I’ve been using R. R. Reno’s theological commentary on Genesis in my preparations for a sermon on the Tower of Babel this Sunday. As a kid I remember thinking that God stops the building of the tower because he is somehow threatened by human ambition – as if human beings might have actually reached out from the top of the tower and grabbed God by the ankle, or something like that. I’m sure that is how many people interpreted the story as children, and it is quite possibly how some still read it. The confusion of languages, then, would be God’s way of protecting himself against humanity – limiting their ability to scheme together and take heaven by storm.
Of course, this can’t be the meaning of either text. Reno succinctly summarizes an orthodox theological interpretation:
“Faced with an accelerating project of prideful ambition on the plains of Shinar, God acts on the same rationale he gave for the expulsion of Adam and Even from the garden of Eden. The LORD says, “ This is on the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose will be impossible for them” (Gen. 11:6). We need to be sure readers here. It cannot be the case that human beings can make themselves divine by dint of their efforts, any more than the fruit of the tree of life and sheer deathlessness would give Adam and Even divine life – “like one of us” (3:22). Nor can God be threatened by human striving, as if he were a vulnerable despot anxious to protect his prerogatives. No, the temptation of the covenant of the lie is precisely the false promise that worldly abundance is enough to bring rest to human beings.
…Therefore, the danger that God identifies in both the tree of life and the tower of Babel is simple. It is the limitless human capacity to live according to the covenant of the lie. However impossible the pure negation of radical evil, we really can say an enduring “no” to the covenant of life. As “slaves of corruption” (2 Pet. 2:19), we have a striking ability, day after day, to give ourselves over to sin. God intervenes not to protect his power, but in order to protect us from the tenacious power of our own corruption” (R. R. Reno, Genesis, 132).
In other words, the confusion of languages is not God’s way of protecting himself from human beings, but it is his way of protecting human beings from themselves – it mitigates against the social corruption of sin. It is an act of mercy-in-judgment.