An excerpt from CT’s Book of the Year. Learn about CT’s 2024 Book Awards here.

The tale of the Tower of Babel is a story of judgment and a story of autonomy. The events are presented in two acts: the people’s provocation and God’s response.

The curtain lifts for the first act on the scene of a communal building project:

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” (Gen. 11:1–4)

So what is the problem here? Is it not sensible to live together in cities, with all the benefits of security and the division of labor that urban life brings? Yet there are clues that the main intention is something other than establishing a stable society.

The first humans were commanded by God in Genesis 1:28 to “fill the earth,” but the builders of Babel want to construct a single city, lest they are “scattered over the face of the whole earth.” They want to assert their own autonomous identity, captured in the language of “so that we may make a name for ourselves.” In biblical thinking, to name something is to have authority over it. In Genesis 1, God systematically names the elements of creation as he makes them. To seek to make a name for oneself is to assert one’s independence, ignoring the one who gives you “life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25).

Also, the builders want to make a name for themselves by building “a tower that reaches to the heavens.” There are two ways of interpreting this architectural undertaking. One is that the tower, as biblical scholar John Walton put it, is “a bridge or portal between heavens and earth” that was “designed to make it convenient for the god to come down to his temple, receive worship, and bless his people.” The second interpretation sees the tower as a beachhead for launching an assault on God’s throne room: a proud assertion of autonomous technological capability on the part of a culture that has turned its back on God. Either way, the people’s desire to make a name for themselves is in diametric contrast to God’s promise to Abraham that “I will make your name great” (Gen. 12:2).

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In narrative terms, rather than playing a role in God’s story (filling the earth and subduing it), these people want God to play a supporting role in their story, as the heavenly antagonist who is ultimately beholden to, or vanquished through, their heroic self-aggrandizement. They are not looking forward to what God has planned for them or to the fulfillment of his promises; they are looking forward to the day when they can enjoy all his good gifts as their own while he lies slain at their feet.

Moving to the chapter’s second act, the initiative switches to God. It begins with a heavy irony: “But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building” (11:5). God, of course, does not need to come down to see the tower. He is quite capable of perceiving what the people are doing without repositioning himself. The motif of descent is intended to parody the heaven-storming aspirations of humanity. God, rather than feeling threatened by the tower or needing it for his descent, stoops down so that he can get a better look at its thimble-like grandeur.

God then pronounces his judgment:

The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” (vv. 6–7)

This has sometimes been wrongly understood as a spiteful move to keep humans divided and dumb, but in fact it is a form of mercy. God halts their progress to limit the damage that it will cause. He does not slaughter the rebels but confuses their languages, giving them time to repent as he disperses them over the face of the earth.

The builders of Babel chose to make a name for themselves in opposition to God rather than embrace the name that God gave them. They sought to define their own reality, their own understanding of success.

But Babel is not an isolated event, and its spirit continues in our own day. In contemporary society, we see how the usurpation of the Creator’s right to define the meaning of life can be experienced as a burden. Success in life is now seen as the individual’s responsibility alone, and the only thing stopping us from following our dreams is our lack of desire. In a world that catechizes us into the dream that “you can be anything you want to be,” we face the responsibility of first choosing what to be and then becoming what we have chosen.

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To make matters worse, it is not sufficient to be successful only in our own eyes. The ultimate justification provided by God’s judgment has been replaced by the validation of social, broadcast, and print media.

The Babelian quest to make a name for ourselves condemns us to a punishing regime of ever-inadequate performance, ever more forced and filtered self-presentation, and the ever-provisional, ever-changeable verdict of social media. How much sweeter and more peace-bringing to receive a name from God: child, image, and beloved.

The architects and tradespeople of Genesis 11 did not simply build a city but placed a great tower at its center. They sought not just to coexist but to make a statement, to erect a signature building that would broadcast their renown far and wide. People would know who they were when they saw what they built, and the tower would be a spectacular symbol of their power.

Augustine picked up on this theme of “spectacle” in The City of God, primarily in relation to the Roman society in which he lived. According to philosopher Jennifer Herdt, Augustine’s definition included “athletic competitions, executions in the arena and amphitheater, gladiatorial contexts, military reenactments, and comedies, tragedies, and mimes in the theater.” What all these spectacles had in common—and Babel was no exception—was that they demonstrated the might, authority, and greatness (in short, the “name”) of some earthly regime.

Such performances of civic name-making have existed in every age. But the theme of mediating our identity through displays of greatness might characterize our age more than any other. In his 1967 book The Society of the Spectacle, French philosopher Guy Debord defines such a society as one in which relations between people are mediated by images. In other words, we don’t engage with life directly but live through a series of representations, the most obvious and prevalent ones coming from mass media. We live our dreams, desires, and fantasies via advertisements, films, and television programs, and we rely on them to make a name for us.

It would be wrong—and dangerous—to shrug our shoulders and reply that images are not reality. Images can shape people’s lives as effectively as prison bars or schools. But these images deaden people to the reality beyond them.

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So what should we do? Debord belonged to an intellectual movement known as the Situationists, who proposed the idea of “counterspectacles” to break the hypnosis of the image. One of their main weapons was a French word, détournement. It has no direct English translation, which is a pity because it is a useful and revealing concept. Détournement means taking something that already exists, some part of the society of the spectacle, and playfully poking fun at the message it conveys, as when the Situationists added speech bubbles to posters in the Paris metro: the handsome sunglasses model saying, “I shop, therefore I am” or the cute baby on the milk advertisement saying, “I do not want to become a machine.”

The concept of détournement is helpful for understanding the Bible’s own counterspectacle. In Genesis 11 we witness a delicious subversion of the tower builders’ self-aggrandizing pretentions. They name their city Bab-el, Akkadian for “gate of the gods,” but God makes their ambition a byword for babel: a near homonym for the Hebrew word meaning “confusion.” The subversion is brilliant: Every time the term Gate of the Gods is evoked in lofty tones, someone can be heard in the background whispering under their breath, “More like Bait for the Clods.”

It is tempting for a would-be autonomous humanity to imagine that there is no final accounting, no divine judgment on human actions. However, what is seen by some as a blessed freedom is received by others as an existential crisis. If it disrupts tranquility to live under the gaze of divine judgment, it provides little comfort to exist in a life subject to no transcendent standard or final verdict at all.

The God of Babel is a God who sees and judges. Whatever else this narrative teaches, it affirms that every human action has a witness and that this witness is also the judge of every human action. We do not live in a meaningless or inconsequential universe where what counts is not what we do but whether we get caught. Such a universe privileges the rich over the poor, the cunning over the honest, those who can evade capture over those who respect justice. It is not the sort of world we want to live in, or to cut a little closer to the bone, it is not the sort of world we want everyone around us to live in, although we might secretly enjoy the prospect ourselves.

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We are always already caught, as the Psalmist well recognizes:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.” (Ps. 139:1–5, ESV)

As these verses indicate, God is not simply the witness of our observable deeds, much less only of those deeds we would want him to know about. He is, as Augustine says in book 3 of the Confessions, “interior intimo meo et superior summo meo” (“more inward than my most inward part and higher than the highest element within me”).

This is a counsel of despair for those who have set themselves up in opposition to God. But for Christians, who no longer fear God’s judgment, the truth of God’s witnessing carries an additional meaning. All our daily actions, not just those spectacular moments of public display, become charged with significance. This brings liberation from the Babelian urge to “make a name for ourselves” in a public way.

God can be served in any circumstance because all things can be done for him, and he sees all things. We all tend to plot our actions along a hierarchy of significance, placing certain deeds at the top (getting that promotion or visiting a sick friend in the hospital) and relegating others to also-ran status (praying the prayer no one will ever thank you for or sweeping the floor).

I have often wondered whether the front-page splash on heaven’s newspaper, so to speak, will be the anonymous elderly lady who, perhaps unbeknown to her church friends, persisted for years in private prayer for God’s world, never having preached a sermon, never mind led a revival. She is the unspectacular spectacle of God’s glory.

To live and die by the dynamics of “making a name for ourselves” is to submit to a court of a public opinion that allows only certain achievements to count, with value ascribed to our words and deeds according to the fickle tastes of the crowd. God’s judgment, by contrast, cuts across these perverse and changeable hierarchies of importance, “for the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7, ESV). There are no meaningless actions, meaningless words, or meaningless thoughts, for our witness is also our judge.

Christopher Watkin is a senior lecturer at Monash University in Melbourne. This article is taken from Biblical Critical Theory: How the Bible’s Unfolding Story Makes Sense of Modern Life and Culture, by Christopher Watkin. Copyright © 2022 by Zondervan. Used by permission of Zondervan.

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