This mythical story lives on in our psyches as part of our religious heritage. The lessons learned in the biblical account emphasize the folly of what happens when people do not understand each other. However, there are also other underlying themes which the Genesis story presents.
For example, the writer offers the idea that the diverse languages spoken around the world came to be because the people speaking different languages at the tower were dispersed around the world as a punishment for trying to build a tower to reach heaven and be seen as heavenly beings. In other words, the human attempt to build such a tower was an act of hubris, to become like God. And in an almost comical reference, the writer adds:
The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had
built. And the Lord said, "Look, they are one people, and they have one
language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing
that they propose now will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down
and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one
another's speech." (Genesis 11:5-7)
But you notice in this story of the Tower of Babel that another very important theme slips in. It is this: the Lord does not trust the human beings working on the tower. They must be up to no-good, and if not with the tower, then eventually they will do something even worse than building a tower up and into heaven. In other words, human beings are not trustworthy, at least, not so in the Lord's eyes.
However, this was not the conclusion as stated earlier in the first chapter of Genesis: "God saw everything he had made, and indeed, it was very good." (Genesis 1:31). And so, we may ask: Is humanity trustworthy or not? On the one hand, they are part of creation that is "very good;" but on the other hand, they can be trouble-makers and "nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them."
These opposing points of view arise from two different creation accounts, appearing at different times in the emerging consciousness of the biblical writers. And dragging this dichotomy of belief through the centuries, we arrive at the present moment when we are split. We ride the see-saw of expectations as to the essential nature of human personality. Are we essentially trustworthy or untrustworthy? Do we intend to do the "good," or do we do the "bad" when it serves our interests, while hoping no one will really see?
Meanwhile, our towers of babel go up and down. We cast a leery eye over at our neighbors' homes, yards, places of work and play. We believe in providing assistance, just not too much so that they remain somehow in check, because -- heaven knows -- they might get out of control. After all, in our rise to power we have developed the know-how and gathered enough resources that we can indeed destroy and be destroyed.
But let us also remember this. We create, build, and finance hospitals, universities, museums, playgrounds, works of splendid beauty, symphonies of space-transcending heights and depths, police and military forces to keep peace and protect boundaries, democratic institutions and codes of law that uphold and protect the noblest ideals of a civilized people.
Humanity cannot be considered to be essentially bad. And so, we press the pause button during the Passover and Easter season to reflect upon the story of the Tower of Babel as a lens through which we see the horrific experiences of our past several months: the pandemic's toll of human life and resources, the flood of refugees seeking safety and high ground when their habitats disappear, the pervasive failure to control gun violence, the daily litany of people shot to death, and the divided will of a people to affirm the essential goodness of human nature.
Now the question of humanity's trustworthiness comes down to what each of us can do: We can trust.
We must trust that our essential nature is good, that we are trustworthy. We must learn to act trustworthy toward our children because they can learn that they are trustworthy only if they experience what it is to be trusted. We must act trustworthy toward our governments and institutions of civilizations who can govern and manage in a trustworthy manner only if they are trusted. Trust is not a license to do whatever you and/or I want. Rather, it is a psychological, spiritual, and moral impulse to act according to our essential nature, and to live with the consciousness that when we do not live in this manner, we suffer the consequences of having to restore a broken trust. This is our privilege, our challenge, and our opportunity to undertake the process of transformation consciously.
As the old alchemists understood, this is indeed a great work, a Magnum Opus, laid upon us. It begins with confession or the honest recognition of who we are and what needs to be done. Next comes illumination which is the gathering of "in-sight." Then we undertake education. Education means more than acquiring a skill for a trade. Education means to develop our mental, moral, social, spiritual, and psychological capabilities toward the end of fulfilling our potential as trustworthy human beings. Only then is the fourth stage of the Great Work made possible: transformation.
Why transformation if the person has been educated already? This is because education alerts us to the dilemma of the Genesis stories: the Tower of Babel teaching of not being trustworthy, and the Genesis story of creation as good and trustworthy. This is a choice you and I must make each day. As we make the choice and commit ourselves toward the realization of life as trustworthy, we assist in moving creation a little further toward the fulfillment of human potential and consciousness.