What Is The Tower Of Babel?

The Tower of Babel is a fascinating story which helped the ancients understand God.

Along with the crossing of the Red Sea and Jonah and the Whale, the Tower of Babel is an incredible story that has grabbed imaginations throughout history. Atheists point with glee to this tall tale from the ancient past as an example of another preposterous explanation for the world as we find it. How can you take seriously a book that explains the existence of many languages with a fairy tale like this? Of course, that depends on the purpose of the book and the purpose of the story.

The story of the Tower of Babel doesn't take place in a vacuum. It falls in between Noah's flood and the call of Abraham. In the case of the flood, God has initially given up on the whole human race. Mankind had become wicked and his thoughts and inclinations were always evil. God finds in Noah hope for a new beginning, and so we get another shot at it. The rainbow is God's promise to all of the earth that a flood will never again be the tool of judgement.

The call of Abraham comes about as God decides to form a people of his own to carry the knowledge and worship of Him into the world. The Flood did not stem man's evil ways and the activities around the Tower of Babel showed that man loves himself more than any God. The glory of man is what was sought with that tower, not the glory of God. So, in Abraham, God forms a people who will glorify Him.

The story of Babel comes at a point after the flood where everyone is seen as a descendant of Noah. Genesis 10 and 11 is a genealogy from Noah to Abraham and an attempt to classify everyone in the known world as a descendant. I say "known" world because as far as these early Hebrews were concerned the world was flat and rested on pillars. The sky was a shell with stars fastened to it. Ethiopia was as far south as they could identify, Iran to the east, Armenia to the north and Greece to the west. They had heard of a place called Tarshish (Spain) but weren't sure. Jonah had tried to go there because it was as far as he could imagine going.

The whole story of Babel lasts for only nine verses, Genesis 11: 1-9. Its fame has far exceeded the space that the compilers of Genesis have given it in the Holy Scriptures. Just before we are given the names of the descendants of Shem (Shemites or Semites) whose line brings us to Abraham, the story of the Tower of Babel is inserted. What could be the significance of this little parable at this point in Bible history?

Of course, the ancients wanted to know why and how we all came to be speaking different languages. If Noah and his sons repopulated the world shouldn't we all speak their language? Verses ten to twenty six bring us from Shem to Abraham. The story of Babel is there to explain to a primitive society how we get from Noah to Abraham with so many different languages having developed in so short a time. What could be the cause of this impediment to human cooperation and understanding?

The choice of the name "Babel" is not an accident. The reference to Babylon reflects the way that Babylon was abhorred by Hebrew society. Babylon represented everything that was wrong with humanity. As a city, Babylon was both envied and loathed. The city was beautiful and graced with streets and palaces. The hanging gardens of Babylon are one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Writing and science were developing there. In the meantime, the Hebrews were a nomadic society concerned with day to day survival. Babylon represented oppression, cruelty and violence by which it remained powerful.

So Babel (Babylon) is portrayed as a society where everyone speaks with the same language and through human cooperation attempt to climb to heaven on a tower. This is not a God centered society but a fellowship of men dedicated to elevating man to his proper position as God of this world. This is a theme often repeated in the Bible. The ziggurats stand as evidence against them. So Babylon gets the blame for confusion because they try to get up to God's level. The disdain that ancient Israel felt for Babylon is reflected in the Tower story.

So, is this science or theology? There is no science in the Bible. There is no point looking for it there. The Bible is a theological manuscript. It is the story of God's dealings with humans from the viewpoint of an ancient society. Is Babel the reason for all of the various languages in the world? Of course it isn't. Is Babel a parable? The story of the Tower of Babel is a parable about mankind, where his heart is and how God feels about it.

The account of Babel's tower is lousy history and terrible science. It is terrific theology. The final judgement against any society is its willingness to press forward in the name of progress without reference to or respect for God. The parable tells us that the road without God is doomed to disaster. The citizens of Babel thought that they were able, technologically, to challenge God's leadership. Man's pride, vanity and lust for power need to come under God's authority. That is the theological lesson of this section of scripture. They are the only kinds of lessons the Bible gives.

© High Speed Ventures 2011