“They said to each other, ‘Come, let’s make oven-fired bricks.’ (They used brick for stone and asphalt for mortar.) And they said, ‘Come, let’s build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky. Let’s make a name for ourselves; otherwise, we will be scattered throughout the earth.'” (CSB – Read the chapter)
What are you building right now? That may sound like a strange question, but bear with me. I love building. I think I’ve passed that love on to my boys too. They all build different things – one builds amazing buildings and models, one builds incredible stories and songs, and the other builds exciting fantasy worlds of great imagination – but they are all builders. In a bigger sense, everyone is building something. The question is not whether, but what and why. One more question is who the building is for. In an interesting little story that falls right near the end of the creation story arc in Genesis, we’re reminded that why we build matters as much – or even more – than what.
The story of the Tower of Babel is one of the more interesting stories in the Scriptures. It is one of those stories that regularly appears in children’s Bibles, which would seem to indicate that it’s a pretty easy one to understand. And yet, graduate-level scholars debate and study and write lengthy articles trying to figure out exactly what it means. The standard telling from pretty much every children’s Bible out there is that the people on earth decided they were going to build this grand structure to honor themselves. Things were going really well – as far as they understood that – until God came along and made them all miraculously start speaking different languages because if they were able to accomplish something like this grand structure, what wouldn’t they be able to do?
In this telling, the moral of the story is supposedly that we shouldn’t be prideful, but told like that, there almost seems to be this undercurrent of fear on God’s part. It was almost like He was worried that we were becoming so powerful together that we might challenge Him. As a result, He essentially cheated – because He was God and could do that – and made their finishing the task impossible. This, somehow, saved us from…something. In the end, at least from the children’s Bible version, you’re left not feeling inspired to be less prideful, but rather asking some uncomfortable questions about God’s character.
But then you go and really read the story and things get worse. Just look at these couple of verses here. Look at them and forget about the churchy-lens of this-is-a-story-about-why-pride-is-bad. This group of people, which surely didn’t include all the people on earth, but just a particular clan or collection of clans, decided to settle down. They decide to use this new technology called “the brick” to see what they can build. And if you just read casually, they want to build themselves a city and a tower so they don’t get scattered. What’s so wrong with that?
The world was a tough place back then. If you lived on your own, you were toast. Everything could kill you them. Nature could do it. Animals could do it. Other clans were sure to do it. My goodness, even getting a cut on your arm could do it. People stuck together for protection from the chaos around them. If this new marvel called the brick could afford them the ability to withstand the world a bit more successfully, then let’s go. And, sure, maybe there was some pride undergirding the whole thing, but was that so bad? After all, if they had figured all of this out, maybe they deserved to shine a little more brightly than the rest of the world. Why would God bring the hammer down on them so thoroughly? What’s wrong with a building project?
Well, in general, nothing. In the story here, the what was never the problem. Other people built cities that God didn’t destroy. Jerusalem was a great city, and God was pleased with that (at least, He was pleased with it until the people turned from Him, but that’s another story for another time). The trouble here was the why. And, no, I’m not simply setting us up to land on “you shouldn’t be prideful.”
Yes, the people wanted to make a name for themselves, and, yes, that really was a problem. But there’s more. The command God had given humanity in the beginning was to be fruitful and multiply and to fill the earth. Yet here when the earth had been wiped clean because of how bad we had gotten so quickly after sin was unleashed on the world, rather than filling the earth, we were concentrating our efforts in one single location. This whole project was starting out with disobedience. When you begin with a giant crack in the foundation, you’re not going to build a stable, long-term structure. What’s more, the people had made clear that all the rot of sin had not been washed away in the flood. If they all stayed right there together, all concentrated in one little area, their sin was going to concentrate as well. In other words, these folks were setting themselves up for a disaster. God’s frustration of their plans was not an act of fear or jealousy or anything like it. It was an act of mercy. It was a hard mercy, sure, but a mercy all the same.
In the end, though, yes, these people were building a monument to themselves. They were building for themselves. They were at the center of their world. The building itself wasn’t the issue. Their reasoning was. If we’re not careful, we can find ourselves following in their footsteps all too easily. We are always building something in and with our lives. Always. It may not be a pretty structure, but we are building. We are building things with the people in our lives. It may be that we are trying to work off of two different sets of plans and therefore are making more of a mess than a piece of art, but we are all building.
The question, then, is not whether we are building, but for whom we are building it. The hard truth is that if we are building for anything other than the glory of God, we are building a structure that is doomed to fail and fall. All our work will ultimately be frustrated and come to nothing. There are few things more disheartening than to pour our lives into something only to discover it was all for naught. When we build for the glory of God, though, we can’t help but to succeed. We will succeed because He will be helping us along the way. We will be suffused with His resources and so we won’t ever run out. And our efforts will last and matter. God will be cheering us on rather than putting merciful roadblocks in our path.
So, then, why are you building? That’s not always easy to see immediately. Sometimes we have to ask some tough questions along the way and do some careful, honest evaluation. That’s not easy. But it is worth it. So, keep building. You’re going to anyway. But build for the glory of God and enjoy the fruits that come by no other means.