In Genesis 11:1-9, we read that some men gave up the nomadic way of life, banded together and built a city. They said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
The tower is, of course, the Tower of Babel. Scholars think the word Babel originally meant, “The gateway of God.” So here a new twist is introduced into the story. We have people who are trying to access heaven at the same time they are resisting God. They want to bring down the blessings of heaven upon the disobedience of earth. But earth cannot command heaven, nor can men resist God and still receive his blessing.2
The construction of a bridge from heaven to earth can only start in heaven. No matter what materials humanity uses to build that bridge – social engineering, religion, education, morality – none will reach nearly far enough. If a bridge is to be built, God must build it.
The question for the reader of the first eleven chapters of Genesis is, will he? His sub-creator and designated ruler had fallen, sin had spread and devastation threatened the rest of his creation. Would he now quarantine earth and let the disease run its course? Would he close the book on humanity and abandon it to its doom, or would he build a bridge that will reach from heaven? We learn later that the plans for such a bridge were already in place, and have been so since before the foundation of the world.3 And those plans began with a solitary man named Abram.
This, by the way, is a theme that runs throughout the whole story. Men organize, as they did on the plains of Shinar, when they built their tower. Humanity thinks in terms of multitudes and power. Safety depends on, and success is gauged by, numbers.
But God thinks in terms of individuals. When humanity tries to accomplish something, it begins by calling in favors, tallying votes, amassing numbers. But instead of calling in favors, God grants favor; instead of tallying votes, he elects his own way; instead of amassing numbers, he narrows the field.
2 See Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God. IVP © 2006. p. 196