The Babel story speaks to us on at least a couple of levels. It is most obviously an account of the rebelliousness that started with Adam and Eve and characterizes the early history of the world and is recorded in chapters 3-11. It’s God’s will for the people to “fill the earth” (9:1), and it is the people’s will to stay where they are and “make a name for ourselves” (v. 4). Today it’s not difficult to find examples of people rebelling against God and rejecting His will. We define marriage and gender however it suits us; we abort the unborn because they don’t fit into our lifestyles; and we throw suicide parties. We paint over it all with a primer coat of “love” followed by a finish coat of “my rights.” We have loved ourselves into denial and righted ourselves into destruction.
As disciples it’s easy to read the Babel account at this level, point at the world and shake our heads. Yep, there’s the world being the world. When will they ever learn? Hey, I really enjoyed that message today. You gave it to them good.
But Babel was a large tower so we shouldn’t be surprised that there is a second story attached to it. If you look a little deeper it can be more than a little unsettling. Babel is a story of people defying God by staying where they are. They don’t want to push forward into new territory and they don’t care that God wants them to. They are fine where they are, thank-you. And, “everybody” feels this way. What is proposed by God is going to smash this unity into thousands of pieces and scatter it to the winds.
If we’re paying attention, we learn from Babel that unity is not always a good thing. It can be good or (as in this case) bad. The people of Israel were united in their opposition to God leading them into the promised land (Numbers 13). The army of Israel was united in their fear of Goliath. The apostles were united in their initial belief that Jesus hadn’t risen from the dead. No, unity might make us feel better, but it’s not always good.
It is always powerful. God has to take action because the rebellion at Babel will know no end if He allows it to continue and will lead to their destruction. Man’s attempt to have a utopian society apart from God will eventually turn in upon itself. (Check the history on the score of such movements in our country in the mid-eighteenth century—Brook Farm, New Harmony, Oneida, etc. Most lasted a few years; the “best” lasted a few decades). God was doing the people of Babel a favor by dispersing them.
And that leads to another observation: being scattered is not always bad. In fact, we’re made to push ahead. When we stop, we stagnate. When others stop with us, we become unified and it is a powerful stagnation that doesn’t smell too good. When we push forward together, God uses us in powerful ways.
Finally this: we need to keep moving in the direction of God. This unites both layers of the narrative. The world obviously needs to start moving in the direction of God and disciples need to continue to do such. Both face their own temptations to hunker down and remain were they are. Both need to open their lives to God by moving on.
All of this makes you wonder how Israel received the story of Babel as they got ready to enter Canaan and settle in . . .