Tower builders v astronauts

  • Question from VP, USA

    In Genesis chapter 11, verse 6, the Lord says that nothing the people propose to do will be impossible. They were building a tower to reach the heavens. I find it strange that he prevented them from building a tower because it would reach the heavens, yet today we fly in space. Did God move? What is your opinion of this?

    One important aspect of the book of Genesis, which echoes most ancient stories, is that there is a nostalgic sense of a ‘golden age’ that has been lost. The story about the Tower of Babel in Genesis chapter 11, indicates two things about early humanity’s ‘golden age’. Firstly, that human beings were powerful enough to ‘worry God’, and secondly that originally humans all spoke the same language. These are common motifs in ancestral myths that hark back to a better time.

    The specific problem with the Tower of Babel was not so much that it would reach into the heavens, but by reaching into the heavens, human beings were seeking to set themselves up on a par with God. This is an etymological myth, which seeks to explain a number of things – notably why people are scattered across the world, particularly if they all descend from common ancestors found earlier in Genesis, and why people in different places speak different languages, again hard to reconcile with the idea of a common ancestor.

    There is undoubtedly a possibility that the original author of Genesis could have borrowed from Babylonian myth here. The ‘plain of Shinar’ (verse 2) is in Mesopotamia. Babel and Babylon are perhaps interchangeable. As the author tried to fit these myths, drawn from a number of traditions, together into a coherent story, the Tower of Babel naturally provides a reason for both the spread of humanity and the many languages. If it’s not enough that humanity has lost its special Eden-relationship with God, now besides mortality, the day-to-day power of human beings is also reduced and the human race is divided into many scattered peoples and a ‘confusion’ of languages.

    In conclusion, it was not the height of the Tower of Babel that was a problem; it was the purpose. Contemporary space exploration has not generally been conducted in the same sense of trying to establish humans as gods. Although it is interesting that space exploration has deepened the convictions of those who have travelled beyond the atmosphere. Many astronauts, looking towards Earth have attested to a sense that such a fragile and beautiful thing must be the work of God. One cosmonaut, however, famously remarked that, as he looked out to the stars, he could not see God anywhere.

    Thanks for your question, VP.

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