The Tower of Babel is one of the more interesting tales in the Biblical canon. The myth was designed to make sense of the fact that humans speak so many different languages. The story is often told like this: in the early days of humanity, some time after the flood, a group of humans decided they were going to build a city and, in that city, there would be a giant tower called Babel. God passively watched from above but when he saw what they were up to, God couldn’t help but become angry with the humans. The humans were trying to build a tower so that they too could sit on the clouds like God. The humans were beginning to fancy themselves Gods. So, God responded by toppling this little tower and forcing all the humans to speak different languages, so that they couldn’t communicate with one another. Without the ability to communicate, the humans presumably gave up on the project and decided to form independent countries and endlessly go to war with each other instead. The end.
If you were raised Christian, you’ve probably heard some variation of this story before. The way the story is often told seems to parallel the story of Icarus. Humanity flew too close to the sun, so God melted their wax wings and sent them plummeting back to Earth. Hubris is the tragic flaw of humanity in this story as it is usually told. But, having read it with a fresh pair of eyes, I think we’ve misunderstood this story.
The story is only 9 verses long, so we haven’t got a lot to work with here. The details of the traditional story are all in agreement with the actual text. Humanity, under one language, does decide to build a city with a tower named Babel in the middle. God does get angry at this and he does destroy the tower and give each of the people new languages. But God’s reasons for doing this, and humanity’s reasons for building the tower are a little bit different than we’re usually taught.
Genesis 11:4 is usually the text cited to justify the position that humanity was building the tower to be arrogant. This verse tells us that humans wanted to build the tower to “make a name for ourselves.” This sounds pretty damning until you read the full quote: “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.” So, it seems like humans were building a tower to make a name for themselves, but for the purpose of unifying all people under one common banner.
We see further evidence of this in Genesis 11:6. God descends to the city and sees what’s going on and responds, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.” Notice there’s no mention of hubris here, it doesn’t even seem to be implied. It almost sounds as though God is frustrated with how successful humans are. It almost sounds as though God is the enemy of humanity in this moment.
Could it be that the ancients saw God as an obstacle? Why not? Most gods were personifications of abstract natural forces. Most natural forces, it seems, are working against humans, not with them, so why not assume that God is standing in your way? Why not assume that God is against you?
We tend to assume that the ancients would have believed in a cheerleader god who shows up to all our soccer games and takes us for ice cream whether we win or lose, but that’s only because that’s what we want to believe. The ancients would probably have been expecting a God who didn’t think much of humanity or, quite possibly, even a God that hated humanity and actively worked to undermine them.
Perhaps, then, God didn’t topple the Tower of Babbel because he thought humans were arrogant, perhaps he did it because he couldn’t stand the thought of human beings becoming united and self-sufficient. Perhaps God realized that if there were no wars, no violence, no oppression, there would be no need for humans to run to God for comfort. If there were no suffering, there would be no need for God. And God couldn’t stand such an idea.
This whole story reminds me of a conversation between Russel Brand and Yuval Noah Harari on Brand’s Under the Skin podcast. Harari notes that most sci fi films depict AI as having some sort of flaw. The robots don’t work the way we wanted them to, they turn on us and they try to kill us. But, Harari notes, this is actually not the most terrifying scenario. The most terrifying scenario is that the robots do work the way we want them to. They work so well that suddenly there’s no place for us in this world anymore. Maybe that’s how God felt; humans were working so well together that God felt useless. And it was better, in God’s eyes, to have humans that fight and go to war and kill each other, than to have humans that don’t need God.