Updated: Oct 1
Engineering and linguistics; these are two of my greatest interests. And before you say “This guy really needs to get out more”, keep in mind that I’m writing this in the middle of a pandemic and stay-at-home restrictions. I don’t have a choice. And if you’ve come this far in the study, admit it, you’re not really surprised at this declaration. (Plus, I happen to believe that just one of these two subjects could form the basis for a blockbuster cinematic event! And together! The possibility for an edge-of-your-seat action adventure film has “towering” potential.)
So, here we go – engineering and linguistics.
If you are not familiar with story of the Tower of Babel, take a moment and give it a read. It’s relatively short (just nine verses), and, to make it easy, I’ve included my translation by clicking here.
Go ahead, I’ll wait until you get back…
Welcome back! As you read, when the account of the Tower of Babel opens, the earth’s in habitants have one language. This isn’t surprising given that the story follows right on the heels of Noah’s great flood. Having a single language at this point in history allowed this new, seafaring generation to work together to rebuild their homes, crops and cities.
As they set about rebuilding their community, they began to reach into the plain of Shinar. You might ask why they would they prefer to settle in a plain rather than the scenic foothills? As long as they had an available water source, the plain was actually a better option for farming, since the ground was level and there were fewer rocks and sediment to remove. If you ever tried to plant anything in Arizona’s caliche, you have a pretty good idea of what I mean.
However, there were some negative consequences for moving from the hills to the plain. Most of their city walls and homes were fabricated using stones, which, as noted above, were not as plentiful on the plain. So, using their one language, they met together and engineered a solution. Instead of hauling stones from a distant quarry near the mountains, they baked bricks to use in place of the stones. In short, they played to their strengths to build a place to live together.
In addition to the stones, there was something else missing on the plain, something far more essential to their life together. In the Ancient Near East, there was a generally-held belief that mountains held up the sky. As the highest point on the horizon, mountains were a natural place for the dome of heaven to rest. And, for the ancients, where the heavens met the earth, the people met God.
When my wife and I visited the ancient city of Petra, we climbed to the great altar which was located on top of a mountain. Although the ascent was lined with stairs, it was still a long and difficult climb. Thinking about the people who inhabited this great city, I could not imagine how difficult it must have been to make that trek while trying to carry a sacrifice!
Beyond the story of the Tower of Babel, mountains play a central role throughout the Bible. On Mount Sinai, Moses received the Ten Commandments. On the Mount of Olives, Jesus wept over Jerusalem before entering it for the final time. On the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus was revealed to his inner circle. Abraham was tested on Mount Moriah. Elijah stands firm against corruption on Mount Carmel. And those are just a few of the “high points!” (Sorry…) The bottom line is that critical moments in history are often played out on mountains.
When the community decided to build their new city on the plain, that meant they now had to travel much further to get to the nearest mountain to meet with God. And, travel can be a hassle. So, like the bricks, the Shinar Community Development and Sustainability Task Force engineered another solution. If they wanted to live together on the plain, but still wanted to worship on a mountain, then they just needed to make the mountain more accessible. So, why not use those wonderful bricks and build a tower as a stand-in mountain right in the center of town! Not only would the great, mountain-like tower be accessible, but it could also provide additional streams of revenue. Shops could be built at the base for folks who left their sacrificial animal back at home. Or, they could create beautiful bistros where you could grab a bite to eat before the big climb.
Practically, and as an engineer, I don’t really believe that The Tower of Babel was meant to be a three-dimensional road to God or an assault upon the gates of Heaven. For a moment, let’s imagine that you and I wanted to build an engineered structure that would reach beyond the clouds, all the way into the heavens. Where should we start? On a big, flat, open plain? I wouldn’t. Why not give ourselves a head start? Why not start on a mountain and go up from there?
In many ways, the Tower of Babel was polar opposite of creating a stairway to heaven. Instead of building a way to God, the Tower of Babel attempted to move God to them. In essence, if you don’t like where God is, then move God to a place that is more convenient or simply a better fit for you. If following God is a hassle, just make God more acceptable.
This attitude never works out well for anyone…
Instead of being impressed with their ingenuity, God “comes down” to see the adorable, little structure that they are building. When He sees the Tower of Babel, He doesn’t destroy it. After all, He knows the tower is not the problem. Instead, God disrupts their ability to communicate. He confuses their language and creates a new market for translators, linguistic departments and movies with subtitles.
So, why did God decide to punish them by scrambling their language? To be honest, upsetting their ability to communicate seems completely unrelated to building a tower. You see, there was a foundational instruction that God had given the ancients after the Great Flood; one that they were ignoring on the plain of Shinar. After disembarking from the ark, God instructed the survivors to spread out and fill the earth. Instead, they decided to build the world’s first planned community for protection, stability and convenience. God wanted them to explore the world He had created, to engage their sense of curiosity and wonder, to have the courage to face uncertainty, and find adventure in their journey. Instead, they opted for life on the plain. And then, they tried to force God into joining them there.
When we try to tame God and bring Him safely into our convenient and comfortable version of Pleasantville, surrounded by walls of fear and timidity, we miss the life God has intended for us. The journey to meet God takes us deeper into the world, carries us to new heights where we can see more clearly, and reveals more about who we are along the way.
There is another lesson that we can explore from the story of the Tower of Babel. If you are ready for some overtime, please click here to continue our journey!