When reading biblical narratives, one looks for patterns and changes. Throughout Genesis, we recognize the pattern in God's interaction with humans: blessing, sin, punishment and blessing. A change in content gives two distinct parts to Genesis, the primal stories, chapters one to 11, and the narratives of the founding leaders of Israel, chapters 12 to 50. Genealogies also abound in Genesis and further divide the book into sections. Of interest here is the genealogy of the descendants of Noah and their expansion throughout the world (10:1-11:32). Curiously, within the list of descendants of Noah's the third son, Shem, one finds the Tower of Babel story, 11:1-9.
The narrative begins by saying "the whole world spoke the same language." Humans were migrating in the east and came to Shinar, an ancient name for Babylon. There, they made bricks and built a tower and a city "to make a name for ourselves." The tower was to have its top in the sky. The Lord comes down to see what they are doing, disapproves, and judges that if while they are speaking the same language they built this tower and city, then later they will do whatever they want. The Lord says to the heavenly court, "Let us go down there and confuse their language." God did just that. He confused their speech and scattered them throughout the world. Verse nine reads: "That is why it is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the speech of all the world."
There is clearly some humor in the story. These people wish their tower to reach the sky, the heavens, the dwelling place of the gods, yet the Lord must come down to see it - hardly an impressive tower. The Hebrew word for "confused in speech" is balal. Thus, Babel is a word play on both "confused language" and Babylon. Another word play is on the Hebrew words for "place," sham, and "name," shem. The people sought to make their "name" great, but from that "place," Babel, confusion in languages, divisions, came about.
Lastly, and importantly, the author of Genesis rejects humans making a "name" for themselves by continuing the genealogy of Shem. The name of the ancestor "Shem," in the genealogy, is clearly a play on shem, "name." The list of descendants of Shem ends with Abram (later renamed Abraham).
Next in Genesis, the Lord calls Abram to go to a new land and promises him, "I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great so that you will be a blessing." Our God is the one who makes a person's name great. Abram went as the Lord commanded, clearly encountering other peoples and languages, and God kept his promises, making Abram's name great. Note that Abram receives a blessing. Thus the pattern of blessing, sin, punishment, blessing is repeated. By using the word shem as an ancestor's name, as a prideful ambition, and as a blessing conferred by God, the author unites both major sections of Genesis.
The sin of the people of Babel was a twofold, arrogant pride: first to make a name for themselves, and then to remain insulated, to not be scattered, to have one language. To have one language is to have the dominance of one tongue, of one way to speak, of one culture.
Today, we descendants of Abraham and Sarah are called to look around at "towers and cities," springing from prideful ideologies and so often filled with arrogant speech that excludes others. Where and what are they? If the Lord "came down," would we be inhabiting such a "tower or city?"