Genesis 11 records one of the pivotal moments of the human race. A united humanity was concertedly working to build the great Tower of Babel, but God decided to ‘confuse their language’ and scatter them ‘over all the earth’. Ever since then there has been division in the human race, divisions of speech, culture and location. Pentecost (Acts 2:1-12) is another pivotal moment, for it was then that the Holy Spirit descended on the first Christians and enabled them to understand languages from all around the known world. But this was more of a spiritual watershed than a linguistic one. No universal language was suddenly re-introduced, in daily life men and women still spoke Latin, Greek, Aramaic and a hundred other languages. Instead, the understanding of tongues was, and is, a specific spiritual gift, and one not given to all. So while Pentecost heralded the beginning of a process by which the church will eventually unite a human race scattered at Babel, we’re still divided.
Modern technology and global communications are making it easier than ever to overcome these differences, but arguably we are no less divided as a species than ever we were, just less separated. Is this a good thing? We can rightly celebrate the wondrous variety in human civilisations, and the colourful, exotic differences between us, without which life would be rather dull, and not a few of us relish the sporting competition of different nations. But on the other hand these divisions between tribes and nations have caused endless wars and suffering down the long years of history.
Despite being rather poorly-placed to judge, it does seem that a lot of bad has come from this scattering. So why did God do it? It’s a question I still can’t fully answer, but the best suggestion I can come up with is to do with human pride. When building the tower, the people expressed desires for it to ‘reach to the heavens’, and ‘that we may make a name for ourselves’ (v. 4). There’s a lot of pride evident in these aspirations, and no mention of God. Selfish motivation and human pride will ever lead to strife and greed, so maybe God wanted to pre-empt such a situation? In verse 6, God’s observation that ‘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’ also suggests a concern that, human co-operation, left unchecked, might give rise to disastrous consequences.
I’ve suggested above that a lot of evil has resulted from this scattering, but the more I think about it the more I suspect that the scattering prevented something even worse. I can only speculate, but God does not act without reason. He is not vindictive or threatened by humans, nor does He arbitrarily interfere just for His own amusement, as many gods in Mesopotamian, Graceo-Roman and Norse mythology are portrayed as doing. Abraham asserts in Genesis 18:25: ‘Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?’ Paul re-iterates an assurance about God’s justice in Romans 2. Not all my readers will agree, but I for one trust that God did the right thing in Genesis 11, even though I don’t know why.
As well as pride, the story of the Tower of Babel unmistakably shows us a tendency in human activity that is echoed in the precepts of just about every religion other than Christianity: that men and women are always trying to reach up to heaven (11:4). As well as showing the fallacy and futility of such a mind-set, the story also hints at the truth: in fact, it is heaven that reaches down to us. Both the initiative and the responsibility for salvation always lie with God. I love seeing here that God is not afraid to get His hands dirty – He didn’t just look down; He came down (11:5). Going back now and re-reading this passage, I’m not so much baffled by the scattering as I am awed and thankful that we have a God who is interested in us and who takes the trouble to reach down for our benefit.