The Undoing of Babel
by Derek Thomas
“Man’s nature,” Calvin wrote in the Institutes of the Christian Religion, “is a perpetual factory of idols” (1.11.8). Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the Babel episode (Gen. 11:1–9). Babylon becomes in time the most important city in Mesopotamia, and in Bible history a synonym for worldly opposition to God. Thus, at the close of the Scriptures, in the successive destruction of the enemy’s powers, is the downfall of Babylon: “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” (Rev. 18:2). The progeny of the serpent (Gen. 3:15) populate history, often gathering collectively in cities to sound the notes of implacable hostility against the purposes of God. Babel, then, is the converse of Jerusalem, the city of God. Augustine’s City of God is based on the contrasting description of the “twin cities.”
Babel, in popular etymology, came to mean “Gate of God.” But the passage before us refutes this claim. Babel represents man’s unified futile attempt to reach up to heaven, but it became a fissure through which the judgment of God came down and confused (disunited) their language into babbling (Hebrew for “confusion” is babel [Gen. 11:7]). The ziggurat of Babel was a city’s skyscraper mark of identity (as recognizable in the plain of Shinar as the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Space Needle in Seattle, or Big Ben in London).
An interesting and alarming contrast develops as Moses inserts this story here in Genesis. The pattern: city, autonomy (“Let us…,”11:3), cohesion, making a name by self aggrandizement (11:4), and tower is mimicked in the very next chapter with the call of Abram: tent, sovereignty (God says, “I will…” 12:2–3), separation, given a name, altar of worship. An entire theology of self-justification by human effort in contrast to divine justification through faith is apparent in this contrast!
The Tower of Babel represents “Home Depot” religion — the do-it-yourself approach to spirituality: the passion for power, the distaste for submission and obedience, the prideful drive for popularity, the readiness to compromise ethical standards, the stupidity that takes risks “come hell or high water,” blind to all consequences (using inadequate materials for such a project, 11:3). And more especially, the disease and angst-ridden discontentment that lies at the heart of fallen humanity, which drove Rockefeller, the financial tycoon, when asked what else he wanted from life, to reply, “Just a little bit more.”
When you ascend the Babel ziggurat, what is it that you find? Loneliness, despair, and dissatisfaction — a cut-throat existence that demands loyalty without pity. It is the tolling bell of Ecclesiastes that nothing brings true and lasting satisfaction “under the sun”; all is “vanity” and a “a striving after wind” (Eccl. 1:2–3, 17).
To this malady of the human heart God pronounces a judgment — one that is only undone in the obedience of the last Adam. At Pentecost, the disciples began to speak in foreign human languages so that visitors to Jerusalem could hear the message of reconciliation in their own tongue. It is noteworthy that just as Genesis 10 includes a “table of nations” (vv. 1–32), Luke also includes one at Pentecost (Acts 2:8–11), signaling a reversal of the Babel curse through faith in the Mediator. Peter will reflect on this later when he writes his first epistle, recording that God’s redemptive purpose is created in Jesus Christ one “holy nation” (2:9). At Pentecost, an eschatological reversal takes place, arresting the effects of Babel for a season, enabling the disciples to be witnesses to Christ to the “nations” in anticipation of a reality that will one day emerge.
The church is called to love in anticipation of that new existence, demonstrating God’s covenantal blessing of a restored humanity in Christ. What arises in the early church is a reflection of life lived in submission to God’s providence and in fellowship with one another. In contrast to the manipulative, self-seeking, power-hungry parody of “church” as we often so sadly encounter it, the body of Christ should reflect the undoing of Babel: a fellowship called out of the world, called into union with Christ and into fellowship with one another.
The contrast between these two loves — love of self and love of others is the key to understanding both Babel and its reverse. Commenting on Psalm 65, Augustine concludes: “The two loves which have created these two cities, namely, self-love to the extent of despising God, the earthly; love of God to the extent of despising one’s self, the heavenly city. The former glories in itself, the latter in God. The former seeks the glory of men while to the latter God as the testimony of the consequence is the greatest glory. …the one is holy, the other impure; the one is social, the other is selfish…. Wherefore let each one question himself as to what he loveth; and he shall find of which he is a citizen. And if he shall have found himself a citizen of Babylon, let him root out cupidity and implant charity. But if he shall have found himself a citizen of Jerusalem, let him endure captivity and hope for liberty.”
“A citizen of Jerusalem….” This is what Jesus Christ came to provide — a way out of Babel and into the new city where peace and safety and true communion is found. It is no chimera but a reality offered to all who come to Jesus by faith and confess him to be both Lord and Savior.