The Tower of Babel is an interesting little story that actually has many things going for it. In the first place, it establishes, concretely, an idea that is present in much of mythology. High places are sacred. Many cultures hold mountains to be sacred as either the actual living places of the gods (Mt. Olympus) or are simply closer to the living place of the gods (heaven). Nearly every culture holds that mountains are sacred, and the Bible’s narrative is no different.
This sentiment will be echoed heavily in the story of Moses with both Mt. Horeb and Mt. Sinai as places where it’s possible to commune with God. But with the Tower of Babel, we have an artificial attempt to create a means to reach God.
Now, the goal of the builders is what’s important here. Is there anything wrong with trying to get closer to God? No. However, their intent is not to simply get closer and commune with God. Instead, it’s an invasion. Their purpose is not one of humility or of asking for guidance. If anything, they’re trying to force their way into paradise. They literally want to build “a tower with its top in the heavens” (Gen 11:4 NRSV). Not close to the heavens, but in them. It’s a beachhead, an annexation of heaven for themselves. They are locked out of Eden, so why not storm heaven itself?
And it is purely for them, not for learning from God. All they want to do is “make a name for ourselves” (Gen 11:4 NRSV). This smacks entirely of pride and selfishness, and we know from Cain how that kind of thinking goes down.
It’s no surprise that God will intervene. But what is impressive is the nature of the intervention. He could strike down the tower and city quite easily. It’s a bit of a flash forward to Sodom and Gomorrah, but we know that’s in His repertoire. Furthermore, with the entire power to create the Earth, sun, and moon, God has a great bag of tricks to call on. However, he’s watching them create this tower, and knows the exact thing that will take it down and prevent the building of another such tower: confusion.
It’s a peaceful and passive way to take the tower down. By confounding their language, God has stymied their ability to create such a tower. Not only that, this myth serves the etiological function of explaining different people with different languages, a concept that goes unexplained in most other mythologies.
Now, we have to address something about how all this went down. Many people will choose to view this story in one particular way: God is cruel and only wants to dominate humanity. Most of that sentiment comes from verses 6 and 7.
6 And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”
I admit, when read in one way, it appears that God is out to get humanity. It’s easy to interpret it as God being upset that they are one people with one language, and that he’ want to knock them down because “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” I get it, I do. But we have to look at the context again.
The people are looking to invade heaven; they want to make a name for themselves. They are trying to demonstrate that they are superior to God. Again, I reference Cain on this one. It’s a bad idea to do something like that. And I will reference Adam and Eve, as well. The Knowledge of Good and Evil gives humanity limitless potential, but the how and why the knowledge is used is what’s important. Adam and Eve did all right for themselves after the Garden because they listened to God. Cain not so much. Babel, not so much.
The problem with Babel is not that they were coming together as one people, or that they would be able to do anything they propose. The problem is what they would propose to do. The construction of the tower was for selfish reasons, to breach heaven and make a name for themselves, to put themselves above God, much as Cain’s choice to murder Able was to put himself first.
God shows restraint in this, too, by not destroying anyone. Thus far, God is very passive and peaceful in his actions. Adam and Eve are expelled, Cain is expelled even further, and now the builders have their language confounded. No one has died by God’s hand. The most that can be said is that God withdrew immortality, but he has not smitten humanity with death.
Babel and Cain are important for other reasons, which become clearer when we come to Noah. Mankind is expected to behave in a certain way, by choosing to do good. When the choice is for evil—which is clearly defined here and by Cain as selfishness, among other things—bad stuff will follow.
And, lastly, and you probably saw this coming, this story is about language. Once again, God’s power of creation has been used to do something selfish. Only this time, it’s taken away. It’s unclear if the original language God used to speak to Adam and Eve remains on the world. My guess would be no, as it’s clear that humanity is not capable of wielding that power responsibly, so it was changed into many languages to prevent its abuse. Since God made the changes, it makes sense that He would be able to understand and speak to others in these new languages, so He can continue to speak to man.