Much in the same way the story of Eden is a detailed explanation of what happened on the sixth day of creation, the story of Babel is a detailed explanation of how the descendants of Noah spread abroad on the earth after the flood according to their nations and languages. The detailed account of what is said in chapter 10 is given retroactively in chapter 11. The story of Babel speaks to the human need to be understood. It tells of the pain which comes from misunderstanding between nations and races. This misunderstanding keeps us from working together as one united people and prevents us from reaching up into the stars. This story may at first feel like the work of a cruel god, one who wishes to keep his children ignorant and prevent them from accomplishing too much. One could read this story and think that God does not want us to find heaven, just as God did not want us to eat the fruit of knowledge. But there is more to the story than that, God is not simply oppressing us and keeping us from finding what is good.
God had a plan for humanity, he had told us to multiply and fill the Earth the moment we were created and also said to Noah’s sons after the flood “be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply in it.” The people of Babel instead proclaimed “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” They were intentionally ignoring the plan of God – they wanted to skip ahead to Heaven and forgo the work of multiplying to cover the Earth. Instead of wanting to do what God intended they wanted to make a name for themselves. The spirit of Cain had survived all this time and humanity was still not ready to make a good sacrifice to God. Since God had tried flooding the Earth to start again the next option was to confound humanity with many languages and force us to spread across the Earth – God’s plan moved forward without our help and we were set back a great deal because of it.
The problem with the tower of Babel was not really that they were trying to reach Heaven, but that they were trying to reach Heaven by means of their own labour and work instead of by Gods divine plan. They were headed in completely the wrong direction. No tower will ever be able to transcend mortality. No tower will ever let us reach Heaven – for heaven is not to be found in the sky but in the heart. God needed to temper our knowledge a little so that we could learn to look in the right places. Our struggle is not meant to be a race to the stars but a quest to understand one another. The act of getting to know someone and to understand someone who is different than you helps to open the heart to God, who is completely different than us. If we wish to know the Lord it is excellent practice to have to get to know someone who is of another culture and language.
As we have already discussed we have tasted the fruit of knowledge but not the fruit of life. This means that we have only half of what is required to reach Heaven. Those people of Babel were engulfed in the use of their cleverness, they did not understand the importance of eternity. And so there was no hope in their endeavours, they did not understand the Heavens they were trying to reach. We control space but not time. We are affected by both but we can only influence space. Time flows and moves completely unchanged by our wills. We can subdue the earth but we can never subdue history. We have tasted the fruit of knowledge but not of eternal life. This is why the external efforts of the builders in Babel could not be successful – they relied entirely on human control and ingenuity and were therefore limited to the dimension of space. The interior tower to God is a gift of grace because it transcends time on our behalf and we are given the gift of eternal life.
The stories of creation show us a decent of humanity away from communion. In Eden we lost communion with the rest of nature, with the Garden itself, by the actions of Cain and his descendants humanity’s relationship with God changed as well, and now in Babel we have lost communion even with one another. The human condition is one of isolation and God’s action through history is to restore that communion. The biblical story from this point on is the story of how God is slowly coaxing us towards relationship with him. It is the story of how we grow, day by day, generation by generation, age by age, towards the coming kingdom. The kingdom which will be the new Eden, which will be a returning of humanity to harmony and peace. It is the story of how God teaches us with law, with prophets, with poetry, with prayer and sacrifice, and by coming to the earth as Jesus. The story of how God teaches us to deal with this spark of divine knowledge, this piece of divinity which we stole and which is our greatest gift and yet our constant peril. The stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob begin that journey, it is carried on by Moses and Aaron, then through the prophets and the kings right up until Jesus. Then it is carried through the Apostles, through the saints of the church, and right up to you and me. We are living in God’s divine history, in God’s redemptive plan for humanity, and the task is not yet finished, the goal has not been reached, we are a work in progress. Humanity has lost its connection to the community of creation and to the creator himself. God is constantly calling us back to heal this community, to unite the nations, so that we may love God and love our neighbour. In Jesus God reached out to us, trying to bridge those broken gaps, trying to heal the community of creation. For when that community is restored we will be living in the new Eden, the kingdom of Christ, we will be in communion with one another, and with the Father, and with the Son, and with the Holy Spirit.