The story of the Tower of Babel sounds like an ancient folktale to explain the origin of languages. At first glance, it seems to say that everyone in the world lived in one country till God gave them different languages in order to scatter them. Of course, now that philologists have studied and witnessed the slow development of one language from another, this explanation can be easily dismissed as an embarrassingly simplistic myth. A close look at the Bible text, however, tells us a different story. It is joked that the last word spoken at Babel was ‘sack’ because this sound means the same thing – a type of bag – in a very wide variety of languages, for example: French sac, Greek sakoon, Latin saccus, Spanish saco, Filipino sako, Hebrew saq, and Russian meshok. Of course there are many other such examples, and these similarities exist because languages are related to each other. European languages developed from Latin, while also imbibing words from other languages such as Norse. In the same way, ancient Hebrew is related to Akkadian and Ugarit, with loan words inherited from places such as Egypt. Complex family trees have been drawn to summarise the history of all languages, and these successfully explain the origins of language diversity. Every time a population splits up by moving apart, their accents and then their languages gradually diverge till they become ‘foreigners’ to each other. So why does the Bible story say that the first ancient languages split by means of a miracle, when subsequent languages have developed slowly? Did the people at Babel really walk away speaking ancient versions of Egyptian, Hebrew, Ugaritic, Akkadian, Hittite, and Greek? In fact, the Bible doesn’t say this at all. In the chapter before the Babel incident, it says ‘the nations separated by their families into their lands, every one with its language’ (Genesis 10:5 and examples in vs 20, 31). Rather than nations being created from a bunch of random people who happened to end up with the same language at Babel, Genesis 10 tells us that the nations were united initially by family ties, and that each nation then formed its own language in its own land.

Following this, Genesis goes on to tell the story of Babel; this has the opposite theme – that of a nation which became disunited. The text doesn’t say that any new languages were created at Babel. It says that ‘the Lord confused the language’ (11:9, my italics; see also v7) – there was still only one language, but the people couldn’t understand each other any more. Perhaps they were all suddenly speaking in different accents – imagine speaking guttural Glaswegian to someone pounding out Jamaican rap! Or, more likely perhaps, they were confused because God made them lose the ability to speak properly or to understand properly. There is no indication that this was a worldwide phenomenon, because the phrase translated ‘the whole earth’ (Hebrew eretz) can also mean ‘the whole land’, as in Genesis 13:9, where the same phrase refers to all of Palestine. In the previous chapter, we read that family clans had already each moved to a different ‘land’ (eretz), and in this chapter we read that the people went to the ‘land (eretz) of Shinar’ (Genesis 11:2). When the same word occurs in the previous verse, we should translate it the same way: ‘The whole land (eretz) had one language’ – not ‘the whole earth’ (Genesis 11:1). The tower itself wasn’t lost – everyone in the ancient world knew of it, and could travel to see it. Recent scholarship has confirmed that the colossal ziggurat at Babylon was built on top of a very ancient structure that can be traced back to at least 1700 BC, but it is probably much older. Although pyramid-shaped towers called ziggurats were found throughout Mesopotamia, this one was different: it was really huge and the ancient builders didn’t finish it – but no one knew why.

Nebuchadnezzar II eventually finished building the tower in the sixth century BC. Because the original had no top layer, rain had entered and disintegrated the mud bricks, so he had to virtually rebuild it completely. When finished, it was 90 metres high, with more than 30 million handmade bricks, making it the greatest wonder of the ancient world. Imagine something as tall as a 30-storey building in a land without a hill for hundreds of miles. It must have been more awesome than the NASA rocket hangars in the flatlands of Cape Canaveral. It was called E-temen-anki, which in ancient Sumerian meant ‘House of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth’, as if this formed the gateway to the gods. In 1917, Nebuchadnezzar’s dedication for this tower was found at Babylon by three archaeologists. It was on a stele (a large stone tablet) which had been broken. Events then unfolded like an Indiana Jones story. Realising that the world war was bringing armies to the area, the archaeologists decided to ensure the safety of the stele by removing it from the country, and each took a piece to their homes in Germany, London and the USA. Two pieces are now on view in the Schoyen Collection, but the third one – which has a floor plan of the temple – has disappeared in the USA. (See a scholarly article here).

Ancient people such as Nebuchadnezzar wondered why the tower had never been completed, but the Bible had the answer: God interrupted the building project. But what was so wrong about building ‘a tower whose top will reach into heaven’ (Genesis 11:4)? Was God the first NIMBY? Or perhaps he wanted to stop the people’s study of astrology, their idolatry, or self-satisfied pride. Maybe, like the Aztec pyramids, the structure was being built to perform human sacrifices at the summit. We really have no idea, because no records have survived from so long ago to tell us. The Bible itself says that the danger lay in the people’s unity, because God warned that if humans all worked together there was nothing they couldn’t do (vs 4–6).

Perhaps a modern equivalent of the Tower of Babel is humanity’s reuniting via the Internet – and we can glimpse the full danger that God predicted. A few angry extremists in disparate countries can organise terrorist attacks which kill thousands and disrupt millions of people. Sexual predators, bullies and identity thieves can find victims anywhere in the world. Some use the Internet to spread hatred, and all kinds of dangerous information is freely available – it took me only a few minutes to find out how to make a radioactive bomb from easily sourced components.

This ‘reverse Babel-effect’ is also producing wonderfully good and helpful benefits. Every area of research, from medicine to biblical studies, progresses much faster by sharing information. Specialists who previously met only at conferences can now be in constant communication. We feared that computers would isolate people, but translation tools and social networking are bringing people together in ways previously impossible – many of us now have more ‘friends’ than we have time for. Governments are finding it harder to secretly oppress their populations because they can’t block phone videos from telling the truth about what is happening in the world. And governments find it increasingly difficult to convince their people that another country deserves to be attacked.

Will the Internet ultimately bring good or evil? And does the Bible say something definitive on the subject? Translate ‘666’ into Hebrew numbers and you get ‘www’! Rather pessimistic, but could it be ultimately realistic?

The world will need to be rescued from the brink at least one more time by Jesus’ return but, in the meantime, the Church is here to restrain evil and delay the coming of that day (2 Thessalonians 2:6). In the world of the Internet, every user counts, and everyone can contribute. Each individual user can powerfully affect many others beyond their daily contacts both for good and evil. We have an important role to play in doing all we can to ensure that our unity doesn’t destroy us, but rather that it helps us understand and unite with each other and with God.