The story of Babel and its famous tower, to this reader, seems awkwardly placed between two genealogies. It also, if read directly, contradicts the preceding chapter. Gen. 10:5, 10, 31 indicate that many nations form and establish their own languages (although it’s not clear which names form these nations) while Gen. 11:1 claims “the whole world had one language and a common speech.” Textual issues aside, there are still challenges facing a literal interpretation of the Babel story. There’s a cosmological problem, an ego problem, and an historical problem.
In the story, humanity urbanizes and builds a monument to themselves that reaches to the heavens. As a child in Sunday school I was taught that the builders of the tower actually thought they could reach heaven if they built the tower tall enough. The idea that heaven lies somewhere among the clouds, at least with a 21st century understanding of the universe, is absurd, even to a child. I’m not even sure that it’s reasonable to assume someone living around Babel at the time would even make this mistake — but let’s leave reason alone for now. Making this assumption conjures up some comical scenarios. Is God’s fear of humanity (Gen. 11:6) justified by an actual existential threat of the physical kind? Sure, he could handle walking among a few humans, but there were plenty of places to hide in Eden — plus he could always escape to the clouds. If people can literally walk into heaven, what’s going to stop them from ganging up on God and punching him in the nose? If people can casually enter heaven, what’s to stop them from stealing God’s limited edition, cloudy-white iPad? In this case, scattering human civilization was merely an act of self-defense.
Of course, it’s doubtful that anyone actually holds this (very) literal interpretation as true. Even if the author of Genesis thought heaven to be in the clouds, the all-knowing God clearly wouldn’t. With this in mind, perhaps God’s existential threat isn’t physical and is instead philosophical. If humanity can build these great cities and get along peacefully (Gen. 11:1) without God, why should they worship him? Scattering human civilization is justified here because God’s ego has to compete with the achievements of his creation. Never mind that the resulting differences in culture eventually lead to slavery and war. World peace be damned.
Historically, we have two issues. The first: this event supposedly impacted all civilization. We should expect it to be a common theme in the history of each ancient society. Archeologists haven’t found this to be the case. Furthermore, I’d expect to see other instances where God grows intolerant of civilization. Were the circumstances surrounding Babel much more threatening to God than, say, the Great Pyramids of Giza, or even New York City? Humanity has built monuments and temples to itself throughout its history, why hasn’t God stepped in to destroy things again?
The second historical issue: when dated (c. 2300 BCE in Ussher’s chronology) the story doesn’t match with archaeological fact. The events described in this story happen too late in history to explain the origins of all languages. Furthermore, there’s evidence in language that its diversification and changes over human history have occurred in ways similar to how life has evolved. In fact, Charles Darwin made this analogy in his On the Origin of Species. An English speaker with a basic understanding of the German language (or vice versa) will quickly be able to identify the similarities in grammar and even some words. When compared to a romance language or an Eastern language, this relationship to a common ancestor language becomes even more obvious. In a way, Genesis 11 does the same thing to the diversity of language that Genesis 1 does to the diversity of life. And both are plenty holey.