In the book of Genesis chapter 11 the entire human population at the time, Noah’s offspring, started to build a city and a tower in order to consolidate their own situation and also for their name and the increase of their reputation. Building a town and a tower by the entire population of the earth would have represented a way of strengthening human unity, but God apparently didn’t like this kind of human agreement. Unfortunately, this was considered to be a bad idea by God. Humankind was seen as a kind of adversary by God and He would have considered that instilling division amongst the human beings would be a better policy than strengthening their unity.
This is clearly a metaphor with no correspondence in reality, but it is interesting why this legend is found in the book of Genesis, and what is its underlying message? Taken literally this story is absurd for many reasons. God, as we imagine Him like an Almighty Reality would have been aware that confusing languages of humankind wouldn’t have been enough to stop them cooperating to achieve common goals. In the ancient world people organised in strong societies, everywhere on Earth developed civilizations and built huge constructions, and their vestiges can be found all over the world today.
People speaking mainly one language sometimes using work forces from other countries with other languages, have built pyramids and other impressive constructions in spite of the languages allegedly being confused by God at the Tower of Babel. Moreover, the model of the tower, pyramids or ziggurats, is the most enduring achievement of many civilisations all over the world. The existence of many languages on Earth wouldn’t have been enough to stop human beings building what they wanted. The confusion of the languages by God wouldn’t have achieved anything when aiming to stop humankind cooperating for different goals, but would have generated conflict and finally destructive wars between different nations.
Many languages and many cultures can be and often were a false motivation for destruction when one civilisation or nation considered itself superior to others. Is God responsible for the confusion of languages and consequently for so many conflicts between nations during history? I honestly don’t think so and the story of the Babel Tower is only a myth trying to explain why there are so many languages on Earth. The story of the Tower of Babel goes in the same lines as do all the first 11 chapters of the book of Genesis, which in their turn try to explain one thing or another, but by doing that they only generate confusion.
Trying to elucidate why there are so many languages on Earth, the author of the text from the book of Genesis has gone beyond what he or she knew and generated a text which is a legend, hence having no factual support. The text implies that it could have been otherwise and all people could have spoken only one language, but God didn’t want that. Confusing humankind’s languages is a bad moral teaching coming from the book of Genesis which presupposes that God wanted people to misunderstand one another.
This is contrary also to the Christian morality which professes unity and understanding, not divisions and conflicts.
How would God have confused the languages? Allegedly all people around Babel were family, Noah’s grandsons. Did God arbitrarily separate some of Noah’s grandsons from other grandsons, giving to each of them a different language? How many languages were imposed on people? Did they speak those languages automatically without learning them? Did they know them without being taught the words and rules? Usually languages evolve from a more rudimentary way of communication to a more evolved one. Had Noah’s offspring received in the same time the alphabet of those languages in order to enable them to write? Was humankind made to forget the common language used until the confusion moment by erasing it from their minds or were they prevented from using it? The entire story is unrealistic. This is the most incredible manner of explaining the apparition of languages on Earth.
The differences in languages generated differentiations between cultures and finally those differentiations have contributed decisively to conflicts and wars. Did God intend humankind to confront rather than to have a good understanding? It is what the book of Genesis says but of course cannot be taken literally as a fact. Such divine attitude would contradict the image of a loving God whose aim is to bring humankind to peace and to establish harmony between all human beings. We tend to see all God’s actions depicted by the Bible as part of a broad plan in which the most important feature is to better human nature. God and humankind aren’t seen by Christianity as competitors but the book of Genesis presents this relation as a competition and a struggle for knowledge and creation.
As a matter of fact, God wouldn’t have succeeded in stopping people realising common goals because in spite of the existence of different languages human beings have reached the sky, launching satellites or going to the moon. Languages can be translated one into another as everyone knows and the coexistence of different languages never stopped humankind reaching a high level of scientific knowledge. Sometimes even the competition between different nations speaking distinctive languages was a cause for technological progress and construction achievements, for example the Chinese wall.
Probably, the differences in languages could have helped rather than prevented the progress of humankind. A single nation with a single language led by autocratic means or under strict religious guidance, for example, something similar to the Inquisition, could have more easily stopped scientific progress than the existence of more nations on Earth. The differences in languages helped human knowledge when some pioneers of science could find refuge in more tolerant societies after being persecuted in their countries. The point is that preventing human cooperation by mixing languages, God couldn’t have stopped the building of towers or other monumental buildings, and the existence on Earth of some millenary towers or pyramids proves that.
In the story of the Babel Tower the method which is said to have been used by God is unsuitable for the purpose which is declared. It is the same idea as with the story of the Flood. The Flood wasn’t a proper method to sort out the problem of human morality and violence. These mythological stories cannot be understood as parables because they don’t bear any high spiritual messages. If we take them to be parables their understanding points to God as being angry and hostile to humankind who He had created. After creating human beings and following their disobedience, God tried to stop their progress either by drowning their majority under the waters of the Flood or by confusing their language, but as we know the evolution of human knowledge didn’t stop.
Bricks and bitumen used instead of mortar couldn’t have brought humankind to the heavens if by heavens is understood the Kingdom of God. There are limits for any human achievement and there wouldn’t have been any reason for God to be anxious about humankind cooperating to reach the sky.
This anxiety of God about the human creativity is very strange and cannot reflect a reasonable image of an Almighty divinity.
“Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as they migrated from the east,* they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4 Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’
5 The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 6 And the LORD said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ 8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused* the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.” (Genesis 11; 1-9 NRSV)
God went to see the city and the tower when they had already been built. Probably they didn’t finish all their work but even so, God made an important prediction in verse 6 from chapter 11. “And the LORD said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” God has prohibited the knowledge of good and evil to humankind and now He realises again that having knowledge, humankind can become like Him, not only by knowing good and evil but also by having scientific knowledge which would allow it to realise great deeds. But can humankind become like God only through scientific knowledge? In the book of Genesis, the answer is positive and that would mean that God can be reached through technological means.
This mythology shapes a certain philosophy. God would have set some barriers but humankind doesn’t respect those limits, going over them. At the same time the idea of the Babel Tower can mean a continuation of the hints given by the book of Genesis in respect to an extra-terrestrial civilization. The sons of God, again, have offered new technologies to humankind and God didn’t like that. The traces of the sons of God, possibly the representatives of a very developed civilization, are found in the Bible also after the Flood, for example in Numbers or in relation to David’s fight against Goliath. Jesus is the ultimate Son of God who came on Earth also to give to humankind spiritual knowledge, against the will of the god of this world who is Satan. Christians are also sons and daughters of God ready to impart the spiritual knowledge to the entire humankind.