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

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Heavenly Minded

I see them all over social media, and once in a while I hear them in sermons – the inspirational one-liners, the faith-building sound bites. I dread them. Sometimes it’s an out of context Bible verse, but even worse are the quotes which sound like they are Biblically based wisdom, but which might be little more than misleading witticisms.

Here are my three principle thoughts on religious sound bites:

  1. They trouble me because they could easily lead someone in the wrong direction or reinforce a misconception.
  2. They usually have an element of truth in them, making them even more dangerous.
  3. I use them myself. I wish I didn’t, but they are very seductive.

Here’s an example that I came across recently…

When you have a problem don't go to the phone. Go to the throne.

I can see the value of the message. I can see the truth behind it. It seems to embody scriptural meaning, for example from Philippians 4:6

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

And of course this is just one of dozens of verses instructing us to take our problems to the throne. Very good. Very wise. Very Christian.

These days when for many people the phone is their window on the world, I can see too the wisdom of encouraging them not to immediately Google their problems, or share them with the world on social media, but instead to pray and reflect on them.

But at the same time, I was troubled as soon as I read the quote, because I could also see a very negative side to it.

For a start, it’s an uncompromisingly black and white message. It reminded me immediately of people who say they don’t need anything or anyone but Jesus. It seems like perfect faith on the surface, but I don’t think it’s the message that Jesus Himself gave.

I think about the parable of the good Samaritan for example (Luke 10). The traveller who was attacked got his help from a human being. How much of the Samaritan’s motivation came directly from God is a question we could debate, but while I agree that in the perfect world to come we will need nothing but our Lord, the Bible makes it clear that in this broken world we currently inhabit we need each other.

Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10)

God has put people in our lives. He has given us friends to counsel us and support us in our times of need. If we have a problem and we go to the phone to call a good friend who can give us the advice, encouragement or the shoulder that we need, then in a sense we have also gone to the throne, because we are using the resources God has made available to us.

I have no doubt that most Christian inspirational quotes are well intentioned and useful in many circumstances. But you can’t get the whole story from a soundbite. The world is not black and white, and sometimes, as the famous one-liner goes, you can be so heavenly minded that you are no earthly use.