Just a chapter earlier we read not 1 but 3 times that humans already possessed multiple languages; therefore, we can understand Babel not as being the only language on earth, but perhaps the first “lingua franca,” a language that lets people communicate from different tribes. Like how English is becoming the language that people know in addition to their native tongue. This enabled people from all around the world come to one place and settle. This is actually the opposite of what God envisioned with the commission, “Be fruitful and multiply.”
To have one language in ancient texts is subjugation and forcing other peoples to take on their language. (Pop-pop story of kneeling on corn) This is not what God had in mind, He wanted people to fill the earth, not come together in one place (1:28).
They settled in Shinar, undoubtedly talking about Mesopotamia, an area first called Sumer, then Babylonia. It was here that the first temple-towers, known as ziggurats were built. Recently archaeologists discovered Esagila, the great temple of Marduk in Babylon, which may be the building talked about in this story. It was 300 feet tall and was believed to have been built by the gods by the Babylonians, which is shown to be false in the biblical story showing how earthlings made up the actual construction crew.
It’s difficult to miss the irony in that the humans seek to build a tower that will reach the heavens, that is among the gods, but in reality it is so far away that God must “come down” to see it. God doesn’t laugh at them or dismiss it as much ado about nothing. Rather, this is taken very seriously. If Divine Intervention does not happen, the consequences can be far reaching. But the intervention is surprising. Rather than toppling the tower, God confuses the language. Why? Because knocking the building down would only be a temporary solution; towers are replaceable. So God removes that which makes the building possible, an international language that provides communication among different tribes.
The judgment here does not need to be reversed. Jesus’ followers do not speak with one language. It is a criticism of Rome’s vision to form one body in the name of the Romans. Unity is not the consequence of everybody speaking the same language, but the generative way of the Holy Spirit with the name of Jesus being the rallying point. If the disciples spoke Greek, everyone would have understood. This is not what they did, but spoke in each’s particular language to show how the Spirit alone would bring them together, not language. This is the fulfillment of the same vision that God had in mind in Babel.
The point of the story is not what they are building but why they are building it. They are seeking to build a name for themselves, to gain a reputation. And we’re still doing it today. I saw a really weird show on Netflix the other day called “Black Mirror” that illustrates the point. Check it out:
•Building a set of rules that you must follow?
•Putting on a front or wearing a mask?
•How you dress, what you drive?
•Or have you given up? You know you can’t be a 4 or 5 so you medicate the pain of not being accepted, of not adding up?
JD Walt likes to talk about how there are only two stories, * the story of Adam and *the story of Christ. The story of Adam is the story of *one who climbs up only *to fall down. Rather than being content with what they had, Adam and Eve longed for more. The serpent offered the lie that if they only had more knowledge, more power, then everything would be better. Yet when they ate the fruit, it didn’t bring joy, but shame. More knowledge didn’t enlighten them, but threw them into the darkness of guilt and denial. Rather than having the answers to life’s problems, disobedience led to more problems that they sought to cover up. Then there is the story of Christ, *a descent into our brokenness and *ascent into heaven. Jesus embodies a life of turning to his loving Father with all of the suffering, injustice, and pain of his life and the people around him. Adam’s story is the classic notion of how pride comes before the fall. Adam tells the story of the failure of trust, the failure of obedience and the failure of love.