I was listening to a recent speech that Matt Dillahunty gave in Australia (listen here if you’re interested), and in part of it he brought up the story of the Tower of Babel, found in Genesis 11. It’s a story I’ve thought about several times since leaving Christianity. I don’t recall everything Matt said about it, though I know I’ll be making some of the same points he did. I haven’t been a Christian for about 5 years now, and it’s sometimes hard to imagine that I ever believed stories like this one, though I definitely did. And a number of other conservative Christians do as well.
A few days ago, I asked my wife if she remembered what God was angry about in this story, and she gave the same reason that I thought: God was angry because people were being prideful. In case you’ve forgotten, the crux of the story is that several generations after the flood, mankind was growing numerous, and they all had one common language. They decided to build a tower that would reach Heaven (see how prideful?), so God put a stop to it by confusing their language. This caused the various groups to split up, each person going along with whomever could understand him or her.
However, after looking at the details a bit more, it turns out that my recollection was a bit off. First, the people weren’t actually being prideful at all. Instead of trying to build a tower to Heaven — God’s abode — they were just trying to build a tall one to make it easier to stay in one geographic area:
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as people migrated from the east, they found 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, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”
— Genesis 11:1-4
The phrase “in the heavens” is just talking about the sky, not the realm of God. For just a moment though, let’s pretend that they really had been trying to reach God with their tower. Why would that be such a bad thing? Doesn’t the Bible repeatedly tell us to seek after God? Furthermore, would they have succeeded? On September 12, 2013, Voyager 1 actually left our solar system. In all those miles, it didn’t bump into Heaven. No earth-based tower would ever run the risk of reaching God’s home. So not only were the people not attempting that, even if they had been it wouldn’t have succeeded, and it actually would have been flattering toward God.
So if God wasn’t angry at them for being prideful, why did he confuse their language and force them apart? The next few verses give us the answer:
And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. 6 And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth.
— Genesis 11:5-9
Essentially, God was just being a jerk. He was like a kid stirring up an anthill. I mean, God forbid (literally) that people advance technologically, right? Wouldn’t want them discovering things like the germ theory of disease, after all. And why prevent wars by keeping people within the same culture? Much better, I guess, to create different cultures so mistrust and bigotry can form. Furthermore, if this was such a problem at the time, why hasn’t he stopped us again? We’ve figured out ways to overcome language and culture barriers now. We’ve done so much more than just “build a tall tower.” God’s motivation in this story simply makes no sense at all.
However, if you step back for a moment and stop trying to view this as literal history with an actual god, things become clearer. Imagine living thousands of years ago and trying to make sense of the world around you. You think the world is flat and that the sun revolves around it. You don’t understand the cause of thunder storms, earthquakes, or volcanoes. You can’t imagine how animals and humans got here without some kind of creator. And if there’s a creator, why didn’t he make life easier? Why does he allow disease and starvation? There are so many difficult questions that just have no answer. And so people began to formulate answers as best they could. It’s easy to see that one of those questions may have been “why didn’t God (the gods) give us all the same language?” And so they came up with an answer.
Looking at it from that perspective, it’s much easier to understand how a story like this came to be. These people were dealing with the world as they saw it — and to them, the only reason they could think of for God not wanting everyone to have the same language, is that they would accomplish too much. They had no idea that humanity would one day find a way around that problem, rendering their explanation invalid.
Speaking as someone who grew up believing that stories like this were actual history, I know how easy it is to just go along under that assumption without question, especially if those around us believe as we do. It’s not stupidity; it’s either isolation and ignorance, or it’s stubbornness. We can help the isolated and ignorant by just being available to discuss these things when they come up. And with the Bible, there are plenty of examples to be found.