The early chapters of Genesis can be read as a series of escalating acts of disobedience by humanity against God, nature and one another. The story starts with the goodness of creation before Adam and Eve disobey God; Cain murders Able; the people sin and God sends a flood but saves creation in the Ark and finally the Tower of Babel. Each case of sin has a corresponding consequence.
In previous examples the sin of humanity has been to ignore or violate the laws which God had revealed to humanity. In the case of the Tower of Babel the sin of humanity is to try and replace God. The passage is a story of competing for power with God by dominating all of the earth. The result is the fragmentation of humanity.
The harmony between the creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations.
11 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 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. 4 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.” 5
The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 6 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. 7 Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
Questions for reflection
- What does this passage teach us about humanity’s arrogance?
- What do you think are the modern equivalents of building the Tower of Babel?
- As Christians reading this passage what does Christ’s death mean for our unity with one another, God and all creation?
Leon Kass (2006) The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis