Reflecting on the Tower of Babel

The Tower of Babel wasn’t so bad…

Have you ever heard of the Tower of Babel? The story comes from Genesis 11. Genesis is the first book of the Jewish Torah and the Christian Bible. This book relays the story of the world’s creation by God and God’s calling a people to himself starting with Abraham. However, before Abraham is introduced, the book has this story about a tower. The story goes something like this:

A long time ago, the whole earth had one language. After finding a place to settle, the people invented bricks. They used the bricks to build a tower which reached the “heavens” (i.e., sky). They did this with the intention of making a name for themselves (a task later shown to be God’s alone). Therefore, God confused the language of the people and spread them across the earth. This is why it’s called the Tower of Babel—Babel sounds like the Hebrew word for confused.

There’s a lot that could be said about this story. So I want to note a few things I’m not doing. I’m not addressing whether this event happened as a real event in history. Historians, biblical scholars, and theologians disagree within their own fields about this issue. I prefer to focus on what this story means. But I’m also not focusing on many common interpretations. I think some of them are right. For example, Acts 2 seems to obviously draw on this story as a reversal of it. This seems right, but it looks at things differently than I want to here. However, this is not the most common translation in my circles. The common interpretation goes something like this:

The people were evil and wanted to be like God. They couldn’t actually reach heaven, and they couldn’t actually become like God or take over his realm. But they tried, and that’s why God came and confused their language and spread them across the earth. Now we have such a hard time communicating with each other that we will never unite and attempt to take over the world from God. If we could have just avoided screwing up, people would be more similar, and this would be better.

This interpretation has some truth to it, but it also has some problems. I suggest that God’s action here is a good thing. Is it a punishment? Yes. But is it wholly retributive? No. Is it or its results wholly bad? No. Maybe the Tower of Babel is a story of God’s ability to take bad human actions and make them good. As another character in Genesis says, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good…” (Genesis 50:20, ESV).

Why might I argue something like this? Well I take it that God makes us diverse for a reason. I assume God’s actions are done intentionally, for various reasons. I also know that he plays an intimate role in the creation of every human (e.g., Psalm 139:13). Because of his actions in showing generosity to people of all nations in the Old Testament and his desire for non-Jews to join the family of God as explained in the New Testament, I know God likes ethnic diversity. God doesn’t prefer anyone on account of their ethnic background. God doesn’t consider the whole world condemned for speaking different languages despite the common interpretation of the Tower of Babel presented above. Therefore, if God likes ethnic diversity and diversity of other kinds, then perhaps it’s not a stretch to say that God uses humanity’s evil actions (like the Tower of Babel) to bring about good things (like ethnic, geographic, and linguistic diversity).

I could be wrong about interpreting the story this way. I also am aware that even if I’m right, there’s more going on in this story than just that. It’s also true that ethnic diversity brings with it many issues and opportunities for human sinfulness. I just want to suggest a possible interpretation where God actually brings about something good from the sinful actions of humanity. I do not pretend this is a correct response, but I would love to talk more about it with you. Please leave a comment or send me a message with your thoughts.

Author: chandlerwarren

Oklahoman studying theology and philosophy in Scotland.