It’s hard not to feel like I live in Babylon, a city of spiraling success and ever-increasing reach. The Bible’s popular etymology for the name is bluntly mocking:
“Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth.” (Genesis 11:1–9, ESV)
Now, of course, the Babylonians didn’t think the name went back to the Hebrew word for “confuse.” For them it was a holy city, the gate of the gods. But the Bible names it something much different – the result of a misguided attempt – the attempt to build a name apart from God.
There was, at its root, a disobedience to the work of the builders in Genesis 11. In Genesis 1, God had said to “fill the earth,” but the builders instead focused on centralizing, going up not out, resisting their call. Why? So that they could make a name for themselves. And this is, under the Fall, the work of almost every employee in every industry these days. I remember as a young consultant the very good advice that served my career well: “You need to be careful to build the brand that is you.” Every new employee feels it – your reputation is your currency. But are we not then just rebuilding Babel?
God clearly does not mind cities. In the Old Testament there is Jerusalem, where he chose to put his name and special presence. Far more, the New Testament changes the hope to the New Jerusalem, the holy city to come down out of heaven. The Bible does move from Garden to City. But there is much in a city that minds God – because we have built for ourselves, for our own names and for our own comfort. How will we build our cities – for ourselves or for God’s glory?
The Rev. Dr. William Fullilove is the Assistant Pastor of Community at McLean Presbyterian Church and Assistant Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary New York. He serves as the Editor of Missio.