In the liturgical life of the Church, the event of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles and they began to speak in various languages, is linked to the story of the Tower of Babel in the Old Testament. There, too, people began to speak in different languages but with an entirely different outcome. Pentecost brought the unity of the gospel, Babel brought the scattering of peoples through the diversity of languages. There are lessons within the Babel story, however, that are worth noting.
I leave it to others to worry about the historical nature of the Tower of Babel. Linguistic evidence points to widespread language differentiation for most of human history. But the lesson of Babel should not be lost in historical analysis, for some of it is quite contemporary.
In Genesis, the building of the Tower provokes a crisis for all of humanity.
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.” But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. And the LORD 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.” (Gen 11:4-6 NKJ)
God’s action in “confusing the languages” is similar to His action in Genesis 6:
And the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, for he is indeed flesh; yet his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.” (Gen 6:3 NKJ)
God has not destroyed humanity – but He has mercifully placed limits on us. Those limits are not punishments, but restraints. He saves us from ourselves.
Though Orthodoxy does not view human nature as poisoned or utterly perverted, it nevertheless recognizes certain tendencies and dangers. This is one of the deepest flaws in modernity. The myth of the modern age is rooted in a view of progress. Historically, progress is the transferral of the ultimate hope within the Christian faith, the coming of the Kingdom of God, to a present tense project of human civilization. Utopian visions are transferred from paradise and transformed into moral caveats. “To make the world a better place” is a moral platitude that finds almost universal moral acceptance.
Strangely, the story of Babel is God’s rebuke for just such an effort.
The Scriptural account of humanity is not one of progress. It is the story of salvation and salvation is not the outcome of any form of progress, technological, political or spiritual. The concern in Genesis is stated rather plainly, and in a timeless fashion:
“Now nothing they propose to do will be withheld from them.”
It is interesting that the Babel account does not specifically treat the question of the tower. There is no sin attached to the tower itself. Equally problematic are tower, city, and a “name for ourselves.” The Biblical writers were sure to have known that many “towers” were built in the Ancient Near East. Cities and names continued to be built. It is the unity that is attacked in the Biblical account. The confusion of the tongues creates many cities, many towers, many names. It also creates competing cities, towers and names. We can even say that it creates wars between cities, towers and names. And somehow, in the Biblical vision of humanity, those confusing and often tragic outcomes are to be preferred to “nothing being withheld from them.”
This is the fearful aspect of the love of God. For the God who loves and saves us, also loves us enough to save us from ourselves. I think it is wrong to say that God creates wars, but our wars are allowed lest something worse should come. Who cannot say that the tragedy of the Second World War was better than the looming tragedy of an unchecked Nazi Empire? The darkness that destroyed over 30 million persons still pales against the darkness it overthrew.
Biblically, our “shortened” life-span is also a Divine limitation imposed on us for our own relative good. It would be surprising to most, but the Scriptures tend to think that living longer (than 120 years) only leads to more trouble and intractable evil in our lives. The Scriptures do not think of human beings as inherently evil, but the Scriptures are extremely realistic regarding all human beings. It should be noted that nothing has ever made the Scriptures human skepticism seem incorrect in this regard.
The modern period has been marked by numerous Babel-like hopes. As noted earlier, we believe in progress. The modern project is all about building a better world and creating a better future. Of course, the better future has been through several versions. For some, the better future was the arrival of the “Classless Society,” i.e. Communism. In the name of a better world, many people were killed. The same could be said for a variety of other “future” projects.
A weakness in all “projects” is their tendency towards utilitarian approaches. Utilitarianism is a moral philosophy in which “good” is measured by “useful” (utilis in Latin). Here in East Tennessee, for example, we built large dam projects to produce electricity. It was a great leap forward for rural electrification, but displaced many communities. It was considered to be an “end” that made the “means” acceptable.
Such reasoning has always been part of the human project. New, however, are the scales to which the modern imagination can reach. And with the size of our modern “towers” (projects), so, too the size of our modern failures and dangers.
Christian eschatology includes some reference to this phenomenon.