Sometime after the Great Flood, the descendants of Noah were gathered in a place called Shinar, which later became known as Babylonia. They collectively resolved to build “a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven.” They viewed this project as a way to avoid being “scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4).
A tower reaching to heaven might simply mean a very tall tower, stretching toward the sky. But Book of Mormon prophets interpreted that phrase more literally. Mormon interrupts the narrative to explain that it was the devil who “put it into the hearts of the people to build a tower sufficiently high that they might get to heaven” (Helaman 6:28). And Moroni described the Jaredites as being “scattered at the time…when [the people] were building a tower to get to heaven” (Title Page).
Why would people assume that they could ascend to heaven by their own power? And why would God consider such a hopeless project to be a threat? “Now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do,” He says in the Genesis account (Genesis 11:6). In response, He confounds their language and scatters them across the earth. (See Genesis 11:7-9.)
The Book of Mormon account of Jared and his family provides additional insight.
First, the confounding of language didn’t happen all at once. Jared saw it happening and asked his brother to pray that their family and friends might retain their language and remain together. God granted this request. (See Ether 1:34-37.) (Note that Dallin Dixon Oaks, a professor of linguistics at Brigham Young University, has suggested that the scattering may have actually preceded the differentiation of the languages: “The Tower of Babel Account: A Linguistic Consideration,” Science, Religion, and Culture, Vol. 2, Iss. 2, May 2015.)
Second, Jared and his brother asked if the Lord was going to drive them away, and if so, where they were to go. It sounds as if they already knew that God intended to scatter them, and that this scattering was not necessarily a bad thing. “Who knoweth,” asked Jared, “but the Lord will carry us forth into a land which is choice above all the earth?” (Ether 1:38).
Third, during their journey, they lost the Lord’s guidance. Why? Because they stopped asking. Only when they turned to Him again did they arrive at the promised land. (See Ether 2:13-15.)
Here’s my conclusion: There’s nothing wrong with towers, except when they become a symbol of our own prowess and cause us to forget our vulnerability. King Noah apparently trusted his tower to save him from his enemies. (See Mosiah 11:12-13, 19:5-6.)
Isaiah spoke of towers as a metaphor for hubris:
For the day of the Lord of hosts shall be upon every one that is proud and lofty, and upon every one that is lifted up; and he shall be brought low…
And upon every high tower, and upon every fenced wall.Isaiah 2:12, 15; see also 2 Nephi 12:13-15
Today, I will be careful not to attribute too much of my success to my own abilities: my own best efforts will not lead me to heaven. Like the ancient Jaredites, I will turn my heart to God, and willingly go where He leads me, knowing that only He can lead me to the place “which is choice above all the earth.”