Reverend Rigby, what is the meaning of the biblical story of the Tower of Babel? In the story, God destroys a tower and scatters people so they won’t speak the same language. Why wouldn’t God want humanity to be unified? –Lucy H.


If we take the story literally, God was afraid that an ancient civilization was about to build a tower that would reach up to heaven. Taken literally the story is ridiculous on almost every count.

Remember that the stories of scripture are mythological, which does not mean the stories are false, it means they are attempts to express insights that are difficult to express in ordinary speech. To “hear” scripture we have to listen to it as a poem. We must never hear the stories as facts or we will try to reason from them. Myths are not untrue stories about something that happened once, they are artistic revelations about what is happening all the time. Only when we put ourselves in the poet’s place and time can we hear what the poet is saying to us today.

Moving into the poetry of the story, the speaker lives on the edge of a great empire that threatens to swallow and eclipse every other culture in the known world. Perhaps the one “language” about to be thrust on the world represents the culture of that empire. Perhaps the tower (a Babylonian ziggurat) represents the technological achievements of that great nation, and the resulting arrogance of the citizens who lived in the shadow of such remarkable achievements.

From this perspective, the insight of the story is timeless. Today our own nation is the current Babylon. We consider our technology as proof that we are smarter than anyone. We do what we can to spread the “American Way” to the furthest corners of earth.  We now threaten to infuse our culture into every nook and cranny of the world, destroying ancient cultures and reducing the world to the monotony of our one “language.” We have seemed invincible but our towers are beginning to crumble as if from some invisible force.

These stories never die. They are repeated endlessly by a humanity that does not learn their lesson. The people who live under our heel see things very much like the poet who told this story. They long to see our towers fall. If the story of the Tower of Babel seems irrelevant today, consider what it might tell us about what was really happening on 9-11.