The Expository Files

What Was Wrong with the Tower of Babel?

"Brass Tacks" article in Focus Magazine (Jun 98)

The Book of Genesis records the reasoning of the builders of the Tower of Babel in the following words: "And they said, 'Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth'" (Gen. 11:4).

As the earth began to be repopulated in the generations following the Flood, the wide plain of Shinar was the scene of a project that was so ominous that its obstruction required the very intervention of God Himself. In what is known to us as Babylonia (modern Iraq), in lower Mesopotamia, work was begun to build a city and a tower that would secure the worldwide fame of its builders and keep their empire intact. The account of this event is found in Gen. 11:1-9.While the building of the city and the tower in Shinar was still in progress, God said, "Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech" (Gen. 11:6,7). This done, the completion of the project was impossible because the builders were unable to communicate. The work was suspended, and the name of the incomplete city became "Babel" (literally, "Confusion"). The original intention of God for the dispersion of the human race was then accomplished by virtue of necessity, as the various language groups separated into different locales and formed distinct civilizations.

But what was wrong with the "Tower of Babel" that God prevented its being finished? With what, exactly, was God displeased? Surely it was not just the height of the tower itself, as many of us supposed when we were children. Was it not rather the pride and the spirit of human autonomy that lay back of the scheme? The plans for Babel were not formulated to glorify the Creator, but to aggrandize the builders and to assist them in thwarting the divine mandate to disperse throughout the world (Gen. 9:1). The intent was, as Kenneth Taylor suggests, to erect "a proud, eternal monument to themselves." If ever a plan was "the offspring of ambition" (Thomas Whitelaw), Babel was it. And it simply was not God's will at this early stage in history to allow that kind of human self-exaltation to achieve its fulfillment.

The scriptural account of this event stands as a warning against the spirit of Babel, wherever and whenever it may be found - and it does not take a particularly astute observer to discern its prevalence in our own civilization today. The humanistic mindset, which is our principal way of thinking in the West, amounts to precisely the kind of impudence that was condemned at Babel. Our virtual deification of man has clearly been at the expense of our glorification of man's Creator. The proper orientation of humanity toward God has been dismissed as outmoded, and in its place we have substituted a worship of the "soaring achievements of the human spirit." We have excluded God from every project that matters very much to us, and we have engineered a civilization that runs on the principles of human self-rule and self-sufficiency.

In the effort to "make a name for ourselves," we in the modern human family have exalted ourselves in ways that make Babel look like child's play. Yet God is still capable of surprising those who presume to forge their own destiny. While in His patience and longsuffering He may delay the onset of His judgment, the time comes, later if not sooner, when the ambitious pride of mankind will be humbled. "For it is written: 'As I live,' says the Lord, 'every knee shall bow to Me, and every tongue shall confess to God'" (Rom. 14:11). If we suffer from the same thing that was wrong at Babel, we need to repent before it is too late.

By Gary Henry
From Expository Files 7.11; November 2000