What’s so wrong about a tower?
I mean, towers are cool. Let me show you proof:
Flocks of tourists migrate to these towers each year. People love them. More to the point, God did not intervene to thwart their construction by causing a communication issue.
So what’s up with the so-called Tower of Babel? Why does Genesis 11 tell us that God personally stepped in to sabotage that project?
The tower-builders themselves identify the motives behind their building campaign:
- Make a name for themselves, so that
- They would not be scattered.
So what’s wrong with a tower? Nothing. But there may be a problem with name-making and staying together.
“…let us make a name for ourselves…” (Gen 11:4).
This first goal should send up a red flag for readers of the Old Testament, because our Hebrew Bible talks a lot about one name in particular. In Exodus 3 God introduces himself to Moses as a name translated as “I AM” and transliterated as “Yahweh.” The Old Testament is full of God’s name. The narrative doesn’t even wait for God’s official introduction – it appears first in Genesis 3 – as though the Bible itself is impatient to use the divine name. If you’ve read a bit of the Old Testament and you’re thinking, “I don’t remember seeing ‘Yahweh’ in there anywhere,” you’re probably right. In most English translations of the Bible God’s name is represented by “LORD” printed in all caps. That’s because of the strong tradition – especially among our Jewish brothers and sisters – to respect God’s name by not speaking it out loud or writing it down.
To say that God’s name is a big deal would be an understatement. As Psalm 8 puts it, “O LORD (Yahweh), our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth!” (v. 1). So we might raise an eyebrow at a people whose goal is to “make a name for ourselves.”
Making a name for ourselves isn’t always wrong. In 2 Samuel 8 King David “won a name for himself” in battle (v. 13) and God didn’t seem to mind. If you think of a public figure you admire, that person has “made a name for themselves” because the general population knows their name. That name-making doesn’t diminish the good work of Abraham Lincoln or Mother Theresa, does it? And sometimes whole groups of people mobilize with enough power to make a name for themselves, like we people called “Methodists.”
A name in and of itself isn’t bad. So there must be a motive deeper than that motive that we’re looking for. Perhaps it’s the next one:
“…otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth” (Gen 11:4).
When God created man and woman in the very beginning, the first of God’s instructions was to “[b]e fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it…” (Gen 1:28). Then, after God restarted the human project via a 40-day flood, God gave Noah the same M.O.: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Gen 9:1). This seems to be part of the design of creation, because God gives this same command to the water creatures and birds (Gen 1:23). We are made to be a constructive part of God’s world – and that means all of it, not some small corner that we declare home. If we resist scattering, then we resist what God has designed us to do.
Isn’t unity a terribly good thing? Aren’t we who are in Christ aspiring to be one body (Romans 12:5)? What’s so bad about sticking together? In today’s politically and theologically divided world, it seems like we could use a dose of that.
There must be a motive deeper than these motives that we’re looking for. And it sounds to me like self-preservation.
Self-preservation, in one sense, is literally protecting you and yours and whatever you’ve got. It’s a natural human instinct – a natural creature instinct – but it’s one that Christ has directed us against. “Whoever wants to save their life will lose it,” he said, “but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:25). Self-preservation cannot be our guiding motive. We are created for much more than just staying alive.
In another sense, self-preservation is what they call in marketing “building your own brand.” It can be always looking out for #1, seeking the credit, getting your name out there. But Paul’s advice to the Corinthians about their diet applies to us for our whole lives: “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31). If we’re building any brand it’s the “I AM” brand, you know what I mean?
We cannot live for self-preservation. We cannot live just to keep living. We cannot live to build ourselves up.
But the people of Babel did, and sometimes, we do too.
The greatest temptation toward self-preservation is with my own family. There is a parental instinct to protect my children, and a spousal instinct to protect my husband. There is an allure for building up the Brown name. These desires in and of themselves are not bad, but if they become my guiding motive they become toxic. They become self-preservation.
Sometimes I am tempted to give away less of our funds so that our kids can have trendy sneakers (and I really love trendy sneakers). Other times I’m lured by the desire to stick together to the point of being exclusive. Many times self-preservation tells me to protect my children at all costs, even if it means thinking less of others and more of ourselves.
But our God has not designed us for self-preservation. We cannot live just to keep living. We cannot live to build ourselves up. We live for Christ. We sacrifice ourselves for others. We do it all for the glory of God.
Can you imagine the city of Babel if their motivations had been different?
What if – instead of making a name and sticking together – their goals had been making a name for God and caring for all creation?
Then, instead of a tower, perhaps they would have built an altar.
Maybe they would have left a wall off of the city plans.
Perhaps they’d build, but also constantly sending teams out into the world to find new areas that need God-inspired life.
Because God has not designed us for self-preservation.
We are made for so much more.