United in Christ: Augustine and the Tower of Babel

Babel 900The tower of Babel marks one of humanity’s most pride filled moments in history. Recall, the people wanted to build themselves a city “with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth (Gen. 11:4).” That is, as one commentator explains, “the tower at Babel was conceived as a stairway that would give them access to the realm of the divine[1].” This would allow them to “make a name for themselves” and “not be scattered” abroad. Indeed, they did make a name for themselves but not the way they envisioned. We then read that Yahweh came down and scattered the people over all the earth and confused their language (11:8). This immediately forshadows the call of Abraham when Yahweh makes the promise that Abraham’s name will be made great and in him all families will be blessed.

But these two stories also forshadow and point to a greater story. Turning to Augustine, we gain insights from the early Church concerning how the dispersing of the tongues at the Tower of Babel points us to Christ. He says,

If pride caused diversities of tongues, Christ’s humility has united these diversities in one. The Church is now bringing together what that tower had sundered. Of one tongue there were made many; marvel not: this was the doing of pride. Of many tongues there is made one; marvel not: this was the doing of charity. For although the sounds of tongues are various, in the heart one God is invoked, one peace preserved[2].

John Calvin uses similar language to describe God’s people being united in Christ by saying,

that the language of Canaan should be common to all under the reign of Christ, (Isaiah 19:18;) because, although their language may differ in sound, they all speak the same thing, while they cry, Abba, Father[3].

Christ humbled himself by coming down from heaven to live the life of a man. He went around healing the sick and wounded, feeding the hungry, caring for the poor, and preaching the kingdom of God. But we know from the four-fold Gospel that this humility was met with anger and distrust. The pride of humanity was once again on display when Jesus was sent to the cross for his crucifixion. It is through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ that the Church is united in him.

This is one of the many reasons I enjoy reading the Church Fathers. Often times, if the Tower of Babel is spoken of today in reference to the New Testament it concerns the brief uniting of languages in Acts. I agree that this reading is a right and appropriate connection but by reading Augustine we see one more way that the tower of Babel points us to Christ. The church fathers can open our eyes to different readings that have become forgotten. So next time you are in Genesis and reading about the Tower of Babel remember that Christ has reversed this dispersion and united us in himself. And we long for a future day where the spiritual reality of this truth manifests itself in the physical reality of the new creation.

  1. K. A. Mathews, Genesis 1–11:26 (vol. 1A; The New American Commentary; Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 481.  ↩

  2. Augustine of Hippo, “Lectures or Tractates on the Gospel According to St. John,” in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series: St. Augustin: Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, Soliloquies (ed. Philip Schaff; trans. John Gibb and James Innes; vol. 7; New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 742.  ↩

  3. John Calvin and John King, Commentary on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis (vol. 1; Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 331–332.  ↩

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