Most Bible readers have heard of the story of the Tower of Babel. But, what is the significance of this story in the Bible? Is it just another story with no significant meaning? Or does it actually have a fitting place in Genesis? Let us examine it then!
Picture: The painting Tower of Babel by 17th Century Flemish painter Tobias Verhaecht.
We first have to understand how the book of Genesis presents the very first age of the world. In Genesis 1 the book presents the story of creation; how God created the world, but not many people ask why God did this. I would argue that God created the world to form a Temple for himself (what John Walton calls the ‘Cosmic Temple’). There are many indications why this is so, but I’m not going to argue about that here. Those who are interested can go to commentaries on the book and find this concept. We all know, however, that creation (or the Temple) has been defiled by sin since chapter 3, and the following chapters have progressively shown how the effect of sin gets worse and universal.
Coming back to the Tower of Babel, the account follows the story of the Great Flood, in which all people on earth, except the family of Noah, are wiped out because of their great sin that defiles creation. Therefore, now that only a family from the righteous Noah has survived, readers should expect that creation (Temple) has now been re-established (or what some commentators call ‘re-created’). Sin should have been defeated and creation should be holy again. However, sin still prevails! And the story of Babel depicts this very well.
What is the sin? There are generally 2 views regarding the sin that the people in Babel committed. Some argue that it is about disobedience to the command to ‘fill the earth’ (Gen 1:28). Some others argue that the sin is about pride. I personally would support the latter interpretation. First, to ‘fill the earth’ in Gen 1:28 is less of a command than it is a blessing. Second, even though it has an imperative mood to it, the idea of the ‘fill the earth’ is not geographic (ie. filling the earth by spreading out), which people see as the disobedience in Babel, but more about quantity (ie, filling the earth by reproducing). Now, the pride as the sin is more obvious in the text when the people say, “Let us make a name for ourselves” (11:4). This shows great arrogance of the people! Sure, the promise to Abraham also bears the same language about making a name for him (12:2) but in there it is God who makes the name, not the prideful “us”! The pride as the reason for the punishment is also obvious when God says, “Nothing they propose to do now will be impossible” (11:6). When seen from this perspective, we can see that the sin committed here is very much alike to the sin depicted in Genesis 3 when Adam and Eve desired to be “like God”.
When readers expect that human sin has been destroyed after the great re-creation (the Flood), the book shows that sin prevails. And not only that, the sin is the same as the first sin committed by man, thus the re-creation of the world is followed by the re-occurrence of the first sin. Readers are expected to read the Flood with some great expectation of God’s victory and say, “YES, sin is finally defeated!”, but then in reading the Tower of Babel they are to fall down in desperation and scream out, “NOOOO!!”