I recently studied the story of the tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9. It is a memorable story due to its marking the start of multiple languages on the face of the earth (which is a bit anachronistic in light of the genealogies and details in Gen. 10 – this probably means that the passage is thematically placed in light of the beginnings of the call of Abram out of Ur). In studying the passage, I noticed that to modern readers of western culture, the passages’ theological message is difficult to hear. Some have even suggested that the passage takes a negative view of God in that he thwarted humanity’s pious efforts to work together on a breath-taking, never done before, building project. God thwarted humanity’s high aspirations and tremendous work ethic. Again, this is an interpretation easy to arrive at from a western perspective that values “making a name for oneself.”
In fact, the passage is highly critical of the human behavior articulated in the passage. To begin, God’s command was for humanity to fill the earth. According to the creation account (and the re-establishment of the covenant with Noah), God’s desire for humanity was more of a nomadic existence over and above a sedentary existence. It is interesting, then, to think that God’s plan for our lives is to be mobile when so often stability is what seems to be intuitive. It certainly matches the mobility of the Holy Trinity in carrying out God’s plan for human redemption. God sends the Son, the Son sends the Holy Spirit…we’ve heard this theme of mobility before. Even Jesus in his ministry was far from sedentary. He was all over the map! Why should his plan for us be any different?
Secondly, the people’s will to “make a name for themselves” demonstrates their will to live autonomously – in isolation from God. This is simply a repeat of the Garden of Eden. Adam and Even would decide for themselves what was good to eat – regardless of what God had to say. In the Tower of Babel account, the people are declaring the right over their own lives to shape their own destiny. While such a theme is common to modern western ears (I cannot tell you how many films I’ve watched with this very theme), in the context of Genesis, this is contrary to God’s will for his people. According to Genesis, humanity is to serve and represent the Creator. God’s intention was to walk with humanity in such intimacy that he would reveal His plan for our lives and we would find unending satisfaction in selflessly serving our Father (as modeled in the life of Jesus) One doesn’t decide for him or herself their own destiny, God decides for them. Our destiny is a gift from God. For one to attempt to live a life marked by independence from God in order to shape one’s own destiny will only end in balel – confusion.