The Tower of Babel is one of those strange stories tucked away in Genesis; when reading it you can’t help thinking that you’re missing out on something important. This may mean that this post is a little speculative – if so forgive me, and, as always, feel free to post ideas in the comments box.
So it’s not long after the Flood, and everyone speaks the same language. Migrating eastwards, they find a plain and decide it would be a good place to settle down. The main problem with this plan is that it involves building a tower that will reach to the heavens.
Now, this doesn’t seem to be simply an attempt to build a proto-skyscraper. There’s an implicit feeling that this is a challenge to God somehow – certainly that’s how the story plays out, with God limiting the ambition of the builders by confusing their speech – hence the origin of linguistic diversity. Everyone gets scattered around the region and the tower presumably remains unfinished.
(It’s worth noting that this is also the origin of Babylon, which is significant because Babylon goes on to become the Big Bad of the Old Testament…)
There are a bunch of interpretations here, but it feels like there’s a link between the tower and two other passages. I may be off-base here, but here goes…
The key thing to note that the tower isn’t really a tower as some blogger from the UK normally pictures a tower – we’re talking about a ziggurat, a massive stepped structure, possibly with an altar on top, and built as a dwelling place for the gods – hence why God is so angry at humans trying to usurp his authority (and the context for the temptation in Eden just a few chapters earlier). Humanity has fallen and now they’re trying to get to the heavens – the dwelling place of God – under their own steam. God has other plans.
Or rather he has a very specific plan.
Fast forward a bunch of chapters. Jacob has comprehensively scammed his brother Esau out of his rightful inheritance and he’s on the run. One night he has a dream – a ladder, reaching to heaven, with angels going up and down it. Above it is God, who reiterates a promise he made to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham – “I’m with you, I’m going to make you into a great nation, and through you the whole earth is going to be blessed.”
Only ‘ladder’ seems to be an imprecise description – the image, getting back to history seems to be that of…a ziggurat. This is emphasised when Jacob refers to it as ‘the gate of heaven’ and ‘the house of God’ – Bethel, as Jacob renames the place.
So, we’ve got the image of another ziggurat, a positive echo of Babel, this time really reaching to heaven. And, unlike the crew at Babel, God has a genuine plan to reunite humanity with himself, one that involves establishing Israel as a nation and blessing the world through Jacob’s descendents.
And who is Jacob’s most famous descendent?
Jesus, who in John chapter 1, tells his new disciple Nathanael: “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” The image echoes Jacob’s dream, but instead of a tower or ziggurat, the real path to heaven is through the Son of Man – Jesus himself, through the Cross.
And what’s one of the signs that humanity is being reconciled with God after the resurrection? Go to Acts 2, where the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost and where a linguistically-diverse crowd all hear the disciples speaking in their own language – the curse of Babel broken.
In other words, the images that echo a stairway to heaven throughout the Bible illustrate the fall and redemption of humanity, showing the different stages of God’s salvation plan.
Or have I just gone crazy?