Except, that's not the story. They weren't trying to build a tower to Heaven, they were just trying to build a really tall tower. "Reaches to the heavens" was just poetic language for "really, really tall."
And God wasn't punishing them, per se. Nowhere in the passage does it explicitly mention any sin on the part of the humans. In fact, it seems like they were doing pretty well for themselves. So well, in fact, that God stopped by to check on their progress.
"But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building." (Genesis 11:5)And he seemed to be impressed by their tower. He never said anything bad about the tower. Instead, he seemed worried that they were doing a bit too well.
"The Lord said, 'If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.'" (Genesis 11:6)That's why he scrambled their speech. Because he thought people were doing a bit too well for themselves, and needed to be taken down a peg.
This was a faith-rattling revelation for me. I had already spent years reconciling the image of a vengeful God with one of a merciful God (that's another post for another day), but this wasn't vengeance. It seems almost vindictive. "Hey, you guys are doing too well, I'm going to make the game harder on you!"
It took me a long time to accept this "new" version of the Babel story. I wanted to call up all of my Sunday School teachers and yell at them for lying to me. I really, really didn't like this picture of a God who trips people up just because they are doing well.
But one day, as I was wrestling with the Babel story, something finally clicked, and the story fell into place. God was worried, yes. But he wasn't worried about the things that people could accomplish. He was worried about what they would accomplish without him. If the entire Old Testament is pointing us towards salvation in Jesus, then letting people do too well on their own strength is setting them up for failure in the end. Human beings are pretty awesome, and we can accomplish a lot of things. But no matter how well we do, there is one thing we can't do: We can't earn our salvation.
I believe that is the real reason God scrambled the languages at Babel. It was a reminder. "Hey. You guys need me."
I have many moderate talents. God has given me a wide range of gifts and abilities. Sometimes, I wish he had just poured all that talent into one thing, so that my calling would be obvious. I'm an okay singer, but I'm no soloist. I can act, but I'm never going to get a part in a movie. I'm a pretty good public speaker, though, maybe I could be a pastor? I love traveling and meeting new people, maybe a missionary? I know! I love talking to people and helping them, maybe I could be a counselor!
And then, one day, I acidentally became the church drummer. We were just hanging out after church one day, and a friend was playing some improv on the piano, and I picked up a little hand drum to accompany him. The next thing I knew, I was playing my hand drum, and later, my djembe, almost every Sunday morning in church.
I'm not a great drummer. I'm barely an okay drummer. But an okay drummer was better than no drummer at all.
It was humbling to do something for God that I wasn't really good at. I wanted to be the best, to give him the best! But I knew it was a need that I could fill, so I did my mediocre best to fill it. And whenever I felt myself feeling inadequate, I heard a quiet whisper reminding me, "Not your strength. My strength."
Eventually, we moved away, and started attending a new church in a new town. And my drumming had improved quite a bit at this point, so I joined the worship team at our new church. I played my djembe for a long time, until the church acquired some nice congas, and I moved to them. I found my groove, and things were going pretty well. Then our senior pastor retired, leaving several empty roles to be filled. I wondered how God might use me, now. Maybe I could preach occasionally? Help with the youth group?
Then, one evening at worship team rehearsal, the pastor mentioned that he really wished someone could play on the drum kit for this one song. I glanced warily over at the kit, wondering how much I would remember from a few months of lessons over 20 years ago. And I heard a little voice in my head. "Not your strength. My strength." And I played the kit. Poorly, for sure. But willingly.
A few weeks later, the pastor approached me about co-leading a worship team with another young woman in our church. And every part of me screamed, "Why me? This isn't my talent!" I can only sorta sing, and I know nothing about accompaniment or instrumental arrangements. I have tried to learn to play guitar several times, but every time I started to make any progress, my tendonitis flared up in my wrist again, and I was forced to quit. If only I could play the guitar. Maybe that would be enough. But this was the need I was being asked to fill. And again, I heard that little voice whispering, "Not your strength. My strength."
And that, I think, is the lesson of Babel. If they had built that tower, and succeeded in everything they tried to do, it would have been entirely on their own strength. And thinking that we can do it on our own is one of the biggest barriers to salvation I have ever seen. We (and by "we" I mean "I") need to be reminded daily, "Hey, you still need me. Not your strength. My strength."
So, if you come to my church this Sunday, you'll see me up front. I will be fumbling through the first song on the drum kit, after which I will don my microphone, and do my best to sing on key and cue the singers at the right times. And I am not good enough on my own strength. But that's okay, because it isn't about me.
Sometimes, I think the greatest kindness God has ever done for me is forcing me to do things I am not good at. Because then I know, for sure, that it's not my strength. It's his.