Summary: God intends us to be united in community, a community which scatters across the earth sharing the love of Christ.
A few years ago, I was on a road trip with several college students. We were on our way to Charleston, South Carolina, and I was driving the van late at night. I told the students that whoever rode “shot-gun” had the task of talking to me and keeping me awake. As we made our way over the flat, hypnotizing roads of South Carolina, the young man in the front seat was determined to do his task. So he engaged me in a conversation about the diversity of peoples around the world. The young man was curious about why God created us with different skin colors and why we speak different languages. We talked about it for a while, but never drew any really hard and fast conclusions; probably because there is no easy answer. But this story of the Tower of Babel attempts to provide an answer for why we are scattered about the earth and why we speak different languages. Yet, the lesson of this story goes far beyond that.
We love the story of the Tower of Babel because it’s vivid, and we can easily imagine the enthusiastic spirit of the community as they work together to make bricks and build this massive structure reaching towards the heavens. And then we can imagine the anger of God as the language of the people is confused and they are scattered around the world. Now we know why we speak different languages. The end. But if that really were the end, we probably wouldn’t be as drawn to this story as we are. What makes the story of the Tower of Babel so appealing to us is the fact that an explanation is provided for why God has caused us to have different languages, and yet the explanation itself seems contrary to God’s will. God wants us to be in relationship with one another and with God. So why is God the one doing the scattering?
Part of understanding the significance of the Tower of Babel comes in viewing the story as a parable rather than as an account of actual history. The Genesis narrative has already revealed to us that there are many nations scattered around. We learn this in the preceding chapter where we are given a full listing of all of Noah’s descendents. Hear these verses that fall immediately before the story of the Tower of Babel: “These are the descendents of Shem, by their families, their languages, their lands, and their nations. These are the families of Noah’s sons, according to their genealogies, in their nations; and from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood.” Thus, we already know the story of how there came to be different nations and different languages. So what is the real meaning of the story of the Tower of Babel? What is its real significance?
As one way of getting a glimpse of what’s going on in Babel, let’s think for a minute together about teamwork. And since football season is now in full swing and you all are probably tired of hearing about my basketball career, we’ll use the football team. In general, the goal of any football team going into a game is to win. But, of course, winning requires teamwork. The offensive line is needed to protect the quarterback so that the quarterback can throw the ball to the receivers or hand it off to the running backs. And though the quarterback takes the ball initially, it gets down the field through the work of the running backs who run the ball, or the receivers who catch the ball. Of course, on the offensive side, there’s also the kickers who can put in a field goal if a touchdown opportunity is missed or kick the extra point after a touchdown. Then there’s the defense, which works to keep the other team from scoring; or in Tennessee’s case, which scores when the offense fails to do so. It literally takes the hard work of every player on the field to win a game, and if any one piece messes up their role, it means failure in reaching that goal of winning the game.
So, when God created humanity, God’s idea was that we would be a team. But not just a team to ourselves; we were to be a team working with God. God’s plan was that we would “fill the earth and subdue it.” God’s plan was that with God making a way for us, we would scatter across the earth and share the story of the one True God: YHWH, as the Israelites called him. It’s kind of like God’s the quarterback calling the plays and directing the team, and we are the running backs or receivers who take the hand-off from God or turn back to God to catch the pass so that the ball can get down the field. We can try and function as a team without God, but without someone to manage the ball, we’re not going to do very well. We’re not able to move forward as God intends, and we are not able to accomplish the goal that God has in mind. And that’s exactly what God saw happening with the community in Babel.