We were actually on the way to church and DH was trying to see if they noticed that one of their Yu-Gi-Oh card references, which was a power called babel, was actually a biblical reference. The power of the particular game card caused confusion for your opponent.
1 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.
3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
5 But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower the people werebuilding. 6 The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
8 So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel--because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
Eventually, we had to make the connection to the Tower of Babel for them, at which point they said, "Oh....yeah!" Reminding them of the story led them to speculate about what the first, original language was
This was when I broached the idea that some stories are meant to explain ideas and may not be literally true....that there may never have been one original language, but that the story was a way to explain the world as the writer saw it.
What's funny is that, by complete coincidence, DoOrDoNot has a post up about the Tower of Babel right now poking fun at taking it literally. She quotes a parody of "All True Bible Stories for Children". It's funny but also irreverent...so beware that you may be offended by the parodist's parody, not of the text, but of the simpleton attitude portrayed by the literal interpreters of the text.
As a literal story, the Tower of Babel makes no sense to most of us. Why does God care if we cooperate? Why does he want humanity to be confused and separate? Why does he seem afraid of what they might be able to accomplish?
It doesn't make sense. Isn't God the one who wants to live in peace? Isn't God the one who wants us to cooperate within our communities?
Why would he do such a thing? Why would the author of the story cast God in such a light?
The book I am currently reading, Joseph's Bones, by Jerome M. Segal, proposes that God is fearful about man's accomplishments and development of technology; the ability to make bricks and mortar rather than having to rely on stone. They have learned to create things:
...Mankind has an awareness of danger, senses the importance of being unified, and successfully carries out a breakthrough project of technological and social accomplishment.God experiences the power it represents. He projects it forward, saying that if this is what mankind can do at this early stage, then ultimately nothing, "will be out of their reach." Such a belief is not unlike the belief that if mankind does not blow itself up first, through science, we will will ultimately be able to conquer every constraint.In the Babel story God expresses a fear of an ever-expanding human capability, a fear of human reach. He envisions that humans will develop powers that will make them godlike, able to achieve whatever they desire.(pg. 88)
I think Segal is right that the story portrays a God fearful of humanity, but I think he gets the motivation slightly wrong. The goal of humanity, in the story, is to build a tower that reaches up to the heavens.
The "heavens" as we think of them today, are simply what we would call stars, or the space filled with the sun, moon and stars. We know what stars are. We have some sense of distance, and matter and the meaning of their movements.
Now imagine a world in which you knew nothing about space, or stars, or celestial phenomena. You would see these incredible lights in the sky, moving predictably for the most part, except for the occasional eclipse, or comet, or meteorite. You wouldn't know what the movements represented, but your culture may have realized that certain heavenly bodies had cycles, like the phases of the moon, or that the sun shone less in winter than it did in summer. You would think that these celestial movements meant something. You might even ascribe personalities to them, or associate them with gods or powerful beings.
Whatever the case, the imagination could populate the heavens with power and beauty that was out of reach, yet somehow also a part of the Earth.
You would have no conception that there were other planets...or even what the word "planet" meant. You wouldn't imagine that there were other "earths" out there with other "suns". The universe was probably a single connected place in your mind.
And the heavens...well they must be where God, or the gods, lived. Because no one ever saw God, or gods, on earth. And....the night sky instilled such wonder in people. Just looking at it can give modern people chills, how much more wondrous did it seem to ancient peoples?
So, assuming that an ancient people believed that "heaven" was where God lived, and that it was a physical location directly above earth, what would it mean for people to build a tower to the heavens?
Could it be that they imagined that they would be able to enter the place where God dwelt? That if the tower was high enough they could knock on his front door?
This conception of God being "up there" wasn't far-fetched in ancient cosmology. When Jacob has a dream/vision at Bethel, he sees angels ascending and descending a "ladder" that reaches from the earth into heaven.
So, when the people decide to build a Tower to heaven, this is a direct threat to God. They will soon be on his doorstep. They will be powerful. They may war against him.
In that context, one in which Heaven is a physical place that could be reached if humanity had the resources to get there, the story of the Tower of Babel makes sense. It is comprehensible. It holds together.
God is keeping humanity from cooperating together in order to prevent a physical intrusion of his dwelling place. He is preventing that in the same way he prevented Adam and Eve from returning to the Garden of Eden, through a physical guard; cherubim and a flaming sword.
If taken in that context, God's move to confuse humanity with different languages and cultures is not arbitrary. He is guarding his home and pre-empting an unwelcome invasion of his space.
The problem that anyone trying to interpret the story literally will have, is that a story which made sense 3,000 years ago, makes no sense today. We know, now, that no matter how high the Tower of Babel became, they were never going to reach Heaven's doorstep....and because we know that, we also know that God would have no reason to fear a million such towers...and because we know that the motivation imputed to God in the story is based on a conception of the world which was based in ancient, incorrect cosmology....the story has lost any sense for us.
This particular story is so reliant upon ancient, cultural context, that to take it literally in our modern times, is to make God an arbitrary trickster. Wouldn't he have gotten a bigger laugh by letting humanity build their towers and discover that...no...they couldn't reach Him that way?
What's the old proverb?
Man plans, God laughs.