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