When I read the story of the Tower of Babel from the perspective of a modern American, I wonder what God would think of our skyscrapers, our trip to the moon, the Internet, and out attempt to overcome the language barrier with technology. Seriously, when I read God say “They are one people and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that the purpose to do will now be impossible”, I could imagine similar words coming from an American political candidate, and the thought pops in my head: “Great, let’s end cancer!!!” What could be wrong with a people being able to achieve their highest aspirations? I think my reading of the story is colored by living in an era of pretty amazing progress. My grandmother lived from 1913 to 2013. Whenever I visited with her during her last years of life, she would always say: “Oh, Sally, the things I have seen over my lifetime. There’s never been a time like it.” My first pass at reading the story served as a reminder that my faith is in God, not human progress. I was reminded of some of the fragility of our recent achievements.
The second time I read the story, I focused on the word “bricks,” which made me read it from the perspective an Israelite around the campfire in the desert after escaping Egypt, wondering why bricks were ever invented! I could imagine his relief that the God who brought the Israelites out of Egypt was not a fan of big building projects. I got a little curious about the Nimrod, mentioned in Genesis 10:8. The Bible says simply that he was descended from Ham and that he was “the first on earth to be a mighty man. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord.” I learned that traditionally Nimrod was associated with the Tower of Babel as the project organizer and that he was considered an evil tyrant. The pattern of an evil ruler, a giant building project that fails to find favor with God, and the call of Abraham (which is coming up next!) sets up a pattern that we will see again with Moses in Egypt. And as I read about Nimrod, I learned that there are lots of Jewish folk songs and extra-biblical literature that build upon this common pattern.
If I focus on God as a loving father, I don’t see the confusion of languages as a punishment at all. I see God helping humanity spread out and find smaller communities where they can experience more intimate, caring human relationships—helping us overcome our tendency to settle and get lost in the crowd. Maybe living in big towers isn’t always the best option for humans.
When I read this from the perspective of the prophets, I hear the voice of Isaiah: “The haughty looks of man shall be brought low, and the lofty pride of men shall be humbled, and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day.” (Isaiah 2:11) Pride goes before the fall.
When I read this from a Christian perspective, I think of how God promised the Apostles at Pentecost that language would be no barrier to God’s awesome project of spreading the love of Christ. God’s love breaks all language barriers down.
As I thought about how I wanted to draw my Tower of Babel, I imagined something inspired by M.C. Escher. I found his illustration of the Tower of Babel. I thought if I could just borrow his use of vantage point and horizon, I can make my own tower, but I found when I did that, the tower looked a lot like his. The math seemed to drive the drawing. It was still a good exercise in perspective for me!