Genesis 11 – Babble On

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Today’s PassageGenesis 11

Behold: where we find the actual tale of the Tower of Babel! This is another favorite for the Sunday school classes. After all, it provides children with a narrative explanation of why some people speak using all kinds of strange words they don’t understand, and it also contains a cautionary tale against pride. But as I read it today, I found myself wondering what exactly motivates God to thwart the intentions of these would-be tower-builders. “Pride” may be a simple answer, reasonably accurate and easy to comprehend, but the reality may prove to be more nuanced than a single word.

As you likely recall, the people in the story begin building a city and a tower. God stops them from coordinating the construction effort by making them unable to communicate with each other–literally, “confusing their lip” (11:7, 9). Their intention is to reach into heaven with their tower, and God has concerns about what heights they may go on to if they’re allowed to succeed in their endeavor. He says to himselves (because, of course, he is a Trinity): “Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language…” (11:6-7). And a being for whom nothing is impossible is, of course, omnipotent. Is God concerned that these people will usurp the throne of heaven? Are they on the verge of achieving godhood?

Signs point to no. The NASB notes that the phrase translated “will be impossible for them” literally means “will be withheld from them.” It’s not as if they’re about to ascend into heaven and become all-powerful. It’s more that they’ll have nothing standing between them of every terrible thing they might want. If God doesn’t step in and impose some hard limits, there’ll be no boundaries, no walls to protect others from their depravity, much less to protect them from themselves. These people are trying to ascend into heaven, but in reality they’re descending into lawlessness.

Or are they? The thought crossed my mind that if they’re not actually threatening God’s all-powerful reign, then what exactly is wrong with what they’re doing? They’re just building a big ol’ tower into heaven. And the word “heaven” here is שָׁמַיִם, shamayim, and it is all over the Hebrew Bible, showing up 418 times between Genesis’ “In the beginning” and Malachi’s “so that I will not come and smite the land with a curse” (Malachi 4:6). So what exactly is this shamayim thing? Genesis’ creation account can tell you plenty about it. It’s the thing God makes that is not the earth (1:1). It’s the thing the birds fly in (1:20). And if you go high enough in it, it’s the thing where the stars are (1:14-17). It’s the sky. The people of Babel want to build a tower that reaches into the sky. And God is punishing them just for trying to build a really tall tower?

Again, not so much. God has other reasons for thwarting their efforts, such as preventing their descent into lawlessness, as discussed before. None of them mention God at all, certainly not in their motivations for their building project; they say to each other, “Let us make for ourselves a name” (11:4). Your name is your reputation. They want to be known as the big shots who built the biggest tower, the tallest tower, the literal sky-scraper that reaches up to that thing containing the birds and the stars. They don’t care about their Creator. They don’t care about his omnipotence. They’re not building their tower to honor him; their focus is on themselves. And in a word, God puts an end to their little project because of their pride.

Incidentally, the Hebrew word for “name” is שֵׁם, shem. That’s the same as the name of Noah’s son Shem, whose genealogy composes the second half of the chapter. The genealogy contains actual ages, many of which are not big round numbers. But whatever significance these facts may have, if any, is a topic for another time, because the final verses of this genealogy introduce–by a different name–one of the most prominent figures in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the patriarch Abraham.

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