The Spirit of Babel
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 story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-4 is a powerful illustration of humanity's proclivity for self-aggrandizement and rebellion against God. The people of Babel, according to the narrative, desired to build a tower and city, not merely for the good of humankind, but to assert their own autonomous identity and to rival God's sovereignty. The passage reveals five critical aspects of the people's intentions, which were a clear violation of God's original mandate for human beings.
Firstly, the original mandate given by God to humankind in Genesis 1:28 was to "fill the earth." However, the people of Babel had a different intention. They desired to build a tower and city that would serve as a centralized location for their power and authority. They wanted to prevent their dispersion across the earth, which was a direct violation of God's command and original intent. Rather than fulfilling God's purpose for humanity by spreading out and cultivating the earth, they sought to establish their own rule and authority, building a city that would serve as a symbol of their power and autonomy.
Secondly, the people of Babel intended to make a name for themselves. The desire to "make a name" for oneself is a common theme throughout the Bible, and it is often associated with pride and a desire for self-exaltation. In the case of the people of Babel, their desire to make a name for themselves was a clear indication of their pride and their attempt to assert their independence from God. They wanted to control their own fate, rather than submitting to God's plan for their lives.
Thirdly, the people of Babel intended to build a tower that reached the heavens, a symbol of their audacious pride and rebellion against God. By attempting to construct a structure that reached up to the heavens, they were seeking to rival God's dominion and kingship by launching an assault upon God. The tower was not merely a physical structure; it was a symbol of their defiance and their desire to assert their own authority.
This act of rebellion was a clear violation of God's sovereignty, and it was an affront to His authority. The people of Babel were seeking to challenge God's rule over the earth and establish their own authority in its place. They were not content to submit to God's plan for their lives; they wanted to be the masters of their own fate. This audacious act of rebellion against God's authority was a manifestation of their sinful desire for power and control.
Fourthly, the people of Babel were not willing to play a role in God's story but wanted to make their name great by following their own plan. They wanted the benefits of greatness without the benefactor, excluding God from their lives and believing that the world would be better if they built and planned it themselves.
Lastly, the language used in Genesis 11:1-4 indicates that the people of Babel wanted to usurp God's power. In the passage, the people of Babel say, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves" (Genesis 11:4). The phrase "make a name for ourselves" suggests their desire for independence and self-glorification, indicating their intention to assert their own identity and rule over themselves instead of submitting to God's authority. The phrase "tower that reaches to the heavens" suggests that they wanted to establish a center of worship and a place of human pride to rival God's presence and power. This desire for self-rule and self-exaltation was a clear violation of God's sovereignty, and it resulted in the dispersion of the people of Babel.
The story of Babel, as presented in Genesis 11:1-4, can be understood as a symbol of human pride and the desire for power and autonomy. In Augustine's City of God, he reflects on the city of man, which he characterizes as a society built upon the foundations of human pride and earthly power. Augustine contrasts the city of man with the city of God, which is characterized by humility, charity, and a recognition of God's sovereignty.
Similarly, Babel can be seen as a manifestation of the city of man, where human beings sought to establish their own power and autonomy, rather than submitting to God's will. The desire to build a tower and city that would reach to the heavens suggests a desire to assert human dominance over the earth and to challenge God's authority. This hubris and self-exaltation are a hallmark of the city of man, which Augustine identifies as the root of all sin and corruption.
God's decision to scatter the people of Babel across the face of the earth can be seen as a judgment against the city of man and its sinful ambitions. Augustine emphasizes that the city of man is ultimately doomed to fail, as it is built upon the unstable foundation of human pride and earthly power. The city of God, on the other hand, is built upon the foundation of God's grace and sovereignty, and it is in this city that true peace and fulfillment can be found.
We must avoid the mistake of identifying the city of man with the material world, as God created the world and declared it good. Instead, the city of man represents a distortion of God's good creation, where human beings seek to establish their own autonomous vision of utopia apart from God and ultimately perish.
Therefore, our task is to seek humility and submission to God's will, recognizing that true peace and fulfillment can only be found in the city of God. As we strive to embody the world as God intended it to be, we can participate in God's redemptive work and contribute to the establishment of a society that reflects God's love, goodness, and beauty.