In that way, the Lord scattered them all over the earth; and that ended the building of the city. That is why the city was called Babel, because it was there that the Lord confused the people by giving them many languages, thus scattering them across the earth. — Genesis 11:8-9
Deborah Tannen has written a couple of books on the subject of conversation. In the first, she explained the difficulties that people experience in communicating with each other. In the second, she pinpointed a particular difficulty—the communication between men and women! There isn’t a man or woman alive who has not experienced problems in that area. And Dr. Tannen was talking about communication difficulties between people using the same language!
The problems associated with people speaking different languages are even greater. Ask anyone who has tried to reason with a customs official in a foreign country, or a sick person who tried to explain his symptoms to a physician in another language!
The confusion among languages, however, is intentional. God did it. Genesis records, “At one time the whole world spoke a single language and used the same words” (11:1).
So far, so good. But as the human race multiplied, they not only put up big numbers, they also began to have big ideas. They declared, “Let’s build a great city with a tower that reaches to the skies—a monument to our greatness. This will bring us together and keep us from scattering all over the world” (11:4).
Apparently, there were already signs of fragmentation among people, which they found disconcerting. So they decided to take steps to reverse the trend. The means that they chose to achieve this objective were both spectacular and self-serving. They would draw attention to their own greatness by building an edifice breathtaking in its design and execution—a temple to worship themselves. Everybody seeing it would recognize its message: “As long as we stick together, we’re unbeatable. Nothing is beyond our ability. The sky’s the limit.”
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with ambition, and there is no doubt that God delights to see His creatures using the powers of imagination and ingenuity He gave them. But imagination and ingenuity have their limits. When man becomes so enraptured with his own greatness that he overlooks the incontrovertible truth that he is an infinitesimal fragment of a vast creation, utterly dependent upon God’s grace for survival and salvation, then he needs to be stopped. Otherwise, he will not so much build edifices declaring his greatness as he will erect monuments displaying his folly.
God decided to keep the human race off balance, so He gave us a multitude of languages to keep us from communicating clearly with one another (11:7). The result has been both infuriating and illuminating.
The downside of language confusion is misunderstanding, which causes friction and division. The upside is that misunderstanding is a constant reminder that we’re not as smart as we think we are! There should be no confusion about that!
For further study: Genesis 11:1-9
Content taken from The One Year Book of Devotions for Men by Stuart Briscoe. Copyright ©2000. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers. All rights reserved.