Under the Sun: Reflections on the Tower of Babel

A discussion about language in the Bible, about translations actually, got me thinking about the tower of Babel. I read it a few times, in a few translations, and I meditated on the story and prayed about the troubling thoughts that came to me. I’ll share those thoughts with you now. I’m sure that none are original. First, here is the account of the tower.

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, ‘Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.’ They used brick instead of stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they 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.’ But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, ‘If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.’ So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel – because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

Genesis 11:1‭-‬9 NIVUK

My first thought was this:

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 1:9

We are told that God doesn’t change, but people don’t change either. I wonder why? Why? Why did these people feel the need to make a name for themselves? Why do we still feel that need now? Who were they trying to impress? Why did they think it mattered? Why did they think they would be “scattered over the face of the whole earth?” And why were they afraid of that? Of course, in trying to take control they actually lost it and created the very future they feared.

I think about the human race today. Over the years we are continually gravitating towards cities, and as our cities grow larger our buildings grow taller. Cities around the world are competing with each other for importance, for dominance. Ever taller and more architecturally impressive towers are status symbols for these cities as they attempt to make a name for themselves.

In the past I remember looking at cathedrals and marvelling at their scale and magnificence. Many were built centuries ago, without any of the construction machinery and technology that we take for granted today. And I remember thinking what a wonderful reflection of the glory of God they must have been, and still are today. But now I look at them differently. I wonder about the labour that was used, and how those men were treated. And I wonder whether some of those cathedrals were entirely built for the glory of God, or how much they represented man’s idea of his own glory.

And I thought about language. We have more or less reached the point where we have a global language. People have speculated that one day that language would be Mandarin, or possibly Spanish. That might still happen, but for now the global language is English. Is that a good thing or not?

If God was so concerned about one language that He chose to multiply them, it suggests that our narrowing back down to one is not wise. When I look at the state of society and consider how language has contributed to it, almost weaponized by some, when I think of how often language has spread as a result of imperial domination, I have to wonder. But then I think of Jesus’ command to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19) and how a common language can facilitate that. But again, God would make a way even if we didn’t – we just have to consider what He did at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-12).

I thought how a common language can help us recognise the other commonalities we share as human beings. But also of the precious connection that language has to culture, and how the extinction of a language might precipitate the extinction of a culture. I could spend hours wondering about the relationship between God and diversity.

Finally I returned to thinking of those builders of the tower, and their motivation – which is also ours. And that brought me back to Ecclesiastes.

‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.’ What do people gain from all their labours at which they toil under the sun? Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains for ever.

Ecclesiastes 1:2‭-‬4

I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my labour, and this was the reward for all my toil. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 2:10‭-‬11

And I saw that all toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

Ecclesiastes 4:4

Now all has been heard;
   here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
   for this is the duty of all mankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
   including every hidden thing,
   whether it is good or evil.

Ecclesiastes 12:13-14