This piece is a part of the series 30 Words In 30 Days. Read previous parts of the series here: WORD | HOLY | RELEVANT | WONDER | WINDOWS
In Genesis 11v1-9 we read the story of people building a city and a tower. The story tells us that at the time, everyone had one language and a common speech. Can you imagine? Everyone speaking the same language with no communication barriers whatsoever. But soon after, things go wrong, as they tend to do in Biblical stories. The people decide to build. Their reasons for building? So that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth. They believe that making a name for themselves is the only way to keep from being scattered over the face of the earth.
When this story was first circulated, orally, and then eventually written down, it was during a time in human history when location mattered a great deal. The land you lived on was usually land handed down to you by previous generations of your family. The land you lived on signified more than a mortgage payment as it does today. Back then, it signified your lineage, your tribe, your heritage. Some would even go so far as to say that the land you lived on signified your identity. We see this in the story of the Israelites. When God rescues them out of slavery in Egypt, he does so in order to lead them to their Promised Land. If it so happened that the land you lived on wasn’t handed down through generations of your family, then you were living on someone else’s land. And if you were living on someone else’s land, you were likely enslaved to this someone else, hoping against all hope that someday you too might find your own land. We’ll come back to this shortly. But first, a bit more about the city and the tower.
The story seems to go out of its way to tell us not just why but also how the people built their city and their tower. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. These details are about technology. They’re displays of human ingenuity, of what’s possible when people put their minds to work. In some measure, they ought to be celebrated. Somewhere along the way, a few brilliant people discovered that you could shape and harden dirt into something much more conducive to tower-building than stones. Building a tower with stones is near impossible, particularly during a time in history when shaping rock was an arduous and often impossible task. But with brick? And mortar to keep things together? Even the heavens themselves seemed within reach! Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens.
This is a story about what happens when land and technology, the things we own and the things we make, corrupt and deteriorate us into a version of ourselves that misses the point entirely. Remember, there was one language and a common speech - a oneness the likes of which we haven’t seen since the story of this city and its tower. But the desire to keep what was never ours to begin with and to create for the sake of making a name for ourselves rather than for the common good – these tragic human tendencies ruined the beauty of this oneness. God intervenes.
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.
But within this story of failure, chaos, and confusion, there’s a surprising hope. It’s a hope for those on the underside of the story, those being trampled underfoot by those who own the land and invent the brick and mortar. The city was called Babel. And Babel was another name for Babylon. Many scholars today believe that this Jewish story of the Tower of Babel was first told and written during a time when the Jewish people were landless, living on the outskirts, relocated and dispersed to live nomadically by the Babylonian Empire, which ruled with technological might and military ingenuity at the time.
And so, this story is about more than just land and technology and the consequences that follow. This story is about those at the foot of the tower, gathering dirt, mixing it into brick, laying on the mortar. This story is about the oppressed and powerless and marginalized. This story is about slaves living on someone else’s land. And ultimately, this story is about God’s promise to them… and to us… that a new day is coming, when the high and mighty will be laid low, when those who desire only to make a name for themselves will be thwarted, when God will restore the oneness of us all with one language and a common speech. This is a story about the fall of empires that believe they might reach the heavens and the lifting up of the rest of us who so desperately need heaven to reach down low to us.