In today’s technological world, people still have their minds indulged by the great literary symbols, stories, and myths of long ago. Though our world may be vastly different than in Biblical times, there still holds one timeless parallel: humanity is infatuated with symbols and didactic stories. This is precisely why the children’s book sections are filled with fictional narratives focusing upon a specific character and his/her attitude and epiphany of right versus wrong. But, this fascination with stories of a didactic nature doesn’t end as a child. In fact, it continues through every age of a human’s life. Thus, when readers come to the story in Genesis 11, The Tower of Babel, they immediately see a moral lesson being taught along with the origin of languages and culture. The Tower of Babel narrative is a gripping tale of pride, punishment, and the origin of languages, and can be used to enhance a person’s spiritual and moral maturity, but only when interpreted correctly.
In 1 Corinthians, a New Testament book, Paul admonishes his readers to see the Old Testament for what it is: an example for them to follow, forsake, and ultimately learn from. So, when they come to stories of Joseph they would follow his example of integrity, but when they arrive at stories such as King Saul and his rash oath they would learn precisely what not to do. Thus, Paul tells them that the Old Testament was “written for [their] admonition” (The Bible). In other words, it’s didactic in nature. So, when a person comes to the fascinating story of the Tower of Babel, they can be permitted to use Paul’s hermeneutical practice of seeing a moral lesson behind it.
So, with having that hermeneutical process in mind, Theodore Hiebert of McCormick Theological Seminary notes that the Genesis 11 story is historically read as a “pride-and-punishment” narrative and “is already firmly fixed in the earliest extant interpretation…in the book of Jubilees.” (Hiebert 29). In other words, the historical interpretation of this story has been a timeless constant for both Jews and Christians alike. In addition to Jewish and Christian interpretation, the iconic symbol of the Tower of Babel “has been given broad cultural legitimacy in classics such as John Milton’s Paradise Lost” (Hiebert 29).
Now, it is important to point out that Hiebert does not actually believe in the traditional pride-and-punishment interpretation of the Tower of Babel. He proposes that “the story’s terminology, explicit claims, and repetitive structure all focus on the tension between singularity and multiplicity with the purpose of explaining the origin and variety of the world’s cultures” (Hiebert 30). However, there is no apparent contradiction to say that the story can be read the traditional pride-and-punishment way along with the way Hiebert proposes; namely, that the story is about the division of people and the set up of various languages and cultures.
Hiebert claims that the story is exclusively about the generation of division, but in doing so may thwart a very important understanding of the Bible as a whole. Dr. Rob Plummer of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, when talking about the interpretation of historical narratives (such as Genesis) explains, “all historical narratives include some mixture of motives on the part of the narrator” (Plummer 192). To put it another way, the narrator of a story, such as Genesis 11, rarely has one singular reason for writing down the text for people to read. Plummer goes on to say, “the purpose of all Scripture, historical narratives included, is to make people wise, leading to a saving knowledge of Christ, as Paul noted was the case in Timothy’s life” (Plummer 192). With that being said, the Tower of Babel is about the division of people and the setup of different languages, but it’s also about mankind asserting their own autonomy while rebelling from God, only to be met with God’s punishment of their wickedness. In a sense, God prevented mankind from becoming as wicked as they were before the flood.
Furthermore, it is especially interesting to note that, though God confused the language and thus split people into different cultures and language groups, He nonetheless has a redemptive plan in mind. In Revelation chapter 5, it is told that one day all languages and cultures will unite together once again. But, this time it won’t be to rebel against God in the expression of their autonomy, but rather it will be a united expression of praise for God’s risen son, Jesus.
In addition, though Revelation is far away from Genesis, it also must be considered in the interpretation of the Tower of Babel. Section II, Article XVIII of the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy affirms that: “the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices, and that Scripture is to interpret Scripture. (Historic). With this in mind, readers can be assured that Hiebert is right to claim that the Tower of Babel is about the generation of division. However, there is much more to it. When looked at as a small piece in a larger puzzle, it is evident that the story takes on an additional, not contradictory, meaning; God confused the language of the people in order to punish their pride, but will one day redeem and restore that punishment, allowing all tribes and tongues to praise His name.
Now, in order to test whether or not this combined theme fits in with the larger theme of the Bible, one must look at that larger theme. As one reads the Bible, they see that redemption is written across all of it. Though mankind rebelled, God seeks to redeem. His master plan of redemption was to send His only son to bear the sins of the world on the cross. This means, He died for every language and cultural group. Because of this, people from every language group will unite together in harmony in order to offer praise and thanksgiving to the God who redeemed them despite their rebellion. Such is the story of the Bible. The Tower of Babel does not contradict this, but rather complements it quite nicely when interpreted within the rest of Scripture.
It is clear then, that Hiebert’s interpretation and the traditional one are not contradictory. In fact, they compliment and add to one another. Without the uniting of both interpretations, the Tower of Babel narrative begins to lack spiritual, moral, and even historical significance. Though the passage containing this story is quite small, it is fascinating and significant nonetheless, so long as it is interpreted properly. Through the abundance of information provided, it is clear that the interpretation given meets all the criteria for a good interpretation: being grounded in history, theology, and the Bible.
The Bible. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982. Print. New King James Vers.
Hiebert, Theodore. “The Tower of Babel and the Origin of the World’s Cultures.” Journal of Biblical Literature (2007): 29-58. EBSCO . Web. 23 Feb. 2012.
“Historic Church Documents.” Center For Reformed Theology and Apologetics. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Feb. 2012.
Plummer, Rob. 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible. Ed. Benjamin L. Merkle. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2010. Print.