The Tower of Babel is an epic story of the global separation of people and it is contained in only nine verses of the biblical text. I have been chewing on it for several months since I last taught on it at my youth ministry, specifically on the implications of technological development across languages. I will be leaning on the work of Rabbi Fohrman, who discusses the technological aspects of the story, and on my friend Marty Solomon, who also borrows from Fohrman to elaborate more on the movement and organization of sin from Genesis 3 to Genesis 11. As such, I will only briefly touch on these points in order to spend more energy on where it is I hope that we land. In order to ensure we all have the Tower of Babel fresh on our minds, let us read Genesis 11:1-9:
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found 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, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth.
The Big City
We find that Genesis 11 is the accumulation of a movement of the people eastward and the organization of sin from an individual, to a family, to cities, and to a society. The Tower of Babel also serves as a counterpart to depravity of the world during the time of Noah. The children of the man now found themselves with a new technology: the brick. Before construction was crude and limited to whatever the earth could provide with little modification. Now, mankind is able to shape their own construction materials and, as such, have reached a new plane of possibilities. On the surface, this should seem all fine and good. Humanity is exercising its dominion over the earth (Genesis 1:28) and creating from the world given to them. However, the writer of Genesis is foreshadowing the only other time we find bricks and mortar together. In the introduction of Exodus, we find similar language as what we have in Genesis 11. The two occurrences of “Come, let us…” are echoed by Pharaoh in Exodus 1:10, “Come, let us deal shrewdly with them…” Later, we read of Pharoah’s mode of exploitation of the Hebrews: “So they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field” (Exodus 1:13-14). In hindsight, the writer of Genesis and Exodus is alluding that there may have been more going on than just the construction of a tall building.Whatever the exact conditions of the construction of the Tower of Babel may have been, the motivation is clear. Now that the people had this new technology, the question before them was what to do with it. Their answer was to perpetuate their greatness by building a city with a tower that reached into the sky. In doing so, they would make a name for themselves, which is completely inapplicable for today. What seems out of place was their ulterior motive for their construction project: “lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” They seem to have believed that their city and tower would prevent the further spread and dispersion of the people. Instead of filling the earth (Genesis 1:28), they were set on stopping the spread of humanity over the earth. In their psyche, the decentralization of people was the greatest threat to their own glory. It is not unlike today when we assume that glory is to be found in the “big city,” whether it is New York, Paris, Hollywood, or New Dehli. There is an alluring appeal to the crowded and condensed cultural centers of the world. There is more to do, more to have, more to be noticed by, and more possibilities to succeed. Even as a pastor, I find there is an unspoken acknowledgement that to be a pastor in a smaller town somehow is less desirable than to be a pastor in a larger town. Similarly, the Tower of Babel and its city would not only prevent people from living but also attract people as its fame spread.
[Side note: The account of the Tower of Babel is not unique to the Bible. In fact, many have argued that the exact location and tower itself is known. The Etemenanki was a 298 foot tall ziggurat that was dedicated to the god Marduk in Mesopotamia. It had been built as the center piece of the large walled city of Babylon. Apparently, it had been started by some unknown ancient civilization when Nebuchadnezzar set about to complete it. He says,
At a minimum, the demolished ruins of Etemenanki serve as a testament of Nebuchadnezzar’s fame and downfall in Daniel 4:29-32: “At the end of twelve months he was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, and the king answered and said, ‘Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?’ While the words were still in the king’s mouth, there fell a voice from heaven, ‘O King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is spoken: The kingdom has departed from you, and you shall be driven from among men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. And you shall be made to eat grass like an ox, and seven periods of time shall pass over you, until you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will.'” Perhaps, it also sheds some light on what was going on in Genesis 11:1-9.]
A former king built [the Temple of the Seven Lights of the Earth], but he did not complete its head. Since a remote time, people had abandoned it, without order expressing their words. Since that time earthquakes and lightning had dispersed its sun-dried clay; the bricks of the casing had split, and the earth of the interior had been scattered in heaps. Merodach, the great lord, excited my mind to repair this building. I did not change the site, nor did I take away the foundation stone as it had been in former times. So I founded it, I made it; as it had been in ancient days, I so exalted the summit.
The Tower of Babel Stands
Apparently, some time near the end of their construction the Lord decided to come check it out. The purpose of this anthropomorphism was intended to play off of the the repetitive language of this passage, reinforcing the chiastic structure of this passage which centers around Genesis 11:4. It also serves as a memory of when the Lord would come down and walk with His people in the garden (Genesis 3:8). However, this motif of the Creator “coming down” is used of God interposing himself into the actions of men to remedy a problem (Genesis 18:21, Exodus 3:8). God’s employment of “Come, let us” not only mimics the people’s language but also that of the creation of man in Genesis 1:26. All of this hints at God’s passionate care for and personal interactions with the world he has made. So, when the Lord sees what the children of man (‘Adam) have made, He makes this astounding observation; “they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” This is no insignificant statement coming from the lips of a divine being. The chiasm of Genesis 11:1-9 does allude to the main point being their motivation. Yet, when the Lord responds He doesn’t directly address their flawed motivation. While we often build our sermon implications around their attempt to make their own name great rather than glorifying their God, it would seem that Lord was more concerned with their capabilities.
In this uniform society, their collaboration had revealed the immense potential of humanity; nothing would be impossible for them. Humanity, in its continuing departure from Eden, had rallied together and this concerned God. If the jealousy one brother had for another resulted in murder (Genesis 4), what would a whole civilization built upon a false premise of self-gratification and fame accomplish. Notice that, however, no where do we find an expressed criticism of their abilities or of the Tower of Babel. Instead, this passage acts as a warning of such power and collaboration. God’s reaction was not punitive but preventive. Thus, Franz Delitzsch says, “The breaking up of the united human race into peoples with different languages was a divine act for the good of man; for by this means a barrier was made against sin, which, without this separating wall of the language, would have attained a terrible intensity” (Old Testament History of Redemption). In the end, the actions this group took to unite themselves was the exact catalyst that led to their disbursement. Yet, God left the Tower of Babel standing, albeit unfinished.
The Utility of Language
Much can be said in way of modern application of the lessons learned from the Tower of Babel. For brevity’s sake, I will neglect all other trajectories and focus on one. Allow me to make some observations about language as I move towards my end. At its basest level, language is information or, rather, the means by which information is transmitted. This is true for spoken languages as well as body language, computer languages, and smoke signals. Without language, information cannot be communicated between two or more identities. Language then becomes the interconnected system through which an organization disseminates information. Language contextualizes information so that each party can receive and process information. While language provides a means for effective communication within a system, language also creates a barrier for the spreading of information beyond the local system. As information is spread, it often encounters nodes where the receiver is not familiar with the encoding that the information has been bundled in. When this occurs, translation is required to transfer the core information from the language of the sender to a language that the receiver is familiar with. In order to achieve this translation, some common ground must be established. This could be a shared observation such as pointing at an object or the recognition of a pattern, or it could happen through the means of a translator, someone (or something) that is able to input one language and output to the other language.
Not surprisingly, language also communicates culture. Information is perceived, transmitted, and then received through the filter of one’s culture. It is built upon the structures and categories which a culture constructs. Language is the product of culture. Our language then becomes the marker of where we come from. Emil Cioran, Romanian philosopher, stated, “One does not inhabit a country; one inhabits a language. That is our country, our fatherland – and no other” (a version of this quote is found in the opening of Metal Gear Solid). Language takes on hints of the cultural norms and views of the world from each person. As culture shifts, so does its language. Language is a dynamic system that is ever so slightly altered by every participating member within its system. In doing so, it also acts as a framework for its members to interpret all incoming information which then subtly reinforces the cultural derivation of the linguistics used to communicate that information. Over time, the members of a language will then notice oddities and inconsistencies leftover as artifacts of yesterday’s language and will then amend or redact their language. Language continually is evolving and shifting under the influences of those using it. At the same time, people are raised within a system of cultural nuances, local colloquialisms, and standard definitions. While all of this is especially true within a linguistic system, it is also true of the sum total of interactions between the languages. This is why English is a mutt of several languages as they were blended together, interbred, and cross-bred over the generations.
Languages originally were a limiting force, slowing the dissemination of information and culture globally.
The World is Flat
Today, with instantaneous global communication happening between more and more people, the borders between the languages are becoming increasingly blurred. International travel, hyper speed data highways, instant news, and universal social media exposure have all been blending languages together more quickly than ever before. Our age is going through a global un-babeling. Right now you are able to collaborate with people from China, Argentina, and Germany face-to-face with all parties in the comfort of their own pajamas. You carry in your pocket a powerful mini-computer, with the full support of the monolithic internet, capable of translating from any language to any language. While I assume that our physical locality will always create sub-languages and dialects, we are moving to a global language. God’s preventative work in Genesis 11 is quickly being undone. All of this reminds me of the book The World is Flat by Thomas L. Friedman. Speaking of his first edition of the book, he said, “When I wrote ‘The World Is Flat,’ I said the world is flat. Yeah, we’re all connected. Facebook didn’t exist; Twitter was a sound; the cloud was in the sky; 4G was a parking place; LinkedIn was a prison; applications were what you sent to college; and Skype, for most people, was a typo.” Global communication has ushered in a new epoch of technology deemed impossible only a few generations ago. Technological breakthroughs are no longer isolated by geographic location. Ironically, the reverse is true; companies and governments actively attempt to prevent their technology from leaking out.[tweetthis]”Self-exaltation will always result in the degradation of others.”[/tweetthis] The Shadow of Babel looms over us. It stands as an edifice of things to come. As we move into an era of unprecedented technology and capabilities, what will we build. Computers are just barely over a generation old. We have now developed the computer so far that we are pushing into quantum mechanics in order to make it more powerful. The Internet was only invented in the late 1960’s (thanks Al Gore). Today, its ultimate size, scope, and mobility still has not been fully imagined. The first cell phone was invented in 1973. Still, not everyone in the world has one yet and we just starting to see their full potential. Research is pumping out new discoveries faster than can be applied and perfected. Just as one is being developed, a new discovery makes it obsolete. Every day, we hear of new technological breakthroughs pushing the forefront of physics, medicine, space, genetics, travel, and communication, just to name a few. The brick has become archaic in comparison. What we have now “is only the beginning of what [we] will do.” With our technological advancement, a choice of how we will leverage our capabilities is presented: for the exaltation of ourselves or for the Creator of all men. Self-exaltation will always result in the degradation of others, either directly or passively. The Tower of Babel is the ghost of our Christmas Past and perhaps of our Christmas Future. Hopefully, this time when the Lord comes down, He will like what he sees. What are we building? What name are we making great?