More Theology: Genesis 11:1-9
Well, first let’s ask ourselves if this legend of the Tower of Babel necessarily follows chronologically the legend of the Origin of Peoples. It doesn’t necessarily, and that’s a way of taking the Bible literally. There is a bit of jumping around in the Bible and this seems to be another instance. I would point out that we get another new list of Shem’s descendants as a means of introducing the narrative of God’s calling of Abraham (Gen 10:21-31 and Gen 11:10-26). But I’m getting ahead of myself now. I guess my point is these are legends and it’s not really a contradiction to say once upon a time everyone spoke the same language just because once upon a time Noah had sons, and his sons had sons and so on and they divided and became nations with their own languages and after ten generations along comes Abraham.
Okay, so the Catholic perspective on Genesis 11:1-9…It’s about pride. It’s about the growth of evil. The division of languages is seen as a sign of division and misunderstanding between individuals and nations. The Navarre Bible commentary states, “We have here an instance of literary devices being used to expound deep convictions—in this case the view that disunion in mankind is the outcome of men’s pride and sinfulness.”
Babel becomes a counterpoint to the Pentecost event (Acts 2:5-13). But that’s a fuller theology I’m not going to expound on here. Essentially the Catholic view is that this is a legend; it’s not intended to teach us about God as much as it is intended to teach us about mankind and pride and sin; just as Adam and Eve wanted to be like God, so do the people of Babel. And you know the ancients probably understood that they couldn’t reach God with a “puny tower.” It’s a story told by men to teach about the pride of mankind. St. Augustine pointed out that such a tower would simply go beyond our atmosphere, not really reaching anything, and that God had nothing to worry about from any attempts by man to physically reach Him.
I like this quote from Josemaria Escriva about the sin of pride: “The eyes of our soul grow dull. Reason proclaims itself sufficient to understand everything, without the aid of God. This is a subtle temptation, which hides behind the power of our intellect, given by our Father God to man so that he might know and love him freely. Seduced by this temptation, the human mind appoints itself the centre of the universe, being thrilled with the prospect that ‘you shall be like gods’ (confer Gen 3:5). So, filled with love for itself, it turns its back on the love of God. In this way does our existence fall prey unconditionally to the third enemy: pride of life. It’s not merely a question of passing thoughts of vanity or self-love, it’s a state of general conceit. Let’s not deceive ourselves, for this is the worst of all evils, the root of every false step. The fight against pride has to be a constant battle, to such an extent that someone once said that pride only disappears twenty-four hours after a person dies. It is the arrogance of the Pharisee whom God cannot transform because he finds in him the obstacle of self-sufficiency. It is the haughtiness which leads to despising other people, to lording it over them, and so mistreating them. For ‘when pride comes then comes disgrace’ (Prov 11:2)” (Christ Is Passing By).
The legend of the Tower of Babel (Babel, by the way, actually means “gate of God,” although it has been popularly connected with the Hebrew word balbalah which means confusion) illustrates that man has long been ingenious and long realized the power of working together. In looking at our accomplishments and comparing ourselves to every other living creature on the planet we can be consumed with the kind of pride that makes gods of men. But the truth is we don’t need God to sow division and misunderstanding.