Genesis 11-The Cycle of Hubris, the Full Circle of Language

Genesis 11:1-9

Now the whole earth had one language and few words. And as men 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 scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men 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, that they may 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 its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused[a] the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

the easiest story of genesis

The Tower of Babel is perhaps one of the simplest reads of Genesis not only for how succinct the story is, but also for how overt its message is. The Tower of Babel is a construction of human hubris, the endeavor for humanity to build the unbreakable, to sail the unsinkable, to reach the heights of God once more. This endeavor perhaps was reminiscent of the temptation sold to Eve: the reaching out for something higher–godhood–on one’s own.

The immediate lesson here is that sainthood, godhood, human perfection cannot be a solitary or solely human endeavor. We can’t become god-like on our own accord, not without the invitation of God. Sometimes we seek to conquer our addictions, fulfill our dreams, or even become saint-like or prophetic without God’s synergy. Funny how after all things are created new this is the first temptation: the universe is created, Eve’s first temptation is to become like God, the world is recreated through the flood, and humanity seeks to become like God.

That being said, perhaps there’s something commendable about this endeavor of humanity versus its predecessor. We read before how in Noah’s time humanity was violent, cruel, and held nothing but evil in their hearts. I imagine a child who does not seek the competence, patience, or creativity to build together a masterpiece of building blocks or Legos, but rather enjoys knocking it all down. Perhaps there’s some hope knowing humanity now chooses to band together instead of war, to build instead of destroy.

That being said, what we will find in this story is that good intentions and virtues are not enough to ascend these righteous and godly heights, and through the punishment we will see what was intended for humanity all along.

the Failsafe Against the Second Flood

Think of an apocalyptical movie or show, and think of how a group of survivors initially band together. The world they knew is destroyed, but they have an idea what they’d like their new world–city or town–to be like. This is the story of the Flood and of the Tower of Babel.

Humanity is inclined to start a better world than the last, and as we mentioned, there is perhaps more virtue here than there was in the former generation from Noah’s time. The post-apocalyptical world is going to create something, to unite humanity, to be reborn out of the crisis. The rebirth is noble.

But this Tower of Babel is misguided.

There’s something symbolic about the building of a tower and reaching the heights of heavens versus building a city, a fortress, a garden. Anything but a tower is still easily destroyed, could be washed away, wouldn’t survive another flood. We ought to assume that Noah shared the covenant of God with his offspring, assuring them no future flood would come. Still, humanity builds something tall, fortified, and high so as to not worry about another flood again. It’s fair to assume that these are generations of people after Noah, and so the possibility that this act is done out of trauma doesn’t hold much weight. They know about the flood, and instead of doing right by God, they decide to build something just incase they fall out of favor with Him.

This is a misguided fear of God, one that runs away from Him rather than runs to Him–not unlike Adam and Eve hiding in the garden. Combined with this improper fear is this hubris that humanity can build something to reach God, to build something to withstand against God’s power. To top the whole calamity of the project is the ancestral pride and curiosity to become like God, without God’s synergy.

utopia, the anathema

It would be hubris for us to think that the Tower of Babel is limited to the times of Genesis. Wasn’t it humanity that build the Titanic and said, “not even God can sink this ship”? And what of our incessant desire to conquer death, to pour all our resources and hope into the possibility we can live forever and allow our loved ones to do so as well? I am reminded of the projects of the Soviets, of their space adventure resulting in the claim “we did not see God in the heavens”, their endeavor to immortalize their hero Lenin by spending millions of dollars to create a cryo-genic grave for his body, or their own Tower of Babel that sought to become the tallest skyscraper of civilization.

The towers we build today sometimes come in the shape of skyscrapers, and sometimes they come in the shape of technology and structure. But worse than all these inventions of Babel is the Tower of Utopia, of ideology.

The Tower of Babel represents not only mankind’s hubris fear of a second flood, but also the dream of a new city in man’s image, a perfect creation after a time of crisis. The city of Babel that would naturally form around this tower would require a specific and structured governance in order to keep the people united in their cause and their city/tower intact. What would follow is a society in man’s image, a utopia, an idealistic governance to endure all time with well-thought philosophy and proper leadership. This would lead to a time of happiness, of fairness, of prosperity.

Do we not stake our happiness, our fairness, our prosperity into our own particular flavor of politics, into our own subscribed philosophy, ideology, or world view? Today’s political turmoil is no different than that of France’s or Russia’s, a tumultuous time of division marked by indignation–and what is indignation/anger but a byproduct of fear. We dream of what our society ought to look like, as though it will abate the flood of old we have all heard of, to protect us from further calamity. We design a new vision for our country with the intent to ascend humanity, to progress into a moral high ground, without the guidance or synergy of God.

Utopia, ideology, is a bad word. It is the ever repeating cycle of one or many men determining they themselves have the wisdom to provide a perfect world, a perfect nation, a perfect people. If we only endeavored to look at the sins of our ancestors, from Babel to Marxism, we might see how short-lived these endeavors are, how our aim is at something so temporary, something that seemingly does not even last a single generation. We are Sisyphus, rolling an impossible boulder on our own up the mountain just for it to roll back down on the wayside, but the only difference is that we lack Sisyphus’ awareness how futile the act is.

Babel & Pentecost

The punishment of the story is fairly tame: the tower falls, and the people develop new languages. I would dare to imagine because humanity had the virtue of wanting to build and unite that God was perhaps more merciful to us in that moment, and yet the punishment is still rather severe when we consider who the Son of God Is.

We spoke previously how life-giving, creative, and powerful our words are. Words are a subset of language, and we find now that humanity has been confounded in their words, in the creation of new languages. The punishment distances humanity a little more from the Son of God, who is the Word of God. Perhaps this distance would incline humanity to get to know their creator a little more, to draw near to the Word of God instead of build something without Him.

That being said, I believe this punishment was a perfect ground-laying for the real Tower that God wanted to see built: the cathedral, the Church.

The miraculous loss of a common tongue is undone when we fast forward to the New Testament, to the Acts of the Apostles. Pentecost is the promise fulfilled by the Word of God, that a comforter would arrive to miraculously bestow grace and ability upon the Apostles to fulfill the great commission: to preach the Gospel, the Good News. The Flood of Christ’s Crucifixion has subsided, and humanity is able to build their new Tower with God’s synergy, and the ability to speak to all peoples is restored.

The Tower of Babel and Pentecost are foils to one another. Humanity working alone vs humanity’s synergy with God. An unhealthily fear of God restored to a healthy fear of God, and more than that a love for God, a reliance upon Him. The confounding of languages to the ability to speak ALL languages. The Tower that is toppled that sought to reach heaven vs the height of the Church, a new Tower with assured height to the heavens.

The last neat foil to these two stories is how the Tower of Babel anticipated another flood with its height and build. Still, we can imagine God’s power being able to overpower a tower, the surge of the flood to topple the structure, the height not being able to escape the depth of the ocean. That being said, the Church, often compared to a boat or a ship, can withstand any Flood, will always be buoyant enough to stay above death and chaos.

The Tower of Babel is an age old tale of what we see repeated in history over and over again. Humanity trusts in its own philosophy, wisdom, and machination. We do this in fear of another flood, though that flood can go by the name of any crisis, any tribulation, any war or dark period of history. We build so as to keep that part of history behind us, but ultimately this endeavor will collapse in a short period of time. For any lasting change we want to see in the world and for each other, for any intention to escape another flood, we must put ourselves in synergy with God, a much simpler task that need only require humility and the right-minded petition: Lord, have mercy.

Today, consider the following.

  • What structures do I find myself placing the most amount of structure or faith in?
  • What worldview or ideology to I subscribe to. How powerful is that belief? Is it something that can survive 100 years, 200 years, 1000 years?
  • What “Flood” am I afraid of encountering or afraid for our society to encounter?
  • How can I ask for humility today?
  • How can I be a part of building God’s Ark?

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