I remember in 1983 mom, dad, my sister and I had gone to the US for a holiday. It was a wonderful time. In a matter of days we saw many wonderful things, wonderful, that is, in my sight. From natural wonders like the Niagara Falls to human wonders like the Epcot Center near Walt Disney World in Florida. Yes, yes! To my 14 year old mind that loved science, Epcot Center made a more lasting impression than did Mickey and his buddies!
And I remember being on the Empire State Building and looking down from heights that would be a sure test for acrophobia – the fear of heights. The Empire State Building was the tallest human structure when it was made in 1931. It no longer is. Anyone care to know which is the tallest standing humans structure today?
So strange right? How many of us know the most powerful car today? Or the aircraft that can fly fastest? Or the longest artificial dam? But for some strange reason we know that the Burj Khalifa is the tallest human structure today.
Humans have always been obsessed with heights. Scaling Mt. Everest was the ultimate goal for mountaineers, even though K2, also known as Mount Godwin-Austin, the second highest mountain, is considered by most mountaineers to be the toughest mountain to climb.
Yes, humans have always been obsessed with heights. And that is probably why we might think that today’s passage is about height. And that is probably why most of our bibles might say that this passage is about the Tower of Babel.
True the passage mentions the tower. However, to conclude that the passage is about the tower is similar to concluding that the last book of the bible is about Patmos just because the island is mentioned in the first chapter of that book.
So what is this chapter really about? In v. 4 the people say, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” In v. 5 we read, “the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building.” In both places the tower is mentioned, preceded by the city.
However, in v. 8 we read, “they stopped building the city.” There is no mention here of the tower because it is insignificant. The result of God’s action was that they stopped building the city. We can infer that they also stopped building the tower. But abandoning the city was the important outcome. Why?
We read in v. 4, that the people said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
The building of the city has an ulterior goal. They did not want to be scattered. But at the end of our passage in v. 9 we read, “From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.”
So what we have is this: The humans wanted not to be scattered and so they decided to build a city. However, in response God did something which made them abandon building the city as a result of which they were scattered.
The crux of the passage is not the tower, but the city. They very fact that at the end of our passage, the city is named shows us that the tower was not important. If the tower were important, why is it forgotten in the second part of our passage?
Also, the name of the city is important. We must be careful with reading the bible too literalistic a manner. As an example, and a pre-revelation for those who come for the bible study on Wednesdays, in Revelation 11 we learn that Jerusalem can be symbolically called Sodom or Egypt.
Here in Genesis 11 we are being told not that the city was literally called Babel, or perhaps Babylon, but that its nature was that of Babel, confusion.
At the textual level the confusion relates to the inability of the humans to understand each other. But the reason the city is called Babel is that the city itself reveals a deeper confusion. Or more to the point, the city produces a deep confusion.
So let me ask you a question. This is not an open book test, so no peeking into scripture. Where in the bible do we first read of a city?
Strange that so many knew about the Burj Khalifa, but so few know about the first mention of a city in scripture.
In Genesis 4, after Cain has murdered Abel and after God pronounces a sentence on Cain we read:
Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” But the Lord said to him, “Not so; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.” Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him. So Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden. Cain made love to his wife, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Enoch. Cain was then building a city, and he named it after his son Enoch.
God provided some means of protecting Cain from the consequences of murdering Abel and we who have learnt to trust God, even if feebly, can assume that the protective means were adequate. Yet, Cain went away from God’s presence, rejecting this protection. And his first recorded public act is that of building a city.
Cain’s city, the city built away from God’s presence, soon gives rise to Lamech, under whom the escalation of violence is institutionalized. Read Genesis 4.17-24 to convince yourself.
Now living in cities, humans became so depraved that God found no way to address this problem than with a flood. But hardly has the flood faded from memory than humans resume their city building.
In his masterpiece, Meaning of the City, Jacques Ellul, has much to say, obviously about the city. I must give a spoiler alert here to those who attend the bible studies. Referring to our passage Ellul writes:
Babylon, the great city, or Babylon the Great. The biggest in the world. No one can rival her, not even Rome. Not because of her historical greatness, but because of what she represents mythically. All the cities of the world are brought together in her, she is the synthesis of them all. She is the head and the standard for the other cities. When the wrath of God is loosed, she is struck first. When she is struck, all the other cities are struck in her. The blame laid on her shoulders is applicable to every city... Everything said about Babylon is in fact to be understood for the cities as a whole.
As all the other cities, Babylon (representative of all the others) is at the hub of civilization. Business operates for the city, industry is developed for the city, ships ply the seas for the city, luxury and beauty blossoms forth in the city, power rises and becomes great in the city. There is everything for sale, the bodies and souls of men. She is the very home of civilization and when the great city vanishes, there is no more civilization, a world disappears. She is the one struck in war, and she is the first to be struck in the war between the Lord and the powers of the world. A city greater than a simple city — the finishing of a work that can in no wise be finished, which man starts over indefinitely with ever the same purpose and the same access. Babylon, Venice, Paris, New York — they are all the same city, only one Babel always reappearing, a city from the beginning mortally wounded: ‘and they left off building the city.’
It is important here to note that when Ellul uses the word city, he does not simply mean hugely populated regions. Any place that is primarily a consumer rather than a producer of the necessities of life – food, shelter, clothing – is called a city. Any place that promises safety is a city. In today’s world anything from a village to a town to a city to a nation is what Ellul would classify as having characteristics that are quintessentially those of the city. Keep this in mind as we proceed.
God intended that humans should spread and fill the earth, sharing its bounty with each other and with the rest of creation. But beginning from Cain and encapsulated poignantly in today’s text, humans reject this.
We do not believe that God’s protection is enough. We fear being scattered. We fear being so few in number at any place that other humans or animals could overwhelm us. Instead we want our walls, our gates, our gatekeepers, our guardians. The city is ultimately the attempt of humanity to protect itself from the harsh world. People travel to the city from rural areas in the hopes of having a better life. The city seduces us all into believing that we are safer here than elsewhere.
However, we know better. The city is where danger lurks in day and night. Crime is rampant in the city. Plagues start in the city due to the high population density. War is waged by one city against another. The city promises safety but is the most unsafe of places.
And so when humans decided to gather in one city at Babel, God decides to put an end to this deception and delusion. The introduction of different languages serve the purposes of scattering the people and of leaving the city unfinished.
We know and God knows that this does not quench the human desire to build cities. For the building of cities is the means by which humans hope to become safe.
And the city has its positive qualities. Culture, literature, art, music, and science flourish in the city. And these are good. These are valuable human endeavours. But the problem is that the city is confused. That is why the archetypal city is Babel, confusion.
And what is its confusion? Where is it misled? Every human city ever built has been built apart from the presence of the true God. There may be temples and mosques and churches and other so-called holy places. But the true God, the living God, is not welcome in the city because the city is the human insistence of living without God.
But the desire to build and the desire to be creative is good and God will encourage these desires. And ironically, he will finally bring humans to a city. And so in Revelation 21 we read:
I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendour into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honour of the nations will be brought into it.
And so we realize the shocking truth about the city’s confusion: That without God at its center, a city is not a protection from what is outside but a prison for those on the inside.