Welcome to a new year and a new daily reading plan. Like many reading plans, our plan starts us in Genesis, the first book of the Bible and the Old Testament. So far this week, we have completed the first section of Genesis, chapters 1-11. These chapters include many accounts or “stories”, the final of which is the account of Babel and the tower the early people attempted to build there.
Like most accounts in this section, the Tower of Babel account is extremely well-known. I learned it in Sunday school. Multiple times, in fact. You may have as well.
But as is almost always the case, there are deeper truths to this account than what we learned in those Sunday School lessons. Those deeper truths are revealed by slowly considering the elements of both this account and the manner in which it is presented to us.
Let’s start with that manner. As we already mentioned, the Tower of Babel account comes to us not just in the first book of the Bible but in the first section of that first book. That book also happens to be the first book of the first section of the Bible. In that sense, the Tower of Babel account is not just in the first but among several firsts. It is in at least three “first” biblical categories.
There is a chronological reason why it is among the firsts like this. That chronological reason is the obvious fact that this account is one of the first accounts in history. It happened before most of the other accounts in the Bible happened. From a storytelling and organizational standpoint, then, it just makes sense to put it where it is.
But there is another reason it is among the firsts. There has to be another reason it is among the firsts. Remember, the Bible is an “edited” work. The events the Bible records and the books of the Bible themselves were clearly arranged not just in chronological order but in “communicative order”, that is, in an order that would communicate a message.
As proof of this, consider the fact that the twelve minor prophets were put out of chronological order in the biblical canon (as I discussed here) and that the Gospels were put out of written order (i.e., while Mark was written first, Matthew is placed first). Notice also that Jeremiah and John repeatedly jump back in forth in the times they cover.
So there clearly is an editorial process occurring both in the content and the arrangement of the books of the Bible. The fact that this story is put first, then, indicates that it is put first for a reason.
A Prehistoric Section
Along those same lines is the fact that this first section of Genesis, the section this account is in, is sometimes considered to be “prehistory” or “primeval history”.
Those terms bothered me when I first learned them. I thought “prehistory” meant “fabricated” or at least “questionable”. I thought the scholars who were calling these first eleven chapters “prehistory” were saying we couldn’t consider these accounts to be true.
I realize now this is not the case. Rather, that term “prehistory” just means that these eleven chapters record things that are less historically specific than everything recorded after. Genesis clearly changes in chapter 12. When Abraham is called in that chapter, we suddenly have the kind of things that we today consider “history”, namely a concrete date and place. We then maintain those things through the rest of the biblical narrative.
The Tower of Babel account is recorded in this section before we get these historical dates and places. It occurs in a section that is no less true but is vaguer. It occurs, in fact, in a section that is very much like what we find in the prologue of an epic novel.
And that tells us something about it. That indicates this account is something of a “preliminary” truth. It is introductory information or understanding God wanted us to have before the story proper got started.
A Storied Bad Place
Add to this the location of the Tower of Babel account. We are told it occurred at “a plain in Shinar” (11:2), which we are further told is the same basic place as the city and empire of Babylon.
Now Babylon is a real, literal place. But it also carries symbolic or figurative connotations. Ungodly and anti-godly things happened so often in Babylon that Babylon itself became “storied”, that it, it came to have a history and a flavor. It came to represent everything that resists or opposes God. One example of this comes in Revelation 17:5:
The act we read about in this account happened at this place. This act, in fact, is one of the acts which resulted in this place becoming this place. That kind of produces a “chicken or egg” conundrum. Was it this place which contaminated the act or the act which characterized the place? I can’t answer that question. All I can say is that it is telling that this event happened at this location. The fact that this happened here reveals that the story contains not just information about how we should act but about where we should be or what we should follow.
A True Rebellion
That finally brings us to the act itself, the act which is the basis for the event and the account. There is only one word to describe that act, and that word is “rebellion”.
God had already established His will for these people. When Noah and his sons left the ark, God told them:
These first, prehistoric people certainly knew that God had said this. They certainly knew what God’s will was. And yet they chose to do something different. Their goal in building the tower was at least in part to prevent themselves from filling the earth. They express this in the final statement of 11:4:
So this was a rebellion. It may have been a “gentle” rebellion. That is, it may have been that they didn’t really want to resist God but simply were afraid to do what God said or thought their ideas were better. That probably was the case for some of them. It may have been a “hard” rebellion. It may have been that they dug in their heels due to some resentment toward God. Again, that probably was the case for others of them.
But in any case, it was rebellion. Regardless of motive and/or degree of resistance, it was still true rebellion. These people chose not just to not do God’s will but to do the opposite of God’s will.
Ever O’er Its Babel Sounds
And that is the real teaching of the Tower of Babel account. It doesn’t just show us where different languages come from, though it does that. It doesn’t just serve as an example of sin, though it does that as well. No, this first, prehistoric event which occurred in this storied place reveals the one great problem behind all sin. It is the problem of rebellion, the problematic tendency mankind has to rebel against God’s will at any and all occasion.
Beyond that, it represents the futility of such rebellion. As we see in the account, God overcame the rebellion in a most unexpected and rather non-violent way: He simply made it so they couldn’t communicate anymore. While this is again literal, something which actually happened, it is also, by virtue of being in this first, prehistoric, storied passage, something that is more than literal. It is something thematic, something which represents patterns that are still playing out in this story today.
I like how this pattern is stated in “It Came Upon The Midnight Clear”. One verse of that Christmas carol says this:
There are indeed “babel sounds” all around us. There are people talking about and carrying out rebellion against God. But the song of “the blessed angel”, that is, the Gospel, triumphs over those babel sounds.
The question for us modern readers, then, is, “Will we make babel sounds or will we sing the song?” Will we construct our own towers or will we scatter as God told us to? We will rebel and be frustrated or will we submit and be fruitful?