Babel and Human Potential

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

The Tower of Babel and Human Religion

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 11:4).

Humans like to build, and the bigger, the better.

At some point between the Flood and Abraham, all humanity came together on the plain of Shinar, in modern-day Iraq, and decided to build a city and a large tower. The endeavor did not end well: God confused the language of humanity, and they stopped building their tower. The place would be known as Babel, or Confusion, because of these events (Genesis 11:1-9).

Even though the Tower of Babel was not a completely fulfilled project, it still stood there, a monument to human endeavor in Mesopotamia. Meanwhile, those scattered in Mesopotamia built cities: Babel, Erech, Akkad, Calneh, among others (cf. Genesis 10:8-12). Those cities would feature a large building in the middle which we today call ziggurats: large step pyramids which were used, as far as we can tell, as temples and as a high place upon which to make offerings to the gods of Sumer and Akkad. Meanwhile, in Egypt, kings would soon begin to build larger and larger pyramids as tombs for themselves and their families, believing that these large structures would help the soul of the king to reach the heavens.

The ziggurats of Mesopotamia and the pyramids of Egypt would become famous monuments. Everyone in the Bible from Abraham to Malachi would have at least heard of the ziggurats and pyramids, and many saw them. We can only imagine how impressive these monuments would have seemed in their younger days; the pyramids are still magnificent despite the ravages of time. They certainly would have projected strength and an air of magnificence. Surely these nations were mighty; surely their gods were strong.

And yet, how many of the Israelites, when hearing about and/or seeing these monuments, thought of the story of the Tower of Babel, and of its ultimate end?

ziggurats and pyramids were influenced by the Tower of Babel; perhaps the Tower of Babel was even considered the first ziggurat. Understood in this way, we can see how the Tower of Babel both explains and is a critique of human religion.

As Paul explains in Romans 1:18-25, when humans no longer give God the Creator the glory due Him, they become futile in their thinking and their hearts are darkened. They turn and give the creation the honor due the Creator. This mentality is on full display on the plain of Shinar. Humans find themselves in a big, lonely world, and do not want to be scattered over its face. Meanwhile, they still search for meaning and value in life. As opposed to honoring God by fulfilling His commandments and giving Him the honor, they instead stay together contrary to His command and work to build a city and a tower to make a name for themselves, not for God. Even after their original plan was frustrated, they kept at it in their new locations, building towers and other large structures.

These structures took on religious meaning and significance. The logic is the same as the use of the high place: the higher the altitude we reach, we imagine, the closer to the divine we get. The Canaanites would imagine that their gods lived on top of the large mountains in their land; the Greeks believed their gods lived on Mount Olympus. Therefore, it was necessary to get up high to present offerings to them or to reach them. And how better to climb up than to build a structure that climbs high into the heavens?

While these structures had religious significance, the glory and honor still went to the nations who built them. To this day we remember the pyramids more as an astonishing feat of engineering accomplished by the “god-like” kings of Egypt than as anything relating to their religion. The ziggurats of Mesopotamia would have made quite the impression on people as well; we can only imagine how the Israelites in exile would have reacted to see such large buildings and the power being projected by the empires which built them. It suddenly becomes clearer why so many started following after those gods: it certainly seemed as if they and the people who built those structures had all the power.

Therefore, human religion seems so powerful, wonderful, and glorious. But it cannot save and is ultimately futile. All such effort is in vain!

The power of God receives testimony from man’s search for meaning and value in life, but it is vain and futile to imagine that we can discover God “out there.” Paul demolished all such thinking when he declared that God is actually not very far from us at all, for in Him we live, move, and exist (Acts 17:26-28). We reach out in vain, trying to please the divine the best we think we know how, but ultimately that can never be enough: we cannot be justified or made righteous on our own by our own effort (Romans 3:20). Even if God is as close as He is far away, we cannot bridge the divide separating us, no matter how much human religion would like to think it can (Isaiah 59:1-2).

Instead, God bridged the gap in Himself. Man, according to his religion, tries to build up to reach the heavens; God, in humility, came to earth as a man, lived as a man, and died as a man (Philippians 2:5-11). Through the God-man Jesus humans can find true religion through reconciliation with God (Romans 5:6-11); it does not involve any elevation, any building, any attempt to reach up by our own unaided efforts to find what we are seeking. We grope and grasp for truth and discover that it has always been here the whole time, reaching out to us (cf. Revelation 3:20-21).

The Tower of Babel was a monument to human pretension, man’s attempt to make a name for himself. Human religion, in its own way, has the same goal: seeking the divine on man’s terms, creating gods in his own image and according to his own fancy, and it all ultimately is designed to glorify himself. Yet such pursuits are in vain. The Tower of Babel no longer exists. The ruins of the ziggurats were discovered by European archaeologists who believed in the God of Israel, the glory of those empires long faded. The pyramids sit in Egypt as ruins, pillaged for stone in medieval days in order to build the old city in Cairo. Few honor the gods of Egypt and Mesopotamia.

We should not imagine that times are altogether different now. We still have human religion with gods made according to man’s fancy. We have large buildings which stand as testimonies to the gods of today: money, power, fame, and so on. Nations build ever larger buildings, attempting to get greater glory and to seem important, a projection of strength. And it will happen to all these nations, buildings, and gods as it happened to the Mesopotamians and the Egyptians. They will pass away, Their religion will not satisfy and will fail.

Meanwhile, the name of Jesus is still on the lips of untold thousands, heard everywhere. The Gospel remains powerful, the only antidote to human religion. Human religion projects strength; God came as Christ in weakness. Human religion vaunts itself; Jesus was humble (Matthew 20:25-28). Human religion seeks its own end; Jesus gave up all things to glorify His Father and accomplish His purposes (John 5:19-24, 30-47, Philippians 2:5-11). According to human religion, man seeks to use his power to save himself; in Christ, we learn that we cannot do anything to save ourselves, and so we must yield and submit ourselves to God so that we can work in Him according to all that He has prepared for us (Philippians 2:12-13).

We have a choice: the Tower of Babel or the Temple of Jesus. The former seems glorious but fades and collapses; the latter seems weak but is truly strong and will endure. Let us choose to follow Jesus and become part of His body, His temple, and honor and glorify God in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry