Wherever you find books about both genomic editing and AI in healthcare, you will also find hubris. Hubris is the polite word used in academia to describe the arrogance and overinflated self-importance so prevalent in that world. ‘The greatest story ever told.’ ‘A new phase of evolution’ and so on. It’s all a one -way street to wonderful.
There is nothing new under the sun however; such talk about genetic and AI engineering echoes that of the engineers of the biblical Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9).
The Shenanigans at Shinar
The land of Shinar (v1) is Babylonia and we read that these Babylonian ancestors boast, ‘let us build ourselves a city with a tower that reaches to the heavens.’ (v4) The city was something to make the whole world sit up and take notice. It was going to be built of kiln-fired bricks – the very best available and far stronger than sun-dried bricks. They would need to be strong too; the Hebrew word tower (migdal} usually refers to a fortress or a citadel and this migdal was to be the centrepiece of the city. It would make the current world’s tallest building, the 828 metre Burj Khalifa in Dubai, look like a candle in comparison.
This citadel was probably a ziggurat – a place of worship of the Babylonian gods – which also served as a staircase for their gods to come down. Whatever its exact nature, the peoples’ motivation for building it is made very clear. It was all about self – ‘let us build ourselves a city so that we might make a name for ourselves’. Why did Prof He Jangkui announce in 2018 his gene editing of twin girls at a world international conference rather than first publish his work in a scientific journal? Surely it was because, like the citizens of Shinar, he wanted to be the first and he wanted his name to go down in the history books? Which it will, but in a very different way from what he expected as he is now in prison for what he did.
Moreover, the second motivation for building hinted at here is that of fear and insecurity – ‘…otherwise we will be scattered’ (v4) – that’s why they needed a fortress to preserve their identity and control their destiny. As with genomic engineering today, they thought this engineering project would secure their future.
Presumably, the people of Shinar sought to prevent being scattered by some hostile nation but they ended up being scattered anyway by the Lord. It was not a Babylonian god who came down, but the God of heaven (v5). ‘But the Lord came down to see and said, “Let us go down and confuse their language.”’ And so the Lord scattered them (v8). The plural ‘us’ here is interpreted by Jewish scholars as referring to God along with the angelic hosts of heaven but it may also ‘suggest God’s self-reflection as a deity far more complex in personhood than other gods’ (Don Carson).
The consequence of the coming down of this God above all other gods, is confusion on a global scale as the people of Shinar find they can no longer communicate with each other. Though they sought to preserve their pure identity as a race, they ended up as a total divided community.
God’s Gate and the Way to God
The Hebrew in v9 for ‘confusion’ is balal – a word play on Babel – which is the name given to the tower because of the scattering it provoked. Ancient Babylon called itself Babili, which means the Gate of God. Yet as the Bible unfolds, Babylon increasingly comes to symbolise godlessness. It becomes a byword for pride and idolatry. This culminates in the book of Revelation, where it is not Babel’s tower that reaches to heaven, but its sin (Revelation 18:5). The arrogance of humanity seeking to make itself into a master race (v13) ends in the great cry, ‘Babylon is fallen’ (v2). The ‘Gate of God’ becomes the ultimate gate-crash, never to rise again.
In John’s gospel, we read of another occasion when God himself comes down to earth. This time he comes in the person of Jesus Christ who declares himself to be the gateway to God. He is the gate to the sheepfold (John 10:7); he is the way the truth and the life and no one comes to the Father except through him (John 14:6).
In John’s Gospel, we read that The Word (a name John uses for Jesus) ‘became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.’ (John 1:14). He did not come in pride and arrogance to make a name for himself. Rather ‘being found in appearance as a man he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross’ (Philippians 2:8) – the most humiliating means of execution imaginable at the time. He did this not to scatter but to gather ‘a people of his own possession’ (1 Peter 2:9) that we might become citizens of a city not made with hands or kiln-fired brick but designed and built by God himself (Hebrews 11:10).
At the end of this first of chapter of John’s gospel we find another interesting connection with the story of the staircase of Shinar which its people hoped would link earth to heaven. In this fascinating passage, Jesus says to Nathanael who is about to become one of his followers, ‘Very truly I tell you, you will see heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of man.’ Nathanael, like any good Jewish lad of the time, would have recognised Jesus’ reference here to their ancestor, Jacob. Whilst on the run from Esau, his elder brother, Jacob has a dream (Genesis 28:12) in which he sees a stairway resting on the earth and with its top reaching heaven – just as the Tower of Babel had been intended to do. However, on the stairway in Jacob’s dream, he saw the angels of God ascending and descending on it and God himself above it (v9). Therefore, he called the place Bethel – the house of God (v19) and said, ‘This is the gate of heaven’ (v17).
Jesus is surely indicating to Nathanael that he himself is now the true gate to God; he is the only stairway to heaven. He is the means whereby we are reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:18-19) and when this happens, we become one people united together with him (Romans 12:5). We will not find perfection in the editing of our own gene pool or through the posthumanist vision of being uploaded to the everlasting hard drive. It is only in Christ that one day we have the promise of perfection together with him (Hebrews 11:40).
Trevor Stammers, Associate Professor of Bioethics at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, UK.