And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is what they begin to do: and now nothing will be withholden from them, which they purpose to do. Come, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech” (Genesis 11:6-7).
It is perhaps the earliest backhanded compliment ever given.
God is quite aware of human potential; He made man in His image (Genesis 1:26-27). When humans come together and work together, there is very little which they are not able to accomplish. So much of what has been accomplished over the past few hundred years testifies to this; we live in a very different world than people in the 1700s did. To a large degree we have tamed our environment, with large cities, highly developed infrastructure, and many technological innovations which have improved the quality of life immeasurably. We marvel at bridges, dams, skyscrapers, and other astounding feats of engineering. Humans, therefore, have a great amount of potential!
We think this potential is great; we do not see any problem at all with it. Yet, according to what we see in Genesis 11:6-8, God decides that this potential is problematic, and confuses the language of humans so that they will scatter and disperse.
This does not seem right. Why would God want humans to be separated and divided? Does God not want humanity to be unified? Is it not a good thing that there is no end to what humans can accomplish when they work together?
The circumstances during which God makes this declaration explain the difficulties. Humans, still unified in language, came together on the plain of Shinar in order to build a tower and a city to make a name for themselves and so that they would not be scattered across the face of the earth (Genesis 11:1-4). This was contrary to God’s intentions (cf. Genesis 9:1), and speaks volumes regarding humans, their intentions, and the ways they use their potential.
We do not think the exercise of human potential is a bad thing at all; in reality, it does not have to be. But humans have been corrupted by sin, and therefore we should not be surprised to see that human potential is often expended in misdirected ways. So it is with the Tower of Babel on the plain of Shinar: man uses his potential to seek to glorify himself and to make a monument to his endeavors and abilities. It is not about God and His glory; it does not seem as if those in Babel gave any consideration to God and what He intended.
One could make a good case that the earth cannot sustain humans living at their full potential. What do people end up doing when they come together and purpose to work together? They transform their environment. People continue to consume with abandon. Little thought is given about what resources will be left for future generations; people end up being too preoccupied with advancing their own purposes and causes in their own generation to think of that. The only checks on such activity come from illnesses and war.
And so God confuses human language, the one thing which seems to keep people together and working together, and from this point people separate from one another. Humans, apparently, must be saved from themselves. From this point on much human potential and energy would be directed against one another, finding new and innovative ways to destroy one another, to get advantages over others, and to find ways of reinforcing “us” and “our” superiority against “them”. Buildings, cities, monuments, civilizations, and the like are built and destroyed. We really have not “developed” much past our ancestors at Babel: we still yearn to be together and to make a name for ourselves. Humans, whenever they get together, plan and purpose for their own ends and glory. And their efforts, no matter how successful they might have seemed for a time, always end up frustrated. Every building, city, monument, and civilization decays and collapses. Everyone dies.
If the Bible ended here in Genesis 11, the story would be quite bleak indeed. Humans were made in God’s image but sinned and found themselves separated from God (Genesis 1:1-3:24). Humans drifted further and further from God’s intentions, suffering terribly, and now is not only separated from God but also is now separated from his fellow man (Genesis 11:1-9). Man finds himself without God, without redemption, without a covenant or identity from God, and therefore without hope. Such is life “under the sun,” and it is not a pretty picture at all. Little wonder people continue to embrace the futile goal of Babel and continue to believe the lie!
But the Bible does not end here. The genealogy immediately following the story of the Tower of Babel brings us to Abram (cf. Genesis 11:10-32), and God will call Abram to Himself and through him begin a series of promises and covenants leading to the means by which He would deliver mankind from his terrible plight.
This story reaches its climax in Abraham’s descendant Jesus of Nazareth and the Gospel proclaimed in His name as found in Acts 2:1-36. And of all the ways by which God would communicate the importance of this message, which does God choose, as exemplified in Acts 2:1-36? Of all the means by which God could communicate how He was bringing all people into the covenant through Jesus, which does God choose in Acts 10:44-48? Speaking in tongues: foreign languages!
The symbolism is potent: Jesus and His Kingdom are the anti-Babel. All that which was established on account of Babel is undone through Jesus and His Kingdom. On account of the Tower of Babel, man’s language was confused so that he could not come together by a common purpose and grew alienated from one another. Through Christ all people of every language, ethnicity, race, and any other mark of identity become one body (Ephesians 2:11-17, Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11).
There is another very important detail about the Apostles and Cornelius and his men as they spoke in tongues: Luke says that they spoke the “mighty works of God” (Acts 2:11) and “magnified God” (Acts 10:46). Our unity can only exist insofar as we are unified with God (cf. John 17:20-23, 1 John 1:5-7); yet we are only brought together so that we can join with one voice to praise the name of God and tell of His wonderful deeds. We are brought together into one Kingdom in Jesus not to advance our own purposes but the purposes of God who purchased us in Christ (1 Corinthians 6:19-20, Galatians 2:20). In Christ alone can we find true unity and true purpose so that it is no longer our will, but His, that will be done.
Human potential is not the problem; sin is. Human potential, misdirected because of sin, causes all sorts of problems, seeking only to magnify man’s name. The fact that God felt compelled to separate us from ourselves speaks volumes about our intentions and purposes in the flesh! Human potential, misdirected by sin, causes great damage and pain. It is only when human potential is harnessed and directed toward the glorification of God and the advancement of His purposes that it can be a beautiful sight in the eyes of God and lead to the general betterment of all things. Let us seek unity with God in Christ and thus with one another so that we can expend all of our energies and resources to God’s glory and praise!
Ethan R. Longhenry