1. Babbling in Babylon
Superheroes were important in my childhood. As a child I first learnt to read for myself with Spiderman comics and the weekly adventures of the Fantastic Four. There’s a tradition with superheroes that they have an origin story. With Spiderman, part of his origin story is that he was bitten by a radioactive spider during a science experiment. With the Fantastic Four their origin story involved a freak burst of cosmic radiation whilst they were on a space mission.
There are usually some features of an origin story that have a legacy for a superhero. The account of the Tower of Babel is an origin story, and it has a far-reaching legacy. It is presented as the origin story for the immense variety of languages we find in the world. There are more than 7,000 languages spoken around the world today. This does not include dialects and extinct languages.
In Genesis we see God frustrating a building project—a massive city with its crowning glory, a tower that could reach the heavens. The people wanted fame and they wanted to avoid being scattered across the world. They got infamy but ended up being scattered.
The word Babel is fitting, as it sounds like the Hebrew for mix, as in mixing up. Babel also literally means ‘God’s Gate’—perhaps pointing to the interface of earth and heaven as the goal of the tower. This origin story has been received into popular culture. It is where the English word babble originates. But perhaps the most well-known example for us is the Babel Fish in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. A fictional fish that undoes Babel by translating any language if you are happy to stick one in your ear! As soon as we have different languages the problem of communication goes beyond words to culture. The Babel Fish is an illustration of this, known to many English speakers but probably not part of most other world cultures.
Douglas Adams is playing on medieval theology’s proofs for the existence of God (if you are not familiar with his version clicking here). What he failed to appreciate is that medieval proofs are not proofs in the modern sense. Rather they are an invitation into a worldview with not only an origin story but a wonderful goal in Jesus Christ the Son of God. Douglas Adams like many atheists refutes a God who is the construct of secular modernism rather than the creator revealed in and through Jesus of Nazareth’s life, death, and resurrection. As Christians we find that the Bible’s world makes sense of the world in which we live, of ourselves and of the God who lies behind both creation and salvation.
2. Scheming on Shinar
What were those people trying to do on Shinar plain? It seems to be a building project of a magnitude greater even than the efforts that created modern Dubai or Doha. What lies behind God’s concern? Why did God choose to confound them? This is the theological origin story. The first attempt to reach heaven, to overthrow God. From a pre-modern understanding this is a literal attempt to reach God’s dwelling place—God’s Gate.
What would have happened if the whole of humanity devoted themselves with singlemindedness to building this city and tower? What would have happened if they could have fulfilled the fullest extent of their desire for fame? What else would they have gone on to achieve?
Our modern world is a place of division between peoples, nations, and language groups. We might imagine that a common language would be a blessing, bringing people together, preventing wars, enabling solutions to world problems such as global warming. And yet the Bible says differently. It takes our sin, and fundamental inability to have good relationships, seriously. This would indicate that for all the failings and brokenness in our world it would be even worse if all humanity were not divided by language barriers. Unlimited building, unlimited science, unlimited cultural expression might just equate to unlimited sin. Genesis, and the wider Old Testament, tell God’s story of limiting sin as his first step to dealing it the decisive blow in Jesus Christ.
The scattering of the schemers at Shinar is both judgement and mercy. God’s actions of judgement and mercy belong together in story after story in the Bible—perhaps they are always two sides of the same coin. In the future, this currency of judgement and mercy will be the basis for the re-creation of heaven and earth. A future when we will be able to join all humanity with one voice in praise of God, in the heavenly city.
3. Building at Babel
The early chapters of Genesis detail, among other things, the gifts and capabilities that God gave humanity. The problem is that humanity has the ongoing ability to use them for both good and ill.
The beginning of agricultural technology in Genesis, via Jabal, can be for good or ill. We need efficient and effective agriculture to produce food. Without it the world’s population is unsustainable. And yet the environment and wildlife pay the price for careless use technology. Biodiversity is diminished. Toxic chemicals go into our bodies and the environment. Soil is vulnerable to being washed away. The list goes on.
The beginning of music technology with Jubal is also for good and ill. Music can be a source of great delight and is emotionally therapeutic. Music can also lie at the heart of darker cultural expressions.
Engineering and my own area of materials technology is no exception to this choice:
They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar.
Genesis 11:3, NIV
At Babel the possibility of taller buildings and a quicker building technology was founded on bricks and tar. In my view they could have done better than tar, but that’s not key right now. Today we do unnecessary violence to our planet by over-engineering with concrete and steel. In many cases bamboo might suffice.
The bottom line is that broken humanity cannot decisively solve its problems—this is counter to the world’s narrative, despite the overwhelming evidence. This should not lead to fatalism. Acknowledging the problem of sin still offers the possibility of real progress in undoing its pervasiveness and consequences, from a more realistic stance.
4. Kingdom Construction
That said, we eagerly await the heavenly city of peace where we will know unlimited life and joy rather than Babel’s unlimited sin and death.
God has the most remarkable alternative to Babel. Out of the nations, peoples and language groups he calls men, women and children to a subversive activity.
He calls us to gather and worship him, in and through his son Jesus Christ. It is subversive because the call is to serve him before all other things. Our commitment to Christ, to his Church, to the Kingdom of God comes ahead of our commitment to our nation, our ethnic history, our culture.
It is also remarkable because we are the body of Jesus Christ as we gather.
It is subversive because we believe that all humanity is called to join with us. Pentecost’s gift of interpreting languages is the first fruit of the undoing of Babel. The sign of the age to come which is the undoing of the sin that lay behind the scheming, building and babbling of Babel. As John the Elder saw:
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”
Revelation 7:9-10, NIV