Now the whole earth had but one language and few words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar, and settled there. … Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens…” (Genesis 11:1,4)
The tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, has just opened. It’s 2,716 feet tall, beating the previous record by more than 984 feet. You can, apparently, watch the sun set twice – once from the bottom, then again from the 124th floor, your ears still popping from the speed of the journey. On a clear day you can see Iran, and it would be easy to cite more mind-boggling statistics than our readers should be asked to tolerate.
In Genesis 11, the story’s about the overweening pride of human beings in what they’re able to achieve: a pride, the storyteller implies, which in some ways is justified. “The Lord said, ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do now will be impossible for them.'”
It’s also about the fear of insignificance; the builders wanted to make a name for themselves to prevent being forgotten. “Let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad on the face of the earth…”
Both of these motivations are evident in the construction of the Burj. Even if Dubai’s economy had not collapsed, there are much easier ways of making money. This was a vanity project on a truly remarkable scale. If William Golding had been writing “The Spire” today, he would not have had to go to a cathedral for inspiration.
Why did God scatter the builders at Babel and confuse their speech? Because with all their commendable technical skills, drive and commitment, they were building the wrong thing for the wrong reason.
How tragic today that so much time and energy should have been put into building a tower with its top reaching to heaven, when here on earth there are so many people with such overwhelming needs. But the lessons for the speculators of Dubai, at least, will have been well learned: their speech has been well and truly confused, and there will be no such unanimity of purpose again.
Until the next time.