Our lenten readings in Genesis have brought us thus far from creation and the Paradise of God, where Adam and Eve dwell with God, through the exile from the garden due to sin, to Cain’s slaying of his brother, the flood, and now to Babel. These first eleven chapters of the Bible are not a disconnected set of stories, but rather a setting of the stage for what will follow in the Pentateuch and, in fact, the Scriptures as a whole. It is a picture of exile and of the continuing work of God to bring humanity back to Paradise, to the city of God in which God dwells in the Temple and where we can dwell with him in the divine council as liturgical celebrants. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. For the opening chapters of Genesis mostly address the state of exile and the “alternative paradise” that humanity seeks to build: the City of Man. And the name of this city in Genesis is Babel.
It is well known that Paradise, as it is described in Genesis, is to be understood as the Divine Mountain-Temple where humanity dwells with God. This is key if we are to rightly understand Babel, for the motivation in building this city is precisely to create an alternative city (which is more accurately a caricature of God’s creating in chapters 1 and 2), a city in which, rather than God’s name being glorified, they seek to make a name for themselves (11.4). So they begin to make bricks (foreshadowing the Hebrew's slavery in Egypt, no doubt) and build a “tower” in the midst of their city that will reach to the heavens.
Now this tower is not a monument; it is a ziggurat, a man-made mountain/temple. And their plan to reach the heavens is not simply a description of how tall they want the ziggurat to be; it is a destination. They desire, in other words, to storm Heaven. By their own ingenuity they want to engineer a reversal of the exile from Paradise and make a name and a place for themselves in the divine council. It should come as no surprise to us, then, that the name Babylon meant, to the Babylonians, “the gate of god”.
What we find here is at the heart of the Biblical critique of pagan worship. The notion that humanity can, by our own engineering and inspiration, storm Heaven and place ourselves among God or the gods, as a reversal of our exile from Paradise, is the motivating force of much religion and so-called spirituality. And the end of this story demonstrates God’s judgment on all such endeavors: God confuses their language so that they cannot communicate and “the best laid plans of mice and men” go deeply awry. And thus the name Babel that, for the Babylonians, meant “the gate of god” comes to mean, even in our day, “a confused noise, typically that made by a number of voices.” (It is not insignificant here that, in the Church, we emphasize that our worship is rational, i.e. orderly and understandable, and not confused and chaotic.)
But the end of this story in Genesis 11 is not the end of the story. As we see in the rest of the Pentateuch and in the Bible as a whole, the final word is not the chaos and confusion of humanity in exile, left to fend for themselves in worship and the world as best we can. For the very next chapter of Genesis introduces Abraham, the father of "those who are of faith” (Gal 3.7), and the one to whom the Gospel was preached “beforehand” (Gal 3.8). From Abraham God will raise up a people (whose slavery in Egypt is marked by making bricks) with whom he will make covenant, in which covenant God will lay out the right worship (ortho-doxy) so that humanity can once again gain entrance to the Mountain of God, the Holy of Holies. And we who are in Christ know that this way was made for us not so that we can enter an earthly temple made of bricks, but the true and living Temple, not made by hands (Heb 9.24), in Heaven. Christ our Lord, the seed of Abraham (Gal 3.16), who is our sacrifice and our Great High Priest, has opened that way for us.
The return to Paradise which all persons seek will not be accomplished, then, by our own engineering or inspiration, but through the way of the Cross, Christ’s and ours. Even our worship, in this regard, is not something that we generate out of our own inspiration and then bring to God but rather an entrance, through the Cross, into what he has done and is doing: “offering unto thee thine own of thine own….”
In the midst of all the confusion and the babel of this world the voice of the Lord still speaks, and he calls us, like he called St John, to “Come up!” (Rev 4.1):
Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God.” (Rev 21.1-3)
With love in Christ,