The tower of Babel is a story where we see God turning human arrogance and rebellion into further disconnect and confusion between people. In humanity’s rhetoric about building community, blindness to the dark side of human nature inevitably leads to further disconnect. Babel gives us much to think about in our self-understanding.
In later verses, the tower is named Babel, composed of two Hebrew words. Bab means gate. El means God. The tower being built was named ‘The Gate of God’.
Babylonians built great towers called ziggurats, which were built in a circular fashion with an ascending staircase that terminates in a shrine at the top, around which are written the signs of the zodiac. Obviously, the tower was a religious building, intending to expose man to the mystery of the heavens and the greatness of God. That, perhaps, is what is meant here by the statement that they intended to build a tower with its top in the heavens. They were impressed by its greatness architecturally, that is, it was a colossal thing for the men of that day to build and they may have thus thought of it as reaching into heaven. But they also unquestionably were thinking of it as a means of communication with God, of maintaining contact with him. God is not to be left out, you see, in the city of man. He is there, represented by this tower.[i]
It’s intriguing to see their stated motives for building the tower. “Let’s make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” The people wanted to be known as a glorious people united into one community. They spoke a reoccurring historic theme-- One nation under God that all others would look unto as brilliant leaders in the human race.
The disciples still ask Jesus, “When will you restore our nation and put down the Romans? Who among us will sit at your left and right hand in the Kingdom?” Everyone wants God to help them get power and fame over others.
Pastor Ray Stedman said:
The fact that this was a religious tower-- and yet built to make a name for man reveals the master motive behind religion. It is a means by which man attempts to share the glory of God. We must understand this, otherwise we will never understand the power of religion as it has pervaded the earth and permeated our culture ever since. It is a way by which man seeks to share what is rightfully God's alone. This tower was a grandiose structure, and undoubtedly it was intended to be a means by which man would glorify God. Unquestionably there was a plaque somewhere attached to it that carried the pious words, "Erected in the year ___, to the greater glory of God." But it was not really for the glory of God; it was a way of controlling God, a way of channeling God by using him for man's glory. That is what man's religion has always sought to do. It is a way of making God available to us.[ii]
Let’s make a name for ourselves… A Christian understanding of the Devil is echoed in the attitude of the builders. “I will be worshipped. God is not the only one who is glorious!” The angels who followed this line of thinking followed their leader away from the intimate presence of God. The mighty angel was cast out and humbled. The path away from God has not changed.
God was not afraid of the people. He was not against their creativity or desire to live in community. He was and always will be opposed to arrogant humans who want to be worshipped as if they were God.
In their banding together to say “we are better than everyone else”, they found no satisfaction. God caused them to differentiate among themselves in ways that destroyed their intention for community.
Maybe you have felt that arrogance which sets you up as being better than other people. It is a pride which leads to misunderstanding and broken community. The common language you once shared has become a foreign tongue that differentiates you from the others. You move further and further away looking for a place where real community on your terms can exist.