With the mini-series on Noah and the Flood behind us, for these last three posts in the Genesis Narrative series, we turn our attention to The Tower of Babel and the rather bizarre account of how God responds to its construction. By that I mean, getting down to what actually happens over that which is presumed to be the mindset and actions of a Deity who is threatened by human cooperation and ingenuity. Interested? Good. Then let us begin with the account of the tower of Babel. In the Bible, the account reads:
‘Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar.Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.’ (Genesis 11v1-8, NIV)
Alright, let me condense this story down to its key moments:
‘Different people groups come together to build a tall tower. Threatened by the height of the building and what the people might achieve, God removes their universal language from them so that they all speak in different languages. Confused, the community is unable to cooperate to get the tower made and as a result, each group returns to the land they came from.’
Okay, today’s post will consider the Babel account from a narrative point of view.
Next week’s post will consider the inconsistencies within the narrative that do not accord with what we know today about a God who loves His Creation… (and)
The last post will offer a plausible alternative to understanding what actually happened in the tower of Babel story for the people groups involved.
The Babel account from a narrative point of view
First thing to observe here is that the narrative reads more like a ‘lesson’ 0r ‘moral story‘ then a chronological event. We see this in the SET UP and PAY OFFS that occur at different points of the story. The opening of ‘the whole world having one language and a common speech’ is an obvious SET UP to facilitate the PAY OFF later on as to why people now speak different languages in the world.
Similarly, the next part of the narrative that details how bricks are baked thoroughly and fastened together with tar, provides the second SET UP which explains why (1) the tower is able to reach so high into the sky but more importantly (2) how it comes to the attention of God (PAY OFF).
As a subplot, we are privy to the raison d’etre of the people’s motivation (SET UP) which is to build something significant that will stop them being scattered across the land (INTENDED PAY OFF). However, we are told that God – fearful of what the people have achieved and what they are capable of – causes confusion to arise in their ranks (GOD’S SET UP) so that the work will stop (GOD’S PAY OFF).
And finally, the architect and people’s greatest fear that they would be insignificant and scattered across the world (SET UP) is realised as their inability to communicate results in them being spread across the whole known world (GOD’S PAY OFF).
In summary, it seems like the story serves as a device to teach a moral lesson or warning about venturing beyond the boundaries prescribed while offering a fanciful idea and explanation as to why people do not speak a universal language today.
If you do not like the way this story casts God as an insecure Deity, tune in for the next two posts as I promise there is a far better explanation that keeps God good while addressing the issue of confused language in a way that doesn’t require us setting aside our ability to reason in the process. Til then…
…pass the bricks Harry!