I recall, while in college, doing a fairly thorough analysis of the story of the tower found in Genesis 11. The grade for this paper was a significant portion of my grade in that senior seminar class in Hebrew Scripture. The benefit of this has been that this story comes back to me over and again as an archetypal story that challenges our ambitions and dominant narratives as continually missing the mark. Here is the story:
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lordscattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.Genesis 11:1-9, NRSV
I love this story of the tower with its top “in the heavens.” As the story unfolds, the people of the earth all speak the same language. As they come upon a plain known as Shinar, they decide that this is the place where they will “make a name” for themselves. They then set out to build a tower unlike the world has ever seen … “with its top in the heavens” … and by this, they intend never to be scattered over the face of the earth. Their goal is unity.
I see an interesting power dynamic going on here. The people of the earth fail to trust God to provide their unity, and they are sure if they can just build the tower large enough, they will be in the “place of God” to fix their place of power in the world. It is their desire to dance with God … to think like God … to carry the power of God … to be like God. Interestingly, this is the sin in Genesis 3 that starts the primeval story that ends with this narrative.
Also interesting is that Elohim (the plural name for God used by one of the traditions writing Hebrew scripture), glimpses something happening and has to “come down” to see what these silly humans are up to. God realizes that the gift of a common language here is leading them to no good, and God says, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”
If we are honest, at first glance, this sounds like something for which we would be proud. We see unity and purpose on the part of the people, and as with little children, we take pride in their accomplishments. “Look at what you’ve done! (with tone rising on ‘done’) See, you can do anything you set your mind to do!” It’s good news. We aspire to know everything and to accomplish more and more.
It makes such sense to us as we find ourselves in a success-driven culture. With our modern technologies, we really do believe we can do it all and have it all. The Internet is one of the world’s greatest achievements, and in many ways, it has become our common language. In truth, we don’t actually have to “know” other languages … we just write in our language, and one of a thousand tools can instantly translate it to any other known, written language on earth.
Several years ago, I said to a friend that I was afraid the Internet might become our Tower of Babel, and he instantly wanted me to write it. After all these years, my friend, this is for you! (And no, I am not trying to tear down the tower as I use it to write this post!)
Our bricks are things like artificial intelligence, biometrics, bionics, and instant access to our friends, our enemies, and people we would otherwise never know. Our mortar is a host of devices … smartphones, cubes, and cylinders with names like Siri and Alexa … that are both ready to do our will and then nudge us toward the next purchase we otherwise would have never known we need.
It isn’t that these things don’t come with benefits, and both Siri and Alexa are part of my own world on a daily basis. They can help us climb the tower of greater health, greater knowing, and greater control over our lives. The problem here is when we look below us and realize that only a few of us even reach that first rung of the ladder.
To make a name for ourselves … to keep things great (like they were in the good old days) … is to rise above the fray. It is to create and enlarge the separation between us and the average person who can never enjoy the comfort we have in our places of power and privilege. It is to separate us from the pack.
So I begin to wonder at the untold portions of this story. Will the tower with its top in the heavens really be of benefit for those who made the bricks … for those who ground the mortar … for those who laid the brick … for those who were too sick or handicapped to contribute in any sort of way? It is my fear, knowing what I know about our human condition, that they would not.
It is interesting, finally, that the thing the people wanted to create … unity bound by a common language … is the very thing they lose. The people do not speak a common language, after all. While some speak the language of privilege and power, others speak the language of marginalization and powerlessness. While some speak the language of strength and domination, other speak the language of weakness and oppression. While some speak the language of wealth, most of the world speaks the language of poverty.
As I observe what happens at the place called the Internet … and our social media … and our various supporting technologies … I see a tower with its top in the heavens. And if we are lucky, we will have made a name for ourselves and discover a greater unity. Maybe I have missed something, but I am not seeing much of that outcome, at present.
In the end, I think Elohim was right. There is no telling what comes of this … and the many other …. towers we have built. What I do know is this: while we speak a language that is so often filled with fear and hate, Christ comes into our world speaking a different language. In this time of judgment … in the time of climate change and the storms and raging fires that accompany such change … in the time of racism, bigotry, sexism, and heterosexism … in the time of an unfolding pandemic that promises not to be the last … as we see the consequences of trusting in the towers we have built on the backs of the oppressed, may we hear a new language.
It is a common language. It is the language that unites. It is the language that does make a name for us. It is a language that speaks the truth. It is the language of love and trust! It is the language of the angels!
If we will but stand still long enough and not worry so much about getting to God, just maybe God will get to us!