1Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3And they said to one another, "Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly." And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4Then 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; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth." 5The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 6And the LORD said, "Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another's speech." 8So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9Therefore it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
The story of Babel and the story of the Flood capture God's response to humanity's rebellion and sin. In this particular story of the Tower of Babel, humanity's arrogant efforts to rule over creation and to build, literally, toward heaven is met with God's judgment in the scattering of people and confusion of languages. These two stories of the Flood and the Tower of Babel will provide the backdrop for God's call of Abram in Genesis 12, the definitive beginning of God's redemptive work for all humanity and creation.
Some historical details from archaeology enliven the passage above. The typical building materials in Canaan were stone and mortar. However in Mesopotamia (Babel), stone was scarce, so mud brick and tar were used instead. In Mesopotamia (part of present-day Iraq), temple-towers were not uncommon. These temple-towers, called ziggurats, were square at the base and had sloping, step-wise sides that would climb up to a shrine at the very top. Like all Ancient Near East religions, Mesopotamia religions viewed "gods" as residing in the "heavens" (hence the "high places" in OT refer to places of worship). Archaeologists have discovered actual names of some of these ziggurats spread out in Mesopotamia: "the house of the link between heaven and earth," "the house of the seven guides of heaven and earth," "the house of the foundation-platform of heaven and earth," "the house of the mountain of the universe."
This human penchant to build temple-towers and to make a name for themselves is a universal propensity, across all cultures. To gain glory, recognition, power, and control -- to make it to "heaven," to achieve an otherworldly status, to seek everlasting glory through human works -- this drive is such a strong drive that idolatry is an ever present danger.
In our modern world, you won't see many ziggurats being built, but you will see figurative temple-towers going up all around, in the form of political power and influence, in the form of unfettered capitalism where greed is a virtue, in the form of self-glorifying achievement, even in the form of accumulation of religious wealth and influence, that if we are not prayerfully aware of what's going on, the Church, too, can be swept up by this idolatrous temple-building.
On that day of judgment, all we can say is, Woe be unto us!
Heaven have mercy on us.
Let me close with what's called "the Jesus prayer," the Eastern Orthodox prayer of the heart: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Eleven words. Eleven words that can save us from the sin of building our own tower of Babel.