tower of babel
Meditation and Reflection

The Tower of Babel

This is the sixth contribution to His Grace’s emergency team ministry during the coronavirus pestilence. It comes from the Rev’d Robert Jackson, a sector chaplain.


Over 3,000 years ago, a man, who might or might not have been Moses, wrote down an account that someone today, if sufficiently academic, would refer to as an etiology. Someone else might call it a ‘just so’ story after the manner of Rudyard Kipling. By way of explanation, if Kipling might want you to know why a whale has a small throat, Moses wanted you to know why there are so many languages on earth. As far as Kipling is concerned, a whale has a small throat because a sailor who it swallowed built a raft in order to partially block the throat, so as to prevent the whale from swallowing anymore people. Likewise, the reason the world is full of people who speak different languages is because, when they had just one language, they built a tower which God objected to, and who, as a result, gave them different languages.

I sometimes wonder which account is more likely to refer to a real event. And in light of this, you may well be wondering why on earth I’m going on about the Tower of Babel at a time when not just our nation but our planet is in the vice-like grip of a tiny virus that is exercising a power way beyond anything we’ve witnessed for many a decade… and maybe, right now, I’m wondering why as well! But I’ve started, so I’ll press on.

Heading back to the Beginning, having created, God takes a day off and lets Adam and Eve get on with it. Unfortunately, it goes wrong, and because they decide to ignore God’s prohibition and forge their own path, Adam and Eve are ejected from the Garden. The seriousness of this disobedience is made plain when Cain murders his brother. We then encounter a lengthy genealogy that feels pointless as one reads it, but does in fact offer up the opportunity for there to be a lot of people in the world. This numerical proliferation then confirms that when humans get on with it, the result is untold suffering all round. God decides he’s had enough and prepares to get rid of the problem. But lo, there is one righteous individual who ought to be spared, and so there follows an ark, two-by-two animals, and a flood of epic proportions. As the floodwaters drain away, a rainbow appears to signify no more floods, and then two things happen: God, echoing his charge to Adam, instructs Noah to be fruitful and fill the earth, but then Noah gets drunk, his sons behave badly, and mankind gets on with it.

Another genealogy follows, so once again there are enough people on earth for them to be able to ignore instructions to fill the earth. Instead, they congregate on the Plain of Shinar, and there they undertake an engineering project of bold ambition. Wishing to make a name for themselves, they decide to build city so that they won’t be scattered, and at its heart will be a tower, one that will reach the heavens. In other words, they want to look God in the eye and say “Hey God! Check us out.” We read that God has to come down to see what they are up to, and while this ‘coming down’ might appear to belittle their construction, what God then declares is really rather startling: “Look, they are one people, and they all have 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.”

Quite what Moses was thinking when he put these words into God’s mouth, one can only guess. “Nothing will be impossible”? How about a 600-ton metal object, flying at 35,000 feet in order to transport 500 people half way across the world in a just a few hours? Or maybe someone receiving a new heart… quite literally?

Irrespective of how Moses, or his first readers, might have read this, what is clear is that God recognises a real problem down the line, because he not only thwarts their ‘safe in our city’ ambitions by scattering them to the four corners of the globe, but he also gives them different languages. Man’s predisposition to screw things up can no longer be ignored, and God can no longer let things roll forward given the nature of human potential.

If we now leap forward many centuries to Jesus, we find God finally dealing with the issue – all in his own good time – by entering into his creation, as a man, and teaching and demonstrating, once and for all, how we are meant to get on with it. He then submits to the Roman authorities on the Cross, in order to demonstrate God’s authority by rising from the dead. Divine authority, you see, doesn’t vie with human authority, rather it stands over it. The most extreme thing man can do is kill, and Pilate can order a crucifixion as easily as roast partridge for supper. God overcomes death.

There’s more, though, for by his death, Jesus also wins forgiveness for wayward man by becoming the scapegoat, having the sins of the world placed upon his shoulders, and with this weighty burden, being driven out of God’s presence into the desert to die. A new demand is placed upon people in that their relationship with God is, no longer, a collective matter that involves membership of a chosen nation. Instead, God reaches out to the individual through his Spirit, drawing all believers into a family that knows no national or cultural or ethnic boundaries. And this pouring out of the Holy Spirit on all believers began at Pentecost, just fifty days after Jesus rose from the dead.

As we ponder Pentecost, the Tower of Babel will often comes to mind. As the Spirit-filled disciples spill out of the Upper Room and on to the streets of Jerusalem, so the barrier of language is overcome. Everyone they encounter, coming, even as they do, from all over the Roman Empire, is able to hear the Gospel in their own tongue. A unity under God, hitherto blocked by an inability to communicate, once again becomes desirable… and urgent.

“Nothing will be impossible for them.”

Elon Musk, he of the Tesla Car, has another company, Neuralink. The goal is to create a BCI – Brain-Computer Interface. By feeding thousands of electrical probes into the brain, they aim to link it directly to a computer. An ape has survived this undertaking, and has, indeed, thus been able to been able to operate a computer. Musk plans to repeat this with a human this year (any volunteers?). The immediate aim is to help paraplegics control their environment, but Musk announced: “Ultimately, we can do a full brain-machine interface where we can achieve a sort of symbiosis with AI.” One site comments: “Neuralink has the potential to dramatically reshape both computing and humanity (my italics) – if it, and like-minded researchers, can persuade regulators, and society at large, that we should be directly wired to machines.”

Researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies are currently working on reversing the ageing process in humans. They’ve managed it, to an extent, in mice, tweaking genes that turn adult cells back into embryonic-like ones. Alejandro Ocampo, argues that reprogramming epigenetics should ultimately work on people as well, and that even human centenarians could be rejuvenated.

An as for creativity? James Burke, BBC presenter of the 1970s splendidly titled ‘The Burke Special’, has written excitedly about the 3D nanofabricator. Available, he predicts, by the end of the century, this cheeky little device will break down ordinary items into atoms, and then use these atoms to construct molecules which it will then fashion into whatever… You’re lost and hungry in the wilderness, so you get your nanofabricator out of your pack, grab some soil and feed it in, and hey presto, a big fat juicy steak emerges. Water into wine eat your heart out!

And ultimately, at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Germany, Petra Schwille and her colleagues reckon they are just a few years away from creating a living, growing, dividing cell from scratch.

“Hey God! Check us out.”

And why has all this become possible?

First, there is now a virtual Plain of Shinar – it’s called the Internet. Secondly, the last century has seen the emergence of a language that is increasingly common to all. Actually, maybe we have two. The first is one that unites scientists, and it’s called Mathematics. The second one is, of course, the English language. This ability to communicate with each other across the world, as if we were standing in the same room, is now enabling the the 21st-century Tower of Babel to actually reach the heavens. But then, of course, we are made in the image of God.

So why was it God’s purpose, in Christ, to override the scattering of the languages, for which he was responsible in the first place? Especially since it is becoming increasingly apparent why he did it.

A couple of years ago, I was at sea in a ship, chatting with two Fijian sailors. Their zeal for the Lord saw them waking each other at 3am to pray, for this was the time when they felt they could best focus on Christ. So why didn’t they come to my evening prayers? I was struck by their response: English, being their second language, is not one they wish to use to open themselves up, since they can’t trust themselves to use the right words. Close fellowship is done in their mother tongue. Christ’s church stretches across the continents, and if we are to enjoy deep fellowship across the national and cultural boundaries, we will need a language that unites.

In the words of Micah (and Isaiah, for that matter) the day will come when all nations will head to the Mountain of the Lord, and there they will submit to his authority in order to resolve their differences. And in bowing to God’s authority, they will put away their weapons of destruction and learn a common language which will unite all peoples everywhere. And everyone will be able to sit under his own fig tree, his olive tree, and not be afraid!

Yes, we have a real 21st-century plague on our hands, but this is nothing new. The Covid-19 virus appears limp compared to the H1N1 virus that greeted the end of the First World War, and claimed more victims than the war itself. Like the H1N1 virus, however, Covid-19 will pass, and will be largely forgotten inside a decade. In Christ, we know where we have come from, and we know whither we are bound. This gives us the confidence to deal with today, and beyond the daily challenge of living a life faithful to our calling, it is good to remember that ultimately we have been entrusted with the task of leading the nations to the Mountain of the Lord.

At this point, I, personally, hit the wall of faithlessness – how on earth can this possibly come to pass? I simply can’t see, humanly speaking, how this might happen. And anyway, what the three bells can I contribute? And I bet that’s what the Disciples thought as they found themselves, in obedience to the Holy Spirit who was living in them, setting out on foot into hostile territories with the message that demands everyone, everywhere, submit to the love of God.

Come on, guys… Let’s sing Hymn number 143 – ‘I Cannot Tell…’.