When I was three years old, I decided to dress up as Snow White for Halloween. I was so excited about wearing the pretty dress and shoes, pretending to be a princess for the evening, and running through our neighborhood to trick-or-treat. As I prepared to take off on our adventure, though, my mom brought out a coat and insisted I wear it.
I panicked. Snow White didn’t wear a coat! She also didn’t live in central Illinois in October, but that was beside the point.
I watched my dreams of being the perfect Snow White crumble as my mom zipped me into fluffy, non-princess outerwear. And then I proceeded to have a blast trick-or-treating with my dad.
Sometimes we need boundaries. Running out into a blizzard in a pretty Snow White dress would have resulted in cold, sickness, grouchiness, and tears. My mom insisted I wear a coat, despite my protestations, which allowed my dad and I to have such a fun Halloween.
The story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 shows God setting some boundaries for humanity as well. Genesis 10 contains a number of long genealogies, communicating to us that Noah’s sons followed God’s command to be fruitful and fill the Earth. When we arrive in Genesis 11, we learn that all of the people live in one area and speak one language. They decide to build a city and a large tower to “make a name” for themselves.
God “comes down” to the city and sees all that they had accomplished. He states that because they’re in one location and they speak one language, “all that they plan to do will be possible for them.” So He chooses to mix up or confuse (balal) their language and disperse them to a variety of different lands.
With a cursory reading of the text, it almost sounds like God is a bit intimidated by the work that humanity has accomplished; however, if we read Genesis 11 in context, we can see God instead blessing humanity deeply.
At the end of Genesis 8, God reflects on the impact of The Flood, and decides never to flood the earth again, because “the ideas of the human mind are evil/bad/mischievous (ra) from their youth.” So God acknowledges the negative potential of humanity in Genesis 8, then in Genesis 9 and 10 the population grows, and finally in Genesis 11 God sees humanity having boundless potential. God already promised to not destroy humanity again, so to diffuse the possibility of them turning away from Him as they did before The Flood, God intervenes and offers protection.
God’s diversifying the language and spreading people across the Earth, then, does not take place because He’s intimidated by all they’re accomplishing; rather, God wants to protect humanity from their negative potential. Like a mother making her three-year-old wear a coat before running out in the snow, God divided the population and created new languages to protect them from the dire consequences that would otherwise follow.
God knows the amazing potential we hold — He made us in His image for a reason. We have creativity and strength built into us, and while we use those gifts, God also protects and guides us. So today may the story of the Tower of Babel encourage our efforts to grow the kingdom, to build the Church, and to spread God’s love to all those around us.