29 May 2015

Genesis 11:1-9

“Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’” (v. 4)

Psalm: Psalm 97


This is the famous story of the Tower of Babel, the legendary huge tower which people built, and which God forced them to abandon, scattering them over the whole earth and confusing their language so that they could not work together on this project. It is thought that Luke's story of the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13) is like a reversal of this judgement, when God's spirit enables people of all ethnicities and languages able to hear and understand the disciples' speech about the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 2:7-8). You will sometimes see stained glass windows in old churches that juxtapose the unfinished tower of Babel with the scene in the upper room where the Spirit descends in tongues of fire above the head of each disciple (Acts 2:3).

This narrative fits into the genre of story that is called 'etiology' - it is a story that considers something we can all observe (namely that human beings currently speak hundreds of different languages, and cannot understand each other without considerable effort), and offers an explanation - how we got to where we are. There are several ways of interpreting this story, and what seems to be the underlying problem. Some have seen it as an image of human pride. Mortals want to make a name for themselves; they want their tower to penetrate the very heavens. God (who seems to be discussing the project in the courts of heaven) seems worried that mortals are simply attaining dangerous amounts of power: "this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them" (v. 6). It is rather like the worry expressed in the story of the Fall earlier in Genesis, that human beings are in danger of becoming like gods (Genesis 3:22). And so God does not smash the tower, but just makes it all a lot harder for mortals to work together, so that they abandon the scheme by themselves.

We may find it a story we cannot take literally, but there is a good deal of insight here. From the vantage point of our developed technological world, we know that the enterprise of building impressive cities was indeed only the beginning of what human beings have been able to do. And the consequences, in terms of global warming, have immense potentially destructive power for the whole of earth's creation. We have the data, and we engage in regular high level conversations about what each nation can and should do about it, but it is immensely hard, for all our talking, to achieve a plan of joint action to rein in the big money-making projects that we love to build.

To Ponder

  • In what ways do you find it possible to pray about global warming?
  • What steps have you and your church taken to reduce your carbon footprint?

Bible notes author

Janet Morley

Janet Morley is currently the Commissioning Editor for HOLINESS, the journal of Wesley House, Cambridge ( She worked for ten years in the Connexional Team, with the training and development officers, and latterly, as Head of Christian Communication, Evangelism and Advocacy.