I’m currently doing a series on stories from the Bible that teach us about unity through the lens of language. Last week, we talked about the power that language has to create commonality among individuals and to create barriers between us. In this installment, we’re going to see where this unifying and dividing power of language comes from. Because it’s nothing new, and if we’re smart, we can learn from the mistakes of those who came before us.
The first story in our series on language and unity comes from Genesis 11. In this passage, we’ve just gotten through the flood with Noah and his family. They’ve gotten off the boat and restarted civilization, and now it’s time for humanity to spread back out over the earth as God commanded them to. Let’s read what happens next:
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And 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 will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another's speech.” So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth.
So here we are. God’s just hit the big reset button on humanity with the flood, and he’s ready to fill the earth back up with people. But instead of taking off and populating the world the way God told them to, they devise a different plan. They’re going to all stay in one place and make a name for themselves. The story specifically says that they decided to build this tower because they thought it would keep them from being spread out over the earth. These people didn’t want to go along with what God told them to do. They wanted to do their own thing. Sound familiar?
They were able to come up with this plan because they could communicate with one other. Up to this point in the biblical narrative, there weren’t different languages and people groups. The human race was still small compared to what it is today, and everyone spoke the exact same way. They didn’t have language barriers or cultural differences to work through. These people were able to set their minds to something and immediately get to work together as one.
Here’s what we’re seeing in this passage: This group of people was united, but they were united for the wrong cause. They were united in rebellion against God. And that wasn’t going to work.
We see a little bit of irony in verse five. This rebellious group decided that they were going to build a tower to heaven. But their efforts were so futile that the scripture tells us God had to come down to see what they were doing! Picture it: These ancient Babylonians working so hard to build the biggest thing they can imagine in order to reach God’s level, and God’s up in heaven squinting to see what they’re up to. What a great image of how foolish we look when we try to work against God’s plans for us.
Of course, this arrangement wouldn’t do. God had given humanity a second chance, an opportunity to do things the right way this time, and the first thing they did was mess it up. So he had to do something to get them back on the right track, and he pinpointed that the problem was actually their unity.
The plan was for everyone to spread out over the earth and speak a global language, and if these people had done what they were supposed to do, everything would have been fine. But since they united against him, God had to break up their little building project. And he did so by confusing their speech.
Can you imagine having a conversation with someone who suddenly started speaking in a different language out of nowhere? Or reading a book (or blog post) that randomly switched from English to French with no warning? If I could speak a second language, I’d start writing in it right now to give you an example, but sadly, I cannot. If I did, though, that would be pretty jarring, right?
Now imagine the confusion these people must have felt. They’ve never heard of another language before because there’s only one, and out of nowhere, they all start speaking in ways the others can’t understand. Everyone was talking, but it sounded like gibberish. They were babbling! (The pun works in both English and the original Hebrew the story was written in.)
Pandemonium broke out, and soon, frustration set in. The builders couldn’t work together because they couldn’t communicate. The project broke down because their unity was shattered. And soon enough, they went their separate ways and spread throughout the earth, just as God had told them to do.
And that’s the Bible’s explanation for why we have different languages today. It’s estimated that there are about 6,500 different languages spoken in the world today. Of course, some are more popular than others, and many people speak more than one language. But still, that makes for a pretty disjointed world. If language is the thing that separates us from other species and allows us to work together, then the fact that there are so many languages makes the world look pretty divided, doesn’t it?
In psychology, we talk about different biases that people have. Biases are just the brain’s shortcuts for processing information more quickly. As amazing as our brains are, there’s no way they could process and interpret each and every individual piece of data that we come across in the world. And so our brains identify and create patterns that we can use to help us avoid having to re-process information over and over again. This is perfectly normal so long as we remain aware of it and keep it in check.
Example: We all practice ingroup bias. Our brains are naturally wired to prioritize those who are most like us. This only makes sense. If someone didn’t care more about members of their family than they did for complete strangers, you’d probably think something was wrong with them. If you’re a part of a church or other community you find meaningful, then you know the shared sense of connection you feel for that group. I imagine that most of my readers live in the United States (though the logic would apply to any country). That’s an ingroup.
Sports teams. Marvel superhero fans versus DC superhero fans. Texas! These are all ingroups that one may or may not belong to.
We like our ingroups. We tend to look on them favorably, consider their needs to be more important than others, and side with them when we sense conflict. Our ingroups give us a sense of belonging and community. They remind us that life is about more than just ourselves, and we need that. Our ingroup bias is a natural part of who we are.
We also practice outgroup bias. As you can imagine, this is the opposite of ingroup bias. Whereas ingroups are the people we belong to, outgroups are those we don’t. They’re the “others.” The outsiders. The people we don’t identify with.
Rival sports teams. Rival superheroes. States other than Texas. These are outgroups.
Just as we tend to prefer our ingroups, we tend to downplay, ignore, or oppose outgroups. We see them as inferior. We see them as the competition. Often, we see them as dangerous, and sometimes for good reason. We may not hate outgroups, but we certainly don’t have any affection for them. Empathizing with them is hard because we just don’t connect with them the way we do with our ingroups.
All of this, by the way, is completely subconscious. Our brains are doing this for us all the time without us even noticing it. You may not even be completely aware of all the ingroups and outgroups your brain has created, although you probably could list several. And there’s nothing wrong with having these categories; it’s natural, and it helps us navigate the world. But it does create barriers between us that don’t necessarily exist outside our heads.
Language can be a strong indicator of whether someone belongs in an ingroup or outgroup. After all, it’s hard to build an emotional bond with someone you can’t understand. We like to be in groups with people we identify with, and finding that connection with someone through a language barrier isn’t always easy. And so, we rely on language to help us understand who is one of us and who isn’t.
Here’s the point: We live in a divided world. It’s chopped up every which way, from language barriers to national borders to ideological chasms the size of the Grand Canyon. And it all started at Babel. It all goes back to sin. We were united, and in that unity, we turned against God, so he had to do something about it. And ever since then, that unity has been broken.
None of us is immune to the brokenness brought into the world by sin. We’re all victims of it. But we aren’t just victims; sometimes, we’re perpetrators. And when we choose to participate in the disunity of the world by disregarding, devaluing, and downright hating those who aren’t like us, we’re making the world a little more broken. We’re making life harder for others. And we’re selling ourselves and those around us short.
The divisions we see in the world today are the result of sin. We all like to see ourselves as the righteous heroes of our own stories, but the truth is that we’ve all contributed to the brokenness. It’s a cycle that started long before we came along. We’re just a part of it, more often willingly than not. It’s a simple fact that the world is a divided place. The unity that God intended for us to have is broken.
I’m sorry to finish on such a bummer note, but that’s the end of my reflection on this week’s story. Babel is scary place to be, and it’s infected the entire world around us. But just so I don’t leave you feeling too hopeless between now and next Tuesday, I’ll give you a little hint of what’s to come: We broke our unity, but God never leaves us in a broken place. Next week, we’ll be looking at the story of Pentecost in Acts 2 and how God sometimes gives us glimpses of the unity he wants for us. Hope to see you then!