The story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9 is a creation story.
Like the creation stories that have preceded it, the important question to ask of this story is NOT, "Is it factual?" The question to ask is, "Does it tell something true about human experience?"
Aside: In the first 11 chapters of Genesis there are several linked creation stories:
- Genesis 1:1 - 2:4 - how God made the good world: 7 days of creation.
- Genesis 2:4 - 3:24 - why we suffer and are estranged from God: no longer in the Garden of Eden.
- Genesis 4:1-26 - why there are peoples who are similar but different: Cain kills his brother Abel and is sent into exile.
- Genesis 6:1 - 10:32 - starting over: Noah and his family as the new originating humans.
- Genesis 11:1-9 - building the city of our dreams: why there are so many languages
The story of the tower of Babel is both an instructive and a cautionary tale. It instructs (explains) to us how, after the flood, where there was once again a single first family - Noah's - yet there came to be many different peoples with many different languages.
But like the story of Cain and Abel, which is a cautionary tale about human jealousy and Divine justice, this is a cautionary about human hubris and Divine purpose. ("hubris: exaggerated self-confidence," an often fatal, always mistaken assumption that one knows all there is to know)
From the vantage point of the 21st Century, it is not too difficult to hear in this story echoes from every age of human history: "Wow, with this new technology, nothing can stop us from building a whole new dream world." In Babel, the technology was bricks, in our century it is the internet, in the past it has been planes, trains, cars, ships, etc., etc. The caution in the tale is not, "Stop creating new technology." The caution is, "Don't be over-confident about what this new technology will result in. Everything has a price to pay. Everything has unforeseeable, unintended, unpredictable consequences." As Leonard Cohen says, "There is a crack in everything." And as John Calvin says, "Everything is depraved."
As in the Cain and Abel story where God intervenes to both protect Cain and yet also make plain God's expectations for justice and caring, in this story God intervenes to both protect language and yet also make plain God's expectations for novelty, complexity and diversity - and appropriately humble, honest, human labour and participation in populating the whole world.
Nonetheless, the opening verse of this story contains an echo of a deeply embedded human ache:
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.
In our age of both global communication technologies and stubbornly entrenched local violence, we long for a global understanding as the means to achieve a single, common purpose and harmony. A longing to which this story still stands as a cautionary tale about our hubris.