Week 3, Genesis 11:1-9 “The Tower of Babel”: Unchecked Ambition?

Monday, March 13

The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built.  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’” (Genesis 11:5-6).

Traditional readings of the Tower of Babel story see it as a warning against unchecked ambition. The sin of Babel is the tower, with which they sought to reach the heavens on their own. It is to halt this prideful ambition that God curses them by confusing their languages, stopping the construction and forcing them to divide into language groups and scatter. But as Theodore Hiebert has observed, that traditional reading misses the reason the text itself gives for their building: not so as to reach the heavens, but because “otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4; Theodore Hiebert, “The Tower of Babel and the Origin of the World’s Cultures,” Journal of Biblical Literature 126 [2007]: 29-58). Sure enough, when God decides to act, God says nothing about the tower, or pride—or indeed, about punishment. God acts because the people are about to succeed in their goal of remaining “one people” with “one language,” so that “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” Having circumvented God’s will in this, what else might they do?

This is neither a story condemning the sin of unchecked ambition, nor an account of divine punishment for that sin.   It is about God stepping in to ensure difference and diversity, just as humans are about to succeed in enforcing sameness. Why does God do this? Perhaps because, as Argentinian Methodist theologian José Míguez Bonino wrote, “God’s intention is a diverse humanity that can find its unity not in the domination of one city, one tower, or one language but in the ‘blessing for all the families of the earth’ (Genesis 12:3)” (José Míguez Bonino, “Genesis 11:1-9: A Latin American Perspective,” in Return to Babel: Global Perspectives on the Bible, ed. Priscilla Pope-Levison and John R. Levison [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1999], 15-16). As we saw in the account of creation in Genesis 1:1—2:4a, God loves diversity.

Prayer: God of rainbows, sometimes we talk about being “color-blind,” as though color itself was the problem. We talk about being “post-racial,” as though race itself was the problem. By your Spirit empower us to see as you see, and to love our world as you do, in all its hues and cultures and languages. This is our prayer, in Jesus’ name, Amen.